Reading Time: 6 minutes 10 seconds
By: Josh Bryant
As personal trainers, we work in a service-based industry.
As such, our paycheques are a direct reflection of the results we help our clients attain.
That's why it's our responsibility to not just be highly attuned to the goals of the athletes we seek to train - but also to the well-researched protocols that help them achieve those goals in the fastest and safest way possible.
It's the battle cry of the gym floor.
Not a day goes by that I don't talk to a prospective client who signs up with aspirations of achieving a surreal, muscular physique in short order.
From action stars to action figures, the mainstream media has a lot to do with the evolving perception of our ideal body image. And whether or not that's a positive thing - or a perilous one - is the subject of another article.
But for now, let's simply accept that it's a real and growing phenomenon.
And as a well paid, in-demand trainer, your responsibility isn't to refute reality but serve it in the best way possible.
Easier said than done, right?
With so much conflicting advice bouncing around gym walls, it's mentally (and physically) draining to separate fact from fiction and lead your client to the holy grail of rapid, lean muscle growth.
One such area in need of major demystifying - Training Frequency.
So let's say a client storms into your gym ready to put in as much work as needed to tack on some serious muscle and do so fast.
He's highly committed and ready to hit the weights as often as you instruct him to.
Let's also assume he's playing it clean - meaning no performance-enhancing drugs, hormone injections or other dangerous quick fixes.
So how often would you train him to achieve maximize muscularity?
(Ask this to 10 different people, and you'll get 10 different answers.)
On one extreme is the HIT zealot who'll recommend you hit the gym one to two times per week with maximum intensity.
And on the other extreme is the guy who can be heard in locker rooms across the country screaming out the mantra - "There is no such thing as overtraining!"
So it all gets murky and confusing... and instead of dogmatically adhering to the training philosophy of he who grunts loudest, let's take a look at what science has to say on the topic.
Cue the cutoff labcoats.
Frequency, Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength: The Study Design
Many studies have been published over the years attempting to resolve the longstanding debate of training frequency with regards to muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Of them, the most reliable I've found is this one: "Effect of Two- Versus Three-Way Split Resistance Training Routines on Body Composition and Muscular Strength in Bodybuilders: A Pilot Study" published in May in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.
10 Brazilian male, drug-free bodybuilders aged 23-29 with testosterone levels in the normal range were involved in this study.
To be eligible for this study, participants were required to:
Have not used performance-enhancing drugs in the six months prior to the study
Be non-smokers and non-drinkers
Have been professional bodybuilders for at least three years
The study measured body composition using the gold standard DEXA Scan, and strength was measured via a one-repetition maximum (1RM) on the bench press
The group of 10 was randomly split into two different groups of five, one that trained four times per week (Group 1) and another that trained six times per week (Group 2)
All training programs were volume matched; volume is simply a product of this: (weight x sets x reps). For example, bench pressing 200 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps is 6,000 pounds of volume (200x3x10).
In a nutshell, everyone did the same amount of work over a week, the only difference was this: Group 1 trained over four days and Group 2 trained over six.
All of the subjects trained for a total of four weeks. The training program used four sets of six to 12 repetitions with maximal weights to muscular failure, in a pyramid scheme for each exercise.
More details for your nerding-out enjoyment: All subjects trained each body part two times per week but Group 1 distributed the training over four sessions per week while Group 2 distributed the training over six sessions per week. And Group 1 therefore performed two different workouts per week (A and B) and Group 2 performed three different workouts per week (A, B and C).
Wanna get more details about the test? Go here to see the full program and nutrition protocol.
Group 1's program, (A and B), was performed on Mondays and Thursdays and consisted of exercises for the chest, shoulders, triceps, calf, and abdomen in the following order: bench press, incline dumbbell fly, cable cross over, barbell military press, lateral raise, lying triceps French press, triceps pushdown, standing calf raise, seated calf raise, crunch, and cable crunch.
Program B was executed on Tuesdays and Fridays and included exercises for the back, biceps, forearms, thighs, and abs in the following order: vbar pull down, bent over barbell row, seated cable row, arm curl, alternate incline dumbbell curl, seated palm up barbell wrist curl, seated palm down barbell wrist curl, squat, leg extension, lying leg curl, oblique crunch, and seated leg tuck.
Group 2 performed the same exercises but split into three sessions (A, B, and C). Program A was performed on Mondays and Thursdays and included exercises for the chest, shoulders, triceps, and abs. Program B was carried out on Tuesdays and Fridays and included exercises for the back, biceps, and forearms. Program C was on Wednesdays and Saturdays and consisted of exercises for the thigh, calf, and abs.
All subjects were put on a regimented food plan for the duration of the study.
They ate six times daily, for a total 66 calories per kilogram of body weight, while eating 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight; the remaining calories came from carbohydrates (76% of total calories) and 13 % from fat.
So, who bulked up?
It was initially believed that Group 2 would achieve superior gains in muscle size and strength. Why? Because they trained more frequently. They hit the gym more often.
Can you guess what actually happened?
Both groups gained significant lean body mass; however, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Group 1's subjects increased lean mass 4.2%, and Group 2's subjects increased lean mass by 3.5%. This showed a trend - non-significant though it may be - in favor of training less frequently.
On the strength side, both groups showed gains: Group 1 increased by 8.4%, and Group 2 enjoyed a bump of 11.4%, not showing any significant difference.
This is the conclusion researchers came to: with all factors being equal, four and six training sessions per week are equally effective in achieving both muscle mass and strength. (tweet this)
While this particular study controlled the variables MUCH better than others I had read, it was still limited by:
Its short duration of 1 month
The type of lift: strength gains were tested solely using the bench press
Possibility of drug use - participants showed normal testosterone levels, but prior drug use couldn't be ruled out
The group contained just 10 participants
For any trainer who has struggled to answer this old-age question of how often one should train, you can you now enter the debate with this study.
But more importantly, you can now SERVE clients in a way that helps them achieve their hypertrophy goals in a way that works with their lifestyle.
(which is kinda the point, right?)
The answer is no program - no matter how well designed - will be effective if the client isn't using it.
So ultimately, the freedom for clients to choose between more frequent (but shorter) workouts and less frequent (but longer) ones will lead to increased commitment, better results and more loyalty to you as a trainer.
In other words... get the work in and split to their preference!
Ribeiro, AS, et. al, "Effect of two- versus three-way split resistance training routines on body composition and muscular strength in bodybuilders: a pilot study"; International Journal of Sport Nutrition Exercise Metabolism; May 2015
Pope, H.et, al, "Evolving ideals of male body image as seen through action toys. International Journal of Eating Disorders; 1999
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