Training Frequency Explained
Strategies for Optimal Results For Hypertrophy
It wasn’t all that long ago when the bro-split reigned supreme in the world of bodybuilding. A limitless supply of gym bros, hitting every major muscle group once per week. It was — fine.
Since then, bodybuilding has evolved. Training programs like push/pull/legs have gotten immensely more popular. Fewer gym bros are training one muscle group per week and are now training muscle groups 2 or 3 times per week.
Exercise science has also gotten a lot more popular these last few years. The studies that have come out on the effects of high frequency training have all but verified that training muscle groups multiple times per week produced greater gains, not fewer. But how much is enough? How much is the optimal?
Here’s what we now know about training frequency and muscle gains:
So, we know that training a muscle group twice per week is definitely better than once. We also know that training a muscle three times also appears to be better than training a muscle group twice, but by less of a degree than going from 1 to 2. However, is more always better?
Beyond this point diminishing returns means making improvements are marginal at best. At 4 times per week, depending on training volume and intensity, we risk spending more time recovering and not making adaptations responsible for the actual muscle growth.
Additionally, high frequency training is inherently less sustainable over time. Training the same muscle groups multiple times per week, for months on end, can lead our joints and connective tissue into having serious issues. All you have to do is to imagine training legs 5 days per week for several months on end. Things will start to get a little (read very) funky if not outright horrible for your knees.
So, how often should we be training each muscle group per week? It's a tough question, but that's what I'm here to help figure out and by the end you will have all of the information you need to make the right call for you. There is a good amount to dive into, but it will be worth it!
Before Considering Training Frequency…
Before considering raising or lowering the frequency, we need to go over few things. Consider this a checklist to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse. You need to already be training effectively, which means:
Having good energy (sleep, nutrition, minimal stress are locked in) - Recovery is on point.
Ability to drive lots of tension into the muscles — Have the skills to train hard.
Big pumps - Training is effective.
Solid mind-muscle connection - Are targeting the muscle groups you are training with solid focus.
Fatigued target muscles at the end of your session - Assessing and ensuring the target muscle groups have be sufficiently worked.
Progressing on reps/weight across your programming!! (IMPORTANT)
If you don’t have this checklist already nailed, you have homework to do before considering training frequency. But if you’d like to read ahead and learn for the future, enjoy the wonderful journey of training frequency.
Recovery Will Effect Training Frequency
After you’ve mastered the above checklist, we need to consider recovery. If, for example, 4 days after training you are still sore and feel weak, you won’t want to train those same muscles until you’re fresh and feeling strong again. While you can still work out sore, it’s that second part (feeling strong again) that matters the most.
Let’s say you trained legs on a Monday and by Wednesday you’re still struggling to walk properly down the stairs. It’s probably not a good idea to train legs again until that is no longer an issue. This scenario is a classic indicator that you are still recovering and are not yet able to drive effective stimulus.
Additionally, not all muscles recover at the same rate. As a quick aside, I’ve seen the study below used to claim that larger muscle groups, such as the quads, are quicker to recover than smaller muscle groups like biceps. But if you read closely, the study was performed on “Young, untrained males,” which tells the whole story. In other words, this study does not represent very well the training population that would be concerned with higher level concepts like training frequency. There is a skill component involved here which we will discus in the next section.
Larger muscle groups will, on average, take longer to recover than smaller ones. The quads, for example, are a much larger muscle group than the biceps and will take significantly more time to recover keeping relative volume the same per muscle group.
You can think of it like this — the more advanced you become, the longer the larger muscle groups with a greater lengthening potential, such as the Quads and Hamstrings, will take to recover before being able to train them again effectively. This is not only because the muscles are larger with a big lengthening potential, but also because your ability to drive effective stimulus also goes way up, the more experienced you become.
The recovery rate of each muscle group will break down like this:
Rapid Recovery: Biceps, Deltoids, Calves, Mid-Back
Slower Recovery: Quads, Hamstrings, Chest, Triceps, Glutes
Finally, muscle tissue recovery isn’t our only concern when considering raising the frequency. Joints and connective tissue need to be considered if we train a lot of the same muscle groups consistently. You can think of this as a key factor in the accumulation of systemic fatigue which could hinder long-term progress.
Training Experience and Frequency
Before diving into the analysis of the individual training splits, it’s worth discussing how a trainee’s experience level will affect the overall calculation of training frequency.
