Determining Frequency - The Nerve Center
By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
So far we’ve covered intensity and volume as variables alongside frequency, and how if you alter one you need to regulate the others to maintain a balance. At least for the long-term.
I quote strength coach Dan John directly here when I say that “everything works for about two weeks”. You can get away with short-term imbalances in intensity, volume and frequency due to the body’s adaptability - while you may not feel like it some days, you are a resilient beast. However eventually you will notice a stall in progression: a plateau. And while your muscles themselves may not feel overworked, your central nervous system may very well be. I’ll need to take this back to a simpler description to really help illustrate it.
Recuperation, recuperation, recuperation
In layman’s, the principle of long-term muscle growth is to stimulate, allow recovery and hypertrophy, then repeat. Fundamentally speaking, so long as you can allow for sufficient recovery between stimulations, you could stimulate more often to induce the hypertrophy phase more frequently. The way that the pros tend to train today may legitimately require six or seven full days of recuperation before being targeted again. This makes me wonder whether some people copying this failure-heavy style are, in fact, over-stimulating the muscle. I mean really, would you pay $40 for a meal if the bill was only $10? I would hope not, especially when you consider that with $40 you could buy that same $10 meal over four separate days.
Let’s look at this with a different approach. We can do that same work split over more than one workout to increase the number of stimulations. Notice I said “split over” there. Where a lot of people seem to go wrong with higher frequency training is that they attempt to replicate their once-per-week failure-heavy workout methodology and execute it twice per week. They eat into their recovery time by attempting to over-stimulate something that can be achieved in a fraction of the stimulation.
This is where the varying intensity comes in that I mentioned at the end of the first article of this series. Recall from Workout dynamics part one that “using anything less than 65% of your one rep max simply does not cause sufficient growth”. In other words, a certain threshold of intensity is required to kick-start the stimulate-recovery-hypertrophy cascade. And even if you train precisely on - or ever so slightly above -this threshold the target muscle will require a certain amount of recovery time before it is good to stimulate again. Additionally, your central nervous system – the machine that fires the motor units that control the muscle fibers that make up your muscles – will require a certain amount of recovery time.
The mathematics of which frequency is best
One way to look at it is with actual numbers. For instance, the person that trains their chest once per week subjects that muscle to 52 specific cases of stimulate-recovery-hypertrophy per year (ignoring any secondary or indirect stimulation the chest gets from triceps work here). The person that trains his chest twice per week, however, has double the number of these cases – 104. Bear in mind that this won’t necessarily mean he will be twice as big or can grow twice as much, but there’s a good shout that he will be bigger and stronger than he would be training with a once-per-week frequency. Theoretically, training with a thrice-per-week frequency, as seen in Bryan Hay****’s Hypertrophy-specific training (HST), could be even better as it provides 156 stimulate-recovery-hypertrophy cases, but it’s not cut and dry here. That is because the intensity threshold you’re required to exceed tends to require more recovery between workouts than the thrice-per-week program permits. At least this is the case for most people. HST avoids this by dictating lower volume and cycling rep range (and thus load) and intensity (both strength and bodybuilding definitions of intensity here). Without this cycling only the genetic elite can thrive with this frequency of training. As can brand new weight lifters, and part of the reason for this is the exact same reason that more experienced lifters can benefit from twice-per-week frequency.
I now need to return to the comparison between bodybuilders and powerlifters, but just briefly. Several articles ago I introduced many of you to the phrase “Greasing the groove”. This concept is exactly what it sounds like – executing movements with high frequency to get better at them. What was once figuratively speaking “stiff” can be trained over and over to lubricate it. This expression describes the ability of the central nervous system to get better at something. Powerlifters execute their lifts with regularity to continually reinforce the neural controls. This trains the lift into what is known as implicit memory – literally something you do without thinking. And really, what better way is there to get a new lifter used to proper weight lifting form than to have them perform it multiple times per week.
The ideal frequency for a new lifter is in the range of three-to-four times per week. The reason this works is that most of these new lifters will not be moving loads so significant that they find recovery too impeding between such frequent workouts. In other words, their threshold of intensity is incredibly low. Hell, in sedentary folk even cardiovascular work can build muscle because it’s a new stressor and their thresholds are so low. Over time and with regular training the lifter gains strength, primarily due to neural adaptation. For this reason is it ideal that the new lifter trains the exact same lifts each workout in order to fully master them. So that once-per-week routine you put yourself on when you first started lifting after reading it in a magazine? Yeah, not ideal. Not much you can do about it now though, except maybe help others you see new to training that fall into the same trap. Just because they see the pros do it doesn't mean it's right for them.
Unfortunately performing identical workouts thrice weekly can bring boredom to the new lifter fast. But once they get through it they can shake the program up for new interest. The real excitement comes when the muscle starts to really build after the neural adaptation. At this point progressively heavier loads are required to encourage growth. Inevitably, these loads will get to a point where the intensity threshold is at a level where longer rest periods between workouts is required and the lifter should reduce frequency to twice per week. But is there anything we can do – a training hack, if you like – that could allow us to benefit from a higher frequency of training than twice weekly?
Some strength athletes take training frequency to a real extreme. Vladimir Zatsiorsky states in his book that some Olympic weightlifters he coached would train upwards of eighteen times per week. Assuming a full day off (most Olympic lifters rarely have a full day off all training, they just scale the solitary workout for that day right down intensity-wise) that works out to about 3 workouts per day. It is unlikely that anyone aiming to get bigger and stronger – certainly not those lacking the genetics – would do so with that level of frequency. That said, there is some research from the early 90’s that may be of interest.
Researchers in Finland found a decent hypertrophic effect from two-a-day workouts in both men and women. As if you shouldn’t already know, strict volume and intensity management are critical here. Additionally, it should probably be a short-term device only. In these cases the training blocks were only three weeks long, of which the first two were intensive in both volume and frequency and the third week was a deload of sorts where the intensity was kept high but the volume was greatly reduced.
So yeah, about two weeks. I guess Dan John really knows his stuff.
Two-a-days are inconvenient at the best of times since people have jobs, but they can also be a fast ticket to burnout. So manage any periods of them that you plan to do efficiently. In other words, periodize your training program.
I’m not quite done with this series yet. The final two articles that wrap it up will look into the potential long-term problems if you don't moderate your program to balance the three variables of intensity, volume and frequency; and will lightly discuss the exceptions to this: the "genetic freaks".