In the bodybuilding and fitness world there are an infinite number of ways to structure an exercise program and achieve results. There are dozens of variables you can manipulate, such as weight (as a % of your max), reps, sets, exercise selection, rest intervals, rep tempo, exercise order, time under tension, and the list goes on. There are also even more sophisticated concepts you can utilize such as periodization, overreaching, and deloading, to name a few. So given this bounty of options, why is it that we virtually always see the same program being utilized by every athlete, from the novice all the way to the competitive bodybuilder? If you look at 99% of lifters’ training plans, they will consist of training each muscle group once per week, and using 3-4 sets of 3-4 exercises for each muscle group, with a rep range of 8-12 (5-15 if you’re dealing with a mold breaker!). One can argue that this is a tried and true method that will yield the greatest results for the most individuals, which may be valid given its prevalence, but I would argue that it’s more a matter of convenience and lack of creativity. Bodybuilding magazines have provided these kinds of routines since enhanced athletes have adopted them in the early nineties, but I would argue that there is a better way, and that is by utilizing the variable Frequency.
Frequency, or how often you train a given muscle group or movement, is an extremely powerful tool for stimulating your body to adapt. Think about it in the context of anything else you’d like to excel at: if you want to be a skilled musician, do you practice once a week or for hours every day? If you want to be a fantastic dancer or martial artist, do you train and drill a few times a month or as often as possible? Now if you want a muscular, ripped physique, shouldn’t you remind your body of that as often as you can? Absolutely! Yes, a major difference between weight lifting and these other activities is that your body needs more time to recover from each session, but that doesn’t mean you need to confine yourself to training each muscle group only once per week!
Let’s look at some examples. Even in the field of chemically enhanced bodybuilders, higher than once-a-week frequency training has played a major role in producing champions. What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, and Ronnie Coleman all have in common? They’ve each won the most prestigious bodybuilding title, Mr. Olympia, 7 or 8 times (far more than any other competitors), AND they all trained each muscle group 2 to 3 times every week. Other famous past bodybuilders to utilize high frequency have been Frank Zane, Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno, and Sergio Olivia (notice this is virtually every top bodybuilder from the golden age – when most believe bodybuilders looked their best). And a modern bodybuilder who utilizes twice per week frequency is none other than 3-time Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath. In addition, many top natural bodybuilders train with higher than once-per-week frequency for certain muscle groups or their whole body such as Marin Daniels, Doug Miller, and Dr. Layne Norton. Even the Godfather of Vegan Bodybuilding, Robert Cheeke, lists multiple daily sets of pushups and crunches as one of the secrets to his bodybuilding success. And as for myself, I’ve seen by far the greatest gains when I train each muscle group 2-3 times per week. In fact, a program that has consistently yielded the greatest mass gains in my clients is a total body program that trains every muscle group several times every week!
Now, why does high frequency training produce such excellent results? It’s the same principle at work as the other examples I listed above such as music dancing or martial arts: if you want your body to adapt to something, provide it the signal to do so as often as possible (i.e. practice). A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated this when it compared two groups performing the same total volume of the same exercises either during one session per week or divided over three sessions, and the more frequent trainers made greater gains in muscle size and strength; they performed the exact same amount of work, but they gave their bodies the message to grow three times a week rather than once. Another factor at play is illustrated by a quote from the Exercise Science Department of Florida Atlantic University: “Strength and growth are related to total training volume, not exercise-induced muscle damage”. By training more often, your volume over time will be much greater. For example, if you train shoulders once per week, you may do a high volume session of 24 total sets, but if you train them twice per week you might only get in 15 sets per workout before you have to move to another muscle group, but over the week you will have done 30 total sets, and I guarantee you will be able to go harder for 15 sets than you will for 24. And imagine how many extra sets that amounts to over a year! If the same volume spread out more yields superior results, imagine what more total volume and a higher relative intensity can do! And this is also why being consistent with your training over the long haul is so important for your results.}
There are limits to how frequently you should train, of course. You can’t train every muscle group with brutal intensity every single day or you’d never be able to recover and adapt, and you’ll likely become injured. And that is the one drawback I’ve found with high frequency training – you are more likely to get injured unless you keep your intensity in check and ensure optimal recovery. Nothing will derail your progress like an injury. So, how much frequency is too much? That is very much an individual question, but as a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend anyone train a given muscle group more than three times per week. In addition to this, the more often you train a muscle, the more you should err on the side of training short of muscle failure and doing less volume at each session, or at least alternate between brutal sessions and easier ones. Bodybuilding is a sport of recovering from weight training, not just weight training, so you need to ensure you are recovering as much as possible between sessions. To do this, don’t train to failure on every set or even every workout, and if you’ve been training intensely and consistently for 4-6 weeks, don’t be afraid to take a deloading week and hit everything at 30-50% less than normal weights. Optimal nutrition will also go a long way towards faster recovery times, so be sure to get plenty of calories in the form of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
There are many ways to structure a high frequency program, but some tried and true versions are as follows:
- Three day splits such as push/pull/legs or chest + back/Shoulders +arms/legs, Back + hamstrings/Chest + arms/Shoulder + Legs, or for a powerlifter, squat/bench/deadlift
- Two day splits such as upper/lower or full body push/full body pull
- Total body workouts
In using any of the above splits, be sure to train no more than 3-5 days per week, with ideally at least one full day off per week even from cardio. Another great tactic if you have the schedule flexibility is to break workouts into AM and PM sessions (for example, Chest AM and Back PM). As the study mentioned above, the same amount of work spread out more will elicit superior results, and if that isn’t enough evidence, Arnold Schwarzenegger credits twice per day training as earning him some of his fastest mass gains!
If you’ve never followed this kind of program before, I encourage you to give it a try over the next 6-8 weeks and see how it works for you. Good luck!