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Training Frequency & Muscle Recovery

By Alan Frost, updated January, 2014

Metal DumbbellsIn this article I will look at the muscle recovery in weight training for the purpose of helping you determine how frequently you should train.

Factors Affecting Muscle Recovery

One of the most common questions I hear is "How often should I weight train?" This basically depends on how quickly you recover. Apart from basic differences in genetics, muscle recovery is quicker:

  • Following less intensive routines
  • In younger people
  • For smaller muscles
  • In males
  • With proper nutrition
  • With adequate sleep
  • When you are not stressed
  • In "slow gainers" rather than "fast gainers"

Fast vs Slow Gainers

This refers to how easily you can make gains at the gym. What it really refers to is the ratio of white to red muscle fibers. People with predominantly white fibers make much faster gains but have a lower anaerobic endurance, while people with predominantly red fibers are just the opposite (Hatfield). This means that fast gainers will see quicker improvements but when asked to perform reps at a lower intensity (e.g. 80% of their one rep max), they will rep much lower than slow gainers.

This is further complicated by the fact that individual muscle groups in your body may vary on the fast – average – slow gainer scale. The way to test yourself is to perform reps at 80% of your max and see how many you can do. I will use a simplified version of the scale presented by Dr. Fred Hatfield:

Reps Performed at 80% of 1 rep maxAbility to Make Gains
Less than 4Fast Gainers
4-6
6-10
10-13Average Gainers
13-17
17-21
21 and upSlow Gainers

So how does this affect muscle recovery? Well, the more your muscle tends towards being a fast gainer, the more recovery time it requires. E.g. lighter days might require 3-5 days (slow gainers – fast gainers) for larger muscle groups, while heavy days could need 5-7 days.

Training Frequency by Goals & Training Split

As you can see, there are many factors that influence training frequency, but at the heart of the matter it depends on your individual muscle recovery. I should point out that there is little consensus in this area, and that you will find advocates for all sorts of extreme positions. I will stick with the mainstream recommendations, as these have been tried and tested, and later you can decide for yourself if you want to try different approaches.

There are a wide variety of recommendations, including using variable programs that change continuously, so that you are always training the muscle that has recovered. You can read more about that in this article:
http://drsquat.com/content/knowledge-base/finding-ideal-training-split

However, for most people, training 2-4 times per week will be fine. The frequency will depend on whether you have chosen a full body or a split routine. I also encourage you to experiment and to be mindful of what your body is saying. If you have not recovered, do not just do the workout because it says so in your calendar. In my own routine, I use very flexible training days. So while I tend to train 3 times a week (depending on which program I am currently using) I will vary the training days and occasionally have weeks with 2 or 4 training sessions, all depending on how my muscles have recovered. In my case, since I am largely a fast gainer, I tend towards requiring more recovery time than most.

woman in gym

So what does all this mean in practice?

Full body routine: 2-3 times per week.
Split routine (e.g. upper-lower, push-pull-legs): 3-4 times per week.

For fat loss and general fitness you might not be concerned with the optimal weight training schedule. You might instead be interested in being generally active, burning calories, and getting many of the health benefits of weight training. Often for such clients (particularly those with busy schedules), I recommend a full body routine performed twice a week (e.g. Monday & Friday), with cardiovascular and more intensive aerobic training (or sports) during the other days.

However, if your goal is to gain mass or strength, then you need to approach things a bit more carefully. If you are a beginner, you can start with a full body routine performed 2-3 times per week (see the Weight Training Routine article), all depending on the factors listed earlier on in this article. As you improve, you need to be attentive to your body's ability to recover, or conversely to not training enough. It usually then becomes necessary to implement a split.

Keep in mind all the factors listed in this article and listen to your own body when it comes to muscle recovery. For more on muscle recovery, check out the article on active rest.

References:

Hatfield F.C. Finding the Ideal Training Split, accessed January 2014 from http://drsquat.com/content/knowledge-base/finding-ideal-training-split

Marion J. (2009) The Secret to Big Gains, bodybuilding.com, accessed January 2014 from: www.bodybuilding.com/fun/avoid_overtraining_for_big_gains.htm

Patrick R. (2010), Gain More Muscle by Training Less, bodybuilding.com, accessed on January 2014 from: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/gain-muscle-by-training-less.htm

Robertson M. (2011), Fact vs Fiction, the Truth About Training Frequency, tnation.com, accessed January 2014 from: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/fact_vs_fiction_the_truth_about_training_frequency&cr=



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