Deciding training frequency is one of the first aspects to address in any successful program.
Most people make the wrong assumption that to get better results, they need to go the gym every day. Unfortunately, if we don’t know what we are doing, this choice can lead to disasters.
As we will see in a minute, frequency alone will not determine our success as athletes. Despite its importance, frequency is only one of the training variables we want to control. There are, at least, two other essential variables to consider: intensity and volume.
What is Training Frequency?
Frequency can be defined as how many times we train per week, or how many times we train a lift or muscle group per week. For example, if we go to the gym four times per week, our total frequency for the week is obviously going to be four.
However, if we organize our workouts in two upper-body and two lower-body sessions, our lower-body frequency is only going to be two. Depending on the exercises we select, our squat frequency might only be one or two times per week.
In wider terms, however, it’s more useful to think of frequency as the way we organize training.
By deciding how often to train and how to adjust the training variables, we can distribute the training stress over a certain time span. This allows us to fit our schedule and avoid doing too much (or too little) work in a single session.
Frequency, Intensity, and Volume
Some people refer to frequency as if it’s a stimulus on its own. However, I think it’s important to understand that all training variables are related and affect each other.
There are three main training variables. Intensity, volume, and frequency.
Increasing or decreasing one of them, without adjusting the other two accordingly, can have a significant impact on the total amount of stress we place on the body. This change in workload might totally overwhelm our adaptive capacity or, conversely, not even disrupt the homeostasis.
For example, let’s consider a standard, three times per week, full-body routine for beginners, consisting of 3 sets of 5 repetitions of bench press, squat, and deadlift.
A hypothetical training session might look like this:
|Exercise||Load x Reps x Sets||Bench Press||60 kg x 5 x 3|
|Squat||80 kg x 5 x 3|
|Deadlift||90 kg x 5 x 3|
|Daily Volume (tonnage)||3450 kg (7590 lb)|
|Weekly Volume (tonnage)||3450 kg (7590 lb) x 3 = 10350 kg (22770 lb)|
Now, let’s play with this routine a bit. More specifically, we will be increasing one variable at the time, without varying the other two.
We will see how this maneuver has a direct impact on the overall volume (tonnage) and, consequently, the training stress.
Let’s say that, for some reason, we decide to increase intensity in our workouts. As I explain in this article, in the context of weight training, increasing intensity means to increase the load on the bar.
However, by doing so, we will also inevitably cause an increase in both daily and weekly tonnage. This is obvious as, frequency and volume (sets x reps) being equal, the load has increased.
For example, adding an arbitrary 10 kg (22 lb) to each lift of our standard routine, daily tonnage jumps from 3450 (7590 lb) to 3900 kg (8580 lb). Weekly tonnage from 10350 kg (22720 lb) to 11700 kg (25740 lb).
|Exercise||Standard Routine||High Intensity|
|Bench Press||60 kg x 5 x 3||70 kg x 5 x 3 1050|
|Squat||80 kg x 5 x 3||90 kg x 5 x 3 1350|
|Deadlift||90 kg x 5 x 3||100 kg x 5 x 3|
|Daily Volume (tonnage)||3450 kg (7590 lb)||3900 kg (8580 lb)|
|Weekly Volume (tonnage)||10350 kg (22720 lb)||11700 kg (25740 lb)|
Potentially, this change in volume could affect our ability to recover and produce force. Thus, the need to reduce the workload by adjusting the other two training variables.
We have two options. Number one, we simply to reduce volume by reducing the number of sets and repetitions. Number two, we increase frequency by adding another day to our schedule. This allows us to decrease daily workload and reorganize the volume for the week over four days, instead of three.
Going back to our standard routine, let’s see what happens if, instead of intensity, we decide to increase volume.
We can easily accomplish that by adding more sets and/or repetitions to our routine. Intensity and frequency remain unvaried for the moment. Let’s say, for example, that we are going to perform 5 sets of 5 repetitions instead of 3.
Our hypothetical high volume session might now look like this:
|Exercise||Standard Routine||High Volume|
|Bench Press||60 kg x 5 x 3||60 kg x 5 x 5|
|Squat||80 kg x 5 x 3||80 kg x 5 x 5|
|Deadlift||90 kg x 5 x 3||90 kg x 5 x 5|
|Daily Volume (tonnage)||3450 kg (7590 lb)||5750 kg (12650 lb)|
|Weekly Volume (tonnage)||10350 kg (22720 lb)||17250 kg (37950 lb)|
Again, both daily and weekly volume increase. This is logical since we are turning our standard routine into a higher volume routine. However, more volume means more fatigue and longer workouts.
This can become a problem because we may not have enough time or energy to complete all the sets at the required intensity. Again, to accommodate this, we have two options.
Number one, we could opt for a slight reduction in intensity. This should help to finish each session at the desired volume (sets x reps).
Alternatively, we could increase frequency and spread the higher volume over more training days. This way, we would prevent excessive fatigue to accumulate and have enough time to recover and display strength.
As a third option, we could decide to increase frequency by adding another session to our standard routine. This time, leaving intensity and volume the same.
