In the world of strength training, ‘frequency’ is defined as how often you perform something. In more specific terms, I define frequency as the number of times per week a particular lift is performed. Frequency can vary from 0/week to 7/week. Meaning you can perform a certain lift as little as 0 times per week or as often as 7 times per week. For the purpose of this article, we will consider only one training session per day, even though some athletes may use multiple sessions per day.
Strength training has an odd way of repeating itself throughout time and each time a new ‘style’ of training comes around, it’s often mistaken for a new, groundbreaking technique. In reality, there has been nothing ‘sparkling new’ about training methods in quite some time, and there will likely never be. There are only so many ways to use volume, reps, frequency, speed, and intensity in training that over the years, every different combination has been tried. 30 years ago, it seemed that ultra-high frequency was setting the European weightlifters apart from the rest of the world. They were performing competition movements up to 7 times per week. A few years later most of the American strongmen and powerlifters that my generation looks up to like Ed Coan and Kaz, used a linear periodization utilizing progressively lower reps and higher weight performing major movements once per week. When I first began paying attention to the powerlifting world in the 2000’s, Westside, or the Conjugate Method seemed to be the most popular method. Max effort was prioritized and speed and band work became popular. Now I look at where I have seen the trend moving in the past few years, particularly with the growing popularity of raw lifting, more and more lifters seem to be utilizing a higher frequency protocol. More raw lifters are modelling their training after Olympic programs rather than the conjugate method that produced so many strong equipped lifters.
The purpose of this article is not to blindly state the best frequency to use as a lifter, just to guide someone to understand the pros and cons of varying frequency and how to experiment and implement changes into your training.
QUESTION THE STATUS QUO
When I began programming and training on my own, I followed the traditional Western Periodization of performing the lifts once per week, and over a cycle reducing the reps and increasing the weight, while putting a lot of emphasis on non-compound assistance work. I began to question ‘why does everyone only have one day a week for squat, bench and deadlift?’ I figured it was out of convenience. The American week is based around the Monday through Friday workweek and this probably allowed lifters and crews to have a set schedule. Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts were at the same time and day every week. Then I thought that if gaining strength was the primary goal, maybe 1/week wasn’t ideal, it was just convenient.
The science of gaining strength and size is simple on the surface. 1. Break the muscles down in the gym. 2. Recover from nutrition and rest. 3. Muscles heal and grow to be stronger from the induced stress. 4. Repeat. Over weeks, months, and years this repetitive process develops the body. Well if you were to focus on the bench press and only performing it once per week, this entire cycle covered a week. What if you now benched twice a week and could still recover from session to session; would you make the same gains in 6 months that you otherwise would have in a year? What if you bench pressed 4 times per week, would you now make the same gains in 3 months that you would have in a year? Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like this, but adjusting your frequency correctly can lead to quicker improvement.
PROS AND CONS
Training with a higher frequency than you are right now may or may not be right for you. However, over my training life I have come to believe that training at the maximum possible frequency is best. ‘Maximum possible’ does NOT mean to go 7/week. It simply means, training with the highest frequency that your body will allow. This means you still need to recover from session to session and not overtrain. For some lifters this may mean 2 sessions/month of a certain lift. For others it could be 30 sessions/month. It takes time to fine tune what is best for you and your body.
- More practice: Perfecting technique and efficient movement patterns are a huge part of moving maximum weight. Simply said – the more frequently you perform a lift, the better your technique will become.
- Competition-like: Having a dedicated day for only one lift is not applicable when it comes to meet day where you have to perform three lifts. If you train doing more than one of the main competition movements per day, it resembles a meet more and you are more likely to hit in the meet what you believe you are capable of your gym performance.
- Feeling healthier: I don’t have any scientific data to prove this, but when I began training competition lifts multiple times per week, my body actually began to feel healthier in terms of joints and nagging injuries. I have spoken to numerous lifters who echo this feeling.
- Allows for higher volume: Increasing frequency is one easy way to also increase your total training volume.
- More flexible training: If you miss a workout, it’s easier to make it up the next day. When you are used to having fewer rest days in between sessions, your recovery becomes better. Always training on lower rest prepares you when you may need to train multiple days in a row.
- Better supercompensation: Again, I have no scientific data to back this up, but when I began training with a higher frequency and would taper going into a meet, I felt that my supercompensation at the meet was drastically higher. This is likely due to constantly training at a higher threshold so when you back off and recover before the meet, you REALLY recover.
