One of the biggest training debates making its way through the bodybuilding and fitness community in recent years has to do with the ideal training frequency: If your goal is building more muscle, should you train each muscle group once a week or twice a week? (Or somewhere in between?) If you listen to most coaches and trainers today, you’ll probably hear them say it’s ideal work each muscle twice per week. However, based on recent research as well as observation of what’s working for top bodybuilders, the answer about training frequency may not be so cut and dried. In today’s post, Tom Venuto gives a unique and open-minded answer to a reader’s question on this topic.
Q: Hey Tom, what’s better, working each muscle once a week or twice a week? I’m on the thin side and I want to gain muscle mass. I’ve been doing a lot of reading online and a recurring theme lately is that recent studies say training each muscle twice a week gives you better growth. My confusion is because first, I’ve been training each muscle once a week (almost – it’s more like once every six days), on a body part split routine, and it’s working. I’ve been training for one year and in the last 6 months alone, when I switched to my current split, I put on 11 pounds of muscle. Second, it seems like most of the top bodybuilders are doing body part split routines and one muscle per week too. If studies say twice a week is better, how do we explain so many bodybuilders winning contests while training each muscle only once a week?
[Note: For all readers: When we say “frequency” in this article, we are not talking about the total number of workouts per week, we are referring to how many times you work each body part each week. For example, do you train chest (ie, bench press) once every 7 days or twice every 7 days?].
A: This is an important question, because for the past decade, I’ve also noticed the shift in preference in favor of the twice a week training frequency being optimal for gaining muscle. Some studies do support the contention that twice a week is better. And yet, this subject is still debated for the exact reasons mentioned – many, if not the majority, of advanced bodybuilders have continued to use body part split routines that work each muscle only once a week.
The short answer is that if you gained 11 pounds of muscle in six months using a body building style routine (a body part split), where you worked each muscle only once every six days, your results are the only evidence you need that training each muscle group once every six days is effective.
Could you have done even better? Will you continue to make optimal gains if you never change your training frequency? Those are not bad questions to ask. But your results were outstanding no matter what standard for comparison you use. Keep doing more of what’s working for you. 11 pounds of muscle in 6 months? What more can you ask for? (especially when those are natural gains).
Now let me elaborate on this with the long answer, because how many times a week to train each muscle is a more complex question than it seems.
Advocates of the twice a week training frequency are often vocal, arguing that bodybuilders who still do body part routines that only work each muscle once a week are “bros” living in the dark ages. (In fact, routines working each body part only once a week are widely known as “bro splits.”) Some are adamant and insist you must train each muscle twice a week or else you leave gains on the table.
This is despite the fact that a large number of the top bodybuilding champions still train with a frequency lower than twice a week and clearly thrive on it.
In a 2013 study (Hackett et al), a research group followed 127 competitive bodybuilders to assess their training and nutrition practices. They found that twice a week (on a 3-day split) frequencies as well as once a week (5 day split) frequencies were both used by successful athletes. In fact, they noted that 7 out of 10 elite bodybuilders in their sample reported working each muscle only once per week.
If there’s a growing body of scientific evidence saying that a twice a week frequency is better, but champion bodybuilders are continuing to succeed on lower frequencies, how do we explain this?
Before I answer, just so you get a picture of what we’re talking about, let me give examples of weekly training schedules, one that works each muscle group twice a week and a two more that work each muscle group once a week:
The 2 day split – upper body / lower body (Twice every 7 days frequency)
This is a popular routine you see followed by trainees with a wide variety of goals, including muscular development. After training upper body on Monday, you work upper body again on Thursday, just 3 days later, then 4 days later, after the weekend.
Monday: upper body
Tuesday: Lower body, abs
Thursday: upper body
Friday: lower body, abs
Repeat 2 on 1 off, 2 on 2 off weekly schedule
The 5-Day Body Part (“Bro”) Split : Once every 7 days training frequency
Now on the opposite end of the spectrum, here is a routine you see usually followed only by advanced or competitive bodybuilders. After training chest on Monday, you don’t work chest again until the next Monday, 7 days later. Because fewer body parts are worked in each session, more exercises are performed for each muscle group (much more volume per workout).
Repeat 5 on 2 off schedule
* some people insert a rest day during the week and train one day on the weekend.
* abs and calves schedule may vary.
The 4-Day Body Part (“Bro”) Split: Once every 7 days training frequency
A similar schedule where you work each muscle only once a week could be created with a 4-way split:
Monday: Chest, Triceps
Tuesday: Back, Biceps
Thursday: Shoulders, Abs
So which training schedule is better – once or twice a week training?
The first thing I want to point out is that while this is a common question, asking it creates a false dichotomy. The way the question is phrased, it’s suggesting that either twice a week or once a week training is the right way, thereby excluding the middle, presuming there is only one right way, and or suggesting that all the other ways are wrong.
