Break the Rules, Break Out of the Rut
One of the new "rules" of weight training states you should hit each muscle group only about once per week. Sometime in the past, someone made this statement, referenced a few studies, and it soon became law. Perhaps you adopted this rule and applied it to your training. So let me ask you something: Did it work? Are you considerably bigger and stronger? No? Then maybe it's time to break a few "rules" and break out of that rut. Maybe it's time to (gasp!) train each muscle group more than once per week!
I feel my primary duty as a writer is to inform readers and help them think outside of the proverbial box. Therefore, I want you to clear your mind of any preconceived notions about training frequency and recovery. With any luck, this information could be the difference between extremely successful training and sub-par results for the rest of your lifting days.
The body is an amazingly adaptive machine. Its ultimate function is to adapt to the demands placed upon it. Whatever stress the body encounters will be overcome given the proper parameters (and as long as it doesn't kill you). For instance, your very first chest workout probably made you sore since the body wasn't accustomed to any tricep/pectoral/deltoid resistance training. After a short period of time training the chest once each week, soreness diminished to the point where you had to change the variables for soreness to reappear. In essence, you taught the body to adapt to training the chest once a week.
But what if instead of training the chest once each week, you started out by training it four times each week? Would progress come to a halt? Probably, if you continued to bombard your chest with the same parameters. But if you exposed your muscles to different demands throughout the week, results could be much more effective and rapid.
I don't know where all this talk about training each body part once per week came from. Alright, I do know where a lot of it came from, but why "HIT" upon something that most qualified strength coaches don't take seriously anyway? Therefore, I'll refrain from kicking a training philosophy that's already down. The point is, I've yet to read a single reputable book on strength and conditioning that advocates training each body part only once a week. For example, Supertraining by Siff and Verkhoshansky, Science and Practice of Strength Training by Zsatsiorsky, and The Science of Sports Training by Kurz are all on my "must read" list, yet not one of them recommends training with such infrequency for optimum results.
Now, many of you are probably thinking I'm throwing you back to the 1970's mentality of weight training when Arnold and friends would annihilate each body part five or six times a week. No, I'm not. We all know that's not the most effective way to train. But I am saying that perhaps we've allowed the pendulum to swing too far in one direction when it comes to training frequency.
Back before anabolic steroids and protein powders, weight trainers were building impressive amounts of muscle and incredible levels of strength. Men such as Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon and Alan Calvert trained the muscular system many times each week. In my opinion, they were the lucky ones because they didn't have any preconceived notions about training frequency. Instead, they kept using methods as long as their performance continued to increase.
Back then, there weren't any books on the bestseller list touting a one-size-fits-all program for incredible results (as long as you used the author's products), nor were there any "Johnny Biceps" out there claiming they built their huge guns training them only once a week with super-slow concentration curls and tricep kickbacks (never mind the truckload of anabolics in their garage). Nope, these men just trained hard and, through trial and error, learned that training each muscle group more than once per week was the right way to go.
When I think back to my most dramatic gains over the years, a single consistent element comes to mind. It was only when I started working a muscle group more often that dramatic gains took place. For instance, while in high school I spent some time working at an apartment complex and one of my primary jobs was to carry mattresses up and down narrow stairways. I had to grab the edge of the mattresses with my fingers and lift it while walking staircases. My forearm size and strength increased more dramatically in the first month than it ever had on any training program. This took place while I was simultaneously performing heavy grip training in the gym.
After I graduated from college, I went from spending most of my time sitting during class to an internship at a gym where I had to spend most of the time on my feet. The first few weeks were brutal on my calves since they were only accustomed to being trained hard once every five days. Now they were required to do the same while simultaneously holding me on my feet for an extra 40 hours a week. Within the first month I put a full inch on my calves without changing any parameters of my weight training workouts!
Why did the calves and forearms grow? Because they had to adapt to the demands placed upon them. More importantly, the demands were substantially different than my higher-intensity resistance workout routine.
Adapt and Grow
The body is very smart. It doesn't want to increase your recovery rate or add muscle unless absolutely necessary. Therefore, you must make it understand the necessity by exposing it to more frequent training sessions. Remember reading those muscle building programs that advocated a few heavy workouts each week followed by a completely inactive lifestyle? You know, the "squat, drink milk and lay on the couch while living with your parents" program? That line of thinking was based on the false assumption that extra workouts would slow recovery. If anything, it kept recovery slower than an Ellington Darden rep scheme because it never created a need for the body to recover quicker! Don't forget this important point: You must create a need for improved recovery rates.
