By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
How often can you train a muscle? Better yet, how often should you train a muscle?
It’s taken a few months, largely held up due to the launch of a little something called Craze™, but it’s finally time to address the ideal training frequency. I’ll assume that you have already read the previous articles leading up to this one. If not, while it isn’t imperative, it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with them.
Almost everyone starting out lifting weights is prescribed a generic program to follow with the old school recommendations (I’m largely talking the 80’s up to present day here) for splitting workouts by body parts and hitting each hard, allowing for a week of recovery before doing it again. This begs the question, “what is the optimal frequency to train a muscle to maximize growth?”
The key word in the above paragraph there is ‘recovery’. Recovery is a variable, and different people are subject to different rates of it. In other words, the damage or fatigue from one exercise that takes one individual four days to fully recover from may take another individual only two. This is genetics, and while it may ultimately dictate the level you perform at, it should only marginally affect the way you train.
The opening paragraph of this section stated that old school dogma suggests splitting body parts up over the course of the week and hitting each one once (the concept of the split is fairly well-supported). This is not entirely the case if we are talking old-old school as prior to the concept of the once-per-week training split bodybuilders would hit each body part two-to-three times per week. In some (many) cases this meant training six days per week. And in many (most) cases it meant pairing chest with back on one day and shoulders and arms on another. Why most? Because that's how Arnold did it. And everyone in his vicinity tended to emulate him. Just remember this when you read forum posts by members stating that they “could not put the effort into proper back training after hitting chest…” or vice versa. A third day would typically be legs, and then the three-day rotation would be completed again, followed by the solitary day off of the week. In other cases the workouts would be three full-body workouts each week using 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps. Incidentally a lot of these guys would perform Olympic lifts and/or ballistic training in their routines (including Arnold).
Since then the philosophy on body part training frequency has evolved into what it tends to be endorsed today by bodybuilders: once per week, balls-to-the-wall. And you’ll almost never (or should that be actually never?) see a professional or elite amateur bodybuilder performing Olympic lifts or ballistic training. It is clear that progress can certainly be made with this style of training, but could the higher frequency of the old-old school bodybuilders be of more benefit to us?
Frequency vs. intensity
Much like the trade-off between strength and metabolic stress discussed in The hustle between sets we come to another trade-off: frequency and intensity. We know that frequency is how often you train any given muscle within any given timeframe, but the definition for intensity is slightly blurred. In fact, based on whether you are a strength athlete or bodybuilder you may have quite a distinct definition of exactly what intensity is.
Strictly speaking, in strength terms, intensity describes how heavy you go on any given lift. A lift that is 95% of your one-rep max is considered to be of high intensity. A lift that is 60% of your one-rep max is considered to be of moderate intensity (or low if the set is for a single or a double etc). Pretty straightforward stuff. But bodybuilders have evolved this term to describe the level of effort put into a set. It doesn’t matter whether the weight used in that set is 95% of your one-rep max for two intensive reps or 60% of your one-rep max for twelve intensive reps; if you put in the maximum level of effort, you are training at a high intensity. This is where the “intensity techniques” I discussed at the end of the previous article get their name from – they allow the bodybuilder to maximize the level of effort/damage they subject the muscle to. And bodybuilders tend to gauge this effort by muscular failure.
Frequency vs. failure
Muscular failure is essentially the point of a set where you are unable to continue with that load. If you read bodybuilding magazines you’ll read reports of the pros exhausting their target muscle each workout with every single set. Many will tell you that they take almost every single set in a workout to failure. It would seem a given that you ought to do the same, no? There are some studies that illustrate potential benefit from training to failure, but more important, it would appear, is the intensity used – and in this case the definition of intensity is that of the strength athlete. The benefit in training to failure, just like rep speed and load used, is that it recruits more muscle fibers. But even in this case the researchers acknowledge that the to-failure technique should be used sparingly. Employing it for every set in a workout seems overly excessive, and potentially, very much detrimental.
Plainly speaking, it can cause you to burnout.
While you may hit failure on some sets during some workouts, it is not something you need to continually chase in order to fully work the muscle. And as far as beyond-failure training goes, use that technique very sparingly indeed. Both the muscle and central nervous system fatigue that stem from beyond-failure training is significant. I’ll come back to the nervous system a bit later on in this series.
During the times that you cycle to-failure-and-beyond training into your program you’ll probably find it a good idea to cycle your higher frequency training out. This is actually what the old-old school bodybuilders tended to do as it happens. When I said that they trained with a higher frequency I purposely omitted that they would vary the intensity they trained at with each workout. This was done to introduce the definitions of intensity and muscular failure first, and also to build some suspense, you know?
In other words, the old-old schoolers wouldn’t be going balls-to-the-wall in every single workout like we may see professional bodybuilders training today. This is hugely important as it relates to the key word back in the opening paragraph: recovery. Simply put, as frequency goes up, intensity must come down. There’s one more variable that I need to address. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s article.