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Exercising three days a week is best Achieve greater gains. Go to the gym less often.

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A better way to train with weights

One of the most fundamental decisions every exerciser has to make is how often he or she wants to train each week. A related question is how often each muscle or muscle group should be trained per week.

Train too often and you will have problems recovering sufficiently. Don't train often enough and you'll get back to baseline (or below) between workouts. Obviously, this is an important factor when designing your training program! If you're like most exercisers, your optimal training frequency is three sessions per week.

This recommendation is in stark contrast to some of the popular training styles practiced today:

  • Train squats every day: I've seen some compelling arguments for the so-called "Bulgarian" approach from trainers I like and respect, but for reasons I'll get into below, this high-frequency lifestyle is less than optimal for most.
  • Bro Splits: These are training splits where you have a leg day, a back day, an arm day, etc. Each muscle group is trained roughly once a week. If you're so damn big and strong that you need six days to recover from training one muscle group, then this is a great training structure. But evaluate yourself honestly - does your chest muscle training wear you out so much that you need almost a week to recover from it? Probably not.
  • Push-Pull: This is probably the best of these three examples, but two upper body and two lower body training days per week is probably not a high enough frequency unless you're doing over 160 kilos on the bench and over 250 kilos on squats. If you're not at those numbers yet, you'll be better off training each muscle group a little more frequently.

Success leaves clues

If you haven't done much research on the bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting stars of the fifties, sixties and seventies of the last century, then you may be more impressed than you would have expected.

Despite the relatively primitive status of the performance-enhancing substances, nutritional science and training modalities of the time, there were plenty of strength and physique athletes who could rival the stars of today - guys like Franco Columbo, Anatoly Pisarenko, Bill Kazmaier and Doug Young, to name but a few.

This is not to say that all successful athletes in the field of weight training and bodybuilding trained three times a week back then, but many did. And one of the most established and successful training programs of all time is the legendary "5x5" program by Bill Starr, who - you've probably guessed it - used a three-day-a-week training structure.

This program (and all its variations) is the basic tool of strength coach Mark Rippetoe, who specializes in helping young trainees gain mass and strength so quickly that they are often falsely accused of doping.

For whom is a training program with 3 training days per week best suited?

Probably for you. Three training days per week tends to work for exercisers who weigh between 85 and 100 kilos and whose training weights are in the following ranges:

  • Squats: 140 to 170 kilos
  • Bench press: 100 to 130 kilos
  • Deadlift: 170 to 200 kilos

If you are significantly lighter and/or weaker than this, then you should consider full body training sessions four times a week or about every other day. If you are stronger, then use the push/pull system. If you are crazy bulky and strong, then use the bro split.

There are also some lifestyle considerations that influence this decision. If you work a lot - and especially if you do physical labor - or if you have a lot of stress or other commitments, then limiting your workouts to 3 per week will pay off for you. Training is only useful if you can recover and regenerate from training - and your training sessions are just one of the many forms of stress you experience during the day.

It's worth noting that back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, most jobs involved more physical labor than they do today. This is probably one of the big reasons (along with less pharmaceutical support) that the three days a week exercise regimen worked so well. So if you're a construction worker who is on your feet all day, a three-day-a-week training program could make a dramatic difference.

Lastly, remember that the law of diminishing returns also applies to training frequency:

  • Is training two days a week better than training one day a week? Absolutely.
  • Are three workouts a week better than two? Almost all training experts would say yes.
  • What about four training sessions per week? This is where things start to get more controversial.

For some people, four workouts a week might be better, but for others it might not. But even if four workouts a week is better, it's probably only slightly better than three. So even if you don't think three workouts a week is better than four, you can't deny the efficiency of getting 90% of the results with only 75% of the work.

With all this in mind, a very practical litmus test for fine-tuning your training frequency is to look at your progress in the gym. If you're working hard and getting results, then your training frequency is probably right. If, on the other hand, you're working your ass off day in, day out and not making progress, it means you're not recovering sufficiently and should consider reducing your training frequency.

The benefits of 3 training sessions per week

1 - Higher frequency

All else being equal, the more you can spread your training volume over a greater number of sessions, the better results you are likely to achieve.

If we compare three training days per week to a push/pull system, then you might notice something interesting. Let's say you typically do 4 sets of chest work, which in a push/pull system means 8 sets per chest exercise per week.

If you move to a full body workout with a 3 training days per week structure, you are now performing 12 sets per week because you will be training your pecs three days per week instead of two. That's a 50% increase in volume. Seems significant, right? And what's even more important is the fact that if you bench press weights in the 100 to 130 kilo range, you'll probably have recovered within 2 days and won't need 3 or 4 days.

