By Stefan Ianev, www.stefanianev.com
In the final part of this 7-part series we are going to cover the last variable frequency.
Training frequency refers to the number of training session per week. This can be looked at on weekly or per body part basis.
For example, say two people both train 3 times per week. One-person trains full body each time while the other person splits up all the muscle groups over the 3 sessions. They both have a weekly training frequency of 3 times per week. However, the person who is doing full body is training each muscle group 3 times per week while the person who split up their muscle groups is only training each body part once.
Both individuals may be getting a similar weekly volume accept that in the first instance the volume is distributed over 3 sessions, while in the second instance it is accumulated into a single session.
So which is better? That is the one-million-dollar question!
In the 1950’s before the use of anabolic steroids became prevalent, guys like Reg Park and Steve Reeves used to train the entire body 3 times per week. Once they got past the beginner stage though and they needed more volume, their workouts would take over 2 hours to complete.
In the 1960’s guys like Arnold, Frank Zane, and Dave Draper started splitting up the body over 2-3 sessions and training 6 days per week. By splitting up the body their workouts became shorter, so they could train each body part more intensely and get in more volume. Also at that time, because these guys weren’t performing much cardio, before a competition they would end up training twice a day on a double split system.
In the late 1970’s guys like Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer tried to move the public’s notion of bodybuilding away from the high volume school of thought, which involved spending hours in the gym, to high intensity training (HIT). Jones and Mentzer advocated short and infrequent bouts of training, performing a single all out set to failure for each body part every 4-7 days.
Despite Jones and Mentzer’s efforts, most of the top bodybuilders during the 1980’s such as Lee Hanley continued following high volume routines. However, most guys switched to a 3 days on 1 day off training split which allowed better systemic recovery, and the double split system that was used by Arnold and his peers before a competition fell out favor, as these guys turned more to aerobic work for getting lean.
It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s and the emergence of Dorian Yates, that it became vogue to train each body part only once a week. Dorian Yates was a 265lbs mass monster from the UK who won 6 Mr Olympia titles from 1992 to 1997. Until he came to the scene no one had ever brought that level of muscle mass on stage. Yates was a HIT advocate, although he sused a split system where he trained each body part only once a week, and he used multiple exercises per body part, working up to one all out set for each.
Today training a muscle group only once a week has come to be known as the bro split, and still remains the most popular way to train. This term was coined by those in the evidence based community, since recent research has clearly demonstrated that training a muscle group 2 or 3 times a week is superior to once a week when matched for weekly volume.
Muscle protein synthesis has been shown to remain elevated for only 36-48 hours after a training bout. Not only that but there is a limit to how much muscle protein synthesis you can stimulate in a single bout of exercise. So condensing your weekly volume for each body part into a single session is far from ideal, since not only are you not growing the majority of the time, but you may actually be regressing before your next workout.
Anabolic steroids artificially increase the magnitude and duration of muscle protein synthesis, so guys taking gear may still get decent results from following a bro split, but most guys who are natural generally wont. That’s right, naturals actually need to train more frequently than guys on gear because we don’t have the artificial enhancement.
In recent years one of the biggest changes I’ve made to my training was to start training each body part more frequently, and I finally broke through a long time plateau. I have also noticed much better results with all of my clients.
In fact I believe even guys taking anabolic steroids will do better training a muscle group more frequently than once per week. After Dorian Yates came the great Ronnie Coleman. Ronnie Coleman won 8 Mr Olympia titles from 1998 to 2005 and his freakish size and muscularity have yet to be surpassed. For the most part Ronnie trained each muscle group twice per week.
The jury is still out on weather training a muscle twice a week or three times per is best, as the evidence is contradictory.
It is important to note that there are other factors outside of muscle protein synthesis that need to be considered. For example the nervous system can take 5-7 times longer than the muscular system to recover. The tendons also take longer than the muscles to recover, and they adapt slower. Also it doesn’t matter if you train legs today and arms tomorrow, the adrenals still have to pump out cortisol, so the endocrine system is also being taxed.
The training age of the lifter is also important to consider because it dictates their strength and tolerance to volume, which impacts recovery. Heavier loads and higher training volumes create a greater stress on all of the bodies systems and thus require more recovery.
My personal recommendations for training frequency are as follows;
- For beginners I recommend training full body 3 times per week for at least the first 3 to 6 months. Beginners are generally weaker and don’t have a high tolerance to volume so they can train each body part more frequency without overtaxing any of the systems. Beginners also make very rapid initial strength gains so by training more frequently they can progress much faster.
- For intermediates intermediates I recommend training each body part twice a week on a 2 or 3-way split. Once past the beginner stage you will generally need to increase per session volume as your tolerance to exercise increases. Also as you get stronger each workout takes a greater toll on the joints and nervous system so you will generally need more recovery.
- For advanced lifters, for the most part I stick to twice a week per body on a 3-way split. However during an over-reaching phase I increase it to 3 times per week on a 2-way split or double split, followed by a transition phase in which the weekly volume is drastically reduced in order for super-compensation to take place.
Since advanced lifters are near the ceiling of their genetic potential, they generally need concentrated blocks or periods of higher training stress in order to force further adaptation. Between those concentrated blocks they need to reduce their training volume and frequency to allow all the systems to recover. For that reason advanced lifters generally tend to experience more sporadic, rather than linear progress like a beginner.
For the last few years I have been able to consistently gain about 1-2kg of lean mass by alternating periods of higher stress (over-reaching) to force adaptation, followed periods of lower stress to allow for recovery and rejuvenation.
That may not sound like a lot, but considering that I started out as a 72kg skinny kid, and at the time of this writing I am weighing in at just over 100kg at a similar body fat, I think that’s pretty good. Especially because I did it naturally, and you can too if you follow the principles you have learned here!
By Stefan Ianev, www.stefanianev.com