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The Best Training Frequency for Strength Gains

By July 17, 2018 No Comments

What You’re Getting Yourself Into:

2800 Words, 9-15 Minute Read Time

Key Points:

1. Low and high training frequency have science-based explanations. Lower frequency allows for more sets per workout, which causes that coveted “pump” and more hypertrophy. Higher frequency allows for more intensity to be used because of less inter-set fatigue.

2. Training frequency is going to be highly individualized based on a slew of factors, but following the principle of stimulus-adaptation-recovery (SRA) is going to be a great place to start.

3. Early research showed a possible dose-response relationship between training frequency and strength gains, but more recent research has shown that if training volume is equal, frequency probably doesn’t matter much. There are some implications that a higher frequency could be efficacious, but more research is required.

Examples of High and Low Training Frequency

One of the most fundamental questions to answer before you can create a training program is “How often should I train?” The answer to this question is denoted as your training frequency, which is usually given in a number of sessions per week. Frequency is important both in the total number of sessions in a given week and for the number of sessions per week directed at a certain lift.

There are super high frequency resistance training programs similar to the Bulgarian weightlifting team’s regimen. If you’re unfamiliar, these athletes maxed out their front squat several times per day 6-7 days per week. It was not uncommon for them to max out their front squat 40 times in a given week. Max Aita, most notably the primary weightlifting consultant for Juggernaut Training Systems, claimed that this style of training added 60 kilos to his squat in his first 2 months. However, after the initial few months of gains, it took him a year to add 13 additional kilos to his squat.

On the other hand, very low frequency resistance training programs have had tons of success as well. For example, the Westside Method created by Louis Simmons of Westside Barbell has produced the all-time highest powerlifting total by Dave Hoff at 3,010 pounds. In the Westside Method you may only perform heavy deadlifts once or twice per month and almost never in the competition style.

What are the Mechanisms of Training Frequency?

Lower training frequencies enable individuals to train with a higher daily set number and have greater recovery time between sessions. If you only train a muscle group once per week, it’s not atypical to see people train with 16 sets for a muscle group in one session. Then you get to follow it up with 6 days of rest. Even twice per week frequency gives you 2-4 days of rest and you can still train with more daily sets. Using a large number of daily sets causes more intramuscular metabolic stress, i.e. the build-up of more metabolites. It also causes a greater muscle protein synthesis response. These two mechanisms enable greater hypertrophy, and thus, greater strength gains as well.

A higher training frequency would enable individuals to generate more stimuli for hypertrophy per week. Basically, a training session is a stimulus and each stimulus will eventually lead to adaptation assuming that you can recover from it. With a higher training frequency, we can reduce the volume per session and spread it out further over the week. This will enable us to recover from each session, but still accumulate the same weekly volume. The kicker is that we should be able to generate more hypertrophy by stimulating more overall muscle protein synthesis with more weekly sessions. Additionally, because we are training with fewer sets per session, we should be able to train with more intensity (load on the bar) because of a lower fatigue and less delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This theoretically should lead to greater strength gains in addition to more muscle hypertrophy.

Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation (SRA)

So how can we start to guess what training frequency is going to be best? A great place to start is with the principle of SRA (stimulus-recovery-adaptation). SRA simply describes the training process. You provide a stimulus (your workout), which causes homeostatic disruption (a temporary decrease in fitness due to fatigue). After your training session, your body begins the recovery process and in doing so, adaptation takes place (increased fitness). If additional stimulus isn’t supplied, then adaptive dissipation happens (you lose the gains you made).

SRA curves differ in length based on the quality that is being described. For example, technical proficiency has a very short SRA curve because technique can be practiced with very light weights. Think about the training that a golfer does; what does he do? He golfs! He may play 36 holes per day every day and he’s just fine because the force he’s generating is so low. While there are other qualities involved, it is mostly technique-driven practice. Lifting an empty barbell isn’t going to get you very jacked or very strong, though.

Individual Differences in SRA

For strength gains, we are mostly interested in the SRA curve for force production and neural adaptations. The length of this process will vary greatly for the individual lifter. Some factors that will increase the duration of your individual SRA curve are: being male, having more muscle mass, being tall, being more advanced, and being more fast twitch (type II muscle fiber) dominant. Women have been shown to recover much faster between sessions than men [4].

This graph from Judge & Burke [4] shows the differences in male and female recovery patterns following heavy resistance training. Female performance is recovered after 4 hours while male performance takes 24-48 hours to recover.

Having more muscle mass means that you will accrue more muscle damage. Being taller means that the bar has to travel further and thus more work has to be done. If you’re more advanced, you are already quite proficient in force production due to a higher proportion of Type II fibers, which has been shown to increase time to recover. Type II muscle fibers have greater fatiguability than Type I fibers, and resistance training in men causes your Type I fibers proportion to decrease and Type IIa fiber proportion to increase [5].

This table from Martel et al. [5] demonstrates the changes in fiber type in men and women following strength training. Women have a higher proportion of slow-twitch, Type I fibers and men have a higher proportion of fast-twitch, Type IIa fibers.

