Question: I am trying to gain mass but don’t have a lot of time on any given day to lift weights. Is there a way to lift 5-6 days/week without a huge risk of overuse type injuries? If so, how would I go about setting up that type of program?
Answer: This is another common situation that comes up, people who work full time jobs and who have families that they don’t want to completely neglect often can’t spend a lot of time in the gym on a day to day basis. Traditional types of workouts which take 1-1.5 hours per workout simply aren’t realistic (especially during the week), between travel, changing clothes, etc. their entire evening after work is completely taken up.
In that situation there are actually a few different solutions. One that I have used is to use multiple shorter workouts during the week (using a more traditional split routine) and then longer workouts on the weekends when time is usually a bit more abundant. I discussed this option in the chart in Training Frequency for Mass Gains.
However, even that can be problematic as folks with families have other obligations that keep them out of the gym or they simply can’t spend extended periods in the weight room even on the weekends. So I’ll continue answering your question from the standpoint of needing to do 5-6 short workouts and how best to sequence it.
Let me note ahead of time that training with this high frequency can cause problems and there are a number of pitfalls that need to be avoided. Of course general overtraining is one of them but, more specifically is the issue of connective tissue and general overuse injuries. Something that is so often forgotten is that connective tissues are the slowest tissue to adapt in the body: if you’re hammering things too often during the week, often trauma accumulates and causes problems. Even if your muscles are recovering, if your joints or tendons/ligaments aren’t, eventually you’re going to get injured.
In this context what I absolutely would not do with a high training frequency would be to train full body at each workout. Certainly, some Olympic lifters do this although their definition of ‘full-body’ is a bit different than what individuals seeking muscle mass gains would be doing.
As well, they take years to work up to that level of training and there is typically a lot of intensity cycling going on (with heavier and lighter days). In the systems where guys are going to max all the time, well…there’s a reason that those countries can’t pass drug tests anymore. As well, the nature of the Olympic lifts is different in terms of how they hit the body relative to more traditional bodybuilding movements.
So that leaves us with some type of split routine. As I noted in Training Frequency for Mass Gains I’m certainly no fan of traditional bodybuilding splits where you hit every muscle group once/week. In my experience, this simply doesn’t generate ideal growth for most natural bodybuilders. So those types of classic splits aren’t what I’d do either.
One potential option would be to use some type of three way split routine (where the body is split into three ‘parts’) and rotate through it across the 6 days/week. This provides a nice frequency of twice/week for each body part and keeps the workouts short.
However, this takes very careful scheduling due to overlap and the potential for the shoulder girdle to get worked too hard. Let me explain with the table below (Sunday is assumed to be a day off) by looking at two different three-way splits.
|Day||Split 1||Split 2|
Split 1 would be a pretty common way of approaching things since chest and back can be alternate supersetted to save time. Basically this is just the old Charles Poliquin split crammed into 6 days/week. But there is a problem which is this: fatigue from delts/arms on Wednesday is likely to really screw up chest/back on Thursday. If you go hard at all on that Wednesday workout, you simply won’t be able to use much weight on the following day. As well, shoulder girdle is getting hit pretty hard four days/week which can cause problems in the long-term. So that is kind of out.
Split 2 is a basic push/legs/pull split and avoids the problems from Split 1 of workouts interfering with one another. However, the shoulder girdle is still being worked 4 times per week on both the chest/delt/tri and back/bis day. While this can work for some, there is the potential for overuse issues and/or shoulder problems. Of the two, this would be my first choice but just watch out for problems with overuse in the shoulder girdle.
If you don’t go with one of the above, that basically leaves with what would be my generally preferred choice which is a stock-standard upper/lower split routine training the full upper body one one day and the full lower body (with abs) on the second day. This moves direct training for the shoulder girdle from four times per week to three (compared to Split 2 above) and movements can still be alternate supersetted to save time.
As well, since compound chest and back movements work the shoudlers and arms, this allows volume there to be reduced further to save time. Additionally, due to overlap, warmup for movements later in the workout is usually minimal. If you’ve done heavy flat or incline bench you shouldn’t need much warmup for delts or triceps later on. This saves further training time.
Of course, volume for each workout will also be low, basically you’re distributing the total weekly volume across the workouts so volume at each workout would be far lower. After warm-ups, a handful at most of work sets would be done. You might do 3-4 total work sets for large muscle groups and 1-3 for smaller. You could either do all of the work sets for a single exercise or distribute them further across two movements (which is what I did in the example workouts below).
A fairly ‘generic’ upper and lower body workout are shown in the table below. You can make appropriate exercise substitutions as desired or needed. While I’m not generally a massive fan of exercise variation within a given training cycle (change them every 6-8 weeks, not every few workouts), different workouts of the week could be used to do different movements with this type of frequency.
|Upper Body||Lower Body|
|Barbell Flat Bench: 2X6-8||Back Squat: 2X6-8|
|Overhand Cable Row: 2X6-8||RDL: 2X6-8|
|DB Incline Bench: 1-2X10-12||Leg Press: 1-2X10-12|
|Pulldown or Chin: 1-2X10-12||Leg Curl: 1-2X10-12|
|Lateral Raise: 2-3X10-12||Calf Raise: 2X6-8|
|Rear Delt: 2-3X10-12||Seated Calf: 1-2X10-12|
|A Biceps exercise: 1-2X10-12||Abs: 2-3X6-8|
|A Triceps exercise: 1-2X10-12||Low Back: 2-3X6-8|
Exercises could be alternate supersetted if the gym will allow it (e.g. do one set flat bench, rest 1 minute, do one set cable row, rest 1 minute) but folks who train in the evenings when the gym is busy may not have this option. With warm-ups, that might take 40-45 minutes in and out the door. I’d note that the above looks quite a bit like Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training (he uses more repetition variation across the cycle than I do). I’d also note that if scheduling allowed it, volume could be increased slightly on the Friday/Saturday workouts due to the extra day of recovery on Sunday.
Finally, I’d note that intensity will need to be controlled with this type of scheme. As I discussed in Training Frequency for Mass Gains one potential ‘negative’ of higher frequency training is that often intensity has to be reduced somewhat to compensate for the increased frequency.
In general, during the Mon-Thursday workouts, I’d suggest stopping work sets 1-2 reps short of failure. As with the volume comment above, on the Friday/Saturday workouts, you could push a bit harder (either raising weights or pushing closer to failure) due to the extra day of recovery on Sunday.
Another option would be to use a more formal type of weekly intensity cycling like a Heavy/Light/Medium system of some sort (I’d probably go Medium on Monday/Tuesday, Light on Wednesday/Thursday and Heavy on Friday/Saturday); that’s really beyond the scope of this article and, my experience is that bodybuilder types don’t usually like that kind of training because they hate light days.
As well, you would still want to cycle intensity over the length of the cycle. So the first 2 weeks would be relatively low intensity and then spend 4-6 weeks pushing a bit harder trying to hit some poundage PR’s at some point in the cycle. You might simply attempt to add some weight to the bar every Monday/Tuesday workout (or every Friday/Saturday) and then maintain it for the next couple of workouts before bumping it again.
Every 4-6 weeks, depending on how the individual was recovering, I’d probably drop the Friday/Saturday workouts completely to give a sort of ‘unloading’ phase with 4 full days off. This will help avoid problems both with overuse type injuries as well as cumulative fatigue.