Key Takeaways

  1. Training frequency typically refers to how many times you lift weights per week, but it’s also how many times you train a particular muscle group per week.
  2. As a natural weightlifter, your optimal training frequency depends on how much total volume you do for each muscle group per week.
  3. Keep reading to learn how to decide how many sets you should do per week as well as what your weekly training frequency should be to maximize muscle growth.

Optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject.

Some believe you should train your entire body two to three times per week, whereas others think this approach will lead to overtraining, injury, and burnout. 

Anecdotal evidence is all over the place as well.

Skim through online forums and chat with fellow gym goers and you’ll hear stories of fantastic progress training major muscle groups just once per week as well as three, four, or even five times per week.

Some weightlifters also mix it up, training different muscle groups with different frequencies. 

For example, some say smaller muscle groups like the shoulders, biceps, and calves should be trained three or four times per week but large muscle groups like the upper legs only need one intense workout per week.

If you turn to the scientific literature for insight, you’ll get few reliable answers. 

Some studies seem to show higher frequencies work best and others show you can make equally good progress with fewer workouts per week. 

So, what should you do? 

Should you err on the side of caution and keep frequency low or on the opposite side of extremism or somewhere in between?

Here’s the short answer: 

As a natural weightlifter, your optimal training frequency depends on how much total volume you do for each muscle group per week. 

In fact, you can look at training frequency more as a tool for achieving optimal weekly volume as opposed to a vital element of building muscle.

In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of optimal training frequency.

Ready for the long answer? 

Keep reading.

 

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What Is Training Frequency?

training frequency definition

Training frequency is just a fancy way of saying how often you work out per week.

Most strength training programs involve a training frequency of 3 to 5 times per week, meaning you’re doing 3 to 5 weightlifting workouts per week. 

Some weightlifters get even more specific and also track their training frequency for each muscle group

That is, instead of just looking at how many times they show up to the gym per week, they look at how often they’re training each muscle group as well.

For example, an upper-lower routine typically involves training four days per week and each muscle group twice per week (two lower and two upper body workouts). So, if you bench press on your first upper body day and do incline press on your second upper body day, you’d be training your chest twice per week.

It’s important to look at how often you train each major muscle group per week when designing a workout program.

For instance, you could have a training frequency of 5 times per week, but what if all of your workouts focus on upper body exercises? That won’t get the results you want. 

Summary: Training frequency typically refers to how many times you lift weights per week, but it’s also how many times you train a particular muscle group per week.

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What’s the Best Training Frequency for Building Muscle?

You’ll typically find two answers to this question: 

  1. On the one hand, the traditional bodybuilding approach is to train each muscle group once per week, hammering it until it’s pumped, swollen, and sore.
  2. On the other hand, many researchers, bodybuilders, and coaches advocate for training each muscle group two or three times per week. 

Who’s right? 

Well, the first thing to know about training frequency is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that applies to everyone under all circumstances. Instead, research shows the ideal training frequency for you depends on several factors. 

One review study that helps solve this mystery was conducted by scientists at the University of Goteborg. 

They performed an exhaustive search of every scientific study looking at the relationship between training frequency and muscle growth between 1970 and 2006.

The scientists also limited their search to studies that . . . 

  • Used MRI or CT scans to measure muscle growth, which are considered the gold standard methods for quantifying muscle growth.
  • Used healthy, uninjured people age 18 to 59.
  • Reported all of the key details of the study design, including how many sets and reps and what exercises the subjects did.

They also excluded any studies that had the subjects in a negative energy balance (losing weight), which significantly reduces muscle and strength gains. 

They ended up with 44 studies to examine, and when they compiled and analyzed all of the data, they found training each major muscle group two to three times per week generally produced the most muscle gain.

The researchers were careful to point out that this is just a rule of thumb, though, and that you should modify your training program to suit your goals, experience level, and recovery abilities.

They also pointed out that beginners can often make excellent progress using lower training frequencies, whereas intermediate or advanced weightlifters may need to use higher training frequencies.

That is, if you’re new to weightlifting you may only need to train a muscle group once or twice per week to maximize muscle growth, but it might need up to three workouts per week as you draw closer to your genetic potential for muscle gain.

The results of this review are supported by several other studies as well, including those conducted by scientists at the University of Alabama, Lehman College, the Auckland University of Technology, and the National Research Institute.

That said, you can find many anecdotes of even experienced weightlifters who have done well with training major muscle groups just once per week. 

What gives? 

Well, a comprehensive review study published in 2018 by scientists at Lehman College provides the missing piece of this puzzle. 

