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Two a Day Training in the Weight Room

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.

Two a Day Training in the Weight Room

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.

Benefits of Two a Day Training

First I want to look at some of the potential benefits 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 Improved 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.

Factors Involved in Weight Room Performance

Since my focus, as usual, is on weight room performance, I want to look at some of the specific ways two a day training might be beneficial. Mainly I’ll be focusing on the final benefit listed above: a potentially increased training effect.

As I’ve discussed in detail previously, strength also has a neural component and one benefit of doubling up is more skill training.  This becomes more and more critical the higher the technical demands of the sport and, as I noted, there’s a big reason that Olympic lifters practice the competition lifts incessantly.

But there is more to both strength and growth than just the technical/neural components, there is also the long-term changes that occur in the muscle.  Most of this is via skeletal muscle growth (primarily via hypertrophy) but there can also be shifts in skeletal muscle Myosin Heavy Chains (MHC) and now I’m already deeper into this than I want.

Of course there is also the aspect, with regards to growth per se, that there are different important pathways for growth and one added benefit of two-a-day training that specifically applies to training for size is that multiple biochemical pathways can be hit in the different workouts.

I’ll finish this overwritten introduction by pointing out again that the structure of training I’m going to explicitly talk about has to do with training the SAME MUSCLE GROUPS in both the workouts.  That is, I’m not talking about old school 80’s style split training where you trained quads in the AM and hamstrings in the PM so that that day was “legs” (and you had lots of time to eat and inject between workouts).

Rather, I’m talking about training quads in the morning and again in the afternoon/evening.  Or whatever muscle group we’re talking about.  This actually applies to both strength and growth training.  So even for a pure strength athlete, the concept is that you’re training lower body/leg both AM and PM or upper body/bench both AM and PM.  Certainly squatting/lower body at one workout and bench/upper body at the other can be workable but that isn’t really what I’m talking about here.  Call Coach Sheiko.

And while I’m not going to talk extensively about endurance training structure, it sort of goes without saying that endurance athletes (with the possible exception of triathletes) train the same muscles in their multiple daily workouts (tri-geeks might swim in the AM and do bike,run or a combination in the afternoon as a “typical” structure since they have so many different things to do).  Though I imagine I could be compelled to do so if people whine at me incessantly enough.  Anyhow…

The General Structure of Two A Day Training

So let’s talk about the general structure of two-a-day training first.  At the risk of stating the obvious, clearly it means training twice daily with some sort of reasonable break between workouts (otherwise you’re just doing one long-assed workout with a short break between some parts of it).

The cutoff point for where you go from one long workouts with a break in the middle to two distinct workouts might be debatable on semantic terms but 4-6 hours has usually been held as the ideal time between the workouts (we might also distinguish the workouts based on the training goal but even this is problematic since individual workouts often have multiple training goals performed in sequence).  I’ve never seen research on it it’s just one of those empirical rules of thumb and that’s what I’ll use.

I honestly imagine much of this is just practical.  Taking 4-6 hours between two workouts gives the athlete time to wind down between sessions, recover a bit, eat at least one or two meals, maybe take a nap, and be ready to train again.  As well, recall that part of the general idea of this type of training is to overlap training stimuli in such a way that, hopefully, a larger training stimuli is sent to the body.

Putting the workouts too close together (i.e. with a 2 hour break) might, in hugely theoretical terms, be less beneficial than spreading them out across the day.    Maybe.  If nothing else, training with only 2 hours break is very likely to impair the quality of the second workout and that alone would probably offset any potential “benefit” from sending two training stimuli that close together.  And please will nobody in the comments bring up the idiotic “Gain an inch on your biceps in 24 hours” crap where you train arms every hour on the hour for a day?  Please.  The inch gain is just pump and goes away immediately.

Kenyans, Speed Skating and Bulgarians Oh My!

It’s probably worth nothing at least in tangent that Kenyan runners have settled on a structure where they do an easy run early in the morning (usually low intensity and fasted which may have certain benefits) with a second harder workout 4 hours later and a third workout about 6 hours after that.   And it’s all running.  Basically overlapping and overlapping and overlapping stimuli throughout the day.  Which they then do day after day after day.  And then they destroy the world.

At the height of Bulgarian Olympic lifting dominance, the top teams did something similar, three daily workouts (at least a few days/week) with 4-6 hours between each.  If you start early, you can just fit it into the day, get to eat, and then get sufficient sleep to maybe survive. Train 8-10am, 2-4pm, 8-10pm.  Then collapse.

