Let's talk size. Maybe I'm a lazy guy, but if I can build muscle by training less frequently then by all means I'll take it. High volume 5-day training programs take a toll on my joints, my recovery capacity, and my free time—all things I love.
I love training as much as the next guy, but I don't want to spin my wheels in the gym wasting time. This isn't about gaining muscle with a time efficient workout. There's no impending time crunch. It's just the simple fact that it is possible to gain more muscle by training less. And yes, long term. But don't confuse less with easier.
The critics already hit "back" on the browser. I know I haven't won you over yet, but hold on to this thought: you shouldn't always believe what you read and you shouldn't just read what you believe. Use careful analysis as you read and feel free to follow up with questions where you feel more justification is needed.
I know there are a number of objections going through your head now: "It's not enough work", Yea, maybe less training days but crazy long workouts", and "How can it really work long term?"
I'll address each of these concerns and show you how to put all the components of a program together to yield the best results long term. I'll tell you now they work, both from an in-the-trenches perspective as well as a research one.
The Big Objection: There's Not Enough Stimuli
Rebuttle: Define stimuli. Is there not enough volume, frequency, intensity, or something else? Chances are you've identified with the classic bodybuilding approach: 3-4 exercises for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps or something close to that. It's a minor tweak on the classic 3 sets of 10 reps scheme that originated from research done in 1948! There's no way that we haven't learned a thing or two in the past 50 years.
High volume is the classic approach to muscle gain—and it does work, at least to an extent. But here's the kicker—let's assume you have a lagging body part. The typical response is to add more work on another day for that body part, right?
Well, if increased frequency is the key to enhancing muscle gain, why aren't you using higher frequency from the get go? It's not just an anecdotal observation either, research supports frequency over volume for muscle growth.
Work by McLester and colleagues showed that when frequency and volume were held equal 3 times per week training approach was superior to a 1 time per week, and these were in trained subjects. In fact, the 3 times per week group saw 40% better gains.
Fact: Without changing your current program you can make better progress by spreading the same work over 3 days than doing it all in one day per week.
Broken down it might look something like this:
- Bench Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
How long does it take to recover from a workout like this? If you look at most training programs it takes about 7 days. At least, that's what's programmed.
The reality is, it shouldn't take that long to recover and once you do recover you're losing your adaptation (growth, strength, etc) if it isn't being used. Those of you who have missed the boat exercising for a few months know the effects are quickly fleeting compared to how long it takes to build them up.
Here's a look at the same program over a 3-day split:
- Monday - Bench Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Wednesday - Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Friday - Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
A simple change like this actually results in better strength gains, which we know can contribute to greater hypertrophy in the long term. The question isn't really how can you gain enough size by training less often, but how can you not?
In addition to spreading your workout there are a couple of unannounced bonuses. The likelihood of you getting as sore will be decreased. It's one-third the number of working sets which means an easier process recovering. Of course, exaggerated eccentrics (lowering of the weight) will skew that statement about soreness.
When it comes to exercise and growth, the more often you can train and recover the faster you will grow. By training more frequently you can induce a stimulus that is adequate for growth, yet easier to recover from. The more you trash your body with a Monday bench fest, the more you'll stress the body's ability to properly recover.
On the same note as recovery, you'll be fresher for each workout of the week. With only three sets each day you'll do damage you can recover from. But when you set up for that first set of incline bench you won't have immediately finished 3 sets of flat bench.
Each day you'll be able to work at your full strength for each exercise. This means your incline bench (in our example) and your dumbbell flyes will benefit by using higher weight. A dumbbell flye will be much stronger when it is the first exercise versus after 6 sets of various bench presses.
But what about the long-term success of a program like this? As you're able to use heavier weights can you take a beating like this week in, week out? Or when you are stronger do you need more to grow?
Cast away the 20 questions. The principles of overload remain the same, regardless of how advanced you are. Only the methods for achieving overload will change. "Methods are many, principles are few, methods may change, but principles never do."
The Advanced Lifter
So what would change with an advanced person? More strategic recovery. Every 4-6 weeks it would be prudent to take a week off or using very submaximal (30-40% one rep max) loads. It's my belief that doing this long term will actually be more successful for the average natural athlete than not.
This approach allows for fluctuating stress and recovery patterns throughout the course of a week. A small stimulus and then a recovery workout.
When you get really strong the need to deload, or back off, becomes imperative. In fact, going 3 times per week on the same body part can be quite taxing. There are a couple of solutions to manage overall joint, metabolic, muscle, and nervous system stress.
The first question to ask yourself is, do you really need 3-4 sets? The concept of growth has always been to fatigue the muscle and it will build up stronger. The idea of tearing a muscle down mechanically so that it can rebuild is somewhat nonsense.
