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High Frequency vs. Low Frequency

High Frequency vs. Low Frequency


We lifters love to analyze and debate our beloved hobby. Sadly, some seem to enjoy the debating part more than actual lifting, often to the detriment of their physique development.

One of the hottest topics for online discussion is optimal training frequency, and whether such a beast even exists. This article will offer the pros and cons of high and low frequency training, and will suggest when each might be useful in your training. It should be a dandy (one-sided) debate, so get your popcorn ready.

First, let's define terms:


Pros and Cons of High Frequency Training

High Frequency vs. Low Frequency


High frequency training, if programmed properly, will deliver faster results than low frequency training. Strength coach John Broz pointed this out with an interesting (if disturbing) hypothetical:

"If your family was kidnapped and you had one month to put 100 pounds on your squat, would you squat just once a week?"

But does that argument still hold water when searching for a sustainable system to follow for months or years or even decades?

Here's a complete list of the pros and cons of high frequency training:

Pros

Strength and performance are highly neural in nature; being able to practice these movements more frequently is beneficial.

Think of the guideline that mastery takes 10,000 hours – you'll build that up faster with higher frequency training. At the end of the year I like to simply look at how thick my training log is; how many pages is it (each session is a page). The thicker the log, the more likely I was making progress.

Work capacity follows the principle of specificity – you can get good at one thing while not being great at something else.

When I'm specializing in the bench press, I might do 50+ reps at 85% or more over a week – my work capacity in that exercise is great.

But that doesn't mean if I suddenly switched to a bodybuilding style, '20 sets for chest with minimal rest' workout that I would rock it out. If I were peaking for a bench press competition that type of workout would destroy me.

You have more time to rehearse your set up, focus on your cues, and simply get prepared to lift the weight and perform the exercise.

The first few weeks are often rough – and that's when most people quit – but after that initial period, the body adapts and almost seems to crave going heavy on a regular basis.

My best gains in the bench press were on high frequency programs. Also, the success of Sheiko style, Smolov, and Olympic lifting routines are enough to warrant a serious look at high frequency training.

I suspect it's because their smaller frames experience less damage – even if the relative intensity is the same for a larger lifter – and thus are able to recover faster.

Lifts that seem to respond favorably to high frequency:

  • Olympic lifts
  • Bench press
  • Overhead press
  • High-bar squats
  • Bodyweight exercises
  • Sport-specific movements
  • Abs/core work
  • Forearms
  • Calves

Cons

When you're training heavy and hard on a regular basis, your chance of injury is higher. In the earlier example (adding 100 pounds to your max squat to save your family), you'll either adapt and get strong or you'll simply fall apart, resulting in a terrible squat by month end. Injury risk increases with exposure – more frequent exposures means a greater chance of injury.

If your squat form is just so-so and you decide to start squatting hard three times a week your knees and lower back could pay the price. Remember, squats aren't bad for the knees, but lousy squats might be bad for your knees.

I find this to be particularly true when programming for the masses – some lifters seem to make great gains, others struggle to move along. The progress with lower frequency programs is much more consistent.

When the body is used to going heavy all the time, taking even a couple days off might mess with you. On the flip side, if you just keep lifting heavy until the max day, you might show up fatigued and leave a few pounds on the platform.

You can't stay on an intense high frequency program forever (due to injury or burn out), but after you scale back there's often a period that feels like nothing is working and your strength drops significantly.

The good news is that if you peak right you can be really strong when it's max-out time, but there will also be periods where your strength is lower than normal or well off your max.

Don't expect a big increase just because it's a meet – the body gets used to doing 95-98% regularly, but don't fool yourself into thinking that on meet day you'll suddenly have another 10% in available strength.

If you're benching all the time, you should in theory be performing a ton of pulling movements.

But if most of the session is devoted to benching, you won't have enough time to do all the necessary pulling exercises, unless you happen to live in the gym. One tends to specialize, and that often comes with a tradeoff of undertraining something else.

I've seen a good number of fellow gym members that appear to be serious, come in and blast away for a few months, and then suddenly stop showing up for a significant length of time.


Low Frequency Training

High Frequency vs. Low Frequency


Low frequency training is often more manageable long term than high frequency training. I could lay out a solid low frequency program and most would be able to follow it (or at least something similar) for a year with ease. Lifting and fitness should be lifetime activities, not just a flash in the pan of high performance.

Pros

With lower frequency training you have more time to spend on the smaller areas of the body, so rear delts, triceps, etc., can be trained hard to meet proper strength/size ratios.

It's not a promise you won't get hurt, but the chance is reduced due to less frequent exposures and because the trainee is likely better balanced.

Give me a week or two and I can guarantee you'll be 100% ready to lift without feeling stale or fatigued.

Most people make a certain level of progress with low frequency training. That progress might be a bit slower than what they could achieve training with higher frequency, but it's usually consistent.

It's helpful, especially when programming for the masses, if I know that in X number of weeks the lifter should be able to perform Y number of reps on an exercise.

I once set up a graph and plotted my toughest set on the bench press each week while on low frequency training. I was amazed at how static my strength was for an entire year – I'd always be within 10 pounds of my max, often within 5 pounds or less. That's nice for the athlete that wants consistent performance.

This isn't a promise and it won't be true if you train all the smaller areas with higher volume, but if you just focus on the big stuff the total time per week will be shorter.

This is particularly valuable for lifters that are older, larger, stronger, and/or have injuries to work around. I don't know too many super heavy weight powerlifters that follow high frequency training.

One of the hallmarks of some of the better-known lower frequency lifters isn't just how strong they were, it was their longevity in the game.

Today, you just don't see lifters winning five or ten national championships in a row that often anymore. It could be for a variety of reasons, but I believe higher frequency training is partly to blame.

Lifts that seem to respond favorably to low frequency:

  • Low bar squat
  • Deadlift
  • Good mornings
  • Most lat exercises
  • Biceps exercises

Cons

If you're performing a lift once a week or less, there's limited time to work on or refine your technique. This might be okay if your technique is already solid, but if it needs work you might not be receiving enough of a stimulus.

Imagine trying to learn a skill and the coach said, "Okay, practice that ten times today and then we're done for the week." Lifting weights is a skill that requires repetition.

Lifters want to see results and they want to see them fast, so this is a significant negative.


Summary

High Frequency vs. Low Frequency


I love me a good training argument, and you'd be hard pressed to find one more spirited than low frequency versus high frequency training. The fact is, however, that progress can be made with either approach.

Therefore, the ideal setup – if that even exists – would be a combination of both types of programs throughout the training life cycle.

The only question is, which will you do next?



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