This, of course, assumes that it can be done that way with that duration of break and that’s not always practically the case.  Referring back to my own speed skating training, my coach had us do double days 4 days-per-week.  But since we could only skate in the afternoon (afternoon ice ran 2-5pm) and skate training had to come first every day, that meant doing conditioning with maybe 1-2 hours break to have any chance of sleeping.

I’d get off the ice at 5pm, cool down til 5:30, home at 6pm, meal and then bike ride or weight room at 7-8pm.  Sometimes I’d just go straight to the weight room and get it over with since I was already warmed up and dressed out.  This was especially true near the end of my incarceration since weights were at maintenance and I could hammer it out in like 15 minutes start to finish.  There was simply no point in going home or taking a break under that specific condition.

Of course, I’d always dawdle before my bike rides (since they were boring) and Saturdays were great since we had morning ice and got a real break before afternoon training (and all during summer training we got sufficient breaks between workouts).  The schedule totally sucked but that was all that was workable given that we had to practice skating as recovered as possible.  Even an easy bike ride in the morning tended to cause problems at afternoon skating so that was the structure we had to follow.

More on Bulgarian Ol’ing Training

Going back to the extremest of all Olympic lifting programs, the Bulgarian System, I’d mention that they took the idea of splitting  workouts to an even greater extreme.  Within any given workout, they would work a given lift for about 30 minutes and then take a 30 minute rest before the next lift (occasionally lifts were doubled up without a break, usually squats after competition movements).

That would be done for a single distinct workout before a longer break of 4+ hours was taken before the second, and often third workout.  So they would train from 8am-10am in a broken fashion, go back at 2pm-4pm in broken fashion and then hit it again at 8pm.  While most modern Olympic training isn’t quite this intensive, it almost always involves two daily workouts with a break of this duration.

I doubt that most reading this have the ability to take those kind of additional extra breaks during each individual workout.  That style of training is only for the elitest of the elite, athletes who have come up through a 10 year build-up of gruelling training that destroys many (and more or less requires heavy drug use and other recovery methods to hope to survive) even if it ultimately produces world-beaters.

For everyone else, try to stick to two individual distinct workouts that go from start to finish over a reasonable time frame and leave the extra breaks to the elites of the elite.

Individual Workout Duration

For most who are looking at strength or size training, I’m actually going to strongly suggest keeping the workouts relatively brief in duration.  I know I said in part 1 that two-a-day training can be used to increase training volume and that’s certainly true.  At the same time, trainees have a tendency to overdo it when they first try this type of training, burning themselves out rapidly.

I’d recommend keeping the workouts at 40-45 minutes length apiece when you first start this type of training.  For pure strength athletes this may not hold since rest periods are often long on low-rep sets but I really want to emphasize that if you make both of your two workouts a full workout at the start it’s gonna blow you up.

Initially I’d almost suggest just splitting your current workout duration with *maybe* a slight volume increase (i.e. one hour becomes 40 minutes each).  Or keep your primary workout the same length and add a short (like 20-30 minute) supplemental workout.  So 60 minutes at one workout and then a short supplemental workout.

If after 2-3 four to six week cycles of this type of training you feel like you’re handling it, you can bump up individual workout duration gradually. And I do mean gradually.  So if you’re handling 40 minutes of training twice a day in the weight room and making gains consistently, bump each workout by like 10-15 minutes (i.e. a handful of extra sets).  Or bump one by 15 minutes (to an hour) and hold the second one at 40-45 minutes.  Bump the second one after a few more cycles.

Honestly, this is where most people go wrong when they try to do this type of training (many OL’ers who tried to jump straight into Bulgarian style training, without the 10 year buildup, just got broken off by it and that’s a big part of why a lot of people think it can’t be done unassisted).  It probably can but it takes a different approach than what most are willing to take.  You have to be patient and take years to even get close to that level of training.  Jason Keen had an excellent article about Bulgarian training for the mortal.

And frankly, most people are impatient as hell.  They want to get big, strong, good NOW and try to do too much too soon and this very much applies to two-per-day training.  The idea of doing “only” 40 minutes in the gym (even if it’s an amazing 40 minutes) just doesn’t scan.

If they train at a commercial gym and have to make a commute, the mental tendency is to go “If I’m taking the time to drive to the gym and dress out, I should make it worth my while and train for 60-90 minutes.” just to make the trip worth it.  Then they blow themselves up just like they do with active recovery training and talk about how two-per-day training sucks.  When the problem is with them.

