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How often should I train for muscle growth?

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Training frequency for muscle growth

“How often do I need to train?” I get this question a lot from prospective clients (and it’s a totally valid one to ask).

Annoyingly and as if often the case, it depends. By that I mean that there are a number of factors which are massively going to influence how often somebody is able to train in the gym:

  • Work schedule

  • Type of work

  • Social life

  • Family life

  • Other commitments e.g. to sports teams

  • Travel

All of the above factors and more must be considered when a training programme is designed. There’s no point in me assigning a client with a Push, Pull, Legs split to be trained 6x per week if they work 12 hours a day and only have one free evening a week.

Aside from the above, another massive factor in terms of how often someone should train each week is their goals and objectives. If someone is looking to get into the shape of their life for a bodybuilding competition in 12 weeks time then they’re likely going to require a much higher frequency of training than a 60-year old who is just looking to get a bit fitter and stronger.


What does the research tell us?

Having made the above points on circumstances playing a massive factor in terms of how often someone is able to train each week, there is some research into frequency which we can call upon when trying to search for the optimal frequency for muscle growth.


Firstly, a 2016 paper (1) led by Brad Schoenfeld who is a researcher and educator on muscle growth/fat loss and is very highly regarded in the fitness industry. Along with colleagues, Schoenfeld conducted a meta-analysis of a large number of frequency studies to see if they could draw any conclusions from the data.

A really significant finding was that Schoenfeld et al. found that training major muscles at least twice per week was optimal for muscle growth. These findings are nicely summarised below:


Training chart graphic

This research then seems to go against the traditional bodybuilding model of training through the week like this:

  • Monday = Chest

  • Tuesday = Legs

  • Wednesday = Back

  • Thursday = Shoulders / Abs

  • Friday = Arms


This is the way many have trained for years. Each day you basically destroy a different muscle group then you are just about recovered and ready to train that same muscle group again by the next session in 7 days time.


The volume factor

As mentioned, the 2016 meta-analysis which Schoenfeld et al. carried out indicated that training each muscle group a minimum of 2x per week is optimal. However – Schoenfeld did a further meta-analysis in 2019 (2) which also looked at frequency AND (crucially) volume.

Just as a reminder, volume is typically measured by looking at the number of reps and sets performed over the course of a training session or training week. The fact that Schoenfeld et al. included volume as part of their 2019 study was key.

To quote the conclusion drawn from that 2019 study:

“There is strong evidence that resistance training frequency does not significantly or meaningfully impact muscle hypertrophy when volume is equated.

Thus, for a given training volume, individuals can choose a weekly frequency per muscle groups based on personal preference.”

So essentially, they found that when volume was equal, training frequency was largely insignificant when it came to muscle growth.


Junk volume

The next factor which is important to consider and Schoenfeld alludes to in his tweet above is how volume is managed throughout a training week.

“Junk volume” is a term which is used to describe training which doesn’t contribute anything in regard to strength or muscle growth. Usually this is going to be due to a high amount of sets targeting one muscle group on a particular day or week of training.

Research suggests that around 6 sets per session is the ceiling before sets start to become wasted and would be classified as junk volume because they are no longer stimulating muscle or strength gains (3).


So the thinking on junk volume is another argument which suggests that training volume should be split over the course of a week for each muscle group.

If on your “Chest day” you perform 12 sets on the chest across 3 different exercises, research shows that you are going to be better off splitting those 12 sets over multiple sessions in the week to improve training quality. This point is a key reason why I often implement full body sessions with my clients, allowing us to utilise good quality training of each muscle group throughout the week.


Training age

A final factor that I’m going to mention when considering frequency is “training age”. This essentially refers to how long you’ve been training for.

Typically, people are broadly grouped into three categories: beginner (those who are 0-2 years into their training), intermediate (those who have been training for between 2-5 years) and advanced (those who have been training consistently for 5+ years).


Body chart

Training age is an important consideration when thinking about frequency because another study (4) found that training frequency makes only a slight amount of difference in untrained individuals (beginners). So that essentially shows us that people who are new to the gym can get away with training each muscle group 1x per week without having a significant negative impact on their muscle growth.


Conclusions

First of all, if you are relatively new to gym training and you’re just keen to make a decent amount progress without having to think too hard about your training, just try to get to the gym at least once a week and work all of the major muscle groups. The fact that you’re new to gym training means you don’t have to be too scientific about your training/frequency – you have massive potential for muscle growth anyway.


Blue graph

If you’re a more serious beginner who wants to maximise all of your gains or you’re an intermediate lifter who wants to ensure optimal progress – training major muscle groups at least twice per week is going to be best for you. You should also be considering total overall volume throughout the week for each muscle group (most usually measured in total sets performed throughout the week).


If you’re an advanced lifter then you’ll definitely want to be training each muscle group twice or more each week. You’ll need to carefully consider manipulations to factors such as total volume and you’ll need to account for factors such as junk volume as well.

As is always the case – there needs to be an element of realism to my recommendations above. If you’re an intermediate lifter but can only train once a week due to family and work commitments – am I telling you not to bother? Absolutely not – something is always going to be better than nothing and fitness/training has to work around your life not the other way around.


The above recommendations are what the research is telling us is optimal for muscle growth but that doesn’t mean to say that these guidelines need to be followed rigidly at the detriment of the rest of your life!


Training pyramid

Find a routine that works for you in terms of the time you have available. Focus on training hard, staying consistent and good things will happen – factors like frequency are secondary to adherence to your programme as a whole which is always the foundation from which to build.


References:

  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8. PMID: 27102172.

  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Krieger J. How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. J Sports Sci. 2019 Jun;37(11):1286-1295. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906. Epub 2018 Dec 17. PMID: 30558493.

  3. https://weightology.net/the-members-area/evidence-based-guides/set-volume-for-muscle-size-the-ultimate-evidence-based-bible/#Schoenfeld

  4. Gentil P, Fischer B, Martorelli AS, Lima RM, Bottaro M. Effects of equal-volume resistance training performed one or two times a week in upper body muscle size and strength of untrained young men. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2015 Mar;55(3):144-9. Epub 2014 Apr 14. PMID: 24732784.


 

 

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