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
- Age related insulin resistance
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.
You can't do anything with regards to the aging process and everyone is different in this spectrum. Growth Hormone & Testosterone -the natural anabolic hormones in the body start to taper off from the age of 30. These are directly responsible for building muscle, and once they start to decline they body has an easier time of storing fat.
There is also a neurological aspect to contend with, which relates to speed and muscle contractions. It's no secret that professional atheletes, footballers and runners aren't as fast in their late thirties compared to the teens and early twenties.
The body is unable to contract the muscles with the same force in your forties as it could twenty years previously. A lot of heavy weight training utilizes speed and forceful muscle contractions. As these elements start to decline as you age the bodies muscular system also will not respond to the same type of training you could incorporate when you were younger.
During your youth your body is also more efficient at synthesizing protein. More of that protein will be used for muscle building. As you age the bodies priority will be to use that protein for other vital functions, like keeping you alive. Protein is used by every organ in the body, and if your diet is lacking in any nutritional elements, the excess protein you are consuming will most likely be used to counteract that.
Ironically as this research study shows you need more protein as you age just for your body to normally function and prevent muscle wasting diseases such as sarcopenia. Once you are trying to build muscle at 40 and over, compared to when you were younger it is harder due to the phenomenon anabolic resistance. Your body has other plans for you, plans to unwind as you age, so the focus on building muscle really has to be asserted.
Eating excess calories and over loading with protein only works to a certain degree, you will not be able to build new muscle with the same fervour as you did in the years gone by. The skin also starts to lose elasticity in your senior age, and all the artificial growth hormone in the world won't fully reverse this.
Insulin resistance is one of the precursors that normally leads to diabetes. Insulin plays a major role also in building muscle. There are genetic connections and also obese people are more prone to insulin resistance because of the amount of fat they are carrying. When your body is resistant to insulin it cannot process it as it should.
There is another factor not realted to bodymass or genetics. It is age. As we age our bodies become more prone to insulin resistance, whether you are lean or overweight. But the good news is there is one factor normally responsible for this.
It is lack of activity.
One of the problems with old age is a sedentary lifetstyle. Motivation declines. Balance becomes an issue, and if you don't exercise you lose strength, put on weight and become depressed a lot quicker. If you get a hip replacement, it can be a life limiting condition if your body is not strong enough to deal with the consequences.
It is not a bad fall, or broken bone, or a knee or hip replacement which sends many senior people to an early grave, but rather the decayed state of the rest of their body. Strength training keeps the bones dense so they don't snap like a twig each time you fall over.
Keeping fit and strong also improves your balance and coordination which can prevent mishaps in the first place. The good news is you can even do strength training with resistance bands, bodweight squats and extremely light dumbbells, and research shows that even 90 year olds can put on muscle mass and increase their strength!
So staying active as you age is one of the smartest things you can do, for both your body and of course your mind.
If you factor these elements in, hormone decline, lack of muscular contraction force, a decline in speed, anabolic resistance, age related insulin resistance and maybe less sleep and more life stress, it is clear to be seen that you really have to line up all your ducks in a row to hit a home run in the muscle building business!
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.
Vit D is also essential to keep your bones, immune system and also your respiratory system firing on all cylinders as you age. Vit D is directly made in the body by exposure to the sun. But not many 20 year olds get enough Vitamin D3 from the sun let alone a 40 or a 70+ year old.
You may also have become acutely aware of how important vitamin d is for the respiratory system during the covid-19 outbreak. Research has emerged that nearly 75% of people who die of respiratory conditions are deficient in the sunshine vitamin D3.
These vitamins are better absorbed from fatty fish and whole foods like eggs, but I like to supplement, especially as I don't eat a lot of fish. And just on that, eat those egg yokes as they contain most of the D3.
I'm in my mid forties and I take a vitamin D3 supplement all year round. I rarely get colds or viruses, and anything I get is usually mild.
Read about vitamin consumption, minerals, gut health and how bodybuilding improves your memory and circulation as you age in our related articled here.
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.
Here is a good program to start with that narrows down the range of unlimited options you have. If you don't want to boil your brain trying to figure out what works, the boys at 40 Strong have an amazing program to see you on your way to developing real world strength, and keep your bones and muscles density and strong for the rest of your years.