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Training Frequency for Mass Gains

In recent years, bodybuilding/hypertrophy training has divided itself into a number of different “camps” with quite a bit of argument and debate going on over what the optimal training frequency for muscle growth is.

In this article, I want to look at the three most common training frequencies (in terms of how often a given muscle group is hit each week, I’m not talking about overall training frequency) and some of their pros and cons.  First I’m going to look at the two opposite extremes of training each muscle group before giving my own preferred training frequency.

I want to make it clear that I’m looking only at training frequency as it applies to muscle mass gains and hypertrophy type goals.  I’m not talking about athletes or strength per se (although the recommendations end up being fairly similar) but focusing only on muscle growth as the end point goal of training.

Definitions of Training Frequency

In most activities, training frequency refers simply to the number of times a given type of training is done.  Runners may run 4 times per week, cyclists may ride their bike 6 times per week and swimmers may swim 12 times per week.  All of those may do other training at some other frequency.

However, the weight room is a little bit different and you can define two different types of training frequencies.  The first is the number of times per week someone trains.     So someone might lift three times per week or four times per week.  So far so good.

Where it gets confusing is that, unlike most other activities, not all muscles necessarily have to be, can be or should be worked at every session.    This gets into the topic of split routines and the fact that trainees seeking muscle growth have long split up the body into two or more “parts”.

And the practical consequence of this is that the training frequency for a given muscle group may be different than the overall training frequency.  So consider someone using a basic Upper/Lower split routine.  Here the body is divided into upper body muscles (chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps) and the lower body muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and abs and low back are usually trained here).

A common approach to using that type of split would be to train four times per week total while alternating the workouts each day.  This would mean that any given workout (upper or lower) and by extension any given muscle group is only trained twice per week.

The only time that the weekly training frequency and muscle group training frequency would be the same would be for someone using a full body workout, where every muscles is trained in the same day.  In all other cases, the weekly training frequency and muscle group training frequency will differ with the muscle group training frequency being lower than the total weekly frequency.  Make sense?

For the purposes of this article, I am only interested in the per muscle training frequency regardless of how many total weekly training sessions they are doing.

3X/week Training Frequency

It’s often claimed that historically, bodybuilders trained every bodypart three times per week as part of a full-body workout.   So they would train three times per week and work each muscle group three times per week.  Certainly there is some indication that this was the case, especially before steroids became such a part of the sport.   Those workouts were typically very simple, based around perhaps a single exercise per major muscle group (so perhaps 8-10 total exercises) for multiple sets of 8-12 repetitions.  Very basic stuff.

Others focused on heavy work frequently done as 5 sets of 5.  These types of programs have been re-popularized in recent years and many end up looking like Bill Starr’s heavy/light/medium approach when all is said and done.

It’s worth mentioning that lifters of that era tended to train primarily for strength with muscular size being more of a “side-effect” of the training than necessarily being the explicit goal.  This isn’t to say that those trainees didn’t grow.  By focusing on heavy weights and getting stronger, along with sufficient food, the athletes provided the progressive muscular tension that stimulates muscle growth.

More modern training systems such as Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) are also based around a similar per week frequency for each muscle although they look structurally a bit different in how the weights are progressed over time.  There are assuredly others.

Pros of a 3X Per Week Training Frequency

A number of arguments are typically made for using a higher frequency of training.  These tend to revolve around gene expression or time courses for protein synthesis and other molecular crap nobody reading this cares about.   There is arguably some truth to this although there is more to long-term growth than just protein synthesis.

An additional benefit of higher frequency of training is that it gives more opportunity to practice the movements. This is especially important for beginners where the more quality practice they can do the faster they will learn the exercises.   Since a majority of the gains that occur in the early stages of training are neurological (i.e. learning how to lift the weights and others), the faster that this phase is gotten through, the faster growth will predominate.