To provide an example and make some sense out of all of that, let’s take a look at myself: a 6’1”, 91kg, twenty-three-year-old male at 15% body fat that is relatively strong (compared to a normal population) and has been seriously strength training for 5 years. I would probably benefit from a lower frequency than a higher one due to being tall, male, relatively heavy (although not for my height), and being relatively strong (although not for a powerlifter). This doesn’t tell me exactly how many times per week I should be training, though. This just tells me that my training frequency could benefit from being more on the lower end. Now let’s investigate exactly how many times per week one should actually train.

Observing Trends in Training Frequency

The best way to begin our assessment of how often to train is to look for trends in the data and hone in on those trends by taking a look at specific training studies. Grgic et al. conducted a meta-analysis on the effect of resistance training frequency on gains in muscular strength where researchers used 22 different studies to draw some conclusions [3]. The main criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis were that there had to be a pre- and post-assessment of strength, the intervention had to be centered around dynamic exercise, and that trials lasted at least 4 weeks. Effect sizes were calculated comparing the higher training frequency regimen to the lower within different characteristics such as volume-equated studies, single- or multi-joint exercises, etc.

Below is a chart I created of the results from the researchers’ analysis. Significant implies that there is a dose-response relationship between frequency and muscular strength. Strongly insignificant implies that there is not a relationship between frequency and muscular strength. Trending, but not significant implies that this quality did not reach statistical significance and thus there cannot be a conclusion of a relationship between frequency and muscular strength. However, it was very close to reaching statistical significance and further research would be very beneficial on these particular characteristics to draw a strong conclusion one way or the other.

Significant Strongly Insignificant Trending, but not Significant
All studies Volume-equated studies Middle-aged and older adults
Multi-joint exercises Single-joint exercises Training to muscular failure
Upper body strength Not training to muscular failure Lower body strength
Young adults Male
Female

The main conclusion from this meta-analysis is that there seems to be a dose-response relationship between training frequency and muscular strength gains unless volume is equated. This is especially true among young adults, particularly females. It may be especially wise to use a higher training frequency when performing multi-joint exercises, notably upper body exercises.

The biggest question that arises from this is: When volume is not equated, is the increase in muscular strength a result of of increase in frequency, or increased volume as a result of more weekly sessions? This will be a common question throughout the rest of this article and one that will require a lot more research on this topic to answer.

An additional limitation of this meta-analysis is that only 3 studies were included that were conducted on trained subjects. I would assume that everyone reading this right now has been lifting for at least 6 months, which is how researchers typically classify “trained individuals,” so let’s further investigate studies that use trained subjects.

Training Frequency for Trained Individuals

3 Days vs. 1 Day Per Week

The first study I want to highlight is from Schoenfeld et al. where researchers had 19 male subjects with 4.5 +/- 3.1 years of lifting experience undergo an 8-week, volume-equated training program [7]. Both groups trained 3 days per week, but how the volume was split up differed. The split routine was chest/back, legs, and arms/shoulders routine with each muscle group being trained once. The total routine used 1 exercise per day per body part. Subjects performed pre and post-intervention testing of their 1RM back squat and bench press. The two groups did not have a significant difference in their maximal strength when adjusting for baseline.

There are a few things that I found particularly interesting about this study and why I wanted to start with it. The first is that researchers controlled for caloric intake intra- and inter-subject. They did this by showing subjects how to use MyFitnessPal to track their food and this was checked on two different occasions throughout the study. No dietary differences were found, which validates these findings further, since we know the benefits of eating in a caloric surplus when training for size and strength.

Another interesting finding that came from this study was that during pre-intervention interviews, 16 of the 19 subjects reported using a routine resembling the split routine. Therefore, it is possible that the sheer novelty of the total body routine drove adaptation, but not necessarily the increased frequency itself.

Lastly, researchers observed that while no significant differences in maximal strength took place, the total body group did progress in their weights much faster week to week. Because the study was only 8 weeks, it is possible that this trend could have continued and a divergence in the results could have taken place with more time. Longer duration studies will need to take place to draw significant conclusions.

6 Days vs. 3 Days Per Week

Colquhoun et al. built off of the work from McLester et al., which proposed a dose-response relationship between frequency and strength gains in trained subjects [1,6]. These researchers sought to answer the question of “if increasing frequency from 1 to 3 times per week is effective (what McLester et al. concluded), what about increasing from 3 to 6 times per week?” Twenty-eight trained male subjects participated in a 6-week volume-equated training intervention. The 3x per week group squatted and bench pressed all 3 days and deadlifted once. The 6x per week group squatted and bench pressed all 6 days and deadlifted twice. Both groups significantly improved pre- vs post-testing. However, there were no significant differences found between groups in squat, bench, or deadlift 1RM; powerlifting total; or wilks score.

What can we take with us from this study? While previous evidence has shown a dose-response relationship between frequency and strength, the magnitude of benefit quickly decreases. If you’re currently training a lift once per week, it may be extremely valuable to bump your frequency to twice per week. Three times per week is probably even better than that. As we increase frequency beyond that, we may see some benefits, but the amount is extremely small and the favorable effect may not be worth the time.

