If you assume that more of what you do will lead to even better results, you fall into a deadly trap. Just like overdosing on medicine in an attempt to feel even better, so will too much exercise harm your body. Doing more than needed delays or prevents results. Exercise is stress, and only the right amount leads to good outcomes such as more muscle, more strength, and a better appearance. Limiting yourself to each exercise done once a week will lead to exceptional results.
Many of the strongest and most muscular athletes in the world thrive on just one hard session for each lift per week. Many powerlifters go heavy on a core lift such as a bench press, dead-lift, or squat, and then may have a speed or light day for the same exercise or muscle groups. Plenty just ignore this easier day and concentrate on getting everything out of the heavy workout. Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program, one of the most popular and successful programs for anyone today, has you perform each lift every 7-10 days. Top bodybuilders blitz and burn their muscles with endless sets and exercises, in no small part possible due to the countless drugs that flow throughout their bodies. Most still have the sense to keep this madness to a single day each week.
Can more frequent lifting work? Sure. In the short-term, you may grow slightly faster from more frequent sessions, but you quickly hit a wall. Olympic weightlifters have demonstrated the success of such an approach though. They train each day with multiple daily sessions. Keep in mind though that they possess elite genetics and some help from steroids for recovery. They also participate in a sport that requires technical prowess. They need to perfect the form for explosive and dangerous exercises. They avoid going all-out every session. They go for a maximum effort only rarely or during competition. Perhaps this volume of training also arose from the need to stay busy, to create the appearance of valuable work taking place around the clock. For someone doing simple exercises that the average trainee should focus on instead, you have to question if the same strategy makes sense. You could take all that time to stretch, do some intervals, or otherwise enjoy your life and allow a rest from intense strength training.
Think you may rank among the exceptions to less frequent training? Paul Anderson, the greatest squatter of all, practiced the squat throughout an entire day a few times a week. He also had a 36 inch vertical leap while weighing 360 pounds. Many classic bodybuilders, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, would blast each muscle 2-3 times per week, working different muscles throughout the week almost every day. Think you belong with them and can defy the odds? Do not assume that you could, or should, join them. Plenty of the highest achievers have thrived on far less exercise. The best themselves do even better with less. Those doing a lot of exercise may merely tolerate more than needed. Many masters have concluded that removing excess leads to more progress.
Mark Chaillet showed how you can get very strong on little exercise. This powerlifter trained only twice a week, doing the squat and the bench press one day, and dead-lifting on the other. He did only these powerlifts. He would work up to a very heavy set of only one rep. He managed to bench 520, squatted 960, and dead-lift 880.
Doug Furnas developed 34 inch thighs to match his 34 inch waist. He bench pressed 620 and squatted 986. He was known for his perfection in form, showing that you did not need more sessions to develop great technique. His results did not take off until he cut down on those extra days.
Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all-time, did each lift once a week for no more than two hard sets. Both Ed and Doug would periodize their routine, even at only once a week for each lift. Periodization meant they would avoid going as heavy and for as many reps as they could. Dorian Yates, among the most impressive and dense bodybuilders, spent most of his career working up to only one hard set on each exercise done once a week.
So with even just one lift per week, without training to failure or with only a single set, some of the very greatest still got results. Each of them differed in how many sets and exercises they would do per session, but those doing more or less accomplished just as much. It did not appear that doing more exercises, sets, and sessions necessarily lead to greater achievement.
Despite always achieving my best progress doing each exercise once a week, I would get greedy. I felt I would make unbelievable gains if only I could adapt to training more often. I was always wrong. In some cases, this would allow a jolt of progress. I found this lasted a bit longer if I ate a ton of food and slept well enough. Within only a few weeks though, I would reach a standstill. I would perform the same weights and reps, time after time. This would last for months or even years on end. I never had the courage and sensibility to make a change. I just hoped that doing the same things over and over again would lead to different results. I never felt energized and found myself going through the motions.
I woke up. I decided to focus on the only three exercises need for complete strength training: a push, pull, and squat. I gained the full mental and physical recovery needed for progress. I achieved a bench press in the 300s, squat in the 500s, and pull-ups with 80+ pounds added to my bodyweight, all for at least several reps, only through strict adherence to once a week. I also had time for other valuable exercise such as walking, stretching, and getting my heart rate up with intervals. I am much stronger, healthier, and injury-free from doing less. Any time I get away from this, I suffer the consequences.
If you want to truly live up to your potential, realize that less is more. Know your limits, and nothing can ever hold you back. Make a little progress today, and you can continue to improve in the future. Most trainees will make better strides and feel their best doing each lift only once per week. Beginners may benefit from more frequency as they develop their skills, but they surpass this phase rather quickly. Those in this stage may do well with three times weekly initially. They quickly need to reduce each lift to twice weekly, then after that consider 3 times in 2 weeks or jump right to once weekly.
Nearly all advanced trainees hoisting heavy weights and working hard would get annihilated beyond 1-2 times a week, especially without steroids. Be sensible and cut down on each exercise. Work harder instead. If you go this route, resist trying to compensate for less exercise by adding too much cardio or other options. Do each lift once a week for best results.