The title above is a little misleading because the idea of ”perfect” is not really possible in strength sports and bodybuilding. Of course, we can find what is best for us, but perfection is difficult to achieve with multiple parameters, variables and daily changes in our body.
That said, even if you can not find perfection, you can get closer by looking at different criteria, and for many athletes it can be “perfect”.
Namely: Frequency of workouts has been and will continue to be a topic debated in Forced Sport. After all, is there a frequency that works best for the majority of athletes? This is difficult to determine when we consider other training factors such as intensity, volume, etc.
This article will therefore deal with scientific studies on the training frequency, the parameters that can influence it, and some elements that you can evaluate to find your ideal frequency.
What studies say about training frequency
Numerous studies have been conducted to determine whether a higher or lower frequency allows for improved performance. According to the latter, both have advantages, but there is no truly superior approach to the other.
This is the reason why this subject is the subject of a very lively debate and several coaches continue to have shared points of view on the subject. We will begin by addressing in this part the most relevant studies with their conclusions.
Lean mass and strength
A study in 2016 examined whether a higher or lower frequency of training worked better to gain lean mass and strength 1 .
The researchers divided 19 participants into two groups: small training frequency (PFE) and high training frequency (GFE) for an eight-week training cycle.
To assess lean muscle mass, the researchers measured the fat mass of each participant with a bone densitometry device. In terms of strength, they tested the maximum repetition (RM) of the bench press and hack squat participants at the beginning and end of the experiment.
The PFE group trained three times a week and trained large muscle groups once a week. They had a session on the pectorals, one on the back and one for the legs.
In the GFE group, participants also trained three times a week, but worked their large muscle groups at each session. As a result, they sought their pectoral, back and legs three times more per week.
Once a participant could reach 12 repetitions for one exercise, he increased the load by 3% and rounded up to 1.3 kg.
After eight weeks of training, the researchers found that the PFE and GFE groups had similar results before and after the experiment. There was no significant difference between the two groups in lean mass.
In terms of strength, the researchers found no significant difference in the two exercises tested.
Another study worth mentioning is this study 2 conducted in 2015 to evaluate the frequency of training and muscle adaptations. In this experiment, the researchers divided 20 participants into two groups who were to follow either a split or full body workout program.
The authors of the study were interested in how the muscular hypertrophy differed according to the volume of training. The split group participants did several exercises for two or three muscle groups per session, while the full-body group trained each muscle group with one exercise each workout.
Training variables such as drills, number of sets and rest time were all consistent for this eight-week protocol. In addition, the researchers advised the participants on the proper way to eat in order to limit the possible differences that could be caused by variations in diet and dietary supplements.
Strength was assessed with an RM performed at the beginning and end of the experiment on a back squat and dumbbell bench press.
After following the eight weeks of the training protocol, the researchers observed improvements for all muscle groups. However, the biceps had a slightly higher improvement in the full-body group compared to the split group. For RM tests, there was a slight advantage to the bench press in the full-body group, but for the squat, both types of training were almost identical.
At equal training volume, the researchers therefore estimated that the full body was more beneficial for the improvement of hypertrophy .
A study in 2000 3 sought to determine force differences on 1 MR before and after a 12-week training protocol. In this study, the people evaluated performed weight training one or three times a week.
The group one day a week did an exercise with three sets until failure, while the group three days a week did an exercise with a series until failure for each workout.
To evaluate the strength, the researchers asked the subjects to perform 1 MR on various upper and lower body exercises. RM trials were performed at the beginning of the experiment at 6 weeks and 12 weeks.
Results: Each group saw improvements in strength on 1 RM, but the group 3 days a week made slightly more progress. In addition, the researchers noticed a slightly larger increase in lean mass in the 3-day group.
Muscle adaptations, strength and muscular volume in beginners
A 2015 study 4 was conducted to analyze differences in strength and muscle volume of the biceps with one or two workouts per week in beginners.
The researchers divided 30 participants into two groups who did the same amount of training during their sessions, but who trained once or twice a week. The subjects in this study had never done any bodybuilding before.
Regarding the training sessions, the participants performed the same exercises: vertical draw, horizontal draw, bench press, curl standing bar, dumbbell curl on the desk, front bar for triceps and extensions to the pulley. After completing this 10-week training protocol, the researchers studied the muscle thickness of the biceps using an ultrasound machine, in addition to measuring the circumference of the flexed and contracted arm.
Both groups achieved improvement in muscle mass and arm circumference after 10 weeks of testing.
Nevertheless, the group that trained twice a week had slightly better results for all three criteria than for the one-workout group. This suggests that beginners may also progress with infrequent training, although two days a week have shown slightly better improvements.
Training volume and adaptations of the force
The most relevant and most recent study on the strength athletes we will be looking at goes back to January 2018 . The researchers were interested in evaluating the maximum strength increases over the three powerlifting exercises, as well as the body composition of athletes who were undergoing high frequency strength training. Subjects followed a six-week training protocol and had at least six months of training history.
