How often should you train? About the optimal training frequency

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A lot is said and written about bodybuilding and training frequency – also by us, but it is not that complicated at all.

Key points:

1.   Training frequency is usually understood to mean the number of times a week that you train a certain muscle group.

2.   The optimal training frequency depends on the training volume, ie how many sets you do per muscle group per week. Seen in this way, the training frequency is nothing more than a tool to structure the training volume.

3.   The amount of muscle growth you can achieve per training is limited. After about 10 sets, training is no longer productive, seen per muscle group. So no longer do 10 sets per muscle group per training session.

4.   As a beginner, you usually only need about 10 sets per muscle group per week. If you wish, you can put these in one training session, so that you train a muscle group only once a week. You can also divide them over several sessions, but according to research that is no better than training once a week.

5.   As an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder you need more volume: 15-20 sets per muscle group per week. In that case, it pays to divide those sets over several sessions. You train each muscle group at least twice a week.

6.   Advanced/advanced people recover faster and can therefore handle higher training frequencies: four, five or even six times a week. This is provided that the number of sets per session is limited. The advantage of high frequency/low session volume (eg full body 5x a week) is that you optimize the productivity and quality of your sets. This can make a difference for advanced athletes who have difficulty building muscle mass despite a high training volume. This is not necessary for beginners and intermediates and even undesirable due to the high recovery requirements.

7.   Increase the training frequency as you increase the training volume (i.e. do more sets) and exceed the upper limit of 10 sets per session. However, do not do this until you are sure that your recovery is in order.

8.   It doesn’t matter if you do split or full body. It’s about doing enough sets per muscle group per week, not doing too many sets per session and that you build in enough rest between training sessions.

THE FUNCTION OF TRAINING FREQUENCY

Provided: there is no ‘magic’ training frequency for muscle growth. In fact, training frequency is in fact nothing more than a tool to structure your training volume. A tool that becomes more important as that training volume increases.

For the record: by training frequency we usually mean the number of times a week that you train a certain muscle group, for example chest or back. Training volume is the number of sets per muscle group per week (work sets, that is, not including warm-up sets).

TRAINING FREQUENCY CRITERIA

In principle, it does not matter how often you train a muscle group, as long as you

  • does enough sets on a weekly basis (training volume);
  • sufficient rest time between two training sessions (recovery);
  • do no more than 10 sets per muscle group per workout – preferably do 5-10 sets (session volume).

TRAINING VOLUME

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say exactly in advance how many sets will give you maximum gains. The optimal training volume depends on your training status, recovery capacity (which is influenced by sleep and stress, among other things) and genetic factors. You can use the following as a guideline:

  • beginners (0-1 year training experience): ~10 sets per muscle group per week;
  • averages (1-2 years of training experience): ~15 sets per muscle group per week;
  • advanced (2-3 years training experience): ~20 sets per muscle group per week (?);
  • more advanced (>3 years training experience): 20+ sets per muscle group per week (?)*.

* It is often questionable whether the volume requirement rises that high, since advanced users train more heavily, which may result in more stimulation per set.

You usually need two to four different exercises per muscle group .

Are you not making progress? Then you may be doing too few sets. However, don’t add sets until you’re sure your recovery is in order.

RECOVERY

A muscle must be sufficiently recovered before you can train it again. Depending on how strenuous and voluminous a workout was, it usually takes a muscle 48 to 72 hours to recover and grow. In advanced users, the recovery and muscle growth process is usually faster: 24 to 48 hours.

SESSION VOLUME

In addition to sufficient recovery time, there is another restriction when determining your training frequency: the number of sets per muscle group per training, your session volume.

Research tells us that you should do no more than 5-10 per muscle group per workout. After all, after five sets, the growth stimulus begins to decrease sharply, to stagnate around ten sets (some coaches say around twelve sets). So it makes no sense to do more than 10-12 sets for a muscle group: they no longer provide extra muscle growth and therefore only cause unnecessary muscle damage.

In fact, that makes sense: you can only build a very limited amount of muscle mass as a natural within a certain time. After a few sets, your muscle growth potential for that day is already fulfilled. Marathon sessions in which you completely smoke a muscle group only have the opposite effect for natural bodybuilders.

Limited session volumes also offer the advantage of keeping the quality of your sets high. If you complete twelve sets of chest in one session, you will have to make significant sacrifices in the weight and/or number of repetitions in the last sets. If you divide those sets over two training sessions, you will do six ‘fresh’ sets twice.

In total, you can do a maximum of 15 to 25 sets during a training without sacrificing too much on set quality, we concluded earlier. And preferably do at least 2-3 consecutive sets per exercise.

WHAT IS THE BEST TRAINING FREQUENCY?

Considering the three criteria, for the vast majority of people, two or three a week is an exercise frequency that can provide optimal results. That means you work on each muscle group two or three times, with 24-72 hours of rest in between.

Isn’t three times a week better than twice? Based on research, this makes little or no difference, at least if we assume modal training volumes (ie 10 to 20 sets per week).

