I'd rather be blindfolded and thrown into the octagon against a pissed-off Chuck Liddell than ever stop High Frequency Training (HFT). High Frequency routines will give you the best training results of your life, especially if you want bigger muscles with lightning fast recovery. But specifically, what is High Frequency Training? Is it merely high volume training?
I'm here to explain how to design your own High Frequency plan with the parameters I've developed over the course of my career. I'm also here to clear up some common misconceptions about what HFT really is. My statement that the future of bodybuilding lies within High Frequency plans is a bold one, so I'm here to back it up.
High Frequency vs. High Volume
On the surface, it might seem that my High Frequency Training plans are nothing more than a high volume program dressed up in a clever guise, but that simply ain't true.
Even though I'll admit that the genesis of my High Frequency plans was in accordance with basic high volume principles, they're not the same. If the answer to adding muscle was merely increased volume, then I'd simply add more reps, more sets, or more load to, say, three workouts each week. But there's a distinct flaw with this approach: it's not conducive to total-body workouts.
Eventually, the number of sets, reps, and exercises would protract each workout to the point of oblivion. Not to mention how damn fatigued you'd be by the time you reached your last few exercises.
High Frequency plans allow for a very high volume throughout the week by incorporating rest periods – even if just 8-24 hours – between workouts. This brief period of rest and recovery is enough to recharge your nervous system...if the weekly plan is intelligently designed.
If you can't recruit your highest-threshold motor units, then you're never going to build muscle fast. I've found ways to trick the nervous system into recovering more quickly between sessions by manipulating training parameters.
If your nervous system has recovered, you can train again, even if less than a day has passed! And that's what separates my High Frequency programs from any high volume plan.
Before I delve deep into the elements of High Frequency programs, let's talk about the true definition of volume. Specifically, I want to talk about exercise volume.
I think many people are confused about what exercise volume consists of: volume isn't merely sets multiplied by reps. Exercise volume is defined as the load lifted times the total number of reps.
Load x Total Reps = Exercise Volume
Let's make things simple and start with a bench press workout. Let's say you used five sets of five repetitions (5x5) with ~85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM). If your 1RM for the bench press is 350 pounds, here's how the volume would look for your bench press workout:
300 lbs x 25 = 7500 lbs
Due to the relatively large load, longer rest periods are often prescribed. Every coach differs on this point, but I often prescribe somewhere around 135 to 150 seconds rest between sets of the same exercise with the 5x5 method (more on this later). For now, all you need to know is that you performed 5x5 with 300 pounds with 135 seconds rest between sets.
Nevertheless, 5x5 appears to be anything but high volume. In fact, one of the tricky parts of writing articles is to try and explain training variables whose definitions have become as loose as a middle-aged porn star. Indeed, I'm still not sure what high volume means, but traditional linear periodization plans pair the highest volume phases with the lowest intensity (percentage of 1RM) phases, so I'll run with that concept.
The 10x10 method is considered one of the more efficacious "high volume" plans in some bodybuilding circles (not mine). To demonstrate my point, I'll use the same bench press example with a person that has the previously defined 1RM of 350 pounds.
For the 10x10 method, a load of approximately 60% of 1RM is often prescribed. The load is relatively low because the design of the system is such that incomplete rest periods are often prescribed (e.g. 60 seconds between straight sets) along with a large amount of total reps. So let's calculate the exercise volume for the 10x10 method with the above example.
210 lbs (60% of 350 lbs) x 100 (Total Reps) = 21,000 lbs
That's a much higher volume than what was yielded by the 5x5 method. But let's take the comparison between the 5x5 and 10x10 methods a little deeper to really understand what's going on. The following example is actually more complicated than I want to make it, but I need to establish my point.
To compare the exercise volume of these two methods, let's say the 5-rep set took 15 seconds to finish. Since 10 reps is twice as much, we'll say each set took 30 seconds. The duration of each bench press session looks like this:
|Rest Between Sets
|11.25 minutes (675s)
|14 minutes (840s)
|Volume per Minute
I'm throwing out all these numbers to you to demonstrate the importance of understanding the variables that constitute the exercise volume of a session. Specifically, I want you to notice the calculated volume per minute. This is what really matters in an effective workout. We want to get the most "bang for the buck" per minute since each High Frequency session should be as short as possible.