At the same time, outside of that singular situation, I don’t really buy the argument that performing typical bodybuilding type movements super frequently is necessary.  I’m sorry but a squat, bench press or leg press is not a snatch or clean and jerk.  Olympic lifters have to practice their lifts relentlessly and this just doesn’t apply to most bodybuilding movements.

Cons of a 3X Per Week Training Frequency

While training each muscle group 3X/week as part of a full-body routine can have its benefits, it also has some major drawbacks.   One is that, as trainees reach higher strength levels, full body workouts often become difficult or impossible to complete without losing quality.  Invariably movements done first in the workout get the best stimulus and everything else tends to suffer.

This is especially true if heavy leg training is done at the beginning of the workout.  Heavy squats tends to leave little energy for the other parts of the workout.   Saving leg training for the end of the workout means that it tends to suffer.   Heavy back squatting also tires out the shoulder girdle which can impair upper body training.  I think you get the idea.  This can be addressed by cycling intensities on any given day of training.

Additionally, there is at least some indication that there is an optimal training volume per muscle group (a topic I’ll cover in a later article) and achieving that volume in the context of a full body workout tends to become nearly impossible without the workout being several hours long.  If you need to hit 8 sets per muscle group for an optimal growth stimulus, it’s simply impossible to do that across 8-10 muscles groups without being in the gym all day.

So under most circumstances, I don’t find that hitting each muscle group three times per week is optimal for most trainees, at least not as part of  a full-body routine.  It can be accomplished with proper cycling of intensity for the different bodyparts but since, in my experience, bodybuilders like to train hard pretty much all of the time, suggestions to do that often fall on deaf ears.

Mind you, this assumes that a full body workout is being done and that isn’t a requirement to train a muscle three times per week.  With a split routine and training 6 days/week, a split routine can be used to avoid some of those issues.   But this assumes that someone can train 6 days/week consistently.

1X Per Week Training Frequency

At the other extreme of training is the approach of blasting every muscle group only once per week.  This seemed to really come into vogue during the steroid era of the sport with Arnold and many of his contemporaries advocating this type of training.

Many critics of higher frequencies of training love to point to successful elite (read: drug using) bodybuilders who still train that way.  Or at least claim to do so.  By that I mean that many if not most of the training routines printed in magazines or online are total fiction to begin with.

Typically in this approach, one or perhaps two muscle groups would be chosen for a single workout with a fairly large volume of training (often 15-20 sets of 3-4 different exercises) performed for each.  Hitting all of the angles of a muscle, blitzing and bombing were all ideas that came out of this type of approach and generally the body is split across 4 or more workouts which each muscle group getting being hammered once every 7 days.

Now, there is no denying that this approach seems to work at the elite level of bodybuilding.  However, there are often a lot of other factors involved that people tend to ignore.  Arguably the primary one is drug use.  Anabolic steroids cause muscle growth without training at all and many pro bodybuilders probably grow in spite of their training rather because of it.

Additionally, even when/if pro bodybuilders are training this way, it’s generally later in their career.  Most report having built most of their muscle mass with a higher frequency.  There have also been successful elite bodybuilders who train muscle groups more often than 1X/week so it’s not as if ALL top pros do it that way.  Again, when you have enough drugs, the training almost stops mattering.

But of perhaps more relevance, outside of a small percentage of folks, I simply haven’t seen the majority of natural trainees grow optimally training in this fashion.  Basically, it just doesn’t work for the majority in my experience (and in the experience of a lot of coaches I know).  Sure, we can always look at the ‘big guys’ in the gym who are doing fine hitting everything once per week but the fact is that the majority of folks training that way aren’t usually growing well at all.

Pros of 1X Per Week Training

I’ll be honest that I’m had pressed to list many pros of this training frequency.  I don’t think it’s optimal for growth for most people.  And it’s certainly not optimal for strength for most people. About the only thing it is optimal for is avoiding arguments about training frequency from hardheads who think training each muscle group once per week is optimal. And I guess that’s something.

