09 Jul Optimal Training Frequency: How Often Should You Train Each Muscle Group?
Generally speaking, the more frequently you can train a muscle while still getting stronger and without exceeding your recovery capacity, the more progress you’ll make.
For the average, drug-free lifter I’ve found the sweet spot in training frequency to be between 2 to 3 times a week, or every 3 to 4 days.
If you’re a beginner, a female or someone with an enhanced recovery capacity (e.g. someone with very low stress levels), training body parts three times a week is ideal.
For most of these clients, I like to start them off on three full body workouts a week.
The reason for this is that the loads being lifted are not heavy, and so the toll on their central nervous system and joints is minimal.
As a beginner, you’re also in the learning phase of your training where you need frequent exposure to similar movement patterns to be able to improve your muscle synchronisation and nervous system firing.
I included females in this bracket too because of their typically higher recovery capacity. Women recover very quickly from session to session and so can handle much higher training volumes and frequencies without any detriment to their strength or progress.
Once a beginner begins to get stronger and is unable to recover from full body workouts, I like to shift them onto a frequency of training body parts twice a week.
An upper / lower split, or a variation of this, is my preferred option.
Intermediate guys thrive off this split and can do a variation of an upper / lower program for years with great progress. In fact, this is something you can continue to do right into your later advanced/older years if you program it correctly. Some of the biggest and strongest lifters in the world still use this split.
Many of my clients are in this intermediate stage, and the first change I almost always make to their programming when they come on board is have them switch from a once a week split (that most are on), to training body parts twice a week.
At first, you’ll be sore as your body adjusts to the frequency, but after a few weeks your body will adapt and begin to pack on muscle mass quickly.
The reason once a week training for beginner / intermediates doesn’t work well is because I believe there to be a ‘detraining’ effect after 3-5 days.
The weaker and more new to training you are, the quicker this effect takes place, so you’ll miss out on a lot of potential progress if you don’t capitalise on the higher frequencies.
The only time I typically go lower than twice a week in training frequency is if I’m dealing with any one of the following types of clients:
- They’re extremely strong, and need more recovery days off in between.
If the goal is bodybuilding, then I’d definitely look at reducing frequency to every 5-7 days. Remember, as you get strong the toll on your joints and spine increases, and the stress on the nervous system from the higher intensity training will require more recovery.
- They have a ton of injuries, and can’t handle the joint stress.
Some older, beat up trainees will have a ton of joint issues accumulated from years of bad habits which just makes training a muscle hard more than once every 5-7 days impossible.
- Psychologically, they get bored training a muscle group more than once a week.
There will just be some people who thrive off having one day a week to smash up a particular body part. While I don’t think it’s always optimal, playing to someone’s personality type will do more for progress than anything, so I’d roll with it.
- They’re prioritising specific areas and putting some body parts on maintenance.
If you want to bring up a specific body part and you chose to increase the frequency of training it, you’ll need to put other body parts on maintenance in order to keep recovery in check.
This brings me to the next point. A common question I’m asked is that if training a muscle group twice a week is good, won’t 3,4,5 or 6 times be better?
This question has cropped up a lot recently given the recent craze for high frequency lifting. There’s a time and place for high frequencies, but I think they only work best for short 4-6 week blasts of body part specialisation protocols.
Long term, I don’t see any benefits if your goal is body composition. If we want to build muscle and improve a physique, we need to create progressive overload and damage in the muscle. And if we do this successfully, we need adequate rest in between sessions to be able to do it again, and better.
Training body parts all the time will only lead to reduced intensity, inadequate session volume, beat up joints and ultimately stagnation.
Therefore to sum up, here’s what I recommend for most based on what’s worked successfully with hundreds of clients over the years:
Beginners: 3 full body workouts, or every 2-3 days
Intermediates: Upper / lower split, or every 3-4 days
Advanced: Split can vary; every 3 to 7 days