By: Aaron Thomas, MA, CSCS
Optimal Training Frequency
As powerlifting has grown in popularity and competitiveness, lifters have naturally looked for training advantages. Over the last few years, increasing training frequency has been one of the most popular ways to try to improve results. I’ve been training powerlifters for around 6 years now, and I can tell you without a doubt, that there is not a one size fits all training frequency for each lifter. There isn’t even an optimal training frequency that fits an individual lifter all the time. However, we can determine that training each lift more than once per week is almost always better than training once per week.
With my lifters, I like to take the research (seen below) and my anecdotal experience into account. Remember, Scientific research isn’t mean to answer questions, but it can certainly guide you in the right direction.
Using the research as a guide, I start most clients out with 2x per week upper and 2x per week lower body training sessions. We continuously evaluate their fatigue, soreness, and rate of progress. If the athlete is recovering nicely and making good progress, we’ll try increasing the frequency and maintaining similar volumes. We repeat the assessments, and if things are better than before, we may increase volume or frequency again. We’ll continue to titrate up, 1 lift at a time until we find that individual’s optimal training frequency at that time. Don’t try to fit yourself into a set frequency. Let your performance and recovery help you find what is optimal for you. I’ve had great success doing this with my athletes and have been lucky enough to coach a few people to the World Championships.
Is there an optimal training frequency? What the Research Says..
As with most things in the field of Exercise Science, the answer is “It depends.” However, there have been several studies and research reviews that point us in the direction of more frequent training is likely better.
The Norwegian Frequency project, while not peer reviewed, was well controlled carried out by an accomplished researcher, showed that When elite powerlifters split their training volume into 6 weekly sessions vs 3 weekly sessions they gained strength and hypertrophy much faster. In fact, they gained at rates nearly double that of the 3x per week group for the squat and bench press.
This may sound like a pretty extreme example, but there is a significant amount of research that leans in this direction. First we have research by Hakkinen et al that shows, splitting up training into two sessions per day led to improved neuromuscular adaptations. This makes sense as you can expect your technique to be better when you are less fatigued.
McGill and Stuart have also shown that Fractional Synthetic Rate, net Muscle Protein Synthesis, peaks at 24hrs and is elevated for roughly 48 hours after hard training. This indicates that muscles are at least mostly recovered after 48 hours and can likely be trained again. Training each muscle group every 48 hours ends up being 3.5 training sessions per week.
When looking at frequency of training studies by Gillam and Hartman, we see that upper body tends to respond the best to 5x per week training compared to 2,3,4, and 6 x per week training. While 3-4x per week seems to be optimal for lower body. This makes sense when we look at the research. Upper body is made up of smaller muscle groups, the FSR likely recovers more quickly allowing them to be trained more often. Upper body also tends to create less general fatigue allowing more work to be done with solid technique.
Hartman: “Comparisons Between Twice Daily and Once Daily Training Sessions in Male Weightlifters” – Found that twice daily sessions INCREASED isometric Knee strength and increased EMG compared to once daily training sessions in just 3 weeks
Hoffman et al: “The Effects of Self-Selection for Frequency of Training in a Winter Conditioning Program for Football” – 5 day per week upper body training was superior to 3,4, and 6 day per week upper body training. 4 day per week lower body training was superior to 3,5 and 6 day per week.
Gillam : “Effects of Frequency of Weight Training on Muscle Strength Enhancement” – When comparing 1,2,3,4, and 5 day per week upper body training, 5 days per week was superior for strength gains
Stuart Phillips: “Mixed Muscle Protein Synthesis and Breakdown After Resistance Training in Humans” – Fractional Synthetic Rate peaked at 24hrs post training and was elevated for 48 hours.
Hakkinen et al: splitting training into two sessions per day showed improved neuromuscular activation.
“I am coach with a passion for helping others achieve their best performance when it counts. To do this, I use a data driven approach, backed by the scientific literature and years of anecdotal experience. Over the years, I have worked with powerlifters, bodybuilders, as well as hundreds of D1 and professional athletes. I specialize in working with powerlifters and bodybuilders who are dedicated to reaching the top of their sport. With over 10 years of experience, thousands of hours of research, and several USAPL and IPF gold medalists, I am confident than I can take you to the next level.”
Aaron Thomas, MA, CSCS