Another potential “benefit” I mention only sarcastically is that blasting a muscle group once per week is great for people who equate debilitating soreness with progress.  Invariably people who train with this low of a frequency get really sore every time they do it.  And I guess that fulfills some psychological need. Sadly, chasing DOMS is nonsensical and invariably people get less sore but grow better with a higher training frquency.

Perhaps the only time I might recommend training a muscle group only one time per week would be during a maintenance phase for it.  The general rule of thumb is that you can cut training frequency and volume by up to 2/3rds so long as you maintain intensity (weight on the bar in this case) and training a muscle group once per week can certainly achieve this.

Cons of 1X Per Week Training

Even if a large majority of people continue to train that way, I think there are a lot of cons to that approach.  One is that it invariably leads people to do far too much volume per muscle group.  As I mentioned above, there is emerging evidence that there is both an optimal and possibly maximal per workout volume to stimulate growth.  Above some point, you don’t get a greater stimulus and just dig into recovery.

Natural lifters who do endless sets in a given workout not only aren’t stimulating better growth, they end up cutting into their recovery with excessive volume. Alternately, they end up pacing themselves through the workout to simply “do all those sets”.  The consequence being that none of the sets done is really worth much.  Honestly, they’d be better off doing less sets at a higher intensity  to begin with.

In my experience, most muscle groups don’t need more than two exercises in any given workout with back being a possible exception since it is so complex.  Lifters doing 4 exercises per muscle group for 4-5 sets invariably just end up picking endlessly overlapping movements that aren’t doing anything useful.

I already mentioned that training in this fashion tends to lead to severe soreness.  For people who love being sore that’s great I guess but it’s not ideal.  Training with a slightly higher frequency tends to limit soreness, provide better growth and provide an optimal balance between the two extremes.

1.5-2x Per Week Training Frequency

This brings me the long way around to my preferred training training frequency which is right in the middle of both extremes.    For most applications, for the average trainee, I think hitting each muscle group somewhere between twice per week or a minimum of every 5th day yields about optimal results.  That once every 5th day is how you get to a 1.5X per week training frequency: each muscle group is worked three times every two weeks.

Again, here I’m talking about an optimal training frequency for the majority of natural trainees.  Again, as I noted above, I know of several coaches who work with steroid using bodybuilders who report better results with this type of training frequency.   As I said above, enough steroids may trump bad training but steroids plus good training will always trump both.

Generally speaking, you might see this frequency of training implemented as some type of upper/lower split routine  (which is the basis of my generic bulking routine) although there are many other workable options as well.   Even three way split routines can end up hitting each muscle group roughly once every 5th day which achieves this frequency.

Pros of a 1.5-2X Per Week Training Frequency

In my mind, this training frequency gives basically the best of all worlds.  A muscle group is trained frequently enough to keep protein synthesis and gene expression stimulated so growth is optimally stimulated.  The higher frequency invariably reduces soreness.  This would count as a con for those addicted to being in pain. But for non-psychotics let’s chalk this up as a benefit.

The higher frequency generally allows for better strength gains as well, that whole practice thing.  Why does this matter?  Well long-term growth is about adding weight to the bar in a moderate repetition range.  Gaining strength in the weight room over time, adding weight to the bar continues to increase muscular tension and that’s how you grow.

Cons of a 1.5-2X Per Week Training Frequency

I can’t honestly think of many cons to this type of training frequency.  Fine, fine, if you love getting sore, you’ll hate this. I mean, you’ll grow better doing it this way.  But if soreness is more important to you than progress, you need psychological help, not my website.

Depending on what type of split is implemented, this type of training frequency can require more days in the gym than a full body routine which only requires 3 days/week.  At the same time, it invariably requires less than training each muscle group only one time per week.