This study used a volume and intensity-equated intervention, which is a strength to the study. However, it does not get us any closer to answering the question of whether increasing training frequency would allow us to also increase training volume, and therefore drive more gains. Would increased training volume even be efficacious beyond a certain point? This next study is the first one to propose a potential answer to this question.

5 Days vs. 1 Day Per Week

Gomes et al. conducted a study on 23 young men with at least 3 years of consistent resistance training experience [2]. The intervention was an 8-week, volume and intensity-equated resistance training program. Both groups performed 10 sets per week per muscle group across 5 training days. The low-frequency resistance training (LFRT) group performed all 10 sets on the same day. The high-frequency resistance training (HFRT) group performed 2 sets per day per muscle group across the 5 days. Both groups significantly improved their 1RM bench press and squat strength; however, there was no significant effect between groups.

Like the aforementioned study from Schoenfeld et al., this study also controlled for nutrition and found no differences between or within individuals. This further validates the conclusions drawn here. Once again, we find that the higher frequency program was not superior to the lower frequency program for increasing strength.

What is interesting about this study, however, is that the HFRT group showed a higher total volume than LFRT at the beginning, middle, and end of the study. In fact, this group accumulated ~14% more total volume due to the lower fatigue from using fewer sets per session. This additional volume can be equated to nearly 1.5 additional sets per muscle group per week. Yet there was still no difference in the results of the HFRT and LFRT training groups.

In an 8 week training program, this is equal to 12 additional sets, which is an additional week’s worth of training volume! That’s pretty significant. While there were no differences in this study, I have a hard time believing that there would not have been a divergence in the results at some point. This means over the course of a year of training, the HFRT would have accumulated 72 more equivalent “sets” of volume. Essentially, they would have done 7 more weeks of work in the same amount of time. Alas, for now, our best answer to the question of whether it would be efficacious to use a higher training frequency on the premise that you could use more tonnage is “no.”

Closing Words

There are strong proposed mechanisms for both high and low training frequencies. A lower training frequency may be a bit better for hypertrophy due to greater intramuscular metabolite accumulation. Meanwhile higher training frequencies may theoretically allow you to train with greater intensity per session. This would make higher training frequency better for strength training, potentially.

Based on the principle of SRA, training frequency is going to be highly individualized based on: the goal of the training, your training age, how advanced you are, your sex, your biological age, your “supplement usage,” the amount of muscle mass you have, etc.

Research suggests a possible dose-response relationship between training frequency and muscular strength, but it’s certainly not a significant one. Furthermore, the dose-response relationship seems to only be applicable if you’re going from a low frequency to a moderate one. However, this doesn’t necessarily hold true going from a moderate to a higher frequency. Even though higher frequency allows us to use more training volume, it may not be efficacious for strength gains.

My best recommendation is that if you’re currently training a lift once per week, try training it twice. If you’re still feeling really fresh session-to-session, try adding a third session per week. If twice per week has you under-recovered, then go back to once per week. At the end of the day, there is no “right” answer to this question. If you’re improving and getting results, then there is no reason to change what you’re doing. Lifting weights is a (hopefully) life-long journey, so take the gains while you’re getting them. Slow progress is better than no progress. Using a training frequency that is based in the science discussed in this article that fits your lifestyle and your preferences is going to get you your best results.

References

  1. Colquhoun, R.J., Gai, C.M., Aguilar, D., Bove, D., Dolan, J., Vargas, A., Couvillion, K., Jenkins, N.D.M., & Campbell, B.I. (2018). Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32, 1207-1213. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002414.
  2. Gomes, G.K., Franco, C.M., Nunes, P.R.P., & Orsatti, F.L. (2018). High-frequency resistance training is not more effective than low-frequency resistance training in increasing muscle mass and strength in well-trained men. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002559
  3. Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B.J., Davies, T.B., Lazinica, B., Krieger, J.W., & Pedisic, Z. (2018). Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 48, 1207-1220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0872-x
  4. Judge, L.W., & Burke, J.R. (2010). The effect of recovery time on strength performance following a high-intensity bench press workout in males and females. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20625191
  5. Martel, G.F., Roth, S.M., Ivey, F.M., Lemmer, J.T., Tracy, B.L., Hurlbut, D.E., Metter, E.J., Hurley, B.F., & Rogers, M.A. (2006). Age and sex affect human muscle fibre adaptations to heavy‐resistance strength training. Experimental Physiology, 91, 457-464. https://doi.org/10.1113/expphysiol.2005.032771
  6. McLester, J.R., Bishop, E., & Guilliams, M. (2000). Comparison of 1 day and 3 days per week of equal-volume resistance training in experienced subjects. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 14. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2000/08000/Comparison_of_1_Day_and_3_Days_Per_Week_of.6.aspx
  7. Schoenfeld, B.J., Ratamess, N.A., Peterson, M.D., Contreras, B., & Tiryaki-Sonmez, G. (2015). Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29, 1821-1829. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970.

 

Nick Boleto

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