Too often, training programs seem to be put together with all the forethought of a Congressional campaign. In other words, very little forethought is generally involved. Trainees, instead of taking an objective, semi-scientific approach to training, try to stockpile training sessions as if they were stacking firewood for the oncoming winter.

Many take an approach where, if I train five days in a row, and twice on Tuesday, I can take two days off to go whitewater rafting with cousin Bobby and that bitchin' waitress I met at Hooters.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

If, however, most trainees took a little time to look into the science of training frequency, they could far better plan their workouts and optimize the time spent in the gym.

Frequency of training is defined as the number of training sessions per week. Optimal recovery time between training sessions is important in maximizing adaptive processes that translate into progress. Recovery is often the forgotten component in training. People are obsessed with the pattern of the right training stimulus: how many sets? how many reps? yet, they neglect the other side of the coin: recovery.

However, in the practice of strength training in the sporting world, especially with elite athletes, there are conflicting schools of thought on training frequency. For example, Rick Weil, who did in excess of triple his bodyweight in the bench press, recommends one session per week per muscle group, while, at the other end of the spectrum, 9 to 12 weekly sessions are common on European Weightlifting Teams. In fact, some of these teams would train the hip and knee extensors in short sessions of up to 4 to 5 times a day!

One shouldn't be concerned with the maximal volume of training they can handle, but more with the optimal volume of training. Successful strength coaches like Al Vermeil and Ian King, who have given serious thoughts to the optimal training process, will point out that there's no point going back to the gym if you're not going to make progress.

I'm in full agreement with this principle. In other words, when you go to the gym, the motto should be to go heavier or go home. There's no value in going to the gym to repeat a workout. If you're not going to do an extra rep or add some weight, you might as well stay home and wait for the right time to ride the supercompensation wave.

Popular Approaches to Frequency

The classic approach in resistance training has been three resistance training sessions per week on alternate days for each muscle group. Normally, if muscle soreness interferes with performance during the subsequent training session, it is infered that the frequency or the intensity of training is too severe.

For competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters, it's common practice to have multiple training sessions in a week. For these Iron Game practitioners, a split routine (different muscles trained each day) or a split program (different exercises for the same muscle on the same day or on successive days) are normally used. In these high workloads, the training frequency per muscle group is still normally limited to a maximum of three times per week. One must take into account that consumption of ergogenic aids, namely androgenic/anabolic steroids and growth hormone, is fairly common in these athletes, and may shorten the time for adaptive processes to take place.

Multiple Daily Training Sessions

The modern trend in strength training calls for the use of high loads and multiple daily training sessions. Häkkinen and his co-workers performed two investigations. One examined acute neuromuscular adaptations to weightlifting during two successive high-intensity training sessions in the same day (Häkkinen et al. 1988a.), and the other examined adaptations to a one-week period consisiting of 10 very intensive weightlifting sessions (Häkkinen et al. 1988b.). In other words, both training regimens consisted of what we normally consider to be an extremely high volume of training with very little or no recovery.

In both studies, it was demonstrated that the maximal force and neural activation of the muscles decreased acutely during each training session. No surprises there. These decreases found in the maximal strength and the neural activation of the muscles immediately after the present training sessions were as expected. This was due to the overall stress of the training sessions.

On the other hand, the basic level of neuromuscular performance remained unchanged between workouts in both studies. In other words, no improvements in strength or performance were seen between workouts.

The large decreases in in the neuromuscular performance immediately after each morning and afternoon training session can be used as an indication of the high overall stress.

However, it's also possible that this type of strength training, even though exceptionally stressful, could bring about an augmentation in muscular strength. However, this strength increase might take place only during later training periods when overall training stress would be lowered.

The lesson learned might be that an extremely high volume of training might prove fruitful, provided enough recovery time was allowed between sessions.

General Discussion and Key Points to Remember

Regarding frequency, please note the following observations:

Most people train too frequently because they lack the ability and/or knowledge to assess their state of recovery.

Muscle with a high fast-twitch muscle fiber make-up recover slower (e.g. hamstrings) than muscles with a high slow-twitch muscle fiber composition (e.g. soleus).

As a rule of thumb, providing one does an honest job and uses the right sets/reps ratios, a frequency of twice per week per muscle should suffice in most instances.

For the more serious trainee, I prefer to prescribe a once every five days per bodypart, which would look like this:

Another option would be:

Using frequency to your advantage: Rather than thinking that only one frequency will suit you, realize that a variety of frequencies over time will be beneficial; e.g. twice a day for the same muscle; or two days a week for the same muscle for a one to two week period reduced to once a day, twice a week for a one- or two-week period.

This will result in successful gains due to the significant alteration of volume. This form of planned overtraining, followed by more conventionnal training, has been used by top level Canadian athletes, resulting in appreciable gains. An illustration of this planned overtraining method can be seen in Table 1.

While anabolics do allow you to increase your frequency due to improved recovery ability, it's possible that the majority of anabolic users are training too frequently and, consequently, limiting the training effect.

Alteration of Training Volume Through Manipulation of Frequency in a Sample Bench Press Program (Copyright 1991, Poliquin and King)

The Every Other Day Split

TC isn't allowed to go out and play at the gym more than one day out of two since he was caught licking the sweat off the thong string of the Step aerobics instructor. To make matters worse, instead of just admitting to the offense, he lied about it and claimed he was dying of thirst.

Consequently, necessity has required that he adopt an every-other-day splilt. This routine, then, is for people whose work commitments only allow them to workout one day out of two; or for those people who have poor recovery ability.

Personally, I don't think the every-other-day split will work as well as the split I proposed earlier in the article, but I realize that living often gets in the way of working out. A pity.

Regardless of which split you adopt, remember that true progress doesn't occur in the gym it occurs away from the gym, while you're at home recovering.