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The best training frequency for building muscle (according to scientific studies)

Die beste Trainingsfrequenz für den Muskelaufbau (laut wissenschaftlicher Studien)

The optimal training frequency is a hotly debated topic. Some would have you believe that you should train the whole body three times a week, while others think this approach will lead to overtraining, injury and burnout.

Anecdotal reports also cover a wide range of different training frequencies. Browse online forums and chat groups and you'll see stories of fantastic gains with just one training session per muscle group per week, as well as three, four or even five training sessions per muscle group.

Some exercisers also use mixed approaches where they train different muscle groups at different frequencies.

For example, some say that smaller muscle groups such as shoulders, biceps and calves should be trained three to four times a week, while large muscle groups such as the thighs only need one intensive training session per week.

If you turn to the scientific literature, you will find few reliable answers. Some studies seem to show that higher training frequencies work best, while others show that you can make just as much progress with fewer training sessions per week.

So what should you do?

Should you play it safe and keep your training frequency at the lower end of the spectrum, or should you go to the other end of the extremes, or should you choose something in the middle?

Here's the short answer:

As a natural exerciser (who doesn't abuse performance-enhancing substances), your optimal training frequency depends on the volume with which you train each muscle group per week.

In fact, you can think of training frequency more as a tool to achieve optimal weekly volume - rather than a vital element of muscle building.

In other words, there is no universal, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of optimal training frequency.

Are you ready for the long answer? If so, read on.

What is training frequency?

Training frequency is nothing more than a fancy term for how often you train per week. Most strength training programs include a training frequency of 3 to 5 times per week, which means you're doing 3 to 5 workouts with weights per week.

Some exercisers get even more specific and control their training frequency for each muscle group. Instead of just looking at how many times they go to the gym per week, they also look at how many times they train each muscle group per week.

For example, an upper body-lower body training program includes four training days per week and each muscle group is trained twice a week (two upper body training sessions and two lower body training sessions). So if you do bench presses on your first upper body day and incline bench presses on your second upper body training day, you will train your chest twice a week.

When putting together a training program, it's important to look at how often you train each primary muscle group per week.

For example, you could have a training frequency of 5 training days per week, but what if all your training sessions were focused on upper body exercises? This would not give you the results you want.

Summary: The term training frequency refers to both how often you train with weights per week and how often you train a specific muscle group per week.

What is the best training frequency for muscle building?

You will typically find two answers to this question:

  1. On the one hand, the traditional bodybuilding approach is to train each muscle group once a week until it's pumped up and sore.
  2. On the other hand, many scientists, bodybuilders and trainers advocate training each muscle group two to three times a week.

Who is right?

Well, the first thing you need to know about training frequency is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone in all circumstances. Instead, scientific research shows that the ideal training frequency depends on several factors.

One study review that helps solve this puzzle was conducted by scientists at the University of Gothenburg (1), who conducted an extensive search for studies that looked at the relationship between training frequency and muscle growth between 1970 and 2006. The scientists limited their search to studies that used...

  • used MRI or CT scans to measure muscle growth, which is considered the gold standard for quantifying muscle growth.
  • Used healthy, uninjured people between the ages of 18 and 59 as subjects.
  • All key details of the study design including number of sets, number of repetitions and exercises used were reported.

They also excluded all studies in which the subjects had a negative energy balance (weight loss), which significantly reduces gains in muscle mass and strength.

They ended up with 44 studies that they examined further and when they pooled and analyzed the data, they found that two to three workouts per muscle group generally produced the greatest gains.

The scientists emphasized that this is just a rule of thumb and that you should adjust your training program to fit your goals, experience level and recovery ability.

They also highlighted that beginners can often make excellent progress using lower training frequencies, while slightly more advanced and more advanced exercisers may require a higher training frequency.

This means that if you have just started training, you may only need to train each muscle group once or twice a week to maximize your muscle growth, whereas you may need up to three training sessions per week if you are closer to your genetic limit.

The results of this review are supported by numerous other studies conducted at the University of Alabama, Lehman College, Auckland University of Technology and the National Research Institute (2, 3, 4, 5)

On the other hand, there are many anecdotal reports from experienced strength athletes who have achieved good results with one workout per muscle group per week.

What's going on here?