The researchers (including Legion Scientific Advisory Board member, James Krieger), parsed through 25 studies that looked at the relationship between training frequency and muscle growth. 

The results were surprising.

Unlike previous research, they found no relationship between training frequency and muscle growth. That is, it didn’t matter how many times people trained a muscle group throughout the week—they gained more or less the same amount of muscle. 

There’s a catch, though:

This was only true when they looked at studies where the participants in both the high and low training frequency groups did the same amount of total training volume (measured in total reps per week per muscle group).

For example, if one group did 30 reps of chest exercises twice per week, but another group did 20 reps of chest exercises 3 times per week, they would gain about the same amount of muscle, because both groups did 60 total reps of chest exercises per week.

That said, when the researchers dug into the data even further, they found if one group did more volume than the other, higher frequencies usually led to more muscle growth. 

In other words, if you’re doing a lot of volume (reps) every week for a particular muscle group, you’ll generally make more progress by spreading those reps across several workouts instead of cramming them into one session.

If you’re only doing a moderate amount of volume per week for a particular muscle group, though, you can do it all in one workout without fear of shortchanging your results.

This is why the authors concluded that assuming you do enough total volume, you “. . . can choose a weekly frequency per muscle groups based on personal preference.”

That is, the ideal training frequency for you will largely depend on how much volume you’re doing per muscle group per week. 

Now, before we move on, it’s worth noting that there are multiple ways to quantify training volume. 

Reps performed is one, but personally, I prefer measuring training volume by counting “hard sets” (sets taken close to technical failure) for a variety of reasons explained in this article.

Thus, going forward, when I refer to “volume,” I’m going to be talking about it in the context of hard sets. This doesn’t fundamentally change anything about what we’ve covered so far about the relationship between volume and frequency, it just makes it simpler and more practical.

Summary: If you’re doing a lot of volume (reps) every week for a particular muscle group, you’ll generally make more progress by spreading those reps across two to three workouts. If you’re only doing a moderate amount of volume, however, you can do it all in one workout without shortchanging your results.

How to Figure Out Your Ideal Training Frequency

training frequency vs volume

At this point, you probably want to know how to figure out how often you should be training each major muscle group to maximize muscle growth.

That is, how many sets should you do per major muscle group per week?

Well, the ideal training volume for building muscle is beyond the scope of this article, but the long story short is most people will maximize muscle growth by doing 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week. 

If you’re a beginner you can effectively build muscle with fewer sets (10 to 12) and if you’re an advanced weightlifter you’ll make better progress with more sets (12 to 20). And in some rare cases, such as correcting a muscle imbalance or preparing for a powerlifting meet, you may benefit from periodically doing 20 to 25 sets per week for certain muscle groups or exercises.

The next question is how to divide those sets throughout the week.

Once again, there’s no hard and fast rule here, but here’s what I’ve found works well: 

If you’re doing 10 to 12 sets per muscle group per week, you have the most flexibility in terms of frequency. You should have no trouble doing them all in one workout, if you prefer, or more if that better suits your schedule or style.

If you’re doing 15 to 20+ sets for a muscle group per week, however, you’re better off splitting up these sets across 2 or more workouts per week. 

Why? 

Well, you’ve probably experienced firsthand that you can only do so many productive sets in a workout before fatigue sets in and performance plummets.

For example, if you tried to do 20 sets of chest training in a single workout, you’d probably feel good for the first 6 to 8 sets. After 8 sets, you’d begin to feel fatigued but you can keep going. After another four or five sets, however, you’re gassed and grinding every rep, and you still have 8 sets to go.

At this point, the only way to finish the workout is to reduce your weight or reps or take every set to absolute failure, all of which will hamper your strength and muscle gain over time.

A better approach, then, is to do 10 to 12 sets in one workout, let your chest recover for a couple days, and then do another 8 to 10 sets in another workout.

This approach is also supported by scientific research conducted by scientists at Hosei University, which shows spreading your training volume over more days throughout the week reduces your perceived exertion in each individual workout. 

That is, despite doing the same amount of total training volume, using a slightly higher frequency makes your workouts feel easier (which of course lets you train harder and use heavier weights).

Thus, higher training frequencies aren’t inherently better than lower training frequencies—they simply make doing more sets per week easier.

Here’s an example of this principle in action. 

