My way of training is obviously sustainable and my results very good, perhaps exceptional.
Many believe that only evidence-based research, or studies with inexperienced subjects over brief periods, should determine all fitness choices. They end up training too long, too often.
Others become entranced, like myself in the past, by High Intensity Training (HIT). Advocates claim their approach is the most logical, yet they get even the basics of exercise science wrong. They train too little.
The most sensible bodybuilding wisdom did not emerge from top competitors during the Silver Era of the 1950s either.
These natural but genetically-elite pioneers usually trained 3 times weekly using long full-body routines. Despite more rest days, these had higher volume than just about all other bodybuilding programs, even split routines.
Instead, the 1990s moved toward a reasonable approach. This age ushered in mass monsters like Dorian Yates and produced useful books like Brawn. Collectively, these sources provided a basis that actually worked for serious naturals.
In his excellent book Championship Bodybuilding, expert nutritionist & trainer Chris Aceto explains that advanced bodybuilders thrive when training each body part every 5-7 days.
Chris also recommended a moderate volume of 2-4 working sets for 2-4 exercises per body part, using verbs like accelerate & explode to convey the mindset needed to move heavy weights.
It makes sense that recovery increases as you plateau. Intensity must go up, yet you may need additional volume, via straight sets or advanced techniques, to stimulate growth. However, you still must rest enough to improve in the long run.
In the end, the levels of intensity, volume & frequency you need are individual. While patterns in bodybuilding are a good starting point, you must experiment.
Here are some key principles to remember.
If I were to do that again (growth program for Mr. Olympia), I’d do a 5, 5, 5, 6 day cycle (train 3 days out of 5 three times in a row, then train 3 days out of 6 once; repeat).
– Frank Zane
A calendar week is not special.
Many devoted to the bodybuilding lifestyle follow training cycles independent of the calendar week.
Once again referring to Championship Bodybuilding, Chris mentions these proven splits:
- 4 days on, 1 off
- 3 days on, 1 off then 1 on, 1 off
- 2 days on, 1 day off (his favorite)
These programs assume you completely train a body part, so do all exercises for it on the same day. For example, both flat & incline presses together instead of splitting them up throughout the week.
All of these splits are sensible. However, you may or may not train on a given Sunday, which is unusual on calendar week-based schedules. Instead, the need for rest dictates your strategy, not what day of the week it falls upon.
There are great setups revolving around a calendar week too. Many beginners do well 3 times weekly, though it doesn’t last long. 2x weekly, via the common upper-lower split on Mondays & Tuesdays then again on Thursdays & Fridays, can work for some time as well.
Finally, though outside the norm in requiring 2 calendar weeks to complete, you could try 3x in 2 weeks. You do the same routine on say Monday & Friday of the same week then again on Wednesday the next. Recycle the following week.
However, in my experience, these weekly calendar schedules become too much for most natural bodybuilders, with the exception of each workout done once weekly.
Treat each exercise as a separate bout.
I also don’t recommend doing the same exercise more often than every 5-7 days in the long run.
Yet many bypass this limitation by hitting the same body part in a different way.
I question if this is the right way to view it all though.
The same body part can be worked in a different manner, say flat then incline press during the same week, because they hit different regions. These lack as much overlap toward overall body part volume as modern thought would have you believe.
10-20 sets weekly per body part has become standard. This can be too much. Calculating this volume is problematic anyway since each movement targets different regions, as mentioned, which could underestimate volume too.
For instance, pulling gives almost no biceps work due to concurrency. The incline press does not hit the same region of the pectoralis major as a decline press, with each focusing on the clavicular & abdominal portions respectively.
So what should you do?
I suggest beginning with 2-4 working sets, close to positive failure, on every exercise. Adjust the sets as needed to progress in weight. Do them every 5-7 days.
Scatter them however you wish (push/pull, upper/lower, torso/arms/legs, etc.) across a split routine you like. I don’t feel it matters if you do all body part exercises on the same or different days.
Beyond Typical Bodybuilding Weekly Routines
If you enjoy bodybuilding but are just starting out, consider jumping right into 5-7 days between specific workouts.
Most regard this as suboptimal, and it likely is somewhat at early stages, but I’d rather you develop all muscles right away versus overemphasizing the basics.
Though convenient, the calendar week only leaves once weekly per workout as viable in the end. Yet depending on your recovery, you may find better progress hitting a workout every 5-6 days. The essential factor is the right amount of rest, neither overtraining nor detraining.
Let me finish on a couple points.
Never design a routine toward an unrealistic rate of progress!
A mere 5 lb. addition weekly per exercise, possible at least early in your career, would lead to 250+ lb. yearly increase. This is not sustainable for long even with beginners. Imagine if you progressed more often!
Don’t indulge in fuzzy math that excites you to use higher frequencies. (365/7 = 52 sessions, 365/5 = 73 sessions & 365/3 = 121 sessions per year!). Let results dictate your schedule.
Be eminently practical; don’t stick to patterns!
You may prefer doing sets of 8 reps like I do. However, this may harm your elbows versus doing sets of 12 on arm extensions. Always go with the latter option, even if having 8 reps on all exercises seems more “elegant” to you.
If you feel the need for more or less volume & frequency on certain exercises, try it! Many find their calves benefit from extra work, maybe due to a higher slow-twitch fiber composition or less work performed. Always be pragmatic.
Think beyond typical bodybuilding weekly routines, balancing intensity, volume & frequency with open-mindedness to uniquely suit you.