Occasionally, I will get asked a certain question frequently enough that I feel it might be better to dedicate an article to that question and refer people to it instead of trying to respond to everyone individually. This saves time and ensures a broader audience reach. Today’s post will cover the optimal training frequency for beginners.
- Beginners should follow a training program that implements medium-high frequency (about 3+ times per week) so that every muscle gets stimulated 3x per week.
- A high frequency program will optimize rate of neuromuscular adaptation.
- This applies to 95% of the population.
- Beginners should train less since muscle damage is greater per session as opposed to intermediate or advanced lifters.
- Beginners need more recovery time between sessions.
- Training with less volume will prevent any potential injuries.
- Since novice lifters lack adequate strength and neural drive, neuromuscular adaptations will occur best at medium-high frequencies.
- Training with less volume and high frequency has proven to be superior as far as body composition is concerned in novice lifters.
- Optimal training frequency for beginners would be approximately 3-5 times per week, with volume and intensity spread across training sessions evenly. The main goal is to increase strength as fast as possible and gain as muscle as possible while losing fat.
- In novice lifters, neuromuscular adaptations contribute majorly to strength gains rather than actual muscle hypertrophy. Precisely, during the first 3-5 weeks.
So, you’ve finally decided to start exercising. Great! Preferably, you’ll incorporate strength training into your regimen as opposed to solely relying on cardio. As far as body composition is concerned, strength training has proven superior to every other form of exercise. So, don’t mindlessly spin your wheels on the treadmill (pun intended). You’ve spent countless hours on Google trying to find the ultimate beginner strength training program that will give you optimal results, however, you’ve come across significantly different programs all promising to be the best. Unfortunately, you’re now more confused than you were prior to conducting your research. So, as your savior, I shall give you some basic guidelines to clear up the confusion.
Training frequency essentially refers to the number of training sessions an individual will take on each week. Generally speaking, the following factors greatly affect the optimal training frequency for each individual:
- Training experience. Novice? Intermediate? Advanced?
- Age. Younger folks can handle more training.
- Gender. Men and women respond well to different training approaches.
- Work schedule.
- Stress levels.
- College? School?
- Number of muscles trained per session.
- Volume and intensity of each training session.
Even though all the aforementioned factors affect training frequency -and program design in general-, novice lifters will almost always follow the same principals if they want optimal results.
First and foremost, let’s discuss the worst training program a beginner could follow.
Bro-splits / Body part days
Whether you lift weights or not, I am sure you’ve heard of a similar protocol:
- Arm day.
- Chest day. Monday, anyone?!
- Back day…etc.
Bro-splits, or body part splits are protocols that instruct the lifter to annihilate a specific body part each day of the week. So, for example, you would only do chest-stimulating (or annihilating) exercises on Monday (international chest day). Then, you would only do arm exercises on Tuesday. And so on and so forth. Here are some reasons why this training method is stupid in general and specifically for beginners:
You only get to stimulate a muscle once per week. Even though there is not enough scientific evidence to determine the exact frequency for optimal results, scientific literature seems to be in favor of higher frequency training. Meaning, almost all studies that examined exercise frequency concluded that subjects who trained at higher frequencies experienced the best results. Thus, the more frequently you stimulate a muscle, the faster you gain strength and size. It makes sense that the more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it.
Too much volume and intensity
Bro-splits makes its followers do ridiculous amounts of volume and intensity. As a novice lifter, there is no way you will be able to fully recover from so much volume and intensity to be able to use the same muscles again within the following days. This automatically results in training those muscles less which ultimately yields less frequency and thus slower progression. Consequently, this results in slower progression, sub-optimal size gains, less fat loss and leaves the user highly susceptible to injuries. Beginners will do enough muscular damage on much less volume and intensity. Thus, such protocols are not needed. In fact, novice lifters should avoid body part programs like the plague!
Susceptibility to injuries
Generally speaking, most lifters will almost always injure themselves following a bro-split program. While things like exercise execution (form) and individual biomechanics play a huge role in getting injured, the methodology of training at extremely high intensity and volume increases the chance of getting injured regardless of someone’s training experiences. This is even more true when addressing novice lifters. Beginners lack adequate neuromuscular drive and neuromuscular recruitment of muscle fibers needed to lift at such high volume and intensity. Thus, novice lifters are at an even higher risk of injuring themselves following a bro-split protocol.
Bro-splits or body part splits have their place in strength training, however, they will yield sub-optimal results for most people. Since this post addresses training frequency for beginners, do yourself a favor and stay away from body part splits. Sometimes, less is more! And ironically, you will progress much faster following a program that implements a medium-high frequency. So, enjoy working out less (less days) and making double or triple the gains because this trend won’t continue forever. With that being said, bro-splits can yield substantial muscle gains, but not at an optimal rate.