Example: if you, as an average bodybuilder, need about 15 sets for your chest per week, spread them as follows:

Monday: 7 sets (2-3 exercises)
Thursday: 8 sets (2-3 exercises)

Or:

Monday: 5 sets (2 exercises)
Wednesday: 5 sets (2 exercises)
Friday: 5 sets (2 exercises)

AND HOW ABOUT ONCE A WEEK?

We usually advise against training each muscle group only once a week; only beginners can get away with that.

Yes, there are several studies that showed no difference in results between training one and two or three times a week (with the same training volume). But importantly, these were based on low training volumes (ten or fewer sets per week). If you only do eight sets a week, you can indeed do them in one session (after all, the growth stimulus only stagnates around ten sets, we saw). But if you do sixteen a week, it does make a difference whether you cram them all into one training session, or spread them out or at least two weekly training sessions.

As an absolute beginner, with a low volume requirement, once a week should therefore suffice. Nevertheless, we recommend that you train each muscle group at least twice a week. In addition to optimizing the quality of your sets, you also create more routine in your training.

It is a myth that your muscles ‘shrink’ again after a few days if you do not train them again. It’s true that you can boost muscle protein synthesis again once a muscle has recovered, but your body won’t immediately start to break down muscle if you don’t. With sufficient intake of calories and proteins, you should be able to maintain muscle mass for at least two weeks without training.

Anyway, avoid the ‘bro split’. So no ‘Monday chest day’:

Monday: 15 sets (4-5 exercises)

AND MORE THAN THREE TIMES A WEEK?

High frequency training (> 3/week) was a hot topic within the bodybuilding community six months ago. Advanced athletes in particular would benefit from training protocols such as full body 5x a week. Because you only do a few sets per muscle group each workout, you optimize the productivity and quality of your sets, is the idea. Not illogical, if you consider that the growth stimulus starts to decrease sharply after about five sets. High-frequency training can therefore be useful if, despite a high training volume, it is difficult to achieve muscle growth. We have positive experiences with it.

Training a muscle group four to six times a week naturally requires a rapid recovery, even if you only do a few sets of each workout per muscle group. That is why such a protocol is only reserved for (advanced) advanced users. Beginners and intermediates recover less quickly and therefore probably will not benefit from it. They should be able to achieve optimal results with a ‘normal’ training frequency of two to three times a week.

In addition, make sure that your training is programmed in a balanced way, including training with a policy of (near) muscle failure and regular deloading. And allow each muscle group to rest at least one day a week; it is preferable to have at least one general rest day and therefore train a maximum of six days a week.

WHEN TO INCREASE TRAINING FREQUENCY?

You should increase the training frequency of a muscle group if you increase the training volume (i.e. do more sets) and thereby exceed the upper limit of 10 sets per session.

Only increase volume and frequency if you are sure your recovery is in order. If you’ve reached an overall training plateau (you’re not making progress on any muscle group), there’s probably something wrong with your recovery, and not with your volume and frequency. In this case, it is wise to deload and possibly tackle things that hinder your recovery (lack of sleep or a lot of stress, for example).

FULL BODY OR SPLIT?

Once you’ve determined your training volume and frequency, your last step is translating that into a solid training schedule.

Don’t make higher math out of that. In principle, it doesn’t matter if you follow a full body program or split, as long as your muscle groups get enough rest. We don’t even follow either: one time we train full body, the other time we omit the back, another time we only train the stomach and legs – depending on any muscle pain and what the agenda allows. As long as we have done all the exercises and sets by the end of the week.

If you prefer a clear split, these are the most logical options:

  • full body;
  • split: upper/lower body;
  • split: push/pull;
  • split: push/pull/legs.

SUMMARIZED

1. Training frequency is usually understood to mean the number of times a week that you train a certain muscle group.

2. The optimal training frequency depends on the training volume, ie how many sets you do per muscle group per week. Seen in this way, the training frequency is nothing more than a tool to structure the training volume.

3. The amount of muscle growth you can achieve per training is limited. After about 10 sets, training is no longer productive, per muscle group. So no longer do 10 sets per muscle group per workout.

4. As a beginner, you usually only need about 10 sets per muscle group per week. If you wish, you can stop these in one training session, so that you train a muscle group only once a week. You can also divide them over several sessions, but according to research that is no better than training once a week.

5. As an intermediate or advanced bodybuilder you need more volume: 15-20 sets per muscle group per week. In that case, it pays to divide those sets over several sessions. You train each muscle group at least twice a week.

6. Advanced/advanced people recover faster and can therefore handle higher training frequencies: four, five or even six times a week. This is provided that the number of sets per session is limited. The advantage of high frequency/low session volume (for example full body 5x a week) is that you optimize the productivity and quality of your sets. This can make a difference for advanced athletes who have difficulty building muscle mass despite a high training volume. This is not necessary for beginners and intermediates and even undesirable due to the high recovery requirements.

7. Increase the training frequency as you increase the training volume (i.e. do more sets) and exceed the upper limit of 10 sets per session. However, do not do this until you are sure that your recovery is in order.

8. It doesn’t matter if you do split or full body. It’s about doing enough sets per muscle group per week, not doing too many sets per session and that you build in enough rest between training sessions.

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