Oct 7th, see bottom.
As many of my readers know, I have favored low volume, high intensity training performed relatively sparingly.
At the extreme end of this spectrum is the type of routine I built my foundation on, such as the one I wrote about in The Minimalist. Here, I performed three different sessions over a 10-day cycle. The other regimen, one which I “refined” my foundation on, was built around Reverse Pyramid Training. Workout frequency was higher, typically three sessions over a 7 to 9 day cycle; still a low workout frequency, at least in comparison to some of the more traditional routines for strength and hypertrophy.
Such routines have worked tremendously well for me and my clients, but one should never feel constrained to one approach solely, nor claim the superiority of it, without having thoroughly explored alternatives.
With that in mind, I will focus on high frequency training in the next few posts, starting with this entry. Today I will discuss the reasons I developed a high frequency program, and the results I have seen with my clients and me. In the next part, which will be up in a few days, I will present the actual template in its most basic form and talk about some of the finer points that are the key to making it work.
I am no stranger to higher frequencies of training for muscle hypertrophy and strength, and have had moderate success with them in the past.
For example, using a technique called synaptic facilitation while training for a one-arm chin many years ago, I increased my chin-ups from a measly 8 reps to 20 reps in a relatively short time span, and later, to 5-6 reps with an additional 100 lbs attached around my waist. The template, partially inspired by some of Pavel Tsatsouline’s work , had me chinning 3 times per day, 5 times per week in addition to performing weighted chins on the two weight training sessions I did during the week.
However, such success was the exception rather than the norm. On other occasions, while weight training 4 to 6 times per week I would always end up overtrained sooner or later.
This was due to my foolish ignorance of one key factor that needs to be thoroughly controlled when training with high frequency: intensity. (A quick note: intensity is often defined as using heavy weights (85-100% of your one-rep max) but in this case I am referring to the perceived exertion of the set. You might catch me using the term interchangeably, which is why I wanted to make that clear.)
Being a student of Stuart McRobert’s work(see this post for more, book recommendations at the bottom), I am inclined to exert maximal effort on every set. Almost every set I’ve performed in the gym in the past five years has been taken to failure. Only when convinced that another rep would be impossible to perform without failure, or by severely compromising form, would I rack the weight.
Such high intensity takes a toll on your muscles and central nervous system, which is why it is best used sparingly and in the context of low volume and frequency. Lifts and muscle groups are trained no more than once weekly. I have found this to be a very productive form of training, especially when considering the time invested versus the reward gained.
However, on my past excursions into higher frequencies of training, 4 times per week or more, I would often bring the same balls-to-the-wall-mentality with me. Needless to say, I didn’t last long on such a strenuous regimen and I would scurry back to the comfort of my old training regimen. Ironically, I have created many high frequency routines, and successfully coached clients on them. I just never had much success with them in my training (I talked about the paradoxical nature of coaching others and coaching yourself in this post, #2. Being Impatient/doing stupid shit).
In order to make high frequency training work, I would need to master my temperance: the art of holding back. This has been a great challenge, but one I needed to attempt after coming to the realization that I hadn’t broken any personal records in the last 18 months. Clearly, going into the gym with the attitude that I need to set a new PR every single workout wasn’t working.
In those 18 months , the goals I had set for myself, such as deadlifting 650+ lbs, had gradually faded (I made decent progress up to spring 2008, which is why I’m counting 18, not 21, months). My lifts had reached total stagnation, and even regression, as I settled into lame acceptance and indifference, going to the gym every third or fourth day to do maintenance work.
However, simply embarking on a high frequency routine with the simple strategy of stopping with a few reps left in the tank wouldn’t work. Using a much too vague plan contributed to my past failure. I needed to delve into the finer aspects and create a system that had clear guidelines with regards to progression, intensity, volume and other relevant variables. I reviewed both the scientific literature and successful real-world examples, arriving at what I considered to be