What is the frequency with which you should you train a muscle group in order to grow them the fastest way possible?
I used to train a muscle group only once a week for a few years and I gained over 10kg of lean muscle that way. Going to the gym and lifting weights is the first and foremost important rule for gaining muscle. But there are scientifically proven methods which you can utilize to speed up your muscle building journey significantly.
There is this constant debate between weightlifters about what the optimal frequency is that you should train a muscle group for optimal hypertrophy. But the truth is that it all depends on a few different factors.
- Your level of experience
- Trained individuals recover faster and their muscle protein synthesis (MPS) in response to exercise isn’t elevated as long as the untrained individuals’ response. Which is about 24-48h for trained and 72h for untrained.
- The volume that you’re doing
- More sets require more recovery
- The intensity that you’re training at
- Heavyweights are more taxing on the nervous system and result in more muscle breakdown
- Training to failure
- Going to failure also leads to more neurological fatigue and requires longer recovery time
- Your nutrition and sleep
- Adequate amounts of protein and carbs will help your muscles repair faster
- Type of exercise performed
- Compound movements are more taxing on the body, whereas isolation movements can result in a greater delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS)
What most bodybuilders do is pound their muscles to death, by doing 16 sets+ per workout for a muscle group, and then they are so sore that they can only train each muscle once a week. Most people think they have to increase the number of sets that they do as a form of progressive overload, rather than increasing the frequency. A study has found that 68% of bodybuilders train a muscle group only once a week, whereas most of the remaining 32% don’t train a muscle group more than twice a week.
While increasing the number of sets that you do can be an effective way to increase muscular adaption, this does not appear to be an effective method for increasing muscle size once a given threshold is surpassed (1).
The American College of Sports Medicine’s recommends that an individual must rest ∼48 h between training similar muscle groups, to maximize hypertrophy and strength gains, due to MPS only being elevated for 24-48 hours in trained individuals.
Studies have also found that the optimal range of sets for hypertrophy is between 4-6 for a given muscle group, as it seems gains will plateau beyond this set range and may even regress due to overtraining (2, 3, 4, 5). So performing 4-6 sets would stimulate MPS maximally, but doing even more sets does not show to contribute to better hypertrophy, and could be regarded as a “waste”.
Doing fewer sets, more reps and not going to failure will also speed up recovery and enable you to train more frequently.
Higher frequency training would hypothetically result in a greater time spent in a net-positive protein balance. And it can, therefore, be hypothesized that trained individuals may see greater beneﬁts in muscle growth by keeping the same number of sets performed per week but simply dispersing them over a greater number of training sessions. This would allow for the avoidance of ‘wasted sets’ in terms of muscle hypertrophy.
Increasing training frequency may be somewhat less effective for untrained individuals, given the longer duration for which MPS is elevated post-exercise, >72h. Nonetheless, for trained individuals, it would likely be beneﬁcial to progressively increase the training frequency from once a week to twice and even thrice a week in which the same muscle groups are stressed. For example, if you do 12 sets per muscle group once a week, simply go for 6 sets per muscle group twice a week, and then 4 sets per muscle group three times a week. This way you maintain the volume that you do but increase the duration that MPS will be elevated during the week.
Now MPS won’t be elevated for just 24 hours in one week, but for 48 to 72 hours per week.
As you become more accustomed to training the same muscle group at higher frequencies, it might even be beneﬁcial to perform full-body routines daily, or every other day, depending on how you recover from an exercise. This method can be used to induce overreaching in the short term and “shock the system” to speed up growth.
After about 1-3 weeks of doing this, you can reduce the frequency to a two or three-day split and you’ll find that you’ll have gained strength and size!
In this study (6) the researchers even proposed that you can do a full body split every day for 16 weeks, before reducing the frequency for 24 weeks. Using the overreaching super high-frequency technique will cause the body to adapt and slow down hypertrophy (when doing it for too long). Reducing frequency will be like a deloading period, which will hypothetically, down-regulate the metabolic brakes and then re-sensitize the muscles to the anabolic stimulus. Whereby you may then beneﬁt from increasing the training frequency again for reasons previously mentioned.
They also have unpublished data suggesting that doing three sets per muscle group per day, for 21 days straight, elicited no signs of over-training in previously trained individuals (6). If you want to use this type of training, just remember, it won’t be wise to use high-intensity, multi-joint exercises every day. Rather listen to your body and don’t do an exercise that causes your joint/s muscles and/or ligaments to experience pain or discomfort in a negative way.
An example of a chest workout for one week:
- Monday: Incline BB bench press (3×6)
- Tuesday, Wide grip dips (3×10)
- Wednesday: Flat DB bench press (3×12-15)
- Thursday: Incline flies (3×15-20)
- Friday: Incline DB bench press (3×8)
- Saturday: Flat hammer strength bench press (3×6)
- Sunday: Off
This is just an example and you should rather listen to your own body, and how sore and stiff you are that day, to decide what exercise you can do and at what intensity.
To show that this style of frequency is effective, this recent study done in 2018 showed that training a muscle group 5 times a week, resulted in significantly greater hypertrophy in the arms and legs, compared to training a muscle group only once a week. (11)
A few other well-designed studies have also been performed to confirm this type of training and showed that training a muscle group 2-3 times a week, is superior to training a muscle group only once a week (7, 8, 9, 10).
What’s my take on it?
I find that using a higher frequency method of training is better for hypertrophy for me as an individual. It also seems to be better for hypertrophy for a lot of other weightlifters in general. I would definitely advise to experiment with it and see how it works for you.