To be included in this study, a participant was expected to be able to perform a squat at 125% of his body weight, a 100% bench press, and a 150% deadlift. Regarding body composition, the researchers evaluated their fat mass by ultrasound. To test the strength, the researchers subjected the athletes to the RM protocol recommended by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
The participants were divided into two groups: a group that trained three times a week and a group that trained six times a week. The volume and intensity were equal, and the athletes followed a similar training program.
At the end of the study, the researchers observed that both groups had achieved a similar improvement in body composition, strength in the squat, bench press and deadlift.
The researchers hypothesized that training volume may be more critical to progress relative to frequency.
What to remember from these studies
The information provided by the above studies is for personal interpretation, as there are not really conclusive results that suggest an improvement in maximum performance. Below are three points to remember from the studies presented above.
- If the volume and intensity are equal, the frequency may be slightly less necessary to progress in relation to the overall volume.
- If you are a beginner
- A higher frequency tends to suggest a slight improvement in strength and muscle mass, but it should not be the only variable taken into account. If you train at a higher frequency, you need to consider factors such as fatigue accumulation, total volume, intensity, and other variables.
What can influence the training frequency
There is no precise method for determining a perfect training frequency, but there are several factors that we can examine to try to find what might be best. Here are some criteria that could influence your ideal training frequency.
Depending on the sport, there will be some variation in the frequency with which one has to train to progress.
- Sport type : Powerlifting, Strongman, Weightlifting, CrossFit and Bodybuilding will all have different demands on training frequency. For example, weightlifting may need a higher frequency because it is more technical, while the powerlifter may need less because of a greater fatigue factor.
- Time of the season : Are you in preparation for a competition or out of season? The chronology of events in the year will play an important role in your training frequency. It is something that coach will evaluate and adapt accordingly for your needs, because the accumulation of fatigue will be very present in certain contexts.
- Years of training : how long have you been practicing? Some athletes who are more advanced in their careers may need more frequency to respond to the stimulus they need to progress. On the other hand, they may also need fewer sessions since they are more physically demanding. This is another consideration that a coach should evaluate.
It can be difficult to accept, but it is also impossible to ignore: your lifestyle can play a major role in determining your ideal training frequency. For example, if you are continually stressed and work long hours, want to train all the time, but still feel exhausted, then you may have to train less often to progress.
Here are some lifestyle items to keep in mind regarding the frequency of workouts.
Stress levels : we are not going to dive too deeply into the science behind stress, increasing cortisol levels and bodybuilding. In some ways, stress is good in muscle training – that’s how we progress. But too much stress can reduce the adrenaline reserves and deplete energy stores like glycogen, so when you feel that stress is affecting your energy and performance, you may need to make an effort to reduce it so reach your desired training frequency.
Time allowed : be honest with yourself and how much time you have to train. If you’re always in a hurry, and you can not do your workouts without hurrying, you may need to re-evaluate how often you can train.
Sleep : As with stress, sleep should be considered to find your ideal workout frequency. Sleep is when you get the most and if you run out of sleep, then you should train less. Research shows this: one study 6 concluded that athletes who sleep less than eight hours a night are injured 1.7 times more often.
Feeding : This point alone will not increase or decrease your workout frequency, but it can help when it is used wisely. In simple terms: if you train more often, you will need to consume more food (calories) to meet more energy needs.
This is not necessarily a puzzle, but many athletes do not ask themselves this question: what are your goals? When you find the ideal training frequency, your goals can play a major role in helping you decide where to start. Here are some goals and how you could structure your frequency around them.
Strength and Power : If your main focus is strength and power, we can recommend that you consider two factors: training history and fatigue. These two elements will play an important role in determining a realistic training frequency. For example, a person who is closer to his genetic potential will have to carefully choose how to meet his needs for higher stimulation while controlling his fatigue. If you schedule your own workouts, try a 2-week test: if you feel completely exhausted at each workout, you may have to re-train it.
Cardiovascular : If you work to improve your cardiovascular fitness, you can most likely get away with training at higher frequencies, depending on the total volume of your program. Very often, with this objective, you will use less loads, so you will be able to train more often without feeling exhausted or sacrificing your form of execution because of the diminished capacity of your nervous system.
Hypertrophy : Based on the above studies, higher and lower training frequencies may be beneficial for hypertrophy, but higher frequencies would be slightly better. If hypertrophy (body composition) is your main goal, then do not forget to consider the volume and timing of your program. These two factors will help you achieve a progressive overload.
What’s best for you
- Beginner: 2-3 times a week.
- Intermediate: 3 times in full-body or 4 times with a splitted training.
- Advanced: 4-6 times a week.
What about strength athletes ? Their requirements will likely differ from those of the amateur practitioner. Here is a table that contains some suggestions for training frequencies.
Is this painting perfect? No, it would be impossible to build, but we hope it can serve as a benchmark for some. Note that the table does not take into account training intensities, times of the season, lifestyle factors and special sporting needs.
The main purpose of this article is not to give a definitive answer to the question of how often is the best, but to present information that can help learn how to find the best. Frequency, like all other variables in a workout, is a function of everyone.
Is there a perfect training frequency? Yes and no. Perfection is impossible, but there are ways to learn what’s best for everyone. And remember that it will always be clean to you.