In my role as a coach, one question I am frequently asked is
how often should I train?
It would be all too easy for me to tell a potential client that they need to train with me 3 to 5 times a week and therefore maximise coaching income, fortunately I’m far too honest to take this approach.
Instead I inform prospective clients that the training frequency required by them to reach their goals very much depends on them as an individual.
This article will look at the various factors that should be considered in order to decide on optimal training frequency. These factors mean that there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of training frequency. So, what I plan to do here is consider all the factors in such a way so that you can figure out what you need yourself.
Before we consider all of the factors pertaining to frequency, it would be a good idea to define what frequency means. To put it really simply, it just means the number of times you train per week. However, a better way to define it would be that it is how you organise and arrange your training volume and intensity in order to optimise the effectiveness of your week’s training.
Before I go into any detail, it would be good to get a greater understanding of volume and Intensity. These topics are worthy of articles in themselves so I will keep explanations brief for the purpose of this post.
Volume has been shown to be a decisive factor in your training, particularly in relation to strength and size increases. Volume incorporates –
- Time or duration covered
- Distance covered/weight lifted
- The repetitions of an exercise performed
Whereas volume is the quantitative variable, intensity is the qualitative one. The more work that a person does within a single session, then the more intense that session is. The intensity depends on the following:
- speed of performance
- variation of rest between sets/reps.
One point often overlooked about intensity is the psychological effect it can have on a person.
In the case of strength or size gains, intensity would depend mainly upon the load utilised in a workout. For example, reps at 80% would be a lot more intense than singles at 70%.
Relationship between Volume and Intensity
As the volume goes up in a workout the intensity should come down, and vice versa. Whichever variable you decide to focus on will have a different effect upon your body’s adaptation. Finding the optimal balance of both is a tricky task. Strength athletes could use Prilepin’s chart to this end.
Now, onto frequency.
Your Training Level
In order to organise your frequency, you need to know what you are training for and your relative training experience.
I include the latter part as while it might be optimal to train bench press 4 times a week, for a complete beginner who has no previous experience of training bench, jumping into training 4x too quickly would be disastrous for your upper body as well as your adherence.
The most important point is to organise your volume into a reasonable and manageable schedule. As you become more experienced you will be able to handle more and more volume. Frequency becomes more important here as you can organise the extra volume in such a way to give you time to recover.
If you get to a point in your training where you are recovering well but not progressing, then you have reached the dreaded plateau. The way around this is generally to add more volume (you would reduce volume if you had plateaued and struggling to recover) and in order to do this you might need to add another day of training.
You should always be training in such a way that you have recovered adequately for the next session. If you aren’t recovering properly then it is likely that you are doing too much volume. Alternatively, you shouldn’t be feeling 100% refreshed, especially if you are quite far into a training block.
So basically, the more advanced you are the more days you should be training. Beginners could progress with a full body plan performed twice a week, whereas a more advanced lifter might have an upper/lower split or even different body parts on different days.
A common mistake with beginners is that they try to run before they can walk.
Imagine you factored too much volume into your training plan at first and completely plateaued for a number of months. It would be pretty hard to sustain your love of training, wouldn’t it? The good intentions of going into the gym to go ‘beast mode’ or to ‘tear it up’ are all well and good, but you simply can’t do this every session. If you do, you won’t have time to recover, improve or enjoy your training. Without these things, you’ll start skipping workouts, either through pain, fatigue or just simply not wanting to go.
Once you have figured out your volume and come up with a way to organise your week to match that level of volume, then your next step is to practice it and see how it works for you.
If you find that you are not recovering or adhering to the programme, then either your volume or frequency are unsustainable.
If you’re not recovering, lower the frequency (or just the volume). Or, if you find yourself doing one workout and barely feeling an effect then it might be worth upping the volume on that day.
Fatigue and Stress Levels
As you can surmise from the previous section, too much volume can increase your fatigue to irrecoverable heights! An important part of a periodised plan is the increase of volume to the point where your body is fatigued. Now you might be reading this and thinking “but the last part said to avoid this!” What I mean here, is the controlled build-up of volume over a number of weeks or months.
The reason for this is what is known as compensation. This is where your body gets used to being broken down by training, say down to 70%, and then it recovers that 30%. The longer you keep doing this the less efficient you will be at recovering, you might only recover by 25% up to 95%. The further into this phase (known as ‘over reaching’) you go the more you will need to recover, but the less efficient you’ll be. A good periodised plan would have you reach this point a few days to a week before a competition or testing day, etc., and then you will go through a de-load. This de-load will have a fairly drastic drop in volume and intensity (which, as we’ve seen affects frequency) which then makes it so your body will only break down to say 80-85% but will then still try and recover by the 25-30% that it is used to.
By suddenly being able to recover so well you will reach a point of near physical perfection (that is, your mental and neuro-muscular capacities will be ticking at as high a level as is possible for you).
If you are quite new to training and are considering trying this then I’d advise you not to. This only really works if you have a really solid foundation of the physical capacities, as well as the solid bio-motor skills, of which you are training for.
Building up your fatigue and stress levels is something that can be managed and manipulated by the organisation of your training frequency. You might find that when you are trying to build up your volume, you are training say 4x a week, but when you are on a de-load it might only be 2 or 3x a week.
Recommendations for Frequency
At the start of this article I wrote that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer for this, and to make it even more confusing, what works for you now might not work 6 months down the line. So, while it is down to the individual, it is also experience and goal-specific. As a result of this any recommendations I offer here would be more like a ball park then a little wiggle room.
- Your volume should be within the 40-70 rep range per muscle group per session. The intensity range is going to be dependent upon your goals, a strength athlete should have 66% – 75% of their training in the 1-6 rep max range. Whereas a hypertrophy athlete should be 66% – 75% in the 6-12 rep max range.
- Finally, the frequency at which you should train should be – each body part or movement 2-3 times a week.
- The frequency here means that your volume is going to be in the 80-210 reps per body part or movement per week.
As you can see 80-210 reps per week is a huge range to play with. If you are a beginner, start off on the lower end and build it up, otherwise you risk running into an over reached phase at a point where you don’t have the bio-motor skills or physical foundation to manage it, and this can lead to injuries or could just make the training unsustainable.
Danny Lee is a strength coach and owner of Danny Lee Fitness based in Taylor’s Strength Training in Liverpool. He has been coaching since 2013 and has competed in Powerlifting since 2014.