Well, a comprehensive study review conducted in 2018 by researchers at Lehman College provides the missing piece of the puzzle (6). The scientists looked at 25 studies that looked at the relationship between training frequency and muscle growth. The results were surprising.

Unlike previous studies, they found no relationship between training frequency and muscle growth. So it didn't matter how often the subjects trained a muscle group per week - they built more or less the same amount of muscle.

However, there is a catch:

This only held true when they looked at studies where subjects in the high and low training frequency groups completed the same total volume (measured in total repetitions per week per muscle group) per week.

For example, if one group performed 30 repetitions of chest exercises twice a week, but another group performed 20 repetitions of chest exercises three times a week, then both groups built about the same amount of muscle because both groups had performed a total of 60 repetitions per week.

When the scientists went into further detail, they found that when one group performed a higher volume than the other group, the higher frequency usually led to more muscle growth.

In other words, this means the following: If you perform a high volume (repetitions) for a specific muscle group each week, then you will generally make greater gains if you split those repetitions across multiple workouts instead of performing them within one workout.

If you do a moderate volume per week for a specific muscle group, then you can do it all in one session without fear of compromising your results.

This is the reason why the authors concluded that, assuming you do enough total volume, you can choose your weekly training frequency per muscle group based on your personal preferences.

This means that the ideal training frequency for you will largely depend on the volume you complete per muscle group per week.

However, it's worth noting that there are several ways to quantify training volume. The number of repetitions performed is one, but I personally prefer to quantify training volume by counting 'hard sets' (sets performed to technical muscle failure) for several reasons.

When I refer to volume below, I mean it in the context of hard sets. This does not change anything we have said so far about the relationship between volume and frequency. It just makes it easier and more practical.

Summary: If you do a high volume (repetitions) for a specific muscle group each week, you will generally make greater progress if you split these repetitions over two to three training sessions. On the other hand, if you do a moderate volume, you can do it all in one session without compromising your results.

How to find your ideal training frequency

At this point, you probably want to know how to figure out how often you should train each muscle group to maximize your muscle growth.

How many sets should you do per muscle group per week?

Now, the ideal training volume is outside the focus of this article, but to make a long story short, most people will maximize their muscle growth if they perform 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week.

If you are a beginner, then you can build muscle effectively with fewer sets (10 to 12) and if you are an experienced strength athlete, then you will make better progress with more sets (12 to 20). And in some rare cases, such as correcting muscle imbalances or preparing for a competition, you might also benefit from periodically performing 20 to 25 sets per week for specific muscle groups.

The next question is how you should distribute these sets over the week.

As mentioned earlier, there is no hard and fast rule for this, but here's what I've found works well:

If you perform 10 to 12 sets per muscle group per week, you'll have the most flexibility in terms of your training frequency. You should have no problem doing all these sets during one training session if you want to. However, you can also split these sets over several training sessions if this suits your schedule or training style better.

However, if you are performing 10 to 20+ sets for one muscle group per week, you are better off splitting these sets into 2 or more workouts per week.

Why?

Well, you've probably experienced for yourself that you can only complete a certain number of productive sets during a training session before fatigue sets in and your performance starts to decline.

For example, if you were trying to complete 20 sets of chest training in a single session, you would probably feel good for the first 6 to 8 sets. After 8 sets you will start to feel exhausted, but you can continue. After another 4 or 5 sets, however, you will be on your last legs and have to force yourself to do every repetition, but you still have another 8 sets to go.

At this point, the only way to end the session is to reduce weight or reps or perform each set to absolute muscle failure, all of which will compromise your gains in strength and muscle mass over time.

A better approach is to perform 10 to 12 sets in one training session, give your chest a few days to recover and then complete 8 to 10 sets during another training session.

This approach is also supported by scientific research conducted by scientists at Hosei University, which showed that spreading your training volume over more days of the week reduced the perceived fatigue of each training session (7).

In other words, using a higher training frequency despite the same total volume will make your training sessions feel lighter (allowing you to train harder and use heavier weights).

Higher training frequencies are not inherently better than lower training frequencies - they just make it easier for you to perform more sets per week.