If we merely compared 10x10 and 5x5 by calculating sets times reps, the 10x10 method is four times higher (100 vs. 25). When we add the loading element, the 10x10 method is 2.8 times higher (21,000 vs. 7500). And when we factor in the volume per minute, the 10x10 method is only 2.2 times higher (1500 vs. 667).
Take a deep breath because I'm about to take this concept a few steps further!
I often get asked why I prescribe such short rest periods. Why not longer? First and foremost, shorter rest periods increase your fitness levels due to a higher cardiovascular demand. Second, shorter rest periods train your body to clear lactate more quickly.
Finally, research at the University Blaise Pascal in France demonstrated that three-minute rest periods were just as effective as five-minute rest periods for recovery. So more rest isn't necessarily better for performance recovery – there's a saturation point (something I ascertained years ago).
Furthermore, the importance of Sherrington's observation of reciprocal innervation can't be overlooked. Basically, reciprocal innervation states that when a muscle group is stimulated, the antagonist is inhibited. For example, if you're performing a set of biceps curls, your triceps are being inhibited.
This is a key principle in the organization of your nervous system, and it carries over into the design of many of my programs – especially my High Frequency programs. So even though you're not resting your entire body when you perform a biceps exercise between your triceps exercises, your triceps are being inhibited while you perform the biceps movement.
This inhibition is akin to giving your triceps a quick nap that accelerates recovery. A good example is static stretching after your workouts. The static stretch inhibits or relaxes your stimulated muscles, which allows for faster recovery.
Nevertheless, where most people get confused is when I prescribe, say, 60 seconds rest between sets of exercise pairings. If you're pairing bench press with rows, and if each set lasts 15 seconds, then the actual time between sets for the same exercise isn't 60 seconds – it's 135.
Exercise Pairing: Total Rest Between Bench Press Sets
- A1. Bench Press: 0 seconds
- Rest 1 minute: 60 seconds
- A2. Row: 75 seconds
- Rest 1 minute: 135 seconds
- Repeat A1
So when you pair exercises, you can keep the rest periods relatively short, but allow for plenty of recovery. Even though it might seem that this doesn't constitute true recovery
(since you're performing another exercise), don't forget about reciprocal innervation.
Now, let's get back to the comparison between 10x10 and 5x5.
Exercise Pairings: The Great Equalizer
Up to this point, you're probably not overly-impressed with the effectiveness of exercise pairings. Well, I'm about to show you how powerful they really are!
The variables in Table 1 show that the exercise volume of the 10x10 bench press workout with 210 pounds and 60 second rest periods equals 21,000 pounds. Since the 10x10 method is often designed with a body part split, we need to throw in a back exercise: rows.
To keep things simple, let's say you used the same load for the row as you did with the bench press.
So now the total workout volume doubles to 42,000 pounds (21,000 pounds for both the bench press and row). Importantly, the length of the workout must also double sincestraight sets are performed. This protracts the session to 28 minutes (actually, it's even longer when you consider the time to switch exercises, but I'm keeping it simple). The doubling of volume is neutralized by the doubling of the session length. Therefore, the volume per minute remains constant.
Now here's the real kick in the ass: when you throw a row exercise into the 5x5 plan, the duration of the session remains constant since 135-second rest periods were used. So now the volume of the 5x5 session doubles while the session length remains constant. Here's how they match up.
|5x5 For Chest/Back
|10x10 For Chest/Back
|Volume per Minute
Voila! The magic of exercise pairings! By using exercise pairings, I was able to prey upon the apparently huge volume difference between the 10x10 and 5x5 methods. Not only are the volume per minute levels closely matched with the incorporation of exercise pairings, but the duration of the 5x5 session is 2.5 times shorter!