I know so many lifters who only feel satisfied if a workout causes soreness. Such a notion is absurd! Your primary goal should be to train the muscular system so that little or no soreness occurs. Why? Because soreness will only slow recovery.
Many of the so-called bodybuilding magazines recommend pre-fabricated programs based on a breakdown similar to the following:
The main problem with this type of program is it only demands the body to recover each muscle group by the following week. For the most dramatic gains to take place, you must train muscle groups more often to increase the recovery rate. Training each muscle group directly once each week won't increase the recovery rate beyond once-a-week training. How's increased recovery accomplished? By forcing the body to work out more often! I know I may sound redundant, but I can't stress this fact enough.
Unfortunately, we do have a limited capacity for recovery. Therefore, the extra workouts must be intelligently planned. Initially, I wouldn't recommend adding in extra maximal training sessions. Instead, add in some light speed work such as the workouts described in my explosive training articles. Explosive, submaximal training places a different type of stress on the nervous and muscular system and can aid recovery. The increased blood flow will help nutrient transfer take place since the muscles will be moving a lighter load more quickly. Also, you should add some endurance work for lagging muscle groups as described in my 100 Reps to Bigger Muscles article.
It should be clear to you that I'm not in favor of traditional periodization methods that focus exclusively on building only one type of strength at a time. For instance, a traditional Western macrocycle (up to six weeks) might concentrate solely on increasing hypertrophy. You know what happens during these six weeks? Your maximal strength levels drop! How about your endurance? You guessed it, it'll drop too. Therefore, I always train multiple strength qualities simultaneously. Trust me, the body can take it and your overall strength will soar.
Therefore, if you agree with my premise, you should restructure your weekly workout plan to something similar to the following:
Monday: Upper Body (Maximal Training)
Tuesday: Lower Body (Explosive Training)
Thursday: Upper Body (Explosive Training)
Friday: Lower Body (Maximal Training)
This breakdown will allow at least two different sessions for each muscle group every week. What about soreness? Many self-proclaimed experts claim you shouldn't work any body part that's still sore. Even though I appreciate their reasoning, I think they're grossly underestimating the adaptability of the body. Your body will only increase recovery if you force it to work more frequently. Initially, you may still have residual soreness from the previous workout, but don't worry. Instead, work through it and the body will improve its recovery rate to the point where soreness will subside. And don't forget your endurance work because it'll dramatically reduce post-workout soreness almost immediately.
Make sure the exercises you perform for the second workout are different than the previous workout. Just adding a copy of your first workout would be a bad idea and probably lead to burnout very quickly. For instance, you could perform a maximal tricep workout similar to the following:
Monday (maximal training day)
Exercise: Barbell Skull Crushers
Load: 85% of 1RM
Rest: 120 seconds
Therefore, Thursday (explosive training day) should consist of a different tricep movement and lifting parameters, such as:
Exercise: Explosive, Close Grip Push-ups
Rest: 60 seconds
Generally speaking, use heavy, low reps on your maximal training day and light, explosive movements on explosive day. For example, as part of your chest workout, perform heavy bench presses on maximal day (6 sets of 3 reps) on Monday. On Thursday, perform my explosive push-up routine (8-12 sets of 3-4 reps). You could also use my "100 Reps" program on off days if you really want to bring up the chest.
To further clarify, on explosive leg day (Tuesday), perform explosive box squats using 9 to 12 sets of 2-3 reps with 60 seconds between sets. On maximal leg day (Friday), perform heavy, low rep squats, 6 sets of 3 reps for example. Train through any initial soreness and soon that won't be a problem. And if you really want to bring the legs up, on "off" days use the "100 Reps" program.
As a side note, WWF superstar and ex-Olympic wrestler, Kurt Angle, even lifts weights on the same day as his wrestling matches to help facilitate recovery. He uses only light, high-repetition training however on these days. Obviously, this guy isn't lacking any muscle!
In summary, the body can handle more than you think it can. Drop the one muscle group per week routine and try something new to see for yourself. Train each muscle group twice per week, once using heavy, low rep training, and once later in the week using light, explosive movements. You'll increase recovery, challenge the body, and ultimately grow bigger and stronger. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?
Best of luck!