How often should I train?
Better Version of You
When designing a strength and conditioning program, the primary goal must first be defined, followed by the time period allotted to achieve that goal.
A sound program will then use multiple training modalities while manipulating volume, intensity and training frequency to get there. Most individuals have a rudimentary understanding of training frequency, but perhaps not a firm grasp of how important it truly is.
Frequency is simply the number of times one trains in a given period of time. This may refer to number of training sessions in a week, or even the number of times an exercise is executed within a week. A common methodology for those seeking to increase strength and aesthetics is to adhere to a body part split routine. Specifically, the classic body builder method of one different body area per day, one time per week (i.e. Monday-chest, Tuesday-back, Wednesday – legs, etc.). I’ve discussed the fallacies with this model in previous articles, but it’s worth mentioning again that what works for one subset of the population, doesn’t mean it will work for others. Training history, performance enhancing drugs, and genetics will largely determine the variance between individuals.
Research isn’t completely clear as to what the optimal amount of training frequency is. A research study in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” tested 29 untrained men and women after dividing them into two groups. One group of individuals trained twice per a week, while the other trained three times per a week. Volume was equated between the two groups for the entirety of the program, and it was found that both groups had nearly identical gains in strength and muscle mass. This study would indicate that volume is the key driver of performance, ahead of frequency. While I would agree, this study fails to acknowledge the importance of the fact that the individuals they tested were untrained and it was a short-term study.
Volume and training intensity must always be equated first, but I also believe one should train as frequently as possible while allowing for proper recovery. In the athletes that I train, I’ve noticed that spreading volume across the week allows for greater focus and effort within each individual session. What I mean by this is instead of forcing my athletes to squat twice a week for four hard sets each session, I may have them squat three times per a week with three hard sets per session. This allows the athletes to devote a greater amount of energy to each individual session and perform fewer sets under fatigue.
Additionally, they accumulate a greater amount of total volume (which will impose greater demand in the proper dosage) doing nine working sets of squats through the week instead of eight.
Training provides a stress to the body, and with that stress the body accumulates fatigue while declining in performance. It is only after proper rest and recovery that the body recovers from that fatigue and returns stronger than before. One’s ability to withstand stress is dose dependent. Too little stimulation will result in no gains, as will too much stimulation.
Hitting the “sweet spot,” in a sense, is one of the finer arts in training. One must also remember that strength training movements such as the squat and deadlift require a great amount of skill. The more often we practice them, the better we will get through motor unit synchronization and efficiency. Similar to playing a sport such as basketball, you’re better off practicing four times per week for one hour, than two times per week for an hour and a half each.
Jimmy Pritchard is the director of strength & conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit pritchardperformance.com.