When you want to add on to the house do you tear the whole thing down and rebuild it? No, you blow out one or two walls and add on. Muscles simply need stimulus to grow. With the growing body of research we can see how the have genetic and metabolic changes with smaller stimuli than we first thought. Muscular adaptations start at the level of the gene.
There's not really a 1-to-1 relationship between how much work you do each workout and how much repair in the form of growth will occur. One study even points to the fact that more than one set of an exercise with an eccentric focus does little more to exacerbate muscle damage.
Though it feels good to work hard and be sore it's been shown that soreness is NOT an indicator of how much muscle damage has been done—as counterintuitive as it feels.
We don't know all the limiting factors to muscle growth, but we do know that too much training (i.e. overtraining) leads to halted growth, not slowed. If we slightly under train we can still make slow and consistent progress, but the minute we lay the pain and break into an overtraining state we stop growing.
One thought is that you only really need two or three sets to induce optimal growth. There are some popular programs out there such as DoggCrapp that utilize 1 set (in the form of 3 mini-sets) of somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 total repetitions. But in our example above, is using nearly the same rep range every day an optimal solution?
Daily Undulating Periodization
Daily undulating periodization (DUP) is the idea of using different rep ranges for each workout. Over the course of the week this allows you to work across the strength and hypertrophy rep zones.
There are a couple of ways to make a workout by doing less. The only mentioned option has been a 3-day, full body workout. This isn't novel by any stretch, but for most guys, most of the time I'll put my money on a workout like this. For each day you'll pick one exercise for each body part. Utilizing the undulating rep scheme (reps changing on a workout to workout basis) I mentioned you might do something like:
- Monday - 4 reps
- Wednesday - 8 reps
- Friday - 12 reps
This is one day in the strength range (4), one at the bottom of the hypertrophy (8) and one at the higher end of hypertrophy (12). A 5-10-15 rep scheme is a viable option as well. As the reps decrease, the number of sets should increase. Since we've planned on going 3 days per week, we may need only 2 sets at the 12 rep range and as many as 4 sets in the strength range.
Fluctuating the intensity every day allows you to continue making progress for a longer time without making changes to your program. If you do make changes, I suggest a new rep range over an exercise any day, any time.
Bodybuilding has a big emphasis on rotating exercises for continued progress. But I think there's a flaw in this thought process.
Rep ranges indicate the relative percent max you'll be working at which dictates the muscle fibers used and the energy systems needed in your body. When you change the reps you change the entire stimulus to the system.
There's a reason household exercises stay around: they work! Changing the angle of pull is sometimes important, but to my way of thinking changing exercises is always second fiddle to changing the reps.
The other thing I like to do is slightly increase the volume from 1 to 2 exercises and go with an AB split. Instead of full body each day, we're doing it in two days.
Some options include push/pull, upper/lower, or just however you prioritize. One suggestion is to label your weak parts and strong parts in numerical order and put the weakest as first exercise on your first day, your second to weakest as the first exercise on your second day, the third to weakest as second on the first day, and so on.
Your (hypothetical) list from weakest:
Your (hypothetical) AB split:
This prioritizes the order with which you exercise. Now the two weakest links (e.g. chest and pulldown back exercises) are leading off each day when you are freshest. With an AB split you'll hit the body 3 times in two weeks.
The AB split is a great option, and you'll be getting more exposure to the same exercises with this option which is not a drawback. Over time you can expect to see better gains with a program like this. We know growth occurs outside of the gym and working less gives you more opportunity for growth.
The tradeoff is that you must bring your best to the gym each and every workout. With a 2 sets of 12 reps scheme you only have two sets to make it count, and you'd be surprised how much you can get out of it. This isn't a license for bad form, but you must learn to push through (good pain!).
High frequency and undulating periodization are your best weapons for growth. Train heavy, train hard and spend the extra time with proper recovery strategies. A quality post-workout shake is a must. Fish oil should be a staple.
You have 3 or so hours in the gym to put in the work, don't spend the other 165 of the week ruining it with poor nutrition and recovery strategies.
- Delorme, TL and Arthur Watkins (1948). Techniques of Progressive Resistance Exercise, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 29(5);263-73.
- McLester, JR et al (2000). Comparison of 1 day and 3 days per week of equal-volume resistance training in experienced subjects, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14 (3); 273-81.
- Nosaka, K and Mike Newton (2002). Repeated eccentric exercise bouts do not exacerbate muscle damage and repair, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(1); 117-22.
- Rhea, MR et al. (2002). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength, 16 (2); 250-255.