What about training each muscle group once every four days? Or five days? Or six days? That’s neither once a week nor twice a week. Couldn’t the ideal frequency for various individuals fall somewhere in that middle range? Also, what if you want to change your frequency over the year instead of just sticking with one?
The “which is better, once or twice a week” question ignores the possibility that both types of schedules could work.
In addition, do we have to arrange our training according to a calendar week at all? Does the 7 day week have anything to do with our physiology or is it just a convenient way to organize a schedule in our society? A 7-day week gives us a very practical structure to work in, and that’s why so many people prefer it, but fitting workouts neatly into a 7-day week doesn’t necessarily improve results.
Some critics of once a week bodybuilding routines say that succeeding on a traditional bodybuilder’s one body part a week frequency is only possible with steroids, which improve recovery time. But if that were true, wouldn’t that mean the drug-taking bodybuilders could train more often, not less, because the drugs enhanced their recovery ability?
When you look at it that way, the argument that only steroid-using bodybuilders can use a once a week frequency doesn’t even make sense. I think what they mean to say is that steroids allow people to make muscle gains even if their training is not optimal, and that’s true in all aspects of program design.
Examining the science behind the claim of more frequent training builds more muscle and that twice a week is ideal.
While bodybuilders have no doubt been successful with training each muscle less than twice a week, there is certainly evidence for a higher frequency having advantages.
Some studies have suggested that protein synthesis may peak at around 48 hours after a workout. On this basis, proponents of more frequent training suggest that the more often you spike protein synthesis (given at least 48 hours of recovery time), the more chances you have for muscle growth. The longer you wait after that 48 hour period, the more you simply delay the opportunity for more growth. If this were true, it would suggest that with infrequent training, you could still reach your genetic potential for muscle growth, but it would take you longer to get there.
Some trainers suggest that with two protein synthesis spikes per week, you could gain twice as much muscle. However, there’s little evidence for this claim, and in fact, the truth is closer to the opposite. Research shows that a very modest amount of training – with a low number of sets and a low frequency – gets you the majority of your gains. Training more often and or with more volume may increase your gains even more, but the additional gains come at a diminishing rate of return
It’s important to note that protein synthesis is a short term marker of potential muscle growth, it is not actual muscle growth that has been measured over time. Long-term studies that compare muscle growth using different training frequencies would tell us a lot more.
Certain high frequency advocates go as far as saying that if you only train each muscle once a week, by the time your next workout for a specific muscle rolls around, you have not only been fully recovered for days, your muscles are already starting to atrophy. Studies on detraining clearly show that this is false.
Depending on how infrequently you train, and how many sets you accumulate per week, it is possible that training more often could improve results, but studies have shown that your muscles do not start to atrophy after even two weeks of total layoff, let alone just one week when you’re still training. It might be accurate to say you are not growing optimally if you don’t train muscle groups often enough, but it’s not correct to say you are losing muscle if you only hit each body part once every 7 days.
The newest research finally explains why more frequent training could build more muscle
If at this point you’re more confused than ever, don’t worry. One recent research paper went a long way in settling this whole argument – and at the same time, explaining why so many of the “bros” get great gains with lower training frequencies…
Training each muscle group more often makes it easier to do more sets (volume) per week. More volume is strongly associated with more muscle growth, at least up to a point, because adding volume is a form of progressive overload.
A meta analysis was published in the Journal of Sports Science (Schoenfeld et al 2018) and it compiled data from all the research from 25 of the most important studies on training frequency and muscle growth.
The main finding was that as long as the weekly volume was matched, the training frequency did not seem to matter – twice a week, once a week, or any point in between – in every case, muscle growth was about the same. In other words, the bodybuilders were doing just fine hitting each muscle less often, under one condition: They achieved an equal number of sets as they might have with a higher frequency.
Here’s an example:
Schedule A: 2 day split, train 4 days a week, do 8 sets per body part on big muscles each workout = 16 sets per week
Schedule B: 4 day split, train 4 days a week, do 8 sets per body part on big muscles each workout = 8 sets per week
Who gains more muscle, lifters following schedule A or schedule B? This is easy. Naturally, the group that did more total work per week – the 16 sets per week group, which in this case was the twice a week schedule. They did double the weekly workload! It’s not even fair to compare these schedules for the effect on growth because weekly volume was not equalized.
Ironically, this is how some of the early studies on training frequency were done – they only looked at frequency and didn’t match the volume. Did the twice a week group gain more muscle? Yes. But the increased gains from the twice a week schedule didn’t come only from training each muscle twice a week, they came from doing more sets per week!
