Category Archives: training frequency

Optimal Frequency and Intensity of Training

Optimal Frequency and Intensity of Training

Optimal Frequency and Intensity of Training
How many times a week should you bench or squat or deadlift or even train abs? Great question, and like most things in the strength and conditioning world, a hotly debated one. This article will try to offer a more measured perspective.

Frequency versus Intensity

There are two main variables in exercise program design, frequency, and intensity. Frequency refers to how often you perform something, either the total number of workouts or a specific movement like the bench press, usually in a one-week period. This article will refer to the former as “overall frequency” and the latter as “frequency of training each area.”
Intensity refers to the level of difficulty of the workout. With cardio we’d use heart rate to measure intensity, but since the subject is weight training we’ll use a percentage of the one-rep max (%1RM). Precise as that may sound, it can still be a little fuzzzy. If your 1RM bench press is 365 pounds and you lift 315 pounds, that’s 86% of the 1RM, usually considered moderate to high intensity.
But aren’t we missing something crucial to really classify the intensity of that set? We need to know how many reps were performed. If you can lift 365 pounds and you hit 315 pounds for one rep, that’s a relatively easy set. Three hundred and fifteen pounds for three reps is more challenging but certainly doable; that sounds like moderate intensity to me.
Three hundred and fifteen pounds for six reps sounds like a balls-out high intensity set that would be almost as hard to complete as 365 for one rep.
To address this, I propose the term “overall intensity,” which combines the intensity of the load calculated as a percentage of 1RM and the number of reps performed at that weight. To do this perfectly you’d need to know what your own conversion chart is, but to save time here’s a quick conversion chart that works well.

Reps Performed Estimated %1RM Reps Performed Estimated %1RM
1 100% 7 84.9%
2 96.8% 8 83.0%
3 93.7% 9 81.0%
4 91.2% 10 79.2%
5 88.8% 11 77.5%
6 86.8% 12 75.9%

This chart predicts how many reps you should be able to perform lifting a certain percentage of your one-rep max. It also allows you to calculate overall intensity. Simply take the %1RM that you’re lifting and then calculate how many extra reps you completed on that particular set.
You must lift something once for it to count, so. Once you calculate how many extra reps were completed, move that number of levels up the chart (each rep is one level).
Here are a few examples.

(Confused? Post your 1RM and the set completed in the LiveSpill and I’ll help you figure it out.)

Why Should We Care About This?

Optimal Frequency and Intensity of Training
You might be wondering how this will affect your training. I’ll try to make that clear.
We must balance frequency and intensity. If frequency is too low, the stimuli won’t add up, resulting in a poor training effect. Too low an intensity is just wasting time. If the frequency is too high, the likelihood of chronic injuries or over training increases. Ditto if the intensity is too high, and throw in acute injuries as well.
In the beginning it’s easy. Just train at a moderate intensity 2 – 3 times a week. You’re not used to anything so you respond to just about everything, and make great progress. Usually as a person starts to lift heavier and harder they find they can’t recover quite as fast.
They need more volume and intensity to make the muscle grow, and that added intensity increases recovery time requiring the training frequency of each area to be reduced. But the story does not and should not end there.

Optimal Frequency and Intensity

A picture is worth a thousand words. Below is a graph that outlines what the optimal overall frequency, frequency of training each area, and overall training intensity might be over a lifter’s career, followed by a discussion of the key points.
Optimal Frequency and Intensity of TrainingThere are several key points to this graph.

  • The red line with the gray shading (center section) represents the suggested frequency of training sessions a lifter should perform per week. Notice that it generally rises over a lifter’s career.
  • The dark blue line with the light blue shading (bottom section) represents the suggested frequency of training each area or movement per week. Notice that it decreases for the first few years and then increases later in a lifter’s career.
  • The dark green line with the light green shading (top section) represents the suggested overall intensity a lifter should train at per training session. Notice that it steadily increases for a few years, peaks, and then gradually decreases but remains quite high throughout the rest of the career.

Note: Don’t get hung up on the exact timeline given, or if you’ve trained for more than 10 years. The point of this graph is to serve as a general guide showing how things will progress over the course of one’s training career.

What Does This Graph Teach Us?

  • When starting an exercise program, a lifter should workout 2-3 times a week, training each area 2-3 times a week (thus following a total body routine). Their overall intensity should be light (<70%) to moderate (<85%). A great example is Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
  • After a year or two, hopefully a lifter has achieved a “decent” level of strength. His overall training frequency should remain the same or increase, the frequency of training each area should decrease, and the overall intensity of training should continue to increase.
  • After several years and/or achieving a “good” level of strength, the overall training frequency will likely increase, up to 4-5 sessions a week. The frequency of training each area might remain the same or increase, and the overall intensity of training will peak.
  • After a lifter has been lifting for many years and/or has achieved a “great” level of strength, the overall training frequency will likely continue to increase (assuming they wish to continue to make progress), the frequency of training each area should increase, and the overall intensity of training will slightly decrease to accommodate the higher frequency.