First let’s consider what an advanced trainee looks like. Advanced trainees have bigger muscles, better mind-muscle connection, can drive closer to failure with good technique, and can drive tension into the muscles much better than beginner or intermediate trainees. This will effect:
Volume & Loading preferences
Ability to recover quickly
As you become more advanced, trainees tend to prefer to hit the individual muscle groups a lot harder. Usually this means adding a bit more volume per muscle group per session than a full body or upper/lower split allows. This typically leads advanced trainees to train with a push/pull/legs split, which accommodates added volume per muscle group per session.
Additionally, as you become more advanced, your ability to drive serious loads (weight) gets higher and higher. The combination of these two training preferences (increased volume per muscle group per session & increased loads) leads us to having higher recovery demands which need to be accounted for when considering how frequently we train.
In the next section we break down popular training splits by frequency, volume (per muscle group per session), and a lot more.
Training Splits And Their Frequency
How often you are training each muscle group per week will be a direct result of the split. Each major training split has its own benefits and drawbacks that we will look into. We will address each training split based on its frequency, volume per session, and synchronicity (whether or not the split fits inside one week and is repeated).
LOW FREQUENCY: THE BRO SPLIT
With the bro split, every muscle group is worked once per week, including a day for arms. This is probably the lowest frequency of all major splits. Can you grow on a bro split? Sure, quite well too. But can we do better? Absolutely. Hitting the muscles more than once per week will be a significant upgrade to a single time every week.
LOWER/MODERATE FREQUENCY: PUSH/PULL/LEGS
The Push, Pull, Legs split wont fit inside of a 7 day/week structure. In other words, week to week, with a 5x per week split, Monday will start as a push day but by week 2, Monday will be a legs day. Alternatively, you can think of this as an 8 day/week split.
MODERATE FREQUENCY: UPPER/LOWER/PUSH/PULL/LEGS
In the first half of the week we use an Upper/Lower split and in the second half, a Push/Pull/Legs split. Notice that this split fits cleanly into a 7 day/week split, which I like. This is currently the split I’m using in my own training — a perfect balance of volume per session and high enough frequency. I will say that if you do run this split for 4x/week, you are probably much better off using a pure Upper/Lower split which we will go over next
MODERATE/HIGH FREQUENCY: UPPER/LOWER
Notice that like the Push, Pull, Legs, we can’t fit this split inside of a 7 day/week schedule. This averages out to roughly 2.5x per week frequency — not quite 3 but still quite high!
HIGH FREQUENCY: UPPER/LOWER/FULL BODY
This split is another hybrid of an upper/lower but with an added fifth full body session. This brings the frequency up to 3x per week! If high frequency was my highest priority, this would be my preferred split. The volume per muscle group per session is high enough to still get a solid pump, the frequency is about as high as you can get before the diminishing returns are so small they start to not matter, and it fits all into one week!
VERY HIGH FREQUENCY: FULL BODY
This is the ultimate high frequency training split. In order to make this split work, volume per muscle group per session needs to be low enough that you can , maybe 2-3 sets per muscle group realistically.
The Downsides Of High Frequency Training
If higher training frequency means better gains, wouldn’t that mean that full body splits are “optimal” for muscle growth? It’s actually not a bad idea, at first. But there are downsides to running this split we need to consider.
Risk of injury can increase
Time spent in the gym per session goes up
Recovery of each muscle group needs serious consideration
One of the bigger issues with running a full body split is that we do not give our joints and connective tissue much of a break. This is especially a concern for training legs every day. Over the course of several months (or longer), this needs to be carefully considered.
Additionally, the time spent in the gym is likely going to be a lot longer. Warming up each individual muscle group can take up a lot of time. Consider how many warm up sets is required for a heavy leg press or squat. Instead of warming up a muscle before training with heavy weight for 4-6 sets per session, we need to warm it up for only 1-3 sets — not very economical.
We also need to be paying very close attention to the rate of recovery of each muscle group. As we’ve already gone over in the Recovery section, larger muscle groups will take longer than smaller muscles groups to recover. If we are approaching a full body split without paying close attention to how quickly our muscles recover, we can easily overdo the volume and run into problems.
A Smarter Full Body Split
There is a way to make full body splits a lot better. Considering the issues we’ve already gone over about full body splits, the key to making this work comes via training the muscles as they recover rather than arbitrarily high frequency. A smarter full body split will utilize these principles:
Rotation Principle: By rotating heavy compound lifts across the week, you ensure that each major muscle group is hit hard at least twice, but with ample recovery time. So, instead of hitting the same movement patterns, in the same (or similar) order every day, we train the muscles when we are feeling strong again.