Here's an example of this principle in action:

  • Barbell bench press: Warm up and 3 hard sets
  • Barbell incline bench press: 3 hard sets
  • Dumbbell bench press: 3 hard sets
  • Tricep press: 3 hard sets

In this case, you perform 9 sets of chest exercises and 3 sets of tricep exercises. All of your chest exercises will also train your triceps to some degree, so you will perform the equivalent of about 6 to 12 sets of triceps exercises.

Later in the week, the program includes 3 more sets of chest training in the form of close grip bench presses, bringing the total amount of sets for chest to 12 per week.

In the case of other muscle groups such as biceps, you only train these directly once a week. In reality, however, you train your biceps twice a week, as you also train them indirectly with dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns. Your biceps also get a bit of a workout when you bench press, which is especially true for reverse incline bench presses and close grip bench presses (8, 9).

Some exercisers will still feel that the training frequency in this training program is far too low, but the truth is that you don't need to train each primary muscle group with more than 10 to 122 repetitions per week to maximize muscle and strength gains as a beginner. And as a result, you don't need to train each muscle group more than once or twice a week.

The bad reputation that "one muscle group per day" training splits have is mainly based on poor program design in the form of sub-optimal exercises, sub-optimal repetition ranges and sub-optimal training volume.

Many poor "bro splits" include too much isolation training with low weight and high repetitions, resulting in low training intensity and excessive volume with inferior exercises.

However, if you don't make these mistakes and follow a well-designed training program, you can achieve good results with just one training session per muscle group per week.

Everything you have learned so far is mainly applicable to beginners. What about more advanced exercisers.

The closer you get to your genetic potential for strength and muscle gains, the harder you will have to train to achieve further gains. And it usually comes down to using a higher volume and heavier weights than when you were a beginner.

So it's generally necessary to increase your training frequency to make it easier to cope with the extra volume and heavier weights.

For example, I design a training program that includes 16 sets of chest exercises per week - and you won't want to do all of this in one training session.

As you've just learned, this would necessitate reducing the training weight or reps, or performing the last sets to absolute muscle failure, which is far less productive than splitting the volume over multiple workouts.

To get around this problem, you could do 8 sets for chest on Monday and another 8 sets for chest on Friday.

In conclusion, the important thing to remember about training frequency is that it's not that important. What matters most is your total weekly volume (sets) and as the volume increases, so should the frequency.

Summary: The ideal training frequency for you depends on how much volume (sets) you perform for each muscle group per week. If you perform 10 to 12 per muscle group per week, then it is sufficient to train each muscle group only once or twice a week. If you perform 15 to 20+ sets per muscle group per week, then you can benefit from training each muscle group two or three times a week.

The bottom line on the best training frequency for muscle building

For decades, bodybuilding orthodoxy has consisted of maltreating each muscle group with a large amount of volume once a week.

This may work if you have exceptional genetics or better yet steroids, but as science shows, this approach is misguided for the rest of us.

In reality, the ideal training frequency for you depends on how high your total volume (sets) per week is for each muscle group.

High or low training frequencies are not inherently better or worse - the details are important.

If you try to pack too many sets into a single training session, then the quality of those sets will start to suffer as your training session progresses and you will be better off splitting those sets into two or three training sessions.

If you are relatively new to training with weights, and you don't need to perform so many sets per muscle group per week to build muscle and strength, then you can achieve good results with just one workout per muscle group per week.

However, you will eventually reach a point where you will need to do a few more sets per muscle group per week to continue making progress and the most productive way to do this is to increase your training frequency.

Although there are no definitive guidelines on how many sets you should perform per muscle group per week or exactly when you should increase your training frequency, here is what I have found works best:

  1. If you are relatively new to training with weights, then training each muscle group 10 to 12 sets per week is enough to maximize strength and muscle gains. If you want, you can do all these sets in one day a week without compromising the quality of your sets.
  2. If you are a slightly advanced or more advanced exerciser, then you will need to train each muscle group 15 to 20 sets per week to maximize gains in strength and muscle mass. In this case, you should split these sets into two or more training sessions per week.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326698
  2. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2000/08000/Comparison_of_1_Day_and_3_Days_Per_Week_of.6.aspx#pdf-link
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25932981
  4. https://openrepository.aut.ac.nz/handle/10292/1173
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4885621/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30558493
  7. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.00744/abstract
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5295722/
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16095407

Source: https://legionathletics.com/training-frequency/

By Michael Matthews

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