Training Frequency for Muscle Gain (Plus a Bonus 3 Part Video Series at End of Article)
Put simply training frequency is how often you train. For a definition specific to maximising muscle gain it is best said by Brad Schoenfeld (the world’s foremost researcher on muscle building),
“While traditionally the term frequency has been associated with how many days a week you work out, a potentially more important variable is the number of times a given muscle group is trained per week.”
That is a key distinction!
When it comes to muscle building the question isn’t simply…“how many days a week should you train?”
It is…“how many times per week should you train a given muscle group?”
Science gives us some good indicators on this.
In 2015, Schoenfeld (and several colleagues), investigated training muscle groups once per week or multiple times per week in well-trained men. I this study, they took 19 men and split them into two groups.
Group 1 performed total body training and group 2 followed a body part split.
Across the course of the week the total body training group performed three training sessions. Each session trained their whole body. In total, they did 9 sets per week for each muscle group.
The split routine group, performed the same number of total sets per week per muscle group (9) but this was divided as follows:
Day 1: Chest & Back
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: Shoulders & Arms
The results of the study showed that both groups gained muscle but, the total body training gained more! They gained 2.1% more on their arms and 4.6% more on their legs.
So, taken in isolation, this study indicates that training muscles 3 x week is better than 1 x week. There are, however, a few issues to consider before you immediately switch to training each muscle 3 x week…
Just a Piece of the Jigsaw:
Firstly, one study never provides enough information for us to base all our conclusions on it. This study simply adds to the body of literature on the subject of training frequency (more on that later).
Secondly, it was only an 8-week study. Research like this is expensive. It is also difficult logistically to get participants to adhere to the protocols for substantial lengths of time. As a result, 8-weeks studies are often done. They are, however, obviously quite limited when it comes to making concrete recommendations. Muscle gain is a slow process. It really needs to be measured over long periods to really tease out the variations from different training protocols (Note.that’s why you shouldn’t program hop – you will never give yourself time to establish what works if you always chop and change).
Finally, the total body training was a novel stimulus to the participants. 16 of the 19 subjects had previously been training with a split routine before the study. When it comes to training, the saying, “everything works but, nothing works forever.” has quite a bit of truth to it. So, the improved results in the total body group could be attributed to the fact they were exposed to a novel training stimulus that kick-started some more growth.
With all that said it makes sense to use the clues this research gives us in conjunction with the rest of the scientific literature on the subject. On top of that, it makes a lot of sense to also consider what has been proven to work in the real-world. By combining this information, you give yourself the best chance of making the best possible progress.
To avoid making this article too lengthy (I could happily write thousands of words on it but, I’ll try and save you some time). Here is a quick take-home guideline based on the research I’ve seen, my coaching experience, and from conversations with other coaches:
The weight of evidence suggests training each muscle twice per week is the best blanket recommendation.
That is why an upper/lower split is so popular.
E.g., Monday – Upper, Tuesday – Lower, Wednesday – Rest, Thursday – Upper, Friday – Lower, Sat & Sun – Rest
That is a great set-up!
It will take you a long way towards building a bigger, leaner, stronger you.
However, it won’t get you to reach your full potential.To achieve that you have to look at a few more specific details.
The optimal training frequency is based on your experience –
This is a somewhat controversial subject.
On the one hand, the period of time that Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is elevated post training shortens as you get more advanced. So, as you become more experienced your body only builds new muscle for a shorter and shorter period of time after each training session. On that basis training more frequently makes sense. As a result, you stimulate a greater total number of MPS spikes and over the course of the week your body spends more time building muscle.
However, from a practical standpoint this might be problematic…
As you get more experienced and, therefore, stronger the frequency with which you can train a muscle might actually diminish.
This is because you cause more disruption when you train as you are stronger and can handle heavier weights and more sets. This means recovery is slower.
Also, as you become more advanced the heavier weights you use require longer to warm-ups. Warming up for a 60kg squat is much quicker than a 200kg squat!
Most high frequency training programs require you to train the whole body (or at least most of the body) at each session. So, if you have to warm-up for squats, then go to train back with pull-ups, then chest with bench, hamstrings with leg curls, and shoulder with overhead presses a HUGE chunk of your training session is spent warming up each muscle group.
Following a type of split routine doesn’t require this. If you are doing multiple exercises for each muscle group then the amount of warming up per session is greatly reduced. For example, on leg day you might do squats followed by leg press and then leg curls followed by Romanian deadlifts. On that basis after you have warmed-up for squats and done your work sets you are good to go straight into leg presses. After the leg presses and squats your hamstrings are pretty warm so 1 or 2 warm-up sets is the most you will need before leg curls and then you are ready to go straight into Romanian Deadlifts.
This can be a real time saver and have out in and out of the gym much quicker than the you follow a whole-body training protocol.
Another consideration to training frequency is your goal.
Your goal will determine frequency. If strength is your main focus then higher frequencies have shown some potential even for very advanced lifters. However, with hypertrophy you need to push high volumes to overload the body and force it to grow. As you become more advanced the need for even more volume means that it might be easier logistically to smash a muscle once or twice per week than to do it several days a week. The overload per session might not be enough to disrupt homeostasis if doing high frequency.
So, assuming you just want to get as big as possible your training frequency might develop over time like this:
1-2 years: Whole body 4 times a week
2-5 years – Upper/lower, each 3xweek
5-10 years – Push, pull, legs, 2xweek
10-15 years – push, pull, legs 2xweek but one biased so back width focus day 1 and back thickness day 2
15+ – 1xweek plus 1 lighter/recovery session so actually 1.5xweek
As previously mentioned training frequency for size is thought of per muscle group but then general guidelines are given. Little consideration is given to the differences between muscle groups and how that might affect training frequency.
I believe this is a mistake. Especially as you become more advanced.
These differences include the muscles size, architecture, function, fibre type ratio etc.
A particularly important difference is their varying SRA timeframes.
SRA = Stimulus, Recovery, Adaptation
Training is the stimulus, after which the body has to recover back up to baseline before adaptation can occur.
This process happens at differing rates for different muscles.
For example, a tough quads session is likely to cause more disruption and fatigue than training biceps. As such, a variable training frequencyis probably optimal.
For example, you might hit biceps, rear & lateral delts and calves 4 days a week, triceps and chest 3 times a week and quads, hamstrings and back twice per week.
Now if you are newbie to the gym then this isn’t that big of a deal. Just train, eat, sleep repeat. BUTif you have been training a while and gains are harder and harder to come by then this stuff matters!
Some Practical Guidelines(these are the most basic and general recommendations I’m comfortable making. As the previous few paragraphs have identified I think training frequency should not be considered a set-in-stone variable. Based on a host of factors the best frequency for you will be different to me. That frequency will also almost certainly change over time.)
- Training muscles 2-3 x week seem to be better for muscle gain than 1 x week.
- If you can only make it to the gym 2-3 x week then a total body training plan will probably be better than a split routine
- Split routines do build muscle. As a result, they can, and probably should, be used within a properly periodised training plan
Want to learn a bit more? Go here for the special two-part article series I wrote for MuscleMonsters on planning your training…
Prefer to watch than read? Then I did a three-part video series c covering the same topic here…
Hope this has helped you to fine tune your training frequency. If you have any questions about how you should set up your training then feel free to hit reply to this email and let me know how I can help.
Want a training and nutrition program that does all this for you? Go grab yourself the The Bulk Up Bible 2.0 here.