Let’s start with the intermediate lifter. The graph has him or her training intensely during 3-5 sessions a week and likely following a split routine. It’s safe to say at least part of one’s lifting career should be spent training this way as this type of training will increase hypertrophy and teach a lifter to recruit the Type II B muscle fibers.
Going balls out and performing super intense sets that leave you sore for days has value in the ability to improve neuromuscular coordination, fully fatigue and stimulate the muscle, and build mental and physical toughness. Exercise programs set up like this also tend to allow the lifter more time to focus on general assistance exercises devoted to all parts of the body and can help bring up weak points.
However, once a lifter becomes significantly more advanced (most people reading this likely aren’t at that stage yet, but hopefully will get there), that type of full throttle training is probably no longer optimal – at least not on a regular basis – especially if strength is the goal.
Once you’re advanced, it’s easier to outwork your recovery abilities. This type of lifter will likely get better results by reducing the intensity slightly and significantly increasing the frequency to compensate for the reduction in intensity.
The increased frequency will allow the lifter to further refine his technique while allowing more time be spent practicing specific assistance exercises required to bring up an already impressive lift. At this stage, general assistance exercises usually take a back seat and are used to maintain balance and prevent injury, as opposed to increase performance.
For example, the lifter in our scenario might be able to bench 315 pounds for six reps once a week, but finds it extremely taxing and basically wrecks him for the next several days. It might be better for that lifter to instead choose 315 pounds for 3-4 reps, but now perform that set two, three, even four times a week.
That argument, however, doesn’t hold water with a weaker lifter who can perform 200 pounds for six, but instead opts to do 200 pounds for a double or triple more frequently. That lifter is likely leaving much of his muscle “untapped,” and needs that intense set to open up and “awaken” their muscles.

Closing Arguments

Optimal Frequency and Intensity of Training
Not every lifter is the same, nor is every lift the same, which is why you rarely meet experienced lifters suggesting that beginners and rookies should train the same or that the bench press and deadlift should be trained with the same frequency.
That said, taking a long-term approach to program design and knowing where a lifter is today versus where they want to go tomorrow is extremely helpful. Skipping any of the significant stages presented here might ultimately cause the trainee to miss out on his or her full lifting potential.

>Fact vs. Fiction: The Truth about Training Frequency


by Mike Robertson – 4/27/2011
Training frequency is a hotly debated topic.

Some say that if you train more often than once a fortnight, you’ll overtrain and your nervous system will explode. Others say that if you aren’t training six, eight, or even ten or more times per week, there’s no way you’re going to see progress.

For most, the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s start off with an example to help illustrate my point.

Off The Grid

A few weeks back, one of my online training clients went “off the grid,” and decided he would pull on a Monday. It wasn’t ridiculously heavy, but the work sets ended up somewhere around 80% of his 1-RM. The next day (the day he was supposed to deadlift), his workout absolutely sucked.

Other than failing to adhere to my program, what was the biggest issue here?

Here’s the first rule of training frequency: Your body is amazingly adept at recovering from whatever training load it’s used to. If you’re used to training once every five days, your body gets used to that. It likes training once every five days.

On the contrary, if you’re an elite athlete, you may train twice per day, six days per week. If you’re used to training 12 times per week, your body gets used to that as well.

Now let’s break this down a bit further.

The Frequency Question

At the end of the day, it’s not a question of how often you can train. The real question is how much training can you recover from? There are two key components to training: Stimulating the muscle/nervous system to elicit an adaptation (fat loss, muscle gain, strength gain, etc.), and being able to recover from it.

Before we talk training, let’s focus on the other side of the equation that no one wants to discuss – recovery.

Too many people assume that stress is solely relegated to what they do in the gym. In other words, they think the only stress that influences their recovery is the masochist workouts they put themselves through.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s a short list of things that can positively (or negatively) influence recovery:

Training Age
Chronological Age
Quality and quantity of sleep
Hormonal status
Family stress (wife, girlfriend, children, friends, etc.)
Work-related stress
Money-related stress
Diet and nutrition
Supplementation (both of the legal and illegal variety)
As you can see, there are a ton of things that determine how well we recover from a single workout. If you’re not recovering from your training, you’re not maximizing your progress.

Common Sense Recommendations

Now that we’ve covered the topic of stress and recovery, let’s begin with a dose of common sense concerning training frequency.

Training once every seven to ten days probably isn’t going to cut it, regardless of your goals. Even strength maintenance is going to be tough when you’re training that infrequently. Unless you have the Testosterone levels of an 80-year old grandmother, or the most stressful job on the planet, chances are you can recover enough to train more frequently than this.

On the other hand, some are quick to espouse training multiple training sessions per day. They’ll cite that Olympic caliber athletes often train this way, and that you should be able to as well.

This argument is seriously flawed. First off, Olympic caliber athletes are 100% committed to their sport. They don’t have jobs and usually have structured their lives to have minimal stress outside of training.