This is a push workout from the 5-day version of my strength training program for men, Bigger Leaner Stronger:

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 3 hard sets

Incline Barbell Bench Press

3 hard sets

Dumbbell Bench Press

3 hard sets

Triceps Pushdown

3 hard sets 

In this case, you’re doing 9 sets of chest exercises and 3 sets of triceps exercises. All of the chest exercises also train your triceps to some degree, so you’re really doing the equivalent of ~6 to 12 sets of triceps exercises.

Later in the week, the program calls for another 3 sets of chest training in the form of close-grip bench press, which brings the total up to 12 sets of chest exercises per week.

In the case of other major muscle groups, like the biceps, you’re only directly training them once per week (Workout 5 in the 5-day program, for instance).

In reality, though, you’re training your biceps twice per week, because they’re also trained indirectly by the dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns you do on Workout 2. Your biceps also get trained a little when bench pressing, especially when reverse- and close-grip pressing.

Some people may still scoff at this workout routine as far too low frequency, but the truth is you don’t need to train each major muscle group with more than 10 to 12 sets per week to maximize muscle and strength gains as a beginner. And as a result, you don’t need to train each muscle group more than once or twice per week.

The bad rap that “one-muscle-group-per-day” splits get is mainly due to poor program design in the way of sub-par exercises, rep ranges, and workout volume. 

Many low-quality “bro splits” involve too much isolation work with low weight for high reps, which results in low workout intensity and excessive workout volumes with inferior exercises.

If you don’t make these same mistakes, however, and you follow a well-designed workout program like Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger, you can do just fine training each muscle group once or twice per week.

You don’t need to take my word for it, either. I have scores of success stories to prove that the weekly volume and training frequency in my programs produces phenomenal results.

Now, everything you’ve learned so far is mainly applicable to beginners. What about more advanced weightlifters?

Well, the closer you get to your genetic potential for strength and muscle gain, the harder you’ll have to work to keep making progress. And that mostly comes down to doing more volume and lifting heavier weights than when you were a beginner. 

Thus, you’ll also generally want to increase your training frequency to make it easier to accommodate the extra volume and load.

For example, I’m currently creating a new second edition of my program for intermediate and advanced weightlifters, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, and in it, I have you do slightly more volume than in Bigger Leaner Stronger. 

You do a total of 16 sets of chest exercises per week—25% more than what you do in Bigger Leaner Stronger—and you wouldn’t want to do all of this in one workout.

As you learned a moment ago, this would require reducing your weight or reps or taking the last few sets to absolute failure, which is far less productive than splitting the volume into more workouts.

For example, in the 5-day version of Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger you do one workout with 8 sets of chest exercises on Monday and then another workout with 8 sets of chest exercises on Friday.

So, in the final analysis, the important thing to remember about training frequency is that it isn’t all that important. What matters most is your total weekly training volume (sets), and as volume increases, so should your training frequency.

Summary: The ideal training frequency for you depends on how much weekly volume (sets) you do for each muscle group per week. If you do 10 to 12 sets per muscle group per week, you only need to train each muscle group once or twice per week. If you do 15 to 20+ sets per muscle group per week, you can benefit from training each muscle group two or three times per week.

The Bottom Line on the Best Training Frequency for Building Muscle

For decades, bodybuilding orthodoxy has consisted of blasting each muscle group with a punishing amount of volume once per week.

This can work if you have outstanding genetics and even better steroids, but for the rest of us, research shows this approach is misguided. 

In reality, the ideal training frequency for you depends on how much total volume (sets) you do each week for each major muscle group.

That is, high or low training frequencies aren’t inherently better or worse. The details matter.

If you try to cram too many sets into a single workout, for instance, the quality of those sets begins to suffer as you get deeper into the workout, and you’d be better off splitting those sets into two or even three workouts.

If you’re relatively new to weightlifting, however, and don’t need to do that many sets per muscle group per week to gain muscle and strength, you can get by just fine training each muscle group just once per week.

Eventually, though, you’ll reach a point where you need to do quite a few sets per muscle group per week to keep progressing, and the most productive way to accomplish that will be increasing your training frequency.

While there aren’t any definitive guidelines as how many sets you should do per muscle group per week or when exactly you should increase your training frequency, here’s what I’ve found works best: 

  1. If you’re relatively new to weightlifting, you only need to train each muscle group with 10 to 12 sets per week to maximize muscle and strength gain. If you’d like, you can do all of these sets on one day per week without compromising the quality of your sets.
  2. If you’re an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, you’ll need to train each muscle group with 15 to 20 sets per week to maximize muscle and strength gain. In this case, you should spread these sets across two or more workouts per week.

And if you’re interested in learning more about both high and low frequency strength training programs, check out this article: 

The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

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