Ok, this article (which will assuredly be two parts) came out of a question on my FB group regarding two-a-day training for natural lifters. His question, more or less was if it was productive or counterproductive to train twice daily (assuming one has the time) and while the answer is always that it depends the fact is that two-a-day training has a long history and can be very effective if used well.
I should mention that the idea of bodybuilders training twice daily (and in this specific context, training the SAME muscle group twice daily) is one that I first saw discussed by Charles Poliquin (before he lost his mind completely) and I would feel bad for not giving him at least a shout out. It’s a concept that has long been used by performance athletes but I’m not sure I would have considered it for bodybuilding purposes without his mention of the idea.
An Overview of Two-A-Day Training
It’s worth mentioning that performance athletes have been doing two-a-day training for absolutely forever. I can’t begin to tell you when this idea first developed but I imagine it was during the 60’s or so as both world interest in sport (and drug use) started to come to the forefront.
Runners, years ago, found that adding a short morning run (i.e. 30 minutes of endurance work) in the morning on top of their later daily run was a way to reach the next level of performance. It allowed them to bump up the volume of training while keeping individual workouts from going too long and, in recent years, the Kenyans and other East Africans have taken this further with 3 or even 4 runs per day. A typical pattern would be an easy aerobic run in the morning, frequently done fasted, with a higher-quality workout in the afternoon and a third run in the evening.
High-level swimmers have long done two a day training with both a morning (often early morning before school) and afternoon workout. Endurance cycling by and large hasn’t followed this pattern but this is likely due to the general duration of bike rides: when a normal workout is already 4-6 hours, it’s hard to fit in a second workout. The culture and nature of the sport simply hasn’t lent itself to that type of training.
Track cycling, mind you, is an exception to this with cyclists typically doing a fairly easy morning ride (for basic recovery and aerobic development) and track or high-intensity work later in the day. There is also a pattern, which I’ll discuss in the second part of this article series where track cyclists lift in the morning and do their speed work later in the day (this is for pure sprinters and typically easier work is done on in-between days for recovery, aerobic development and because cyclists usually like to ride their bikes so the coaches let them).
And I’m quite sure that most other sports have some element of this training structure in them to a greater or lesser degree.
But What About Weight Training?
In weight training, the propensity for two-a-day training depends heavily on which branch you’re talking about. It’s typically been the Olympic lifters pushing the envelope. Ivan Abadjaev is often suggested as having been one of the first to start lifting twice/day, certainly at a time when such things simply weren’t done.
In modern times as with Kenyan runners, elite Ol’ers often train two or even three times per day. How this is structured specifically depends on the coach, the team, their drug use and the philosophy but at least two and often three sessions are often done per day.
Traditionally powerlifters haven’t taken this approach although Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has written about doing additional/supplementary workouts with his athletes. To my knowledge, strongman competitors haven’t adopted a two-a-day training structure (though I could see the potential of event work in one workout and supplemental work of the strength or conditioning work later) but I can’t claim to be particularly tied into that sport so I’ll leave it for commenters to correct me as needed.
Of course, the original question had to do with growth for natural lifters and it’s useful to look at bodybuilding in this context. For a brief period in the 80’s (as training volumes and drug intake went up), it was fairly common to see bodybuilders doing fairly extreme split routines which had a morning and evening session but this was typically done in the fashion of quads AM and hamstrings PM or chest AM and triceps PM or something like that.
And while that certainly appeared to have some utility at that point, that’s really actually not what I’m going to discuss or describe. Rather I want to talk about the potential benefits (and of course drawbacks) of training the SAME muscle group twice a day. Which actually necessitates a general discussion of the potential benefits and drawbacks of training twice per day.
Increased Training Quality
All training workouts, even those for endurance athletes, require some amount of quality/intensity to them. You can’t really just piss around at irrelevant intensities and expect to get very far no matter how long you go. But with every workout, there tends to be a limit to the duration of the workout that can be accomplished while maintaining that quality.
That length tends to depend on the athlete, the sport, their work capacity and training level but there is always some limit. If you have a situation where an athlete is unable to maintain sufficient quality for the required duration, even splitting the workout into two segments (with a break to recover) may allow increased training quality over trying to do it all at once.
I’d note that this tends to hold most for higher intensity work. When you’re trying to go hard, it’s usually impossible to do it for very long as intensity and volume are inversely related. Splitting a single long workout into even two shorter workouts with a break almost always allows a trainee to maintain or even increase the intensity/quality of their workout.
Increased Training Volume
However, even with that said, it’s probably more common for athletes to use two-a-day training to increase their training volume to at least one degree or another. That is, while splitting a long workout into two shorter ones is good to maintain or increase quality, it’s more common for athletes to use the second workout to increase their overall training volume without making the original first workout too long.