Also take note of the workout volume: you must perform 2.8 times more volume to get a volume per minute level that's only 167 pounds higher. Considering that the 10x10 method is almost 900 pounds higher/minute without the 5x5 exercise pairings, I think it's safe to say that exercise pairings are indeed powerful.
So I dragged you through this long-winded comparison between what initially appeared to be two drastically different volume methods. For simplicity, I compared 10x10 with 5x5 since they're two of the most popular methods out there, and most importantly, because the volume of 5x5 training appears to be significantly lower than 10x10 – but it doesn't need to be!
Honestly, 5x5 is far better for hypertrophy (in my mind) than 10x10 for many other reasons. Because of the relatively low load, incomplete rest periods, and a high number of repetitions, the amount of high-threshold motor units that you can recruit with 10x10 just isn't up to par.
Nevertheless, I've beaten this horse to death. It's time to get to the good stuff: High Frequency Training.
Exercise Pairings and High Frequency
The point of this article is simple: HFT should revolve around exercise pairings. That's precisely why the High Frequency plan I designed in my Bodybuilding's Next Frontier article uses exercise pairings for all of the high frequency weeks. When you pair exercises, you're effectively able to increase the volume per minute that your muscles are exposed to. That's hugely important.
You see, I had to overcome many obstacles before designing an effective High Frequency plan – the biggest obstacle being fatigue. I had to try to find a way to keep each session as brief as possible since the number of workouts per week is very high.
One of the best ways to control fatigue is to limit the duration of your training sessions, and one of the best ways to keep your training sessions short is to use exercise pairings. But what do I mean by exercise pairings?
In a perfect world, the front of your body would be designed with a mirror-image of the back of your body. Except for a few pseudo-perfect pairings such as biceps/triceps and quadriceps/hamstrings, there really aren't any well-balanced pairings (even the bi's/tri's and quads/hams example isn't perfect since there are a different number of muscles on each side of the joint). But such an apparent design flaw is something you and I have to deal with, at least until I get that genetic engineering experiment I got going in my basement straightened out.
Take for example an overhead pressing and pulling exercise: military press and pull-ups. The design of the muscular system is set up so the pull-ups will have a distinct strength advantage over military presses due to a larger amount of muscle mass being involved with the former. In other words, if you want to perfectly balance the strength of the two, it would take some serious work; furthermore, it probably isn't necessary.
dumbbell military press
With military presses, the primary muscles being worked are the triceps, deltoids, upper traps, and upper pectoral fibers. Compare this with the pull-up that stresses your forearms, biceps, rear deltoid fibers, rhomboids, middle and lower traps, and the monstrous lats.
But you know what? This imbalance really doesn't matter. As long as you're pairing exercises as closely as possible, you'll reap the benefits of reciprocal innervation. In other words, a military press will inhibit enough of your pulling muscles to be effective.
So what about lower-body exercises such as squats? This is where it becomes virtually impossible to find antagonist pairings. Unless you relegate your lower body workouts to the leg extension and leg curl, there really aren't any good lower body pairings – at least on the surface.
I get around this issue by pairing upper and lower body exercises. If squats are performed, I'll pair this with an upper body exercise. Importantly, I try to avoid pairing a neurally demanding lower body exercise with a high fatigue upper body exercise. For example, full squats could be paired with hammer curls, but not push presses. And deadlifts could be paired with skull crushers, not pull-ups.
I like to describe this as the fatigue factor. Basically, I give a score from 1-10 (ten being the highest) to traditional exercises. The purpose of this rating is to pair high-score exercises with low-score exercises. Here's how some traditional exercises rate:
- Lower Body Exercises
- Traditional Deadlift – 10
- Hack Squat – 9
- Back Squat – 9
- Front Squat – 9
- Romanian Deadlift – 8
- Lunges – 8
- Leg Curl - 5
- Standing Calf Raise – 3
- Seated Calf Raise – 2
- Anterior Tibialis Raise - 1
- Upper Body Exercises
- Pull-up/Chin-up - 10
- Push Press - 10
- Standing Military Press - 9
- Dips – 8
- Bentover Row – 8
- Pulldown - 6
- Bench Press – 5
- Seated Row – 5
- Standing Biceps Curl - 3
- Lying Triceps Extension - 2
Importantly, these are merely arbitrary numbers I came up with. The point of this table is to loosely quantify how exercises rate on the fatigue scale. With lower-body exercises, you should pair them with upper body exercises on the opposite end of the fatigue scale.
