By Jon Harris
In the 25 years or so I’ve been training, without doubt the one question I get asked the most about is training frequency. “How often should I hit a bodypart? Once a week? Twice a week? Every 5 days?” The truth is that all these methods will work to some extent. But which system is best for bodybuilders who's primary concern is maximal muscle growth?
I’ve played around and experimented with many different training splits over the years. Indeed, in my early years I favoured a Monday, Wednesday, Friday plan, splitting the body up into 3 workouts and training each muscle group once every 7 days. With a full week between sessions, there was never any shortage of time for rest and recovery. The temptation is to blast the muscle hard, with more sets and greater intensity. Forced reps, negatives, drop sets, and so on. This is all well and good, but is this the best way to maximise hypertrophy?
Let's put aside the issue of recovery for a moment, and also assume that your diet is spot on, which it needs to be if you want optimal gains. Ok, suppose you try training muscle groups twice a week. Surely then, logic would dictate that stimulating a muscle twice as often will lead to twice the gains, right?
No! Well, not unless you adjust factors to allow for complete recovery. A muscle will not grow unless it has recovered from the previous session, so hitting a bodypart again before it’s had a chance to repair itself is a sure-fire way to stall progress, short circuit your gains and trigger over-training. A state where the body’s recovery systems cannot keep up with the stress placed upon them.
So, what’s needed here is to scale the intensity and volume of the workouts back to facilitate a shorter recovery period, and THEN then the muscles will really be able to benefit from two windows of growth per week. But it's easier said than done. For ‘hardcore’ bodybuilders the idea of doing less in the gym never usually sits well. More is better, surely?
What I’m talking about is a very abbreviated routine, stripped back to the bare essentials, with no more than 1 or 2 work sets per exercise, and a maximum of 2 exercises per bodypart. No forced reps, no negatives, and no drop sets. I even recommend avoiding failure on certain exercises to avoid over-stressing the body’s recovery systems. These include the big lifts like deadlifts, squats and leg presses. Stop a rep or two short and not only will you avoid your dinner ending up on the gym floor, but you’ll be good to train those muscles again in 3 or 4 days time. A handy rule of thumb is to always leave the gym with something left in the tank.
Here’s an example workout split:
Day 1 – Upper Body
Day 2 – Lower Body ‘A’
Day 3 – Off
Day 4 – Upper Body
Day 5 – Lower Body ‘B’
Day 6 – Off
Day 7 – Off
Lat Pulldown + Flat DB Bench Press
Bent Over Row + Dips
DB Shoulder Press + Tricep Pushown
DB Bicep Curl + Side DB Laterals
Hammer Curl + EZ Bar Pullover
Lower Body ‘A’
Leg Extension + Seated Leg Curl
Standing Calf Raise + Hanging Leg Raise
* In all cases sets would be limited to 1 or 2 per exercise and rep ranges would be in the hypertrophy zone of 8-15.
Lower Body ‘B’
Leg Press + Toe Press
Stiff Leg Deadlift + Hanging Leg Raise
* Note that leg workouts have been split into 'A' and 'B'. This allows the overall volume and workload to be kept low in each session whilst maintaining a good range of exercises throughout the week. A similar method could also be applied to the upper body workouts.
These workouts can be completed in under 30 minutes. To speed things up I also advocate using alternate sets. That means doing a set of one exercise quickly followed by a set of another exercise for another bodypart. This cuts down on rest periods but crucially still allows recovery time for the muscles, since they get a short ‘breather’ when you’re performing the alternate set. Some exercise pairings have been listed above as an example.
Twice weekly bodypart training isn’t for everyone, but if you’re fed up with your once-a-week plan and your gains have ground to a halt then this might just be what’s needed to re-ignite your engine. Oh and did I tell you it’s great for burning calories? So if you’re ripping up for a contest or just want to shed a few pounds then it’s well worth a try.