Now take a look at this second example:
Schedule A: 2 day split, train 4 days a week, do 8 sets per body part on big muscles each workout = 16 sets per week
Schedule B: 4 day split, train 4 days a week, do 16 sets per body part on big muscles each workout = 16 sets per week
Based on what we’ve seen in longer-term muscle growth research, we should expect the results will be approximately the same. And based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, there are countless examples of bodybuilders who got jacked hitting each muscle only once a week (or once every 5 to 6 days).
What did those bodybuilders do differently to produce such great gains while working each muscle only once a week? They did more sets for each muscle in each workout – it’s that simple. And because it’s a body part split routine, it’s quite practical to do. When you’re only working a couple muscles per session, you have plenty of time for a lot of sets without making it a marathon session.
There may be more to it, for example, the protein synthesis theory may have merit. And there may be a limit to how many sets you should do for one muscle per workout, after which muscle damage can become excessive. But it looks like the main advantage of training each muscle more often is that it allows you to accumulate more weekly sets. In that case, by achieving more total volume, you’ll probably see more muscle growth, at least up to a point (where over training starts happening, or the workouts get too long to be practical).
If your total weekly sets hit benchmarks for optimal muscle growth (currently estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 20 sets per body part per week), and as long as the total weekly sets are the same, the results will be approximately the same no matter how often you hit each muscle per week.
Simply keep track of the number of sets you do per week (it’s an important metric to track). Also notice how changing your training schedule/frequency might affect your weekly volume because changes in weekly volume could affect your rate of muscle gains for better or worse.
Based on the most recent science we have, the best guideline is to choose your own training frequency that you prefer the most. This is good news because there are many reasons some people might not want to work each muscle twice a week. Like everything else in training and nutrition, you need to customize your training to suit you – genetics, recovery ability, injuries and personal preference.
How to Determine the Right Training Frequency for You
I don’t believe there is a best training frequency for every person in every situation. I do believe that we can recommend an ideal range for training frequency if we consider the science and all these practical considerations as well.
First, it’s important to look at experience level, also known as training age (how many years you’ve been working out). For beginners, trainers often recommend doing a full-body workout done three times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, for example). That’s more than twice a week! Isn’t that too often? Not necessarily.
A beginner usually does only one exercise per body part, he is not that strong yet and doesn’t train with that much intensity yet, so it’s not difficult to recover from these types of workouts every other day. Furthermore, when you’re a beginner, you’re still going through the learning phase, and more frequent workouts give you more opportunity to practice the exercises. So three full body workouts makes a lot of sense for the beginner. After the beginner stage, the three times per week frequency might not be optional anymore.
Second, we should consider recovery ability. Whether it’s due to genetics, lifestyle or use of performance enhancing substances, some individuals can recover from intense training faster than others. If you’re still so exhausted and sore from the last workout that it decreases your performance in the next one, wouldn’t it have been better to take more rest between workouts so that every workout is done at full capacity?
The third factor to consider is your goals. Are you training for bodybuilding competition, muscle growth (hypertrophy), strength, sports conditioning, weight loss or just overall health and fitness? Your goals will influence the type of training program, including training frequency (and volume, which corresponds to frequency).
Bodybuilding training requires more volume (more exercises and more total sets per body part per week and per workout). This usually necessitates the use of split routines with no more than a few muscles worked per session, or else the workouts would take hours. Even if you could suck it up and train for hours, the exercises you do last when you are more fatigued would suffer. Very few advanced bodybuilders use full body workouts as their standard year-round default training method.
The fourth factor is personal preference: Assuming your experience, recovery ability and goals have all been considered, that helps narrow down the choices for the ideal training schedule, but you should still think about personal preference (and enjoyment). Why? Because if you hate your workout schedule so much that you won’t follow it consistently or you don’t put any enthusiasm into, then the fact that it’s physiologically “optimal” is of little consequence.
If you take all these factors into account, it should be easier to make informed decisions about what training frequency is ideal for you in your situation.
The conclusion I’ve made is that great muscle gains can be made on a variety of training schedules and frequencies. But depending on your training volume and the other factors mentioned above, you may in fact, be able to increase gains by increasing frequency, up to a point.
Let me use myself as a case study.
I’ve done one bodypart per week programs and made good muscle gains, but I did feel like it was too long between workouts for the same muscle. After years of experience I found that a slightly higher frequency was ideal for me so during most of my bodybuilding career, I set up my split routine to hit each muscle group once every 4 to 6 days. I’ve primarily used 4-day and 3-day splits.
The 4-Day “Body Part” Split (Once every six days training frequency)
One way I’ve scheduled a 4-day split is with a 2 days on 1 day off rotation. it does not fit evenly into a 7-day calendar week.
Monday: Chest, Biceps
Tuesday: Quads, hamstrings
Thursday: Shoulders, Triceps
Friday: Back, Calves
Sunday: Repeat 2 on 1 off schedule
Why did I choose this routine? I felt that it was perfect for my goals – bodybuilding – which requires working each muscle from every possible angle. For example, when training my deltoids, I don’t feel that I can do one exercise like an overhead press and call that workout done. I also do lateral raises and rear deltoid raises and sometimes throw in shrugs.
To do this many exercises for every muscle group requires spreading the training over a multi-day split. By only having to worry about one or two major muscle groups per session, I can put my full energy and intensity into working that muscle. I also enjoy this style of training above any other type of workout.
If I feel like I’m recovering adequately, I may increase the frequency slightly by training 3 days in a row before taking a rest day. By taking fewer rest days, I’ve increased the frequency to almost once every 5 days. If I wanted an even higher frequency, I’d use a 4 days on 1 day off rotation.
So you can see, my default training method has never been only once a week.
The 3-Day Push-Pull-Legs Split
When I wanted to lean toward a slightly higher frequency while continuing with a bodybuilding-style body part split routine, one way I did it was by changing from a 4-day split to a 3-day split.
Because of the recently published research and the amount of attention that’s been put on higher frequency training in recent years, this 3-day split has made a big comeback in popularity among bodybuilders.
Monday: Back, Biceps, abs (pull)
Tuesday: Chest, Shoulders Triceps (push)
Wednesday: Quads, Hams, calves (legs)
Friday: Back, Biceps, abs (pull)
Saturday: Chest, Shoulders Triceps (push)
Sunday: Quads, Hams, calves (legs)
repeat 3 days on, 1 day off
This split lets you hit each muscle once every 4 days – almost twice a week. Three day splits can also be done with the “classic muscle” body part grouping: day 1: chest and back, day 2: Shoulders and arms, day 3: legs and abs.
If you wanted to go all the way and hit each muscle 2 times per week, you could run this 3-day split 6 days a week with only Sunday’s off. That’s very aggressive and many people won’t be able to recover from that, so another option is the 2-day upper-lower split I mentioned earlier, which you usually run only 4 days a week.
It does not look like there is one training frequency that’s ideal for everyone. The ideal training schedule depends on your goals and needs, and if you prefer, you can choose a frequency that falls anywhere in between once a week and twice a week.
However, the weight of current evidence does suggest that most people might get even better results if they trained each muscle at least a little more than once a week. If we had to narrow it down to one range, based on both science and practice, the ideal weight training frequency for muscle growth probably falls somewhere between twice a week and once every six days.
If you’ve always used a once a week frequency and have never tried training more often, it’s worth testing it to see if bumping up your frequency a bit improves your results. You may want to try a slightly higher frequency like once every 5 days or you may want to bump it all the way to 2 times per week.
Either way, give it a fair trial, because you may have an initial knee-jerk reaction that it’s too often, but then discover after sticking with it a few weeks, your body adjusts and adapts in a positive way.
It may even worth experimenting with changes to your training frequency throughout the year as part of a long-range periodization plan. You don’t have to stay with the same frequency all year round. Even if the frequency and volume seems to border on over training, your body can sometimes thrive on being pushed hard for short periods, provided you back off and take more rest days when you need them.
It’s also worth trying a higher frequency just for lagging body parts while keeping a lower frequency for the rest (this is known as a variable split routine, which I’ll discuss in more detail in another article).
Regardless of your goals, you should always be aware of how you are recovering from your workouts on various schedules and pay attention to your results as you experiment with training variables. Keep doing more of what’s working. When you’re not satisfied with your results, then consider a change.
-Tom Venuto, Author of, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
Author, The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
PS. Training each muscle twice a week may be considered the industry standard and best practice today and it very well might be slightly better than once a week, when all else is equal. But there are many schedules that work and experimenting with different split routines and frequencies is worth trying, including “bro splits” and unorthodox schedules.
Last year we released a new and unusual type of training split at the Burn the Fat Inner Circle in our workout programs department. It’s called 2/3 Hybrid M.A.S.S. (Muscle And Strength Split). This is a strength and hypertrophy program where you do 5 workouts per week and you hit each muscle exactly 2 times per week. It’s called a Hybrid split because there is a 3 day push pull legs sequence as well as an upper day and a lower day. Since its release, this has become among our top three most popular programs.
More recently this year, we released a similar program called 3/1 Hybrid Muscle. In this new program, you train 4 days a week and again each muscle is hit exactly 2 times per week. In this case the split is even more unusual. There are 3 workouts split into chest + back, shoulders + arms, and legs, then day 4 is a full body workout. This is a unique (and ingenious) way to hit that twice a week frequency mark.
If you’re bored with traditional split routines, and want to accelerate your gains, then you will want to check this out. Both 12-week training programs are included with membership at Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Members: CLICK HERE for 2/3 Hybrid M.A.S.S. and the new 3/1 Hybrid Muscle
Non-Members: CLICK HERE to join our group and get access to both Hybrid training programs
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss coach. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and is today a full-time fitness writer, blogger, and author. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
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