For example, a low-rated lower body exercise such as calf raises should be paired with a more demanding upper body exercise such as the standing military press, or vice versa. Effective exercise pairings attempt to distribute the fatigability of each exercise as much as possible. In other words, don't always start your sessions with the most demanding exercises and end it with the easiest exercises – spread them out.
One last point to consider with exercise pairings is this: be cognizant of what muscles are being challenged with any exercise. If you want peak performance from two different exercises, they should target different muscle groups. This seems intuitively simple, but I see it overlooked all the time. Pairing the deadlift with an upper back exercise isn't a good idea.
Now that you have a better understanding of the importance of exercise pairings and how to effectively match exercises, it's time to move on to the do-it-yourself High Frequency parameters.
High Frequency Parameters: Do-It-Yourself
This last part deals with what parameters you should use to start experimenting with your own High Frequency plans. As a gross generalization, you should initially start training your primary muscle groups with four sessions per week.
Choose six exercises for a workout that basically challenge all of your primary movers. Stick to a set/rep volume of 24 for each session. The trick is to vary the set/rep volume as much as possible. I call this the 24 High Frequency Method. Here's an effective plan.
- Day 1: 8x3
- Day 2: 2x12
- Day 3: Off
- Day 4: 6x4
- Day 5: Off
- Day 6: 3x8
- Day 7: Off
Even though the set/rep volume remains constant, each session targets a different pool of motor units, and the constant variance in parameters helps offset stagnation and neural fatigue.
Once you've followed this plan for a few weeks, it's time to perform twice-daily training sessions. Stick with the same parameters as above, but pair them up into AM/PM sessions. Here's how it looks.
- Day 1: 8x3 (AM), 2x12 (PM)
- Day 2: Off
- Day 3: 6x4 (AM), 3x8 (PM)
- Day 4: Off
- Day 5: 8x3 (AM), 2x12 (PM)
- Day 6: Off
- Day 7: Off
There are an endless amount of ways this program can be arranged, but keep at least one day of rest between each twice-daily session for the first month or so. After a month of six sessions per week, you can start performing a 2-on, 1-off, 2-on, 2-off schedule throughout the entire week (or something similar). Avoid training three days in a row. It's too demanding except for the super athletes. Remember, each of these sessions should be a total-body program.
To give you a clearer picture, here's a sample of a Day 1 workout for the four-day per week plan that's uses the 24-High Frequency Method.
- Sets: 8
- Reps: 3
- Load: 5RM
- Rest: 60s between pairings
- A1. Back Squat
- A2. Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension
- B1. Pull-up
- B2. Leg Curl
- C1. Standing Barbell Military Press
- C2. Standing Calf Raise
- D1. Dumbbell External Rotation
- D2. Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
The Day 2 workout would also be a total-body approach, but it's important to use different exercises than Day 1 to avoid burning out a motor pattern. Here's a Day 2 example:
- Sets: 2
- Reps: 12
- Load: 13-14RM
- Rest: 75s between pairings
- A1. Romanian Deadlift
- A2. Triceps Pressdown
- B1. Seated Cable Row or Bent-over Row
- B2. Seated Calf Raise
- C1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- C2. Standing Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- D1. Reverse Crunch
- D2. External Rotation (use a different variation than Day 1)
This plan continues for four workouts each week. Importantly, each day uses different movements.
Generally, stick to one movement (per body part) to fulfill the 24 set/rep volume requirement, but two or three can also be used. I recommend that you stick with one movement for starters since it will allow for more variations throughout the week. If you use, say, three different movements to fulfill the 8 sets on Day 1, then you're forced to come up with more variations throughout the week since each workout can't repeat a given movement.