So, what’s the optimal training frequency for beginners?
The answer is not all clear and cut like you might think. We simply don’t have enough scientific data to draw any concrete conclusions. The problem with determining optimal frequency for lifters at any level (beginners, intermediate, and advanced) is that many variables are involved. This is even more true because of drastically different individual differences (genetics). Another major factor that determines optimal frequency is the amount of volume and intensity involved in each workout. Thus, training volume and intensity per week matters…A LOT! In fact, training volume and intensity seem to matter more than frequency! Any type of frequency will yield results for most people, especially beginners, BUT we want what will yield OPTIMAL results!
The optimal training frequency for beginners is approximately 3-5 times per week with moderate to high intensity and moderate volume. Although there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all program, these general guidelines will work for almost everyone. If you are a novice lifter -I am assuming you are-, your training program should follow these guidelines:
- High Frequency. Approximately 3-5 times per week.
- Your training program should be built around major compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, rows…etc.
- A bit of accessory work, or isolation work for smaller muscle groups such as arms is mandatory for optimal progression, but you don’t need to do endless sets of bicep curls, quad extensions or triceps overhead extensions.
- Intensity should be high and volume should be moderate.
- Your exercise selections should include the 4 main movement patterns to ensure maximal progression and balance: press, bend, pull/row, and squat.
- A full body split is the most optimal training approach for beginners. At least for the first few months.
- Moderate training volume translates into approximately a TOTAL of 40-60 repetitions per training session.
An example training program for beginners will look like this:
Monday- Squats (3-4 sets x 6-8 reps) + Overhead press (3-4 sets x 6-8 reps) + Pull ups (3-4 sets x 8-12 reps) + 2 sets of bicep curls (or another biceps exercise) for 12-15 reps and 2 sets of triceps extensions (or similar) for 12-15 reps + 2-3 sets of leg curls or similar exercise for 12-15 reps.
Wednesday- Deadlifts (3-4 sets x 6-8 reps) + Bench press (3-4 sets x 6-8 reps) + Rows/Chin ups (3-4 sets x 6-8 reps) + 2 sets of a different bicep movement for 12-15 reps and 2 sets of triceps overhead extensions for 12-15 reps + 2-3 sets of quad extensions or similar exercise for 12-15 reps.
Friday- Repeat Monday’s workout.
Such well-structured programs will ensure that you hit all your muscles with optimal frequency, volume and intensity which will result in optimal progression. The main goal is to stick to the program so that you can progress at those lifts and thus guarantee progress. Stop program-hopping! You won’t “shock” your muscles into growth.
Another factor that greatly determines the optimal frequency for beginners -or anyone- is muscle protein synthesis response to strength training. In order to build muscle, you must stimulate protein synthesis. Protein synthesis rate increases significantly following a training session “the anabolic window” and lasts up to 48 hours in novice lifters (72 hours in other studies), 36 hours in intermediate and potentially less for advanced lifters. Thus, if you are a beginner and you train on Monday, chances are your protein synthesis rate will still be elevated by the time your next training session comes (Wednesday). There are some studies suggesting that if you train more you will gain more muscle and strength, but the differences between subjects were insignificant and not worth the amount of time and effort put in the gym.
In novice lifters, rapid strength gains in the first 3-5 weeks have been found to be majorly caused by neuromuscular adaptation. In other words, your untrained neuromuscular system adapts rapidly to the implied stimulus of resistance training and learns how to be more efficient at activating your muscles during exercises. Since beginners lack adequate neural drive, beginners should stick to a high frequency program that will take advantage of this rapid neuromuscular adaptation. In fact, muscle hypertrophy doesn’t occur SIGNIFICANTLY in beginners until the 3-5 weeks mark. (Moritani and deVries 1979).
Candow DG, B. D. (2007, Feb 21). Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17313289
Hamid Arazi, A. A. (2011). Effects of 8 Weeks Equal-Volume Resistance Training with Different Workout Frequency on Maximal Strength, Endurance and Body Composition. Retrieved from International Journal of Sports Science and Engineering: https://www.scribd.com/document/208457674/Effects-of-8-Weeks-Equal-Volume-Resistance-Training
MacDougall JD, G. M. (1995, Dec 20). The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8563679
Schoenfeld BJ, R. N.-S. (2015, July 25). Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25932981
Wernbom M, A. J. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326698
Moritani and deVries (1979). Neural factors versus hypertrophy in the time course of muscle strength gain. Retrieved from PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/453338