So say you have a situation where an athlete easily has the work capacity to handle a full 90 minute workout without a drop in quality. It’s probably unrealistic to make that workout too much longer, boredom or fatigue may set in; even the best of athletes usually has a finite attention span.
Adding a 30 minute second workout at some point in the day (whether it’s best put after or before the primary workout depends on the situation and I’ll come back to that in part 2) allows you to bump to 2 hours of training per day without increasing the length of that primary workout. Since the athlete is already moving to two-a-day training it might even be worth going from the one 90 minute workout to two 60 minute workouts. Increased volume AND quality results from that approach.
Increased Training Frequency
Of course tied in with the above is the idea of an increased training frequency. As has come to the forefront in recent years, the idea of getting lots of practice at a given activity is a key to optimal performance. It’s not coincidence that it was in two of the most technically demanding sports (swimming and Olympic lifting) that athletes started doing two-a-day training.
Those sports require endless technical practice to achieve anything approximating perfection. But in that technique can only be improved when the athlete isn’t fatigued, moving to multiple daily training with a recovery period is about the only way to get more and more technical practice without doing it under fatigued conditions (note: there are times for athletes to practice their sport while fatigued but this is at the higher levels of performance when technique is already extremely well developed).
Of course, all sports have some degree of technical requirements (they simply range from fairly butt simple to impossibly difficult) and more frequent practice, at least assuming that practice is done properly (i.e. you’re not cementing bad form) is often enhanced by more frequent practice.
Potentially Increased Recovery
This one may seem a bit weird and there’s a reason that I used the word potentially here as a lot of this issue depends on how exactly two-a-day training is implemented. To show you how this works, I’m going to talk about what my coach had us doing for speed skating when I was in Salt Lake City.
My coach, a very smart man, had found that the best pattern for skate training (due to it’s inherently high intensity nature, you simply can NOT do low-intensity skate training, along with insane technical demands) was to train twice-a-day but every other day.
So we trained “only” 4 days per week. But every day was a double up day. Skating practice always came first (so that we were fresh and could practice technique without being tired) with some form of conditioning, bike rides or weights, afterwards. While it made the individuals days more difficult, it actually had the extra result of giving us more total recovery each week.
Because, rather than doing our 8 training units in some pattern where we trained to one degree or another every day, we had the 4 training days and 3 days completely off. We did the same amount of training but with more total recovery days. It also mean that skate training was almost always coming after a day off (due to the 7 day work week two workouts were always back to back and nothing could be done about that) ensuring that we were at maximal freshness for skate training; crucial due to the high technical demands.
So consider an endurance athlete doing a single daily session 6 days/week with one day/week off. If they doubled up so that every training day was a double day (i.e. 3 days/week with 2 sessions per day), they get the same total amount of training per week but with more recovery days. This can also help stave off injuries since the body isn’t taking a pounding every day.
Mind you, that is not typically how two-a-day training is implemented (most use it to increase volume, frequency or quality as I described above) but it is one potential benefit depending on how it is implemented.
As well, doing it that way may have one last benefit.
An Increased Training Effect
The last topic I want to discuss is the possibility that training twice a day, in addition to all of the benefits listed above, may have is an increased training effect. That is, it may actually stimulate better adaptation than single sessions. Certainly part of this has to do with allowing higher quality, volume or frequency of training but it goes beyond that.
At least one study, in endurance training, mind you, found that trainees doing two-a-day training three times per week got a better training effect. In it subjects did an identical weekly training volume but either distributed it into 6 daily sessions or 3 double-day sessions. The second group got a better training effect which appeared to be mediated via being glycogen depleted during the second workout.
Resistance training hasn’t been studied in this regard that I know of and I don’t want to get up my own butt with a bunch of molecular biology but there is good reason to believe that more frequent training (within limits) can have benefits in terms of promoting gene expression, protein synthesis and adaptation in the long run.
Basically, again up to a point, sending the same training signal more frequently has the potential to promote better adaptations because every time you train in a certain fashion you express certain genes and over time, that cumulative expression leads to increased protein synthesis and adaptation (growth/etc.).
Alternately, when you consider the different pathways relevant to growth or performance (i.e. maximal strength, power, etc.), it becomes possible to hit different ones by scheduling weight training workouts across two daily sessions but having them each have a different focus.
And that’s actually where I’ll leave this today. In Part 2, I’ll talk about practical application of two a day training for the weight room. My focus will be mostly on growth but I’ll also talk about strength and power performance. I might even write a sample workout or two. So that’s pretty exciting!