To make your life easier, stick to one movement for all sets. When you use one movement to meet the 24 set/rep volume requirement, I recommend sticking to a total of 6-8 movements per workout.
So the idea is to perform a different movement for each body part throughout the week. For example, with a four-day per week plan, you could use the following exercises for your upper back throughout the week:
- Chest-supported row
- Dumbbell upright row
- Straight arm lat pulldown
Or you could use:
- Seated cable row
- Barbell upright row
- Bent-over Dumbbell rear delt raises
The options are indeed endless. Then, you can repeat the same movement list the following week. But after 5-6 weeks, you'll need to choose a new list of movements.
You'll often see me prescribe a load that's a few reps lighter than the parameters call for (3 reps with a 5 repetition maximum load). There's a reason for that. Let's use the 8x3 with a 5RM for an example. During your first set, doing 3 reps is easy. But with each set, fatigue accumulates, so by set 7 or 8, this original 5RM is actually the most you could lift for three repetitions since fatigue accumulates with each set.
When I write programs, my goal is to make them as user-friendly as possible. If you trained with me personally, there would be times when I'd adjust the load with each set. For instance, with an experienced trainee, I'd have him perform a true 3RM for the first set, but by the second or third set, I'd need to decrease the load, due to fatigue.
So the 3RM would be constantly decreasing as his fatigue accumulates. But this can be very tricky for novice trainees since they don't know how much to decrease the load, or when.
Therefore, I often prescribe one movement with a constant load to simplify things.
Side Note: Many trainers have attempted to discredit my loading protocols with their inane assumption that I'm recommending you keep two reps in the "hole" with every set – wrong! The 5RM is based on a fresh 5RM, not a constantly changing 5RM as fatigue accumulates. Listen, you can't perform 8x3 or 10x3 with any load larger than a 5RM with my rest periods. Over time, this 5RM load will become your 3RM due to fatigue. If you use a 5RM for the 8x3 method, you'll be near failure on the last few sets of three reps. Therefore, when I say to keep two reps in the hole, I'm referring to the first set, not all sets. If these punks were smart enough to realize that I'm not recommending that you keep two reps in the hole for every set, they might actually be able to figure out what's going on.
One last point about the 24 High Frequency Method: you aren't forced to stick with the above parameters. As long as the set/rep volume for each primary muscle group adds up to 24, you're fine. Sometimes, I'll arrange one of the sessions so my clients perform 1x24 for six different exercises such as the squat, row, deadlift, bench press, curl, and dip. So an eight session plan might look like this.
- Day 1: 8x3 (AM), 2x12 (PM)
- Day 2: Off
- Day 3: 6x4 (AM), 3x8 (PM)
- Day 4: Off
- Day 5: 8x3 (AM), 2x12 (PM)
- Day 6: 6x4 (AM), 1x24 (PM)
- Day 7: Off
How to Design Your Own High Frequency Plan
- Use exercise pairings with 60-90 seconds rest between each exercise. This will keep the session length low and the volume per minute high.
- Pair upper body exercises with a movement as close to the antagonist as possible (match pulling with pushing, or flexing with extending).
- Pair high-fatigue lower body exercises with low-fatigue upper body exercises.
- Use a set/rep volume of 24 for each exercise per primary muscle group (chest, back, shoulders, quads, hams, lower back, biceps, triceps, etc.)
- Be creative!
With regard to the first part of this article, please don't assume that straight sets are useless. Like virtually any set of training methods, straight sets have their place (I've prescribed them many times). But for those who want to experiment with High Frequency plans, exercise pairings are your best bet because they'll allow you to get the job done in much less time while minimizing fatigue.
Second, you'll notice some differences between the High Frequency principles I prescribed in this article compared to my Waterbury High Frequency System (WHFS). There are good reasons for the differences, but I'll address those issues at another time. The WHFS is an extremely complex set of variables, while this article is intended to simplify ways to devise your own High Frequency program (hopefully). Think of this article as your introduction to my High Frequency methodology. Once you've experimented with these variables, rest a little, then go for my WHFS.
Is HFT really the future of hypertrophy training? Design your own High Frequency program and find out!