Written by Samuel Biesack
Since the golden age of bodybuilding with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, the sport of bodybuilding has certainly grown into something that no one could have imagined. As the years have passed and physiques have changed, so too has the science behind the optimal way to get to the body that we all desire. Even as little as a couple of years ago, many people believed that the most optimal way to get jacked was to have a traditional bodybuilding split program, coupled with a high training volume (weight x reps x sets) within single sessions, hitting body parts once a week.
That idea has long since passed as optimal. Research has begun to elucidate the need for trained individuals to train certain movements and body parts more than once a week. In fact, some evidence suggests that training the same movements upward of 3-6 times per week may provide the stimulus necessary to reach the pinnacle of physique limits.
Let’s dive into the research so that we can better understand why you should be increasing your training frequency.
Luckily for all of us, resistance training (RT) research is increasing, allowing all of us to better understand how the body reacts to resistance training so that we can continue to grow as individuals and as a physique centered community. One of the most interesting aspects of RT is the effect on training frequency. Athletes often partake in their respective sports daily, constantly working towards being better selves. However, in the weight-lifting world, training the same body part more than once per week has been viewed as taboo due to the preconceived notion that it sets you on a fast track towards the often feared but rarely experienced state of over training.
Schoenfeld et al. (2015) set out to determine if this notion truly held any weight when he subjected 19 trained individuals to either a traditional “split routine” or a volume matched total-body routine. This allowed the researchers to have the total-body group train similar muscle groups more often in order to determine if increased frequency would have any effect on muscle size and strength. As a result, both groups increased hypertrophy but the total-body group increased size significantly more than the traditional split routine.
Again, Raastad et al., (2012) implemented a similar strategy in elite, highly trained Norwegian power-lifters. Often, elite power-lifters perform fairly high volume and very high intensity (weight) within single sessions. However, the researchers wanted to observe what would happen if they used the same volume the power-lifters typically performed in 3 sessions per week, and split it up over the course of 6 training sessions. The data indicates that when these elite power-lifters increased frequency of training with the same volume, they increased not only muscle, but also their strength in the primary lifts they perform as power-lifters, such as bench press and squat.
Increasing Volume is Important, But Not The Only Factor
If the volume was not being manipulated, then what explains the increase in hypertrophy and strength observed in the above studies? First and foremost, let’s clarify that increasing training volume is likely a primary determinant in getting bigger and stronger. For example, each time we go to the gym, we try to increase the weight that we use and the repetitions we perform. If you were to never increase weight and number of repetitions for more sets (volume), you would never provide the body with a stimulus to drive growth and adaptation.
Training for extended periods of time (months or years) produces adaptations that are beneficial of course, but have somewhat of a downside. As we become more trained, our body doesn’t need to respond to training as strongly as it once did when we were untrained. Everyone remembers the first couple of months after beginning a training regimen because we could all but look at a weight and grow! However, as we become more trained, the response to training diminishes, particularly the increase in protein synthesis brought about by the training session.
One of the primary theories behind how muscle hypertrophies (increases size) is stimulation of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Without getting too intricate, when you train with weights, you stimulate protein synthesis and theoretically over time, increase muscle size and strength. Now, when you are an untrained individual, this increase in MPS can be available for a long period of time, potentially upwards of 48-72 hours. When you become a trained individual (likely about after 1 year of consistent training) this increase in protein synthesis is significantly decreased, potentially returning to baseline by 16 hours (Tang et al., 2007). For the trained individual, that makes it seem like training is almost worthless. Fear not – the answer may be clearer than you think.
Insert Increased Training Frequency
This is where the notion that trained individuals should increase the frequency of training certain movements and body-parts becomes very apparent. As stated prior, the increase in MPS in response to a training session for a trained individual is quite short. Thus, packing your weekly volume for a certain movement (like squat or bench press) into one session may not be optimal for maximum muscle growth.
However, if we take that same volume and split it up over three training sessions, you can hypothetically increase the protein synthetic response from only 16 hours to a whopping 48 hours. That sounds eerily like that of an untrained individual, doesn’t it?
But the loot doesn’t stop there. By training a movement such as a squat 3 times a week as opposed to only once, you not only potentially increase protein synthesis more often, but you also get the added benefit of reinforcing the movement patterns associated with the exercise (Wilson et al., 2015). If you care at all about performance in the compound movements, increasing the frequency of which you perform those movements allows you to refine and perfect those skills.
These two factors are likely primary reasons that the subjects in the above studies observed such significant improvements. However, it must be noted that the incorporation of increased frequency may have provided a novel stimulus. This means that the subjects were not acclimated to that frequency, and thus their adaptation potential to the stimulus was increased. It is possible that you could potentially plateau, even when training with high frequency. As such, it may benefit you to cycle having a high frequency of training with a low frequency.
Nonetheless, the combination of increased MPS and more frequent practice can hypothetically put you on the fast track to lifting greatness and a physique even the gods would be jealous of!
How Should the Increased Training Frequency be Implemented?
To begin, increasing training frequency is an advanced technique and should only be considered if you have plateaued and believe yourself to be of trained status. A good place to start is taking your current single day training volume if you are doing a traditional split routine (hitting body-parts/movements once per week), and splitting it in two. For example, if you hit chest movements once per week for 20 total sets, take that and split it up over two sessions.
So let’s say for your chest day, you bench and perform dumbbell flies for 5 sets each and then typically do dips and decline bench for 5 sets each as well. When you implement increased frequency, you could in theory perform bench and flies on day one for 5 sets each, and dips and decline on day two for 5 sets each. As you can tell, each program uses 20 sets for chest, however the second program has the added benefit of increasing MPS twice. In essence, you get two times the benefit.
As you become more acclimatized to this increased frequency, you can either add sets to each workout, add training sessions for each group or movement, or both. As stated above, one of the primary determinants of increasing muscle is adding volume. Make sure that you are always striving to do more work and get better as a result.
Increasing training frequency may be the answer you are looking for if you are a trained individual looking to grow again. Increasing frequency may provide you not only with longer durations of increased MPS which may help you grow, but can also provide more frequent practice of the skills needed to perform compound movements proficiently and effectively.