The old way of thinking
Chances are that you’ve heard of the classic approach to weight training – 3-4 exercises for
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. It’s the weight training approach that has been around for decades.
Many who adopt this classic training method also believe in training each muscle group once per week. This is so common in fact that when the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research surveyed a group of 127 competitive bodybuilders, 7 out of 10 trained each muscle group once a week!
While high volume is the classic approach to muscle gain, and it does work to an extent, lets look at it another way – if one muscle group is under-performing against the rest, you would increase the training frequency of that muscle, right? So if we know that increased frequency leads to greater muscle gain, then why do we follow the old way of thinking and train each muscle group only once per week?
What does the science say?
It isn’t just anecdotal observation that supports the frequency over volume approach to muscle growth either – research and science back it up too. Studies have shown that while training a muscle once per week can and will result in muscle growth, it has also demonstrated that for most people this is possibly the least effective way to train.
Work by McLester and colleagues showed that those who trained each muscle group 3 times per week saw a 40% increase in muscle growth compared to those who trained each muscle group once per week!
In a study conducted by the University of Alabama, researchers looked at the effect of two different training frequencies among men with several years of weight training experience. Their training was as follows:
– Both groups performed three sets of nine different exercises over the course of a week but it was their frequency that differed between the two groups.
– Group 1 performed one set of each exercise three times per week
– Group 2 performed three sets of each exercise once per week.
– By the end of the week, both Group 1 and Group 2 had completed the same number of sets and reps for each muscle group.
While you may have expected the results of both groups to be the same, it was Group 1 who saw the greatest results in terms of both muscle size and strength!
Why training each muscle 2-3 times per week is more effective
One of the key driving forces behind muscle growth is muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is the creation of new muscle protein which in turn makes your muscles bigger. After training, your protein synthesis increases but returns to normal levels within a couple of days. Some believe that by training your muscles harder and causing more damage, that it will increase the level of protein synthesis and that this protein synthesis will continue for longer. This is incorrect however as there is a limit to the stimulation your muscles can respond to in any given workout.
So what does this mean for your training? When you train your muscle once per week, protein synthesis will cause muscle growth for the few days following your workout but by leaving 7 days before you next train this same muscle, you are missing opportunities for further muscle growth.
How will training frequency affect my recovery time?
If you follow the ‘classic’ way of training and train each muscle once per week, your muscles are being left to recover for a whole 7 days. The reality is, it shouldn’t take that long for your muscles to recover and as we’ve already mentioned, you’re losing several additional opportunities for muscle growth and improved strength.
By spreading your training for each muscle group over the course of a week, you’re less likely to be sore the next day as you are doing only one-third the number of sets and so your muscles can recover more easily. More frequent training of each muscle group allows you to reap all of the benefits of muscle protein synthesis without affecting your body’s ability to recover properly.
The final verdict
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to training and what works for you may not work as well for the next person. It is always best to experiment with different training frequencies to find out what your body responds to the most.
If you are seeing results by training each muscle once per week, then continue with that. It is very possible to get the results that you want this way. On the flip side, if you’ve been training each muscle once per week for a long time, why not up the frequency and see if these gives you better results.
The reality is that if you want to train each muscle group more often, you don’t need to do an overhaul of your training programme. You can make better progress by spreading your same workout over the course of 3 days rather than fitting it all into one session.