How Often Should I Train? | A Look At The Evidence
This particular topic seems to be one that I run into frequently (ironic that this article is on how frequent you should train), and so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it. What sparked my interest in diving this deep into the topic and putting this article out, was a situation that happened with one of my close acquaintances. So what I’ll do is explain that situation, what I used to think regarding the topic of training frequency, where my stance is now, and what the evidence has to say and what it means.
This friend of mine had done a lot of training in the past, and a lot of bodybuilding/hypertrophy work and then as life began to happen, his training consistency started to fall, then eventually it got to the point where he wasn’t training much at all, let alone at the volume and intensity that he was originally. After some time of working out sporadically here and there, not following any sort of structured program he decided it was time and he was in a place to start training seriously again, and with better consistency. This is all well and good because the ultimate goal is that everybody is participating in some sort of resistance training on a consistent basis.
So what’s the problem? And what about this situation got my attention and inspired me to put out this article and address this topic? Before I answer that question, I want to ask you a question: have you or do you know anyone who has taken a substantial break from training, then went back to training and started off just going back to what you used to do and felt like you’ve been hit by a truck? I know I’m guilty of that and I’m willing to bet that either yourself or someone you know is as well. That was the situation my friend found himself in - he went back, full-bore, to a high volume, high frequency, and high-intensity training regimen. The result? A couple of minor (but annoying and albeit debilitating) musculoskeletal injuries.
My friend found himself in a situation where he was dealing with what seemed to present as elbow tendinitis, and patellar tendinitis. Neither are very serious or life-threatening injuries, but they can be a pain to deal with because it takes a long time to allow the soft tissue to heal to the point where you no longer experience any symptoms. I know this because I dealt with tendinitis in my elbow during my high school years while playing baseball. You can check out this link here to learn some of the basics of tendinitis. It is a fairly common injury, experienced by many types of people, but when it’s a lifter it can be a little more frustrating due to the fact that you are most likely to experience it during training, as that’s what caused it in the first place.
Now, to talk about what causes tendinitis. As with all musculoskeletal injuries, it is due to an improper progression or excessive loading of tissues. The reality of it is, that all musculoskeletal injuries have to deal with some sort of overload. An ACL (anterior cruciate ligament in the knee) tear is the result of acute excessive force or loading on the ACL in some sort of event. Maybe that’s playing football, or maybe that’s stepping off a curb. Something happened that lead to a high amount of stress, which the ACL is not adapted to handling, being applied to that tissue. The same goes for tendinitis, however, it is usually not an acute loading but more of a chronic and longer onset of loading. In the case of my friend, he went back to training and was following a program that was very high in volume and frequency, and most likely intensity (because of how hard he used to train). The issue here is that the soft tissue (ligaments, tendons, joint capsule, etc.) takes on a lot of stress over a steep curve and becomes inflamed. Soft tissue generally takes the longest to adapt when it comes to resistance training responses. The cardiopulmonary system (heart, veins, lungs) adapts quite quickly, and muscle also adapts fairly quick. A proper progression of load including volume and frequency is needed to allow the soft tissue to adapt properly so that it can handle the excessive stress placed on it later in the training where intensity, volume, and frequency can safely increase.
Where I’m At
So now that you have a little background on a situation that can arise when training frequency isn’t planned and prescribed correctly, let’s talk about where I was at when it came to training frequency, and where I currently stand on the topic.
When I first got into resistance training, I was very much on the hypertrophy/bodybuilder side of things and thought that a “bro-split” was the best way to train: chest on Monday, legs on Tuesday, back on Wednesday, shoulders on Thursday, arms on Friday. Then repeat. I quickly learned that I could combine muscle groups and get more volume and frequency of training. I did that for a while and saw some pretty good results and at that point, I was pretty much stuck in the mindset that I had to train at least 5 days per week, hitting every muscle group twice per week and that was the only way I could see progress.
Then I started getting into powerlifting and strength training and I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have a ton of time to spend in the gym, let alone 5+ days per week. So my frequency was reduced to 3-4 times per week, but in order to make sure I was receiving enough stress, I cut out a bunch of the “accessory” lifts and started shifting my focus even more towards the compound barbell movements. Using this style of training I started to see better gains in strength than I ever had (duh, this was the purpose of training like this), but I also saw some of the best gains in muscle size than I ever have. That’s when I began to question everything. I started following some more powerlifting/strength training people on the socials and I was finding that these guys were jacked, pretty lean, strong as hell, and....only training 3 days per week (on average). This is where my mindset really shifted. This prompted me to look more at what the research had to say and to continue to do my own experimentation.