They’ve also taken years, if not decades, to increase their work capacity to a point where they can train multiple times per day. Even for some of the elite guys that may be reading this, chances are you can get more than sufficient gains sticking with a more manageable split.

For most, hitting the weights between two and four times per week is probably more than enough to reach your goals. But before I give you my specific recommendations, let’s examine how some extreme examples can work.

Practical Examples of Training Frequency

Bubba loves HIT, and thinks it’s the only way to go for size gains. Sergei says that Sheiko is what really took his squat through the roof.

While I respect everyone’s opinion, I also understand that in most cases N=1. Everyone assumes that if it works for them, it should work for everyone. The old saying definitely rings true: “Everything works – but nothing works forever!”

Lower frequency training methods (such as HIT) can work, especially if someone has pushed their recovery envelope in the weeks/months leading up to its introduction.

Imagine this, you’ve just come off the hardest training cycle of your life. You pushed every rep of every set, and you’re absolutely gassed. You trained four days per week and no session was half-assed.

This could be a time where your body needs that extra recovery. Some of the biggest proponents of HIT-style training were bodybuilders who were notorious for killing themselves in the gym six days per week.

Is it any wonder why HIT worked for them? They pushed and pushed, so when they finally took extra time to back off, their gains went through the roof!

On the other hand, high frequency programs can elicit serious progress as well. Look at guys that use the introductory Sheiko programs, the Smolov squat routine, or attempt some of the Bulgarian weightlifting programs.

These programs offer a unique blend of volume, intensity, and perhaps most importantly, work on the specific lifts (motor learning). After all if you squat two, three, or even four times per week, chances are you’ll get pretty darn good at squatting!

IF they can survive, the results they get are astounding. But that’s a big if. The Bulgarian system is known for its meat-grinding effects; throw in a couple thousand lifters, and the ones that survive the training programs comprise their Olympic team!

Again, the key is figuring out what will work best for you. What training frequency is best given your goals, your recovery abilities, etc.? Once we’ve determined your goals, we can determine how many times per week is probably best to maximize your performance.

How Your Goals Influence Your Training Frequency

Goal #1 – Building size

Building mass may be the program that allows you to train the least frequently. Unfortunately, these need to be seriously kick-ass sessions while you’re in the gym!

For example, in his new book Mass Made Simple, Dan John would have you train one day and then take two days off before training again. However, he also dishes out complexes and high rep squats, so these workouts are far from a walk in the park!

John McCallum, in his book Keys to Progress, cites three days per week as the optimal training frequency if your goal is to pack on size. At most, I wouldn’t recommend more than three times per week.

If you’re training twice per week, you need two total-body workouts. If you’re training three days per week, you choose either total or split-body workouts.

Goal #2 – Strength gain

Strength gain may be the goal with the most variability. Some programs have you squatting four times per week, while others may only have you squat once per week.

For most trainees who are serious about getting stronger, three to four workouts per week is probably ideal. If you’re training four days, an upper-lower split with two workouts apiece is a great start.

If you’re training three times per week, you could probably get away with total body workouts, but you’re likely better served with an upper-lower split.

Goal #3 – Shedding body fat

Body fat reduction is on the opposite end of the training spectrum from mass gain. If your goal is to gain mass, you want to minimize calorie expenditure outside of training and focus your efforts on building those gunz.


On the contrary, if your goal is to shed body fat, you want to burn as many calories as possible. Duh!

For fat loss clients, I often recommend a minimum of three workouts per week. However, depending on the client, their schedule, and their recovery capacity, that could be bumped up to six training sessions per week.

Three sessions would include strength training and some form of higher intensity cardio, while they could do longer duration/lower intensity cardio on their off days for both recovery and additional calorie burning purposes.

Here’s a handy summary:

Training Goal Training Frequency Type of Routine
Mass gain 2x / week
3x / week Total Body
Total or Upper / Lower Split
Strength gain 3x / week
4x / week Total or Upper / Lower Split
Upper / Lower Split
Fat Loss 3-6x / week Total / Cardio on off Days

My Philosophy on Training

My philosophy on training for strength and size is simple. I want to do as little as possible to continue making gains. If anything, I’d rather under train than over train.

This goes hand-in-hand with another key priority: I always focus on quality of training and movement. For fat loss, clients often need a total lifestyle overhaul. I like to get them doing something, anything, as often as their schedule will afford.

I’d love to have them come in and strength train 3x/week, but I’d love it even more if they’d take a walk on their off days, or ride the Airdyne bike.

When they move more frequently, not only are they more in tune with their bodies, but they tend to “get it” much faster.

Losing weight and/or body fat isn’t a goal that’s achieved overnight; it’s something that takes hard work and dedication. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a shift to a more healthy lifestyle overall.


Before I encourage you to post your questions on the LiveSpill, I know someone is going to say I still haven’t told you the exact frequency you need to follow.

Nope, I sure haven’t. Like everything in training, you need to figure out what works best for you and your body. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, because I don’t know you.


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