If you don't repeat the training stimulus as soon as your recovery is complete, then you will lose some ground. Week after week, month after month, this will add up to a lot of lost ground.

2 - Better recovery

If you train three days a week, then by definition you are recovering four days a week. Combine this with the point about higher training frequency and you start to see the magic. You're training each muscle group more frequently while getting more recovery. That's hard to beat.

By recovery I mean passive and (possibly even better) active recovery. You could simply rest on your four non-training days or do complementary activities such as cardio, flexibility training, etc. If you train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, then you can schedule these restorative activities on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and take Sunday completely off.

3 - Better adherence to the program

In a recent interview, the self-proclaimed "world's strongest bodybuilder" Stan Efferding said that consistency is at the top of the list when it comes to what to consider when training.

He meant that no matter how optimal a given training system is, it won't pay off if you can't do it consistently. Training three days a week will allow you more time in your life besides training - training-free weekends with your family, time for hobbies and enough energy to take on life's responsibilities without being overloaded. Consider this if the stresses of life are interfering with your training sessions.

What it all looks like

If you work out three times a week, you'll be doing full-body workouts, which means you'll be working your upper body and lower body during the same session. These workouts can (and will) be longer than what you're used to if you train more often.

An example training week might look like this:

Monday

  • Split squats
  • Dumbbell bench press
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Lat pulldown with close grip
  • Standing dumbbell curls
  • Lying tricep press

Wednesday

  • Pull-ups
  • Back extensions
  • Bench press
  • Hackenschmidt squats
  • Tricep presses on the cable pulley
  • Cable curls

Friday deadlift

  • Deadlift
  • T-bar rowing
  • Front squats
  • Dumbbell incline bench press
  • SZ- Curls
  • Standing calf raises

Here are a few notes on this hypothetical example:

  • The first four exercises of each training session represent the four primary movement patterns for strength and hypertrophy development: squat movement, press, (hip) hinge exercise, and pull. The last two exercises of each training session are optional exercises - things you want to do or should do that don't fit perfectly into the four primary movement patterns.
  • The optional exercises can include anything from direct arm training, calf training or ab workouts to loaded carries, power cleans, box jumps or whatever else might fit your needs. You have a lot of flexibility here, which you should use to your advantage.
  • The key point is this: if you train your four "big" movement patterns three times a week, then you will stimulate a large muscle terrain with the least number of exercises and minimal redundancy. In other words, you will get the most value for your training investment.
  • For each "adjacent" training session, the exercises chosen for each of the primary movement patterns should be as different as possible. If you perform vertical pulls and horizontal presses on Monday, then you should perform horizontal pulls and vertical presses on Wednesday. Since fatigue is specific, maximizing the variance of exercises (within the confines of this template) will allow you to recover faster and you will also be less prone to scheme-specific overuse injuries.
  • In a Monday/Wednesday/Friday setup, you will have more recovery time after the Friday session than after the Monday and Wednesday sessions. For this reason, you should place the most demanding exercises - the exercises that require the most recovery - on Friday.
  • For me, the latter means deadlifts, but for you it could be something else. I'm also more willing to go hard on the optional exercises on Friday because I know I have more days for recovery and healing. So you could use that day for Loaded Carries or something similarly masochistic.
  • The Friday training session can be moved to Saturday with minimal (or no) negative impact on the overall training program. So if you have more muscle soreness than expected on Friday, or if an unexpected event keeps you from training, you have enough flexibility to make adjustments without negative effects.

Adding "supporting" activities to this template

Exercising is a bit like cooking, which results in a great meal but also a messy kitchen. For many exercisers, it's best to spend off-training days cleaning up the kitchen before it's time to cook again.

In my case, I love bench pressing but tend to have a somewhat kyphotic (curved) spine posture, so on my off days I do mobility exercises for my upper back, chest and shoulders. Additionally, I go for a walk to get some blood moving through the body and burn some calories.

If fat loss is part of your goal, these non-training days are the best time to do cardio to boost energy expenditure and fat loss. If you are a recreational athlete, you can use your training-free days to train in the sport of your choice. There are a variety of options here - and you should try them all.

Make this scheme your own

If you are working hard without getting satisfactory results while training four or more days a week, or if you have a physically demanding job, or if you have many responsibilities and a lot of stress, then you should give this approach a chance.

Remember that there is plenty of room for personal customization with this template - whether you are a weightlifter, a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, a strongman athlete or just a serious recreational athlete. Simply apply this template and its basic principles to your own situation.

Source: https://www.t-nation.com/training/lifting-3-days-a-week-is-best

By Charles Staley

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