Frequency: The number of exercise sessions per week
Recommendations: Beginners (2 - 3 sessions a week), Intermediates (3 - 4 sessions), Advanced (4 - 5 sessions).
Before you worry about free weights vs. machines, total body training vs. body part splits, New Age vs. Old School, or Jane Fonda vs. Richard Simmons, you have to figure out how often you should be training to maximize your results. Step one of getting any job done is to actually show up. Once you get there, you can figure out how you should proceed to complete the task at hand. But even the best-laid plans are meaningless if they are not applied, and you instead opt to sit on the couch, eat (insert your favorite junk foods), and watch (insert your favorite junk TV show).
Are You a Lazy-ass?
For most of us, we know what the problem is right? We don't exercise enough. The solution to that problem is straightforward and simple—get your lazy ass off the couch and get to the gym more.
Strength training is the stimulus your body needs to adapt and respond. Consistently hitting the weights will help you build lean muscle, boost your metabolism, burn fat, and eventually, change your physique. Listening to Oprah's guests talk about it, watching Chuck Norris train on his home gym, buying an infomercial product, reading about programs in fitness magazines, or talking about getting into shape are all not enough. You actually have to do it yourself to get results.
One of the main goals of transitioning from a beginner to more advanced levels, and progressing from out-of-shape to in-shape, is to increase the body's workload capacity. This can happen in several ways. We can increase training volume and/or increase training intensity. But probably the easiest way to go about doing this at first is to increase training frequency. In other words, we can focus on getting you to work out more often, thus forcing your body to adapt to higher and higher amounts of training stress.
So if you know in your heart that you don't exercise enough, then spend the immediate future just focusing on being more consistent with your training. Schedule your workouts into your calendar (electronic or paper, whatever you prefer). Try to set a plan based on the above frequency guidelines, figure out how to fit those training sessions into your week, and then devote yourself to adhering to that plan without exception.
And don't read any further. It will just confuse you. The rest of this article is for advanced athletes only, the ones who may be pushing themselves too far in the other direction.
Are You an Obsessive-ass?
There is a flip side to the frequency coin, and that side is a little more complicated. I'm probably only speaking to less than 10% of the population out there with this one, but that 10% can fall victim to their own high levels of motivation, thus unconsciously sabotaging their physique enhancement results. They also can be stubborn and hard to get through to. Dedicated people often can't hear, or don't want to hear that there is an upper limit to optimal training frequency.
Many gung-ho athletes and trainees just assume that if some exercise is good, more (sometimes extreme levels of more) is better. The problem with that mindset is that there comes a point of diminishing returns. There comes a point where you outpace your body's ability to fully recover and adapt. If you train, and train, and train some more with no thought of recovery, your body ends up in a constant catabolic/broken down state. Your muscles can't recover, and you are not allowing your body enough time to adapt to the training stimulus (and thus make visual improvements). You end up spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, frustrated with the lack of progress from all of your efforts. You are also predisposing yourself to training overuse injuries and setting your body up for a huge metabolic/weight rebound sometime down the road when you return to some semblance of normalcy.
I see this overtraining phenomenon the most with the following personalities:
- Obsessive compulsive personalities. Exercise becomes their one fixation, which is not healthier than any other type of obsessive behavior.
- People transitioning from performance athletics backgrounds. Sometimes overtraining is necessary during a sport's competitive season to improve a skill or compete on a schedule, but it is not necessary (and actually is counterproductive) simply to look better. Training for performance is different than training for appearance.
- Those who use exercise as a stress relief. This is good up to a certain point, but if overdone begins to add overtraining exercise stressors on top of life/career stressors.
- Successful business and career professionals. Busting ass and working harder and longer than everyone else has paid off with their career development, and they think the same will hold true for physique development. It is true up to a point, but there comes a point of diminishing returns. Its not always about working out more or harder, its about working out smarter.
- Those who alternate back and forth between extremes. They go from sedentary and doing nothing to extreme levels of activity and trying to make up for it. If you've dug yourself a fitness hole, you can't just jump out of it, unless you are Batman. You have to climb out of it.
- Those who waited to the last minute to train for something (beach season, wedding, etc.). You can't speed up normal human physiological processes.
- Those who try to out-train poor dietary choices. That doesn't work. You just can't make up for a poor diet.
Respect the Recovery Process
Training is only the initial stimulus for your body to undergo physical change. You build muscle, burn fat, and alter your physical appearance via all of the metabolic, hormonal, and physiological processes that take place in between training sessions. If you train too frequently and short circuit the recovery process, you will not see visual improvements no matter how hard you train.
Inadequate recovery equals no adaptive response. This equals no muscle growth, no metabolic boost, no burning off body fat, and no change in physical appearance. In the worst-case scenario, it can actually make you more prone to storing body fat, due to chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. You might as well just sit at home eating (insert your favorite junk food), and watching (insert your favorite junk TV show). At least that is a fun way to get fat; trust me I've done it.
Here are just a few of the physiological processes that happen in the recovery phase from a weight training session:
- Satellite cells are activated when muscle fibers receive trauma or damage.
- Satellite cells fuse to existing muscle fibers and help to repair/regenerate the damage by increasing the size and number of contractile proteins (called actin & myosin) within those fibers.
- The body restores cell fluids, electrolytes, and minerals lost during training.
- The body must refill muscle glycogen stores as glycogen is the primary fuel used during high intensity training. Contrary to supplement marketing, this doesn't just happen with a single high-carb post-workout shake. It takes multiple balanced meals to adequately restore glycogen levels.
- The immune system responds with a sequence of actions leading to inflammation. This inflammation is what causes muscle soreness. The purpose of this inflammation is to contain the damage within the muscle cells, increase blood flow and nutrient delivery to the damaged area, repair the damage, and clean up the injured area of waste products.
- Antioxidants scavenge free radicals and repair oxidative stress caused by the increased rate of oxygen consumption during the training session.
- Growth factors (such as IGF-1) regulate insulin metabolism and stimulate protein synthesis.
- Testosterone, cortisol, and growth hormone levels rise, fall, and return to baseline levels in their own respective patterns (assuming you are training naturally without performance enhancing drugs).
- All of the above processes can take up to 48 hours under normal circumstances but can be delayed by many factors including poor dietary decisions, lack of sleep, and high stress levels just to name a few.
- On a side note, all of the above actions require energy (calories). This is why we say that strength training boosts the metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories on a daily basis) and is so crucial to the body composition change process.
Here is the take home message: Recovery is a complex process, and the advanced trainee trying to maximize their results must balance intense training with recovery. Of course if you train like a wimp, you can train every day, because you have nothing to recover from. I'm really just speaking to the athletes who make a sincere effort to bust their butts in the gym in order to change their bodies.
The frequency recommendations at the beginning of this article were set for a reason. They were not just blindly pulled out of a hat. And remember, these recommendations are for people training primarily for physique development. I understand that participation in competitive sports may require more frequent and longer training sessions to maximize sport performance and/or adhere to competitive schedules. But that's also why competitive sports have off-seasons.
What happens if you train more often than you can recover from? There is an actual technical term for the physiological state that results from training too long or too frequently on a regular basis: Overtraining Syndrome. According to the NSCA Overtraining Syndrome is "Excessive frequency, volume, or intensity of training that results in extreme fatigue, illness, or injury which is often due to a lack of sufficient rest, recovery, and perhaps nutrient intake."
And what are some of the effects of this overtraining syndrome? Here you go:
- Emotional and mood disturbances including increased irritability, anxiety, and even depression-like symptoms.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Altered immune system functioning including increased rates and duration of illnesses and infections.
- Decreased desire to train and decreased joy from training—that is if you even like training to begin with.
- Altered hormonal patterns including a reduction in anabolic, muscle building/fat burning hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1) and an increase in catabolic, muscle destroying/fat storing hormones (cortisol).
This last one is the worst side effect for those concerned with body composition change. Physique development is way more complicated than just the simple calories in vs. calories out theory. It really comes down to properly managing and manipulating natural hormone levels and metabolic rate through diet and exercise. Do this the right way and getting into shape is a smooth process. Do it the wrong way, and dropping body fat will be impossible no matter how many calories you cut or how much you exercise.
Negative hormonal alterations (such as reduced testosterone/growth hormone and increased cortisol production) are the primary reason why many who overtrain struggle with fat around their midsection DESPITE their high levels of exercise. Abdominal-specific body fat often has a lot to do with abnormally high cortisol levels. These people tend to be fine everywhere else on their bodies, but tend to hold a lot of flab around the midsection.
I see this most often with endurance athletes. Research has shown that this group of athletes has the most compromised hormonal profiles—meaning lower than normal amounts of testosterone and higher than normal amounts of cortisol. People who engage in frequent and excessive amounts of aerobic activity are shooting themselves in the foot in terms of physique development. They may be improving performance (as in the ability to run farther or at a faster pace) but they are not optimizing hormones, metabolism, and thus, physique development results.
But it’s important to note that overtraining can happen in any form of exercise, including strength training. So don't think because you stay away from the treadmills and sling the weights around that you are immune to the overtraining syndrome. Every athlete needs to balance training with recovery.
Here is the major difference: Performance athletes including endurance athletes can overtrain and still improve skills and performance. It is rare that physique athletes can overtrain and still make improvements in body composition and physical appearance.
Train Natural (vs. Training Enhanced)
There is one more important side note to discuss in our conversation on training frequency. I am interested in working with the athlete who is committed to training naturally. Performance-enhancing drugs (steroids, growth hormone, EPO, etc.) speed up the natural recovery process and allow an athlete to train harder, longer, and more frequently without the risk of overtraining. But even more important is that there are severe consequences to this kind of training. So obviously, I do not recommend you travel that route. Don't take your health for granted. No six-pack or set of guns or nice legs is worth compromising your mental or physiological health.
For the natural athlete, though, it’s important not to get confused by many of the training protocols you see online or in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, or recommended by 'roided up trainers. Many of the programs that recommend training six or seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, are written by athletes or trainers using performance-enhancing drugs. The natural athlete, training under different conditions, should not attempt to emulate these programs.
Remember, the recovery process involves an ebb and flow of natural hormone fluctuations (including testosterone, growth hormone, cortisol, and IGF-1). There are rises, falls, and eventual returns to baseline levels. The natural athlete needs to maximize anabolic hormones, minimize catabolic hormones, and properly manage their entire hormonal system to achieve optimal results. If you are taking exogenous (outside) sources of these hormones, you don't need to pay as much attention to the endogenous (within the body) production of these hormones. In other words, athletes using performance-enhancing drugs can train on sub-optimal training protocols (including too much frequency) and still achieve results. The natural athlete needs to train smarter, and must manage recovery. And part of the recovery process is adhering to targeted frequency recommendations.
In summary—train, train naturally, train hard, train frequently, but not too frequently.
About Nate Miyaki: Nate Miyaki is a certified personal trainer (ACE), a certified specialist in Sport's Nutrition (ISSA), and a certified specialist in Fitness Nutrition (ISSA). He is a competitive natural bodybuilder and has worked as a freelance fitness model and writer. He is the owner of Senshi Fitness, a private personal training and nutrition consulting practice based in San Francisco, Ca. For more information visit www.natemiyaki.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/NateMiyaki.