Training frequency and style is one of the biggest topics of contention in bodybuilding. Should you train every day, use full body routines, split routines, heavy duty, high volume training, interval training, and/or a hybrid-personal method?
The choices are unending.
In the modern age the emphasis has switched towards training each body part once or twice a week in a high intensity split routine over 4-6 days a week.
This style of training incorporates so many exercises that you simply cannot train the same muscle directly more than once or twice a week. Each muscle will also do a lot of assistance work when it is not directly being targeted, so it will receive stimulus anyway.
Evidence doesn't deny that high training volume and training each bodypart only once a week isn't effective. The same is true for training each bodypart 3 or more times a week.
Champion bodybuilders from the 70s right up to today have used full body routines up to 3 times a week, and others have grown just as big hitting each bodypart once or twice a week.
Muscle building is personal.
One thing though that has to be taken into consideration as you head over the 40 mark is recuperation. Connective muscle tissue and tendons take longer to recover.
If you are struggling with chronic aches and pains for days after training, which overlap into your training days, your body is trying to tell you something.
Listen to that body before blindly following any routine.
Does The Frequency Factor Effect Muscle Growth?
To determine how much is to much and how little is to little we have to look at muscle recovery. Post exercise recovery has now become a science in its own right. The current life, work and health conditions of the athlete or amateur bodybuilder have to be taken into consideration when determining the optimal training frequency or getting as close to this rate as possible.
Factors that will have a huge bearing are:
- Exercise choice and execution
- Exercise volume
- Existence of pain and injuries
- Response to training
- Use of Ergogenic Aids
- Work, both type, and hours accumulated
In an ideal world if all these factors are hitting the right levels in response to the positive side of things, the green light is switched on for pushing the envelope.
If any of these variables are out of whack they will have a bearing on your recovery and ability to add muscle.
Ergogenic aids are not just related to banned substances, but rather even legal substances like creatine and CLA, which can increase endurance, recovery and improve athletic performance.
Experienced bodybuilders can have an enhanced recovery rate, and may need to have shorter rest periods between gym sessions as the anabolic window, in terms of protein synthesis (main component of muscle building process) is shortened from a 24-48 hour period (that those new to weight training experience), right down to about 24 hours.
Exercise execution plays a massive role in recovery which determines how often you should train. If your body has not fully recovered from a high intensity workout, you can place your body in a catabolic state which will eat away at your muscle gains, and can ironically reduce your muscle mass.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to muscle soreness and your mood after your workout sessions.
If you are employing interval training and lifting heavy and using forced negatives, and grinding out every last rep, the damage and stress to your muscle fibers can be intense, the demands on your recovery time will have to increase.
Less Is More For Experienced Bodybuilders
Less recovery time is needed for experienced bodybuilders, 48 hours is enough rest between workouts per muscle group.
Those new to lifting weights can still be building muscle up to 72 hours after their workout, so working the same muscle group again is unnecessary.
A 2003 study by Rhea (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise) promoted a training frequency of 72 hours per amateur trainee as sufficient for muscle growth.
An experienced bodybuilder is ok to train the same muscle group every 48 hours. However, the study did suggest this can change dramatically as to the type of training, for example strength training verses cardio or hypertrophy training will place different recovery periods on the body.
Where does less equals more meet in the middle? In the 70s the Mentzer brothers won many bodybuilding titles after adopting Arthur Jones’s minimalist training approach. They developed and went on to sell their very own version of this training known as Heavy Duty.
It is important to know that even though the Menzter brothers paired down the amount of sets, reps and added in loads more recovery days, they had already trained split routines and incorporated high volume training up until this point.
Dorian Yates took this heavy-duty system to the max and won 6 straight Mr Olympia titles in the 90s.
But even so, since then the emphasis in bodybuilding circles has been about volume and split routines. Do more work in shorter workouts and spread this across 6 days, and hit each body part twice thorough a highly engineered and regimented workout system.
So what do you go for? Shorter workouts and more volume, hitting each body part twice per week. Or more intense sessions where you can push the muscle and the intensity through the roof as you will only train each body part once a week?
Jerry Brainum, former editor of Flex, and editor for Generation Iron, has some wise words to say here.
Also remember if you haven't been in the gym for years and decide to go gung-ho from the get-go, you are asking for trouble. If you haven't kept up strength and flexibility over the years it is a lot easier to injury your muscles, tendons and joints.
If you weren't physically active for a lot of your 30s testosterone levels may have lowered quicker than usual, and this has some negative trade offs in terms of bone density and decreased muscle mass.
The goal here is to go easy and feel your way into your workouts, and try not to compete with anybody, including your younger self!
Split Routines Can Work Over 40
There is no doubt about it that split routines can work over 40. How much you can get away with is unique to you. Many people find that hitting the same bodypart 3 times a week is too much.
Especially if you are applying to cornerstone of bodybuilding- progressive resistance. This means you add more reps or weight to the bar in every training session, up until you max out.
The problem with split routines is you can max out very quick, only after a few weeks if you are hitting the same bodypart 3 times or even twice a week.
Experiment. Once a week maybe all you can do, and you may even grow and feel a lot better this way.
Or if you are doing a full body routine you can perhaps do it twice or 3 times a week, with a very minimal exercise routine, cutting way down to basics on the sets and reps.
For example you may do squats, bench press, shoulder press, bicep curls, and tricep extensions twice a week, say Monday and Friday. You can deadlift on a Wednesday. Or you can deadlift on the Monday and Friday if your back can cope with it.
Or if you are feeling really confident, try the above routine 3 times per week. I would not like to deadlift 3 times a week, especially with squats, so to be on the wise side, an alternative day deadlifting only, or only doing this once or twice a week would suffice.
The goal of training is to stay in shape, but not at the expense of crushing your bones, tendons and muscles. Pay attention to how your body responds to training heavy, and whether you can maintain proper exercise form.
In theory there are no limits to reps, sets, and training frequency. Your body will tell you what you can cope with. Frequency does tend to go down as you age as the body responds better to rest. Natural testosterone levels drop as the body ages. Even performance enhancing drugs can't reverse this.