I feel this topic is hugely misunderstood. When people think about how many times you train per week, they usually associate it with how much progress they can make, and the recovery associated with it. For example, most believe going to the gym 5 times per week is better than 4, and 4 is better than 3. But if you go 5 times per week, it will be harder to recover than 4, and 4 being harder than 3. In a practical sense, it’s close, but when creating a program, there’s more than meets the eye and it’s important to understand the implications of it to make sure we have a good training frequency adequate to the situation.
The amount of training sessions per week is largely dependent on 3 factors:
1) Training age
1) Why training age? Because of diminishing returns, the more you train, the harder it is to progress. In order to continue to make progress, overtime, your overall volume is going to have to increase. And the more volume increases, the more frequency is needed, to split that volume. For example, if Bob needs 6 sets of squats per week to progress, he can 2 sessions consisting of 3 sets each. However, John, who is more advanced than Bob, might need 15 sets of squats per week to progress. He can still do 2 sessions, for example 1 with 7 sets, and another with 8. But it’s a lot easier to add another session, and now he only has to do 5 sets per session. This is a HUGE over-simplification, but it’s just to show-case the point that overtime, you need more volume, thus more sessions are beneficial.
2) Commitment because in general, a higher number of days per week is always better. And no, you won’t overtrain and burn out just because you train 5, 6 or 7 days a week, as long as the total weekly volume is the same. The more frequently you train, the less you have to do in each session, and more effort and energy you will have for each set.
However, having a higher training frequency also requires more commitment from the athlete. Training more times per week usually means prioritizing your training more, there will be less rest days that you can make other plans for. And even though the time in the gym might be the same, you will still spend more of your time overall. More sessions means more gym trips, more bag preparations, more showers, etc. Most professional athletes have a very high training frequency, sometimes even training twice a day, but that’s their job. For the average job, it might not be worth it.
For example, let’s consider plan A and plan B.
Plan A: Full-body, 3 times per week, M/W/F.
Plan B: Upper Lower, 3 times per week. M/T/W/T/F/S
Even though this is a bit of an extreme example (Plan A being almost the minimum frequency, and Plan B being almost the maximum people go), if the total volume is the same, the fatigue and recovery will be very similar, if not exactly the same. Plan B is simply plan A more distributed. Each session will be a bit easier because you only have to do half the work, but at the same time it will require more time and effort. People think more training sessions will impact their recovery a lot because they think about adding another session. So in this case, people would think about adding another full-body session, which would increase the total volume. However, in the short-term, a higher training frequency is to split and distribute volume, not to add even more volume. So giving a more realistic example (and I implement this quite often) someone who has been doing full-body, can split their last training session into an upper-lower. The volume stays the same, but now the end of the week is a bit easier because you have to do less work in each session.
3) And lastly, like many other aspects of training, preference has to be taken into account. Within a certain range and as long as all the other variables are the same, how many days per week you train doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things. Sure, more and shorter sessions are better, but at the same time, exercise selection, volume, frequency (in this context, defined by how many times you train a movement/muscle group) will affect your progress to a much higher degree. If you dislike going to the gym often, it’s pointless to force yourself to go to the gym 5 or 6 times per week when you can achieve the same outcome by going 3 or 4 times. Likewise, if you really enjoying going to the gym and working out, you don’t need to restrict yourself training 4 times per week because you think more will automatically make you overtrain.
So to answer the question of how many times per week should you train, think about these 3 factors. How long have you been training for? Do you need a lot of volume to progress? Can you handle that amount of volume in fewer sessions? Are you willing to commit to a high number of sessions? Is it worth it for your situation? Do you enjoy going to the gym more often?
These are the questions you should be asking. In general, I recommend 3-4 sessions for most people. As they get more advanced, I usually progress to 5, perhaps 6 if needed. Point is, view training frequency as a variable that can be changed according to your situation, and don’t be stuck in a specific number because you are afraid it will either not be enough or that it will burn you out. Volume is by far the largest contributor to fatigue.
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