Our hypothetical high-frequency session would look identical to the standard routine. Yet, the weekly volume would still go up because now we are spending four days in the gym instead of three.
|Exercise||Standard Routine||High Frequency|
|Bench Press||60 kg x 5 x 3||60 kg x 5 x 3|
|Squat||80 kg x 5 x 3||80 kg x 5 x 3|
|Deadlift||90 kg x 5 x 3||90 kg x 5 x 3|
|Daily Volume (tonnage)||3450 kg (7590 lb)||3450 kg (7590 lb)|
|Weekly Volume (tonnage)||10350 kg (22720 lb)||3450 kg (7590 lb) x 4 = 13800 kg (30360 lb)|
Once again, overall weekly volume might be too much to handle. To balance things out, we could reduce either the number of sets and repetitions or the load on the bar.
The Role of Frequency
As said earlier, we can define frequency as how many times we go to the gym (or train a lift or muscle group), but also as the way we organize training.
Either way, frequency has a direct influence on two essential aspects of training. Practice and recovery.
Practice is the amount of time spent performing a given exercise. Every sport requires a certain amount of practice because it takes time for our nervous system to learn and ingrain new movements,
Intuitively, we all know that the more we practice something, the better we become at it. However, for that to happen, a few principles need to be observed.
For example, how do we improve our basketball free throw shooting? Do we go to the court once a week, keep on shooting for hours until our arm hurts, the ball don’t get past the foul line, and then spend the rest of the week doing nothing?
Everybody knows that our basketball game will improve the most by going to the court as frequently as possible and stop shooting as we feel that our throws start to get worse.
So why not apply the same concept to the movements we perform in the gym?
Frequency and Practice
If we stimulate a neural pathway (movement) and the outcome is positive, the next time, the same amount of mental effort will result in a more efficient neuromuscular output.
As Pavel Tsatsouline puts it, the “groove has been greased”. In the process, we get stronger.
But the opposite is also true. If we start to miss repetitions or the form starts to break, the body fails to perform the brain’s command. The outcome becomes negative.
As a result, the “groove gets rusty”. Future attempts at performing the same movement will result in less efficient muscular contractions, despite the same level of mental effort. In other words, our technique gets worse and, in the process, we become weaker.
This happens because strength is not just a quality of the body, but also a skill. We need to get better at the movement that we want to get stronger at.
So, in this sense, increasing frequency is a good idea if we want to improve in the gym. Frequent practice makes us more familiar with the movements, more efficient at performing them and, consequently, stronger.
However, as we’ve seen before, frequency is not the only variable to consider. Randomly increasing it can generate an excessive amount of volume and seriously hamper our ability to recover.
Frequency and Recovery
Strength training is a form of skill practice involving structural and neurological adaptations, as well as how familiar (skilled) we are with the movements we perform.
Based on this concept, one might be tempted to increase frequency in the attempt to speed up the learning process. Training very frequently (up to one or more times per day) is actually a quite common practice in strength sports. However, to be effective, a couple of principles need to be observed. The principles of motor learning.
Number one, practice must be specific. High-frequency training means that we are going to perform certain movements a lot. This is only possible if the movements we select are few. More exercises equate less time available for each one, hence, less frequency.
Number two, we must practice fresh and avoid accumulating too much fatigue.
As we’ve seen earlier, increasing frequency also causes volume to increase and, with volume, comes fatigue. Once fatigue sets in, the quality of our movements starts deteriorating. This has a negative impact on our skill practice and safety in the gym.
Also, the more volume we perform, the longer it takes to recover. And the more time we spend recovering, the less often we get to practice.
So, in general, if frequency goes up, volume needs to go down. But how much?
If we drop volume too much, the risk is to not accumulate enough stress to trigger the stress-recovery-adaptation process. Despite frequent practice, this might slow down progress, or stall it all together.
Additionally, every repetition counts towards practice. With very few sets or repetitions per workout, we don’t really get to identify mistakes and correct them. Even if we perform perfectly, we don’t have the chance to repeat it and ingrain it until the next workout.
In other words, with our workouts, we want to provide enough stress to trigger adaptation. At the same time, however, we also want to manage the fatigue coming from these workouts.
Ultimately, our goal is to never have to wait too much before the next session or, conversely, not have enough time to recover.
This entire process is called fatigue management. The fine art by which we time and dose stress and recovery in order to maximize adaptation.
Frequency is a game of timing. If we train very frequently, our skill and strength improve faster but we risk to not get adequate recovery. On the other hand, if we train too infrequently, we get plenty of rest but we lose skill and strength.
There is a direct relationship between frequency and volume. Finding the optimal frequency means to balance training stress, recovery, and our schedule.
This is accomplished by properly managing the training variables. Every time we increase or decrease one (or more) of them, training volume changes. This allows us to adjust it and organize it in different ways, according to our needs.
To meet our goals and schedule, it is possible to set up an optimal high intensity, high volume or high-frequency program. Depending on the context, each of them can be the best or worse choice.
However, intensity, volume, and frequency always coexist and interact. For this reason, it’s never appropriate to take any of them out of context and discuss it individually.