With that being said, let’s take a look at what the body of evidence on this topic has to say. First, we will take a look at some of the systematic reviews and meta-analysis. The first review included 22 studies that matched their criteria and the results they found were that there was no significant difference in muscular strength gains between groups that trained either 1, 2, 3, or 4+ days per week when the total volume of exercise was equated. The next review compared strength gain between low-frequency (1 day per week), medium-frequency (2 days per week), and high-frequency (3 days per week) groups and again found there to be no significant difference between groups when the volume was equated. Another meta-analysis, which included 25 studies, reached the same conclusion using a very similar design.
This study, which was featured in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research published just last month, looked at the effects of an 8-week training program on muscular strength and hypertrophy in 23 well-trained men. The men were randomly assigned to either a low-frequency resistance training group (LFRT) where they performed a split-body routine training each specific muscle group 1 time per week, or a high-frequency resistance training group (HFRT) where they performed a total body routine training all muscle groups every session. The weekly exercises and training volume were equated and muscular strength was assessed using a 1-rep maximum test on the bench press and squat. Lean body mass was analyzed for hypertrophy gains. The results showed that both groups increased muscular strength and lean body mass with no significant difference between groups. This suggests that both types of training promote similar responses and adaptations.
The last study that I want to reference, is one that was set up similarly to all of the articles above. However, this study specifically looked at these effects in untrained men. The subjects were randomly allocated into LFRT and HFRT groups and performed the exact same protocol as the study mentioned above. The only difference in this study, was the HFRT group started off the first week of the training program only training one time. They then progressed from training one time per week to five times per week. Lean body mass and strength were assessed before and after with both groups showing improvement in both categories, again without any significant difference between groups.
So What Does This All Mean?
Ultimately what it means is that if you prefer one style of training over the other (split-body vs. total body), choose whatever you enjoy the most and can stick with. However, if you’re someone who has done a split-body routine and felt like you were spending a ton of time in the gym and would like to cut down that time in the gym, you could consider going with more of a strength training/powerlifting routine where you are doing full-body workouts 3 days per week, utilizing the compound barbell movements. Using this method, you are ensuring that the volume is high enough to create adaptation (strength gain, size gain, etc.) and you won’t be spending as much time in the gym. Along with that, you allow for adequate recovery. It takes ~48 hours to completely recover from a bout of intense exercise, and training only 3 days per week allows you that time. When looking at a split-body routine this recovery time is somewhat built-in because you are breaking up the muscle groups you train during the week. However, for example, if you train legs on a Tuesday where you’re doing squats, lunges, leg press, etc. and then on Wednesday you are training back where you plan to perform deadlift, your deadlift is most likely not going to be at the intensity that it would be, had you allowed a full 48 hours in between your training sessions.
The other thing to take away from this is that when starting out, or returning to training after a substantial hiatus, it isn’t necessary to dive back in and go all-out, training 5 days per week. As I mentioned above, the soft tissues need a longer period of progressive overload to adapt appropriately and be prepared for more intense training sessions. As the last study mentioned suggests, for untrained men (or women), progressing from a frequency of once per week, to multiple sessions per week produces similar outcomes to training every day.
The purpose of this article isn’t to say that you’re wrong for choosing to train 3+ days per week but to open up the idea that it isn’t completely necessary to achieve the goals that you are trying to reach. Plus, depending on where you’re at with your training, if you choose to do a lower-frequency that is volume equated, this will allow you more time for other things in your life. For example, my current routine is that I am doing resistance training Monday, Wednesday, Friday with Tuesday, Thursday, and often Saturday being days that I go on 8+ mile mountain bike rides. This gives me the time to enjoy something that I love, and at the same time, get in some conditioning.
If you need help programming out a routine, whether you’re a beginner or someone looking to get back into training and need a proper progression, or you’re a well-trained individual that wants to try a program that doesn’t require as much time in the gym but still produces favorable results, follow this link here to learn more.