Training Frequency: How Often Should You Train Each Body Part?
If you read the training articles of your favorite bodybuilding and fitness athletes you’re bound to be a bit confused. Some train each body part once a week, others twice a week and every possible variation between those two extremes. Then, just to drive you a bit nutty, you read that an Olympia competitor with amazing delts only trains them once a month! Does that mean that you should? Not likely. In this article, we’ll explore some of the issues that you should consider when formulating your training split. We will specifically be focusing on a very important question: How often should you train each body part?
Your primary consideration when mapping out your training frequency strategy should definitely be recuperation. When you train a muscle you actually break down muscle tissue. The gains in muscle size and/or tone actually take place in the following days while your body repairs the tissue and rebuilds it a little better before you trained it last time. Simply put, if the muscle you worked yesterday doesn’t recuperate before you train it again, you’re not getting the rewards of all that hard work. But, recuperation is a very misunderstood and under-addressed concept, particularly when you realize that it is at the heart of your results. Let’s look at some issues that affect recuperation and how that may apply to you.
Muscular vs. Systemic Recuperation
Specific recuperation refers to the time it takes for the actual body part you train to heal and repair before you work it again. Systemic recuperation deals with the overall physical fatigue that your whole body experiences and isn’t really muscular in nature.
Let’s use an example. You train legs on Monday, Chest and Delts on Tuesday, Back on Wednesday and Arms on Thursday. Friday rolls around and it’s time for legs again. Are they “muscularly” recuperated? Most certainly. I have never seen a study dealing with muscular recuperation that says it can take more than 72-96 hours for a muscle to heal, no matter what workload it was subjected to. If it takes longer than that, it’s quite possible you are dealing with an injury scenario and not muscular recuperation. But what if that next leg day rolls around and you are simply exhausted? Not making excuses to avoid training, but really physically fatigued. The issue here is that you have not “systemically” recuperated, i.e. your system is fatigued, not a specific body part.
To implement this concept into your training will take 2 things, honesty and flexibility. First, you’ll need to be honest about when you are really systemically fatigued and not just being lazy. Then, you’ll have to be willing to deviate from the structure of your routine to let today go and get back to business tomorrow. Here’s one last guideline. Unless you are ill, it is highly unlikely that you’ll need more than one unplanned day off to recuperate from systemic fatigue.
Remember when you were in high school and it seemed like you could heal from just about anything short of a fracture in no time? Well, you’ve probably noticed that as you got older your ability to recuperate both systemically and muscularly slowed a little bit. That’s just the way it goes. So it’s a good idea to understand that and work with it, not against it.
For the first 5 years I worked out, from my late teens to my early twenties, I trained every body part twice a week and trained 6 days a week, year round. I recuperated fine and made great gains. Now I find that 5 days a week works much better for me. I hit every body part an average of 3 times every 2 weeks, a little less frequently than before. That might also have a little something to do with the next issue….
Workload and Intensity
Walk into any gym in the world and you’ll see training intensity from one end of the spectrum to the other. People have different goals and different reasons for going to the gym and it shows. Some go to train very hard and maybe even compete while others just go through the motions. Obviously, the harder you train a body part and the greater the workload, the longer the recuperation will take (with 96 hours being the longest it should take). As you become more serious and experienced in the gym, you will definitely be able to train harder. You will be able to generate more intensity which could require more recuperation. After fifteen plus years of training, there is little question that I train more intensely now than when I started. So, this might play in to cutting down the frequency as outlined in the age section above.
Never thought of genetics having a bearing on how often you train your body parts? Guess again. Genetics affect everything. Some people, regardless of any of the other issues we’re highlighting, have a greater ability to recuperate and heal than others. That’s one reason why you shouldn’t assume that you can’t hit your bodyparts twice a week because your favorite athlete does his or hers once a week. You may have a greater natural ability to recuperate than they do and you’ll never know until you try.
Symmetry and Proportion
The common wisdom is that whatever parts of your body you want to prioritize should be trained early in the workout while your energy and strength levels are at their highest. Agreed. Practically applied, if you have great biceps and poor triceps, you would train triceps first on your arm day and biceps afterwards. However, what few ever think about to help them bring their physique into balance is actually training your week points more frequently than the strong points of your physique. Let’s assume that you train all your body parts with similar intensity. If you continue to train them all with the same frequency, why would you expect that lagging areas will miraculously catch up with strong ones?
Not All Bodyparts Are Created Equal
I would be remiss not to point out that certain body parts can be trained more frequently than others. Calves, abs and forearms fall into this category because these muscles tend to be able to tolerate more frequent work as they are used every day as it is. The abdominals stabilize the torso and are engaged when we breathe. The calves flex with every step and the forearm muscles engage with every movement of the hand and fingers. Therefore, feel free to work these muscles more often than your other body parts if they need it.
As you can see, body part frequency is a very individual issue that requires consideration of numerous factors, flexibility in your thinking and some experimentation to find what works best for you. Recognize that it is an ongoing process. What was best for you in the past may not necessarily be best today. But know that it is an issue that is critical to you reaching your goals and getting the most out of the time and energy you put into the gym while keeping you healthy and avoiding injury. Good luck to you!