T Nation

A frequent debate

In case you’ve missed it, there’s been an interesting discussion on the Dog Pound regarding the issue of exercise variety (see thread “Time for a New Debate” for details).

In that same spirit, I’d like to throw open a debate about another issue that appears to be highly contentious among strength experts - exercise frequency.

More specifically, I’m referring to the issue of how frequently to train a particular bodypart or exercise. It seems the strength & conditioning is more or less divided into three camps:

  1. Those who believe that more frequent exposure to a given lift leads to more significant strength gains. They often recommend training the same lift 3 or more times per week. Typically they recommend training with relatively low volume per session and with fewer lifts per muscle group/bodypart. Included in this group would be Pavel Tsatsouline, Bill Starr, Tudor Bompa, Olympic weightlifting coaches and lifters the world over, T-Mag’s own Chad Waterbury and Russian powerlifting coaches such as Boris Sheiko.

  2. Those who believe that a lift or muscle group should be trained very hard and then should be allowed to supercompensate over a period of several days of rest. Generally this group would recommend training each lift or muscle group once every 5-7 days. Often this group recommends higher volume per session and more lifts per muscle group/bodypart. Included in this group would be Charles Poliquin, Ian King, Fred Hatfield, and most Western powerlifters.

  3. This is a small group that I’ve created only because its members don’t fit neatly into either of the other two categories. This is a group that believes that power and maximal strength should be trained during separate sessions in the same training week. This group of course includes Louie Simmons and the Westside crew, as well as T-Mag’s own Christian Thibaudeau. I would say that this group is more closely aligned with group 2 than group 1.

So, does more frequent training lead to better strength gains due to increased practice and neural adaptations, or does it stifle intensity and lead to overtraining?

Is one method better for pure strength and another method better for hypertrophy?

There are plenty of strong people in each of the camps, but I’d like to hear what you think based on your experience.


I wouldnt say that Group 3 is more closely aligned with with group 2. Dave Tate says that he often prescribes 4 sets of 6 glute ham raises as a warmup 4 days per week for people who need to bring up their hamstrings. I will do work for my chest, triceps, delts, and lats about 4 days this week. Not all of these are hard workouts but they do get worked. Many times these extra workouts are used for recovery means only. On the Westside Seminar Tapes, Louie asks a guy if football players have three-a-days. they guy says yeah. And Louie says Then why the hell do people think that you can only train a muscle once a week.

Good point Goldberg. I suppose I aligned Westside with the less-frequent group because they tend to only max out once for upper and lower body per week. Their use of assistance exercises several times per week does make WSB a bit of a unique animal. I was originally going to make only 2 categories - good thing I didn’t!

I think it was pretty well covered in the dog pound, both camps making their case. I think I can add a slightly different perspective on this debate. That said I believe that it depends on overall goals i.e. Bodybuilding or training for all out stength. Obviously, either way you are going to stick with the basic compound movements. However, I think if you are training for bodybuilding purposes only, you will need to change your exercises periodically to bring up lagging body parts. For example an upper chest specialization routine. When training for aesthetic purposes only, overall strength is not as much of a concern as symmetry and balance, therefore one would need to use exercises that would balance out the physique. That?s where individuality comes into play, each physique is different and will have different priorities.
If training for all out strength I don?t see any reason why one would need to switch exercices on a regular basis. In my opinion joel covered this topic quite well. ?A muscle responds to stress and not to the means by which the stress is provided.? Therefore, if training on the bench press manipulating the load would be more beneficial than just switching to a new exercise. I fail to understand how switching to an incline bench in which you would have to lower overall poundages, can make you stronger in the flat bench in which you can train with a considerably heavier load.
Regardless, I think people are going to change exercise selection on a relatively regular basis. For the simple fact that most get tired of performing the same exercises over and over gain. For me, I will always stick to the basics/money exercises. I will never abandon the most effective exercises for the sake of change.

I think you need to define what your goals are: strength or hypertrophy.

Many of the people you listed in group 1 design programs geared more towards maximal strength, rather than hypertrophy. Obviously these two things are not mutually exclusive. But, say you’re a powerlifter or O lifter who competes within a weight class and you do not wish to increase body weight. These are the types of trainees that many powerlifting and O lifting coaches deal with. Whereas many of the people who read T-mag want to get bigger, as well as stronger.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that muscles need 7 days between workouts to recover. On the other hand, when you look at an Eastern block O lift program that features a ton of frequency throughout the week, you need to realize that the people who used that program were elite lifters who may have been chemically enhanced. I would hazard a guess that while many of the people who read T-mag are above average genetically, only a few of us are truly elite. While others of us may be truly average in our capabilities.

Poliquin was right. Every 5 days for the larger groups, twice a week for the smaller.

He also recommends working twice a day. I can vouch for this; it works!


P-DOG - I don’t think you read my post; I wanted to open a debate about exercise frequency, not exercise variety.

dcb - Even if we ignore hypertrophy and limit the discussion purely to the acquisition of strength, there is still widespread disagreement about exercise frequency. American powerlifters like Steve Goggins, Ed Coan, Garry Frank, and Lamar Gant have built awe-inspiring strength by training each powerlift once per week. But most Olympic lifters are also very strong, and they often will squat 3-4 times per week, if not more.

One key difference, I think, is that those who train less frequently often train closer to their limit, whereas those who train more frequently train more “within themselves”. Case in point: I’ve trained alongside some of the best Olympic weightlifters in Britain - they squat four times per week but they only do a few sets per workout and rarely, if ever, go to failure. Sure they fail on snatches and clean&jerks, but that is more a technique issue than actual muscular failure.

I’ve also trained alongside a powerlifter who could deadlift 680lbs. at a bodyweight of 185lbs. He only deadlifted once per week, but he usually did quite a few sets and would go very close to his limit.

At the moment I’m not sure which method is more effective, but I’m leaning toward the less frequent/more intense method.

Higher frequency works better for me personally. I feel I gain very little working each bodypart only once a week.

Bryan Haycock has also cited research that show muscle recovery takes place within 36-48 hours so you spend two days growing and half a week in a semi-anticatabolic state returning to normal

If your bodybuilding then the higher frequency may not be ideal. Olympic lifters can get away with it because there is less breakdown and some of the workouts listed are used for ONLY restoration and for ONLY technique. They arent going balls to the wall every workout. All these programs we are comparing have different components, different outcomes, and different goals. As fun as it may be, comparing them is not appropriate.

DonM - I’m not that familiar with the training programs of the powerlifters you mentioned. Do they squat once, and deadlift once a week? If so, I think you can assume that there is quite a bit of carryover from the squat to deadlift, and back. Still though, I see your point when discussing the difference between pl’s and O lifters. Because if you are at 99% of your 1RM on the bench or the squat, the bar will move very slowly, but you can still complete the lift. Whereas an O lifter is limited more by technique since by definition the bar must move extremely fast. I think this allows O lifters to train more frequently. Also, from a skill standpoint they must. The skill involved in O lifting is much greater than in powerlifting and must be practiced frequently. You would never see other types of skill athletes limiting their training to once a week. Personally, I like to train each muscle group twice per week, but with different exercises. I’ve used Ian King’s ideas to refine my training, with 1 quad dom. day and 1 hip dom day, etc.

They all have their strongpoints and for best results you should vary the frequency, volume, and intensity. Since I’ve been doing this the past year I’ve made much better progress then just sticking to one train of thought. For hypertrophy, Poliquin gives a good example in his old personal training manual.

week #1 twice/day twice/week
week #2 once/day twice/week
week #3 once/day once/week