Accessory Work: Accessory exercises are strategically placed to complement the heavy lifting days, ensuring that smaller muscle groups receive attention without impeding the recovery of larger muscle groups.
Volume and Intensity: Adjust the volume and intensity according to personal recovery rates and progress. This split assumes a baseline of good nutrition, sleep, and stress management, as outlined in the introduction.
Below is an example of a Smart 5x/week Full Body Split. Take rest days as you need them and adjust the training frequency by paying attention to muscle groups that may not feel strong again by the next session. So if you train heavy chest on Day 2, and train chest again on Day 3 and feel like you’re unable to drive hard, you may want to make adjustments. However, this split is based on estimated recovery times of each muscle group, so this is a good place to start.
In some ways you can think of this split as an advanced legs/push/pull split, where you are hitting one muscle group with a heavier focus than the rest and training the remainder of the body with accessory work. In this case however, the accessory work is spread out according to what we know about muscles that recover slower or more rapidly.
Would I recommend you use this split? I would, but I’d most likely recommend this split to very astute and motivated individuals who enjoy a challenge. Running this program and making intelligent adjustments based on recovery, volume, and intensity means you’re likely quite advanced.
My High Frequency Recommendations Based On Experience Level
These recommendations are for those looking for higher frequency training splits, placing the frequency in which we train the muscle as the highest priority. With this in mind,
Total Newbies (0-3 Months): FULL BODY
A Full Body Split works well here and has less to do with training frequency being a priority as much as it is an effective way for total newbies to get acclimated to the gym and fall in love with it while training every muscle group. Prioritizing compound lifts is probably a good option here as they will likely be the best way of getting better at lifting weights.
Newbie-Intermediate (3 months - 3 Years): UPPER/LOWER
As you exit the total newbie phase and grow a bit more addicted to training, a bit more structure is probably a good idea here. Go with the Upper/Lower split. Again, this probably has less to do with training frequency as it does training effectively for your experience level with an added bit of much needed structure.
Intermediate (3-5 Years): PUSH/PULL/LEGS
Somewhere around 3 years of solid training, you’re exiting the newbie phase and have probably developed all of the newbie gains you’ll ever achieve (sad face emoji). If you want the party to continue, you may need to make some adjustments that prioritize hitting the muscles slightly harder every session. The push/pull/legs split does this by making each session more specific to fewer muscle groups. This doesn’t mean other training splits cant also do this well, this is just one very good option that balances volume and loading with a ~2x per week frequency — which is still quite good!
By this point you are quite skilled with ye’ olde weight training which means you are probably able to drive stimulus into the target muscles quite well. This has recovery implications as your sessions become more and more effective. Poor training sessions where you’re not quite sure which muscles were effectively fatigued are less and less common, the pump is quite good, and the mind-muscle connection is the best it’s ever been. We can get super effective upper/lower training sessions and ensure we get 2x frequency while keeping the volume per sessions satisfying. This is currently my favorite split.
Advanced: SMARTER FULL BODY
If you’re up for the challenge we went over this in great detail in the previous section. Will require a lot of intelligent tweaking as you account for your muscles ability to recover. See how you like it by running it for 2-3 months but keep in mind accumulated fatigue from the high frequency, especially with the joints and connective tissue.
By this point, you have everything you need to make an informed choice on training frequency. Ultimately, the best training frequency will be the one that ensures consistent and sustainable progress.
Higher frequency training will certainly be better than lower, but that has it’s limits as we discussed. Also, sustainability is a question with higher volume training. Giving the joint and connective tissue a rest becomes more difficult as the frequency goes up.
One of the biggest factors we discussed was muscle recovery. More specifically, training the muscles as they recover is how we can best determine whether or not to increasing or decreasing frequency. As we went over, this requires we understand why some muscles recover more slowly than others — ie. larger muscles with high lengthening potential will recover slower than small muscles with less lengthening potential.
Experience level will effect your ability to drive stimulus and will certainly effect the rate at which you recover. Remember, as mentioned earlier, a good example of this is intermediate trainees who have put the newbie gain phase behind them and may want to prioritize higher volume and load per muscle group per session. Don't forget to consider your own experience level and how that may change what you want to prioritize as you progress.
Finally, I've provided my suggestions for high frequency training splits based on level of experience because I truly believe these are a great place to start if you're looking for a the best split for the greatest gains. But remember, don't be afraid to experiment and make adjustments as you go. Enjoy the process!
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