Women and Training Frequency

While I didn’t get into the research on the topic in this piece (another article for another day), I should at least mention that some of it shows that training frequency doesn’t really matter much.  That one time per week is as good as twice per week.  However, I don’t find a lot of the data that compelling.  Most of it is done in untrained individuals and they always get the same results no matter what you do.

But even the research in trained individuals tends to be comparing fairly low volumes.  Like three to nine total sets/week.  It’s well established that optimal growth occurs at a higher volume, perhaps 10-20 sets/week.  By simple logic, if there is a per workout maximum of perhaps 8-10 sets above which there is no further stimulus, and the goal is 20 sets/week, then once per week can NOT give the same results.  That is, 20 sets once/week cannot equal the results of 10 sets twice/week.  But nobody has tested that yet.

Of more importance is this: literally all of the frequency comparisons in trained individuals have been done on men.  Which, within the context of the study designs, have no found any real difference.  But women are not men and you cannot safely extrapolate research on men to women uncritically.

That is especially important here as women do, under many circumstances, recover more quickly than men from exercise.  This depends on a host of factors but practically, most coaches find that women respond better to a higher frequency of training than men under most conditions.  So even if once per week were sufficient for a male trainee seeking growth, I do not think it will give optimal growth for women where a minimum of twice per week per muscle group would be preferred.

Let me make it clear, I am basing that conclusion on indirect research as nobody has really tested it yet.  When they do, if it turns out I’m wrong, that’s ok. But as it stands now, both basic physiology and practical experience suggests that women, perhaps moreso than men will benefit from a higher training frequency.

Implementing a 1.5-2X Per Week Training Frequency

To give you an idea of how this might be implemented weekly, I’ve shown how the two different training frequencies could be achieved in several different ways depending on the circumstances.  Although, I’ve used an upper/lower body template in the example below, any type of approach that divided up the body into two different workouts would work just as well.   I’ve also shown a higher weekly training frequency for people with that kind of flexibility and/or who want to be in the gym more often.

I’m also assuming that most people will train on the same days each week which I find is the most common pattern for people with a job, families, etc.  Of course, people who can train different days each week can use other variations of the below approaches since they can vary the days of the week that they are in the gym.

Oh yeah, blank days would either be taken off or could be used for metabolic work (e.g. the type of thing I described in the article Cardio and Mass Gains).

Optimal Training Frequency Examples

*On the high frequency option, it’s important not to go nuts with the muscle group volume on the Mon, Tue and Wed workouts.
8-10 hard sets per muscle group is plenty.  Do it and get the hell out of the gym.

As you can see, all three of the first options hit each muscle group twice per week in varying combinations depending on the specifics. The first one gives better recovery during the week (since there’s a day off between several of the workouts) but not everybody can train weekends.  That’s option two which is for folks who can recover from four weekly training sessions per week but can’t get to the gym on weekends.

Option three might be for someone who works late during the week and wants to keep the weekly workouts a bit shorter by splitting things up, but who has time to train for longer on the weekends.   The last option shows how a once every 5th day frequency would be achieved, while also avoiding weekends.  This tends to be good for folks with poorer recovery and/or who simply need or want more recovery between workouts.

Again, the workouts don’t have to be upper/lower, that just tends to be my default choice for a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into here.  Any reasonable split can be used effectively in the above types of templates.

As you might imagine, I find that this type of training frequency tends to strike a balance between the other two extremes of frequency which is why I prefer it.  Since the body is split up a bit more compare to three full body workouts per week, individual workouts tend not to be quite so daunting with exercises early in the session not impacting as badly on later exercises.

And, as noted above, compared to the typical ‘hit everything once and then let it rest a week’, while soreness and acute exhaustion is lower, growth is almost invariably better.  At the same time, the frequency is low enough that trainees can go pretty hard in the gym while still being able to recover by the time the next workout rolls around so that they can do it again, allowing them to make progressive strength gains.  Which isn’t to say that I suggest going all out all the time but intensity cycling is another topic for another day.

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