Hey Bro, do you want to maximize your gains?
What training program do you follow? Is it a one-body-part-per-day split routine? If so, then you are completely off-track.
How often should I train?
Although there isn’t too much research on high frequency resistance training, there is evidence that higher training frequency (training 6 times a week for example) with a lower volume per session (doing fewer sets) is more beneficial for muscle gain than just a few long training sessions a week.
There was a really cool experiment done on Norwegian elite powerlifters (not a research study, just an experiment within the national team). The outcome was that training 6 times per week leads to greater strength and muscle gains than 3 days per week when the weekly training volume and program are the same.
Recently a new research paper was published, in which the scientist established the following model:
Each peak represents muscle growth after a training session. Training 6 days a week (black curve) is better for muscle growth than 2 days a week (grey curve), because the total area under the back curve is higher than the area under the grey curve (the time muscle are built).
Increasing the number of sets from 3 to 9 sets per muscle group when training only 2 days a week, doesn’t give you more gains, as the additional sets will 'get wasted'. It seems like there is an optimal number as to how many sets per session one can do to achieve optimal growth. Doing more sets in one session doesn't give better results.
The researchers concluded:
“Performing fewer sets per session at a higher frequency will likely be sufficient for increasing muscle size while also limiting fatigue to allow for higher frequencies and thus more frequent stimulations of muscle protein synthesis. Performing more sets per session while using a lower training frequency may reduce the time spent in a positive net protein balance because the large number of sets performed within a given session may exceed the ‘anabolic limit’, resulting in wasted sets.”
Of course, the individual training stage also matters. Trained individuals are used to the stimuli of resistance training. For them, muscle growth returns to baseline levels within 16-24 hours after a training session (black curve). In contrast, beginners grow muscle for up to 72 hours after a training session (grey curve). However, even for beginners, a training frequency of more than twice a week is also beneficial (because they get more spikes and there is more area under the muscle growth curve).
Want to recap? Then watch this video
For people who are at an advanced training stage, not only does the optimal training frequency change, but also the optimal training volume. For most persons who are beginners to resistance training, 9 sets per muscle group per week are sufficient to get optimal results, however, advanced lifters should train with a higher volume to achieve optimal muscle growth (If you want to learn more on this topic check out the Bayesian PT course). This means that if you are an advanced lifter and train 6 days per week, you may need to do 3-5 sets per muscle group each workout (this means that whole body workouts are more beneficial than split-type workouts).
Size vs Strength – Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting
The research paper presented above didn't discuss optimal frequency for strength gains. That’s why I am going to expand with my thought on this topic. If poor recovery isn't an issue, higher training frequency is also beneficial for strength gains, as observed in the Norwegian elite powerlifters experiment. This makes sense, as hypertrophy and strength go hand in hand. However, you can’t expect a linear increase in strength if you increase your training frequency in a linear manner. There are diminishing returns with increased training frequency. This applies to many other things as well; there are diminishing returns for muscle gain in an energy surplus, there are diminishing returns for calorie deficit when cutting (higher kcal deficit doesn't result in more weight loss), etc. Nevertheless, there is an advantage to strength gains when it comes to higher training frequency. Higher frequency is beneficial for the improvement of lifting technique. Lifting is a skill. The more you practice, the better you get.
Individual variability & lifestyle variability
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One must consider individual cases.
Genetics: If someone has poor genetics and poor recovery, then a higher training frequency could make more sense for bodybuilding, than for powerlifting.
Energy balance: In a caloric deficit, it can make sense to decrease the volume. However, training increases energy expenditure and can be considered as additional activity that makes it easier to lose weight. If you tolerate a high training frequency and volume, then I would rather keep it. This also allows you to keep your calorie intake higher. Higher activity is not only beneficial for increasing energy expenditure, but may also reduce the drop in resting metabolic rate resulting from adaptive thermogenesis in an energy deficit.
Lifestyle: A stressful lifestyle, chronic sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption and eating too much junk are issues that have to be sorted out, no matter what your training frequency is. All of these factors reduce body’s ability to recover and are counter-productive for muscle and strength gains.
FAQ – You asked, I answered.
What if you don’t have the time to do 3-4 sets for each muscle group every workout?
- Smart exercise choice: Choose exercises that target several muscle groups at once = compound exercises (e.g. squat for quads and glutes and, of course, to some extent back and abs).
- Set priorities: Choose what muscle groups you want to grow the most. If you want to get big shoulders, but don’t care about your biceps, do 5 sets of a shoulder exercise and fewer sets of biceps curls.
- Side note: you train biceps automatically when you train back, e.g. rows or chin ups. If you frequently train your back, you can skip biceps isolation exercises on most days and do them only a few times a week, except if you want to be the person with the biggest biceps in your gym. If this is the case, do 5 sets of biceps curls every day :)
- Do paired sets: Paired sets are sets in which you alternate 2 or even 3 exercises with a short rest between the exercises (not back to back like supersets). Usually, I choose 2 exercises for completely different muscle groups, e.g. lower body and upper body (leg extension and shoulder press). I try not to pair set difficult compound exercises like squat, bench press or deadlift, but pair set isolation exercises. However, if it is not possible due to time constraints I pair set heavy compound exercises with light isolation exercises (e.g. deadlift with lateral raises or bench press and calf raises).
I currently train 3 times a week doing a full body workout. Should I increase training frequency?
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, and not a total newb, then yes.
What rep range should I do?
This depends on the exercise and your genetics. If you are slow twitch muscle fiber dominant, a higher rep range may be beneficial for you. If you are fast-twitch muscle fiber dominant, you may want to decrease the rep range. For more info, read my previous blog post.
Is it better to do 2 sets 6 times a week instead of 4 sets 3 times a week for each muscle group?
I wouldn't necessarily do only 2 sets per workout, at least not for body parts that are important for you. For muscle groups you want to grow the most, I would do 3-4 sets as often as possible, for other muscle groups, 1-2 sets if you don't have the time to do 3 sets.
How do you structure your training?
I usually do
1. Squat or Deadlift (or Good morning/Hip thrust on my easy days)
2. Bench press (different variations on different days)
3. Back exercise
4. Shoulder exercise
5. Exercise for hamstrings if squat was my first exercise or exercise for quads if deadlift was my first exercise
6. Triceps or Biceps or Lower back (depending on what my current priority is and what exercises I have done earlier in the session)
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