If you lack the self-control to do that, to keep the workouts on the shorter side initially (remember that this is how you improve training QUALITY), I’m going to strongly suggest you NOT do this type of training.  And spare me the “I can’t help myself, if I go to the gym I have to go hard and long” types of arguments; you are not a dog with no sense of self-awareness who relies on instinct and nothing more.

You are a human with a big brain who can make semi-intelligent choices from time to time if you really want to and grit your teeth and try. So try using it.  Or set a stopwatch/app on your phone and when it goes off at 40 minutes, take your last selfie for FB to show how you CRUSHED YOUR WORKOUT, and get the hell out of the gym.  If you really can’t do that or show an iota of sense or self-control, just don’t do two-a-day training.  And consider therapy.

An ideal situation might be one where you have access to a home gym for at least one of the workouts.  That allows you to do one workout in the gym (where there is typically more equipment to use) but hit the other one at home.  If you have a particularly well set up home gym, of course there is always the potential of doing both workouts there and avoiding humanity entirely.  But some people like the gym atmosphere and that’s often a benefit to training around other people.  Especially for your hard workout.  Which brings us to..

Now Let’s Talk About Intensity

I discussed above about how splitting daily training volume can allow athletes to improve their training quality, basically let them maintain whatever intensity they are trying to hit more easily by keeping workout duration manageable.  I know everyone on the Internet is an elite beast who trains harder than any 10 men put together but the reality is that we mere humans have a limited duration that they can actually generate decent intensity.  Splitting training allows you to get in more intensity, potentially, by keeping the workouts shorter.  Well, that is if you follow my advice from above and don’t make them too long.

At the same time, unless you’re an elite Bulgarian lifter, it’s unlikely that you can work truly maximally at both of your two-per-day workouts.  Especially in the beginning.  Honestly, I’d suggest making one workout lighter and one workout heavier not only to begin with but probably forever.   Most people simply won’t benefit from two truly heavy workouts in my opinion.  I’m sure there will be someone vocally pointing out an exception in the comments.

Which now necessitates a brief discussion of intensity in the weight room.  And here I need to differentiate between two-per-day growth training and two-per-day strength training.  The goals are different and so is the training since heavy and light tend to have slightly different meanings.

For growth/hypertrophy training, I’m going to use heavy training to include any growth training under 8 reps. So anything in the 5-8 rep range or so since it would be unusual for someone seeking growth to go much lower repetition wise than that.   Light training is anything higher than that in terms of rep count.

Yes, I know, 10’s are on the cusp of what most consider the “hypertrophy zone”. Stop being annoying.  But 10’s, 12’s, 15’s, any sort of pumpy type training is going to be considered light in growth terms.  If you’ve read my Ultimate Diet 2.0, what I called power training is heavy, pump training is light and tension training is sort of in the middle (but I’ll call it heavy for the context of this article).  I’ll come back to this in Part 3 of the series.

For powerlifting types of applications, heavy is heavy, sets of 5 or less.  If you’re tuned into Westside or most current training theories, heavy is what you think of as Maximal Effort training (or all of the other names it goes by).  Again, 5’s and lower and anything in the 80-85% of 1RM and up range.

8’s are usually considered what most call Repetition Effort (RE) work although that can go up to 12’s or more.  But relative to ME training, it’s all really just light training.  So we’ll use a little lower cutoff for “light” training for actual strength athletes, with anything higher than sets of 8 being “light”.  That can be 8 up to 20 or whatever folks are doing for their RE work.

Any sort of power or Dynamic Effort (DE) training is a bit harder to pin down.  Certainly the weights are light but the effort is maximal.  As well the rep counts are usually low (3-8) but with very submaximal loads. So rep count isn’t a good criteria to use here.  I’d still classify it as light for the purposes of this article.  You can argue to your heart’s content in the comments or send me ugly emails if you so desire.   I’m used to it.

Summing Up

  1.  Two-per-day training is training the same muscles/movements twice a day with an, ideally, 4-6 hour break
  2. Initially, individual workout duration should be kept at roughly 40-45 minutes.  Or you can do one full workout (60 minutes) and one supplemental workout
  3. The workouts should be divided into heavy and light where the following guidelines apply
  • For Growth Training
    Heavy Training is anything below 8 reps
    Light Training is anything higher than 8 reps (at an appropriate intensity)
  • For Strength Training:
    Heavy training is anything below 5 reps
    Light Training is anything that falls under repetition effort or dynamic effort methods

Got it? Good.

Read Part 2

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