- More specific ‘assistance’: Say you are going to do 3 deadlift sessions/week. This means you can perform 3 very specific variations as ‘assistance’ as opposed to doing rows or other back work. One of the most common questions I see are ‘how do I experiment with switching to sumo deadlift’. These frequent and specific training sessions can allow you to put an emphasis on both. One day can be a high priority sumo deadlift, and conventional on another day. So instead of performing heavy conventional deadlifts, then going right into sumo deadlifts in a fatigued state, you can perform them fresh on different days and practice new technique without being pre-exhausted.
- Still use your old methods: If you utilize any combination of max effort, speed work, or repetition work, you can manipulate these around to increase your frequency. Instead of alternating weeks of each method, you can try to perform each in the same week as it’s own session.
- Overtraining: By increasing the frequency of training sessions, there is also a higher risk of overtraining. It will take careful monitoring to make sure you stay under the overtraining threshold.
- Lower training weight: By performing the lifts multiple times per week, you won’t have as much recovery time between sessions as with lower frequency. And this holds true for a whole training cycle. It can be an ego check but you simply won’t handle the heavy, PR weights every week. The eye needs to be on the prize though and realize that PRs can come in meets.
- Higher injury risk: Even though this is contradictory to what was listed above, injuries can happen when you perform compound movements. So naturally, the more often you perform a compound movement the more likely an injury can occur. It is the same as driving a car many miles – the longer you drive, the higher the chance of an accident. This can be mitigated by choosing proper training weights and not sacrificing form.
- Inconvenience: If you train with a crew of lifters, it can dampen the atmosphere and make it hard for everyone to train together. If everyone hits heavy squats on Monday night, it may not fit your program for that day and take away from some of the team atmosphere.
- Equipment: Performing the competition lifts with a high frequency means you will spend a significant amount more time in the power rack as opposed to being on machines or dumbells. This can pose a problem at some gyms.
- Time: Generally, spending more time performing heavy compound movements will add to the total time you spend in the gym for a training session.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT
Even though the theme of this article is to suggest higher frequency training is better all else being equal, does not mean you should jump right into a high frequency program and start squatting 7 times per week. Increasing the frequency should be a gradual process to avoid injury and accommodate the body to the stress. Think about setting your frequency like you set your windshield wiper speed. If the wipes are too frequent, it gets in the way and the wipers are working too hard. If the frequency is too little, not enough work is being done to keep the windshield clean. It takes some fine tuning going back and forth to find just the right frequency. Furthermore, the same frequency for one lift does not mean it is the best for another lift. Some lifters may find that they can squat and bench more frequently, but not deadlift. Currently in my training I have found that bench pressing 4 heavy sessions per week is right for me, but less frequency in the squat and deadlift.
Start slowly by adding one extra session per week, and allow it to stabilize for a few weeks. Keep kicking it up until you feel that you reach a point you cannot recover anymore. I found it took a good 4-5 weeks for my body to adapt and that during the first few weeks, everything felt painful, slow, and weak. But once I hit my stride after week 5 I could really feel it. If you feel you can’t recover after increasing the frequency, back down. You may find that you can tolerate significantly more sessions per week, or you may find that your current program is just right.
The biggest teaching point is understanding the weight will be less and that you cannot let it mess with your head. If you are used to hitting one big set of 5 reps on bench press every week, you won’t be able to hit that same weight every time if you start bench pressing multiple times per week. Train in a sub-maximal mindset, and you will compete in a supra-maximal body. Practice the lifts and aim for perfect technique. Also, give yourself plenty of time in between meets to experiment around with your frequency.
One more remark about the use of higher frequency training relates to the training experience of the athlete. The more advanced a lifter is, the more specific and frequent their training needs to be. The newer a lifter is, the more they can get away with. A brand new lifter will certainly get stronger in the squat by squatting once a month and performing leg extensions, leg curls, and jumps as accessory work. However, an experienced lifter will require more frequency and specific movements to continue to improve.
The only absolute in strength training is that there are no absolutes. Not everybody will benefit from training at a higher frequency, but it is worth it to experiment for yourself. There are world class lifters who train competition lifts 1-2 times per month, and others that train 31 times per month. There are infinite ways for somebody to get stronger, but you need to find the right way for you. I encourage lifters to find the highest frequency they can train with while still being able to recover while staying healthy and motivated to move big weight.