Frequency is often a term thrown around the gym as a factor of muscle growth, but the word is often confused, and if followed blindly, can lead to overtraining. Frequency basically refers to the number of times you train per week. Now to be more specific, I’m not talking about training a typical bro split such as push, pull, legs, but a given muscle group such as chest or quads. In my experience, it’s far easier to structure your routine around a given body part especially if that body part is weakening and deserves more attention.
Indeed there is a volume-frequency trade-off (volume is the number of sets times reps and is considered the main driver of hypertrophy). Frequency of training increases volume, so there should be a crossover of volume increased to a given muscle group. As such, it has been proposed that having a high frequency in your training will increase gains faster than, say, training once per week.
A recent meta-analysis (Schoenfeld et al, 2016) (a meta-analysis pools data from all studies on a given subject) on the effects of frequency on muscle growth, looked at the effects of frequency as a binary predictor. In simple terms, the higher frequency condition in a given study was compared to the lower frequency condition with volume equated. Thus, a two-day-a-week versus one-day-a-week was treated the same as a three-day-a-week versus one-day-a-week.
In this model, there was a clear benefit for higher frequency training of a muscle group. The effect size (measurement of the importance of results) was 48% greater for the higher frequency conditions (0.49 versus 0.30, respectively), translating into an average hypertrophy increase of 6.8% versus 3.7% for higher versus lower frequencies, respectively.
The take-home from this study was that yes, those who typically go to the gym more will further enhance progress compared to those who choose to train a given body part once per week. It’s recommended, at the very least, that training a body part a minimum of two days a week is needed to maximize muscle growth; whether training a muscle group three times per week is superior to a twice-per-week protocol remains to be determined. Nonetheless, training a muscle just once a week was shown to promote substantial muscle growth.
Research studies are typically short-term, usually lasting six to 12 weeks and consequently, you can’t necessarily extrapolate that results found would continue over time. Indeed, it’s possible that high training frequencies may ultimately lead to an overtrained state and thus have a negative impact on muscle development. As such, it may be prudent to periodize training frequency, varying the number of times a muscle is trained each week. It may be beneficial to input regular deload periods, where a week of reduced frequency, volume, and/or intensity is strategically integrated into your program where necessary so to facilitate recovery and redevelopment.
Use science to guide your resistance program, then experiment to see what works best for you.
Steve O Mahony BSc MSc
Schoenfeld B, Ogborn D, Krieger JW 2016. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med;46(11):1689-1697