Is High Frequency Training For You?

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If you’ve hit plateau with weight loss or muscle gain, it may be time to break the rules. Here’s the case for high frequency training.

There’s a saying in business: you can have it cheap, good, and fast but you can’t have all three. It looks like I can have a high powered Playstation 5 delivered to my door ASAP, but I’m going to pay an arm and a leg for it.

In the world of personal training, we have a similar concept. Instead of cheap, fast, and good we have volume, intensity, and frequency. It looks like this:

Volume: Is how much work you do. A five mile run is more training volume than a two mile workout.

Intensity: Is how hard you are working compared to your max effort. If 10.0 is the tip-top max speed you can handle on the treadmill, running at 7.5 represents 75% of your max intensity.

Frequency: How frequently you train. Running 5 days a week is a higher frequency than 3 days.

Let me clear up front: there’s no one way to do this. Anyone that tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But finding the sweet spot between all three is going to lead to superior results as opposed to just winging it. Case in point; if you’re the type that insists on feeling like you’ve just been hit by a truck after a workout, than you need a low frequency approach. Otherwise, you’d burn out. Some people are workhorses and can handle a ton of volume. To each their own.  

In strength training circles, the argument was always made for a high volume/moderate intensity approach while keeping frequency low. Movements and or muscles were considered low frequency – you either deadlifted once a week or destroyed your chest on Mondays.

Most gym rats set up their training like this:

Monday: Chest

Tuesday: Back

Thursday: Shoulders

Friday: Arms

If they had free time, they’d sprinkle in some legs once in a while (if you’ve spent some time in a gym, you get the joke). What people forget is that sports science is a relatively young field. We’ve only been in the lab for the past few decades studying this stuff. And it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that people were really in the trenches to see what gets us stronger, bigger, and leaner. In the early days of the Olympics, participates performed their training by just literally mimicking their event. I feel sorry for the poor sap that had to run a 10K every day. But you can see that sports medicine has evolved and the approach of doing exactly the same thing every training session is just plain silly.  

While we’ve evolved since then, we’re starting to learn that there are only a few things that may be set in stone when it comes to developing workouts. It’s quite possible to break the rules and deadlift five times a week. It may even be in your best interest to hit your chest three times a week. The bodybuilding templates that Arnold used may work for some, but not everyone. Now before you grab your gym bag and jump on the bench press every day this week, let’s just clarify a few tenants of high frequency training. Here’s what the science says

An interesting meta-analysis looked at 12 studies. What makes this so cool is that there’s a wide range of studies: we have a subjects in their early 20’s to senior citizens. Some studies also lasted several months. Researchers made sure that all accepted studies were equal in terms of total volume performed. This means that at the end of the study, everyone did the same amount of work. Considering that, what did the results say?

It looks like those who trained more frequently built a touch more muscle mass…..but nothing statistically significant (1). All in all, there really wasn’t a difference between approaches.

Another study, this a single experiment, had subjects perform a total of 9 sets. They either split those 9 sets into three workouts, or did them in one session (9 sets per muscle group that is). In this case, we had similar findings: those with a higher frequency had slightly better results, but nothing significant (2).

                So….science doesn’t help. In fact, studies say just get your rear end in the gym and do some work whenever you can. This doesn’t exactly help us make a decision, does it?  Let’s tackle it from another perspective, as I’ll offer four points to delve a little deeper into the issue.

Point #1 – Protein synthesis- which is the body’s way of creating new muscle – can be elevated for 24-48 hours after a workout. This explains the idea of giving a muscle several days to recover.  However, rumor on the street is that those with significant training under their belts will have protein synthesis elevated for a short period of time. Some speculate that it can return to normal levels after only 12 hours! It’s kind of like your body has thrown in the towel and given up on you. It’s quite possible that you’ll need more frequent, albeit brief, workouts to try and build new proteins and get those stubborn muscles to grow.

There’s something that bothers me about that second study I mentioned. Subject’s claimed to have four years of training experience. The rest of the data shows that they weighed, on average, 170 pounds. They also had a median bench press 1RM of 185 pounds. For four years of training…..that’s not very good. It’s like going to college for four years and the only class you completed was art history. Kudos to them for participating in research but they’re far from advanced trainees.

These subjects are still in the novice-intermediate category. This isn’t a personal attack on anyone. You could argue that either approach would work because their bodies still have plenty of room to grow (literally). Getting closer to your genetic potential means you’re going to have to get creative with what you do.

Point #2 – Strength is a skill, and that skill needs practice. European weightlifters popularized the concept of cleaning, snatching, and squatting all throughout the week. All you’re doing is giving your nervous system the ability to do repeated efforts. As a result, your body responds by being able to recruit more and more fast twitch muscle fiber (the muscle responsible for strength and power). Sure, those who are strong tend to be big, but they’ve also learned the skill of being strong.  So it’s not just about muscle size.

Revisiting the concept of intensity, those Europeans rarely approached near max lifts. You could bench, deadlift, and squat all week long and just stay between 65-80% of your max ability – just simply test yourself every few months to see how your strength has increased. Of course, it only works if you’re hitting the lifts 3-5 times per week. Like everything else in strength training, not everyone agrees on this approach. I’d argue that individuals low in dopamine (i.e. those who are less aggressive/competitive) may benefit from a high frequency program.

Point #3 – Some people throw everything and kitchen sink in their workouts. We’re a “more is better” society. Things tend to get unbalanced too. Some guys have all the energy in the world to do endless sets of bench presses, but all the sudden get training amnesia when it omes time to lunge. A high frequency approach may work best for these people: you get the excitement of doing what you like but you can’t overdo it: you’re now left with no choice but to get that conditioning session in, or, God forbid, work on your hamstrings.

Point #4 – Those in the cardiac field have a tough job – you’re trying to get people who aren’t so eager to exercise to, well, exercise. One of my college professors, who was a clinical exercise scientists, had all his cardiac rehab patients do intermittent work. That’s fancy talk for “2 a days.” While a 45 minute session on a bike, two 20 minute sessions spread throughout the day doesn’t seem so bad. Not only did it help adherence, but research has shown that multiple workouts a day have a larger impact on the metabolism than a single session.

I’m not saying you need to live in the gym – but breaking up your traditional 3 day a week workouts in 6 shorter sessions could lead to faster results due to a better hormone profile. You also can’t discount a metabolism that stays above baseline more often.

Wrapping everything up, here’s some things to consider if high frequency training is for you:

1. You can’t spend 60+ minutes in the gym

2. You’ve already put on a good level of muscle mass and need something to get to the next level

3. Getting super strong is important to you

4. You don’t need to feel like you smashed your head against the wall every time you workout

5. You tend to stick with strict plans

Should you want to give it a try, here’s a high frequency strength template you can try. None of the reps should be a max effort, but you should have more weight on the bar for a set of 3 than a set of 8.

Day 1 – 2 x 3

Day 2- 2 x 5

Day 3- 1 x 8

Day 4- 3 x 2

Day 5 1 x10

We can also look at this from a conditioning stance. This routine won’t get you marathon ready, but it sure will devour those calories.

Day 1- 2 mile pace run

Day 2- 25 minute easy jog

Day 3- 200 meter intervals (hard/walk) x 8

Day 4- 4 mile pace run

Day 5- 30 minute easy jog

Day 6- 800 meter intervals x 3/ 4:00 rest

 No, high frequency training isn’t something new. It’s also not for everyone. But if you’re struggling to get in shape and do enjoy working out, it’s definitely something to try. Now go workout!

References

1. Ralston, G.W, et al. “Weekly Training Frequency Effects on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis.” (2018) Sports Medicine 4;36

2. Thomas, M.H., Burn, S.P. “Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training.” (2016) International Journal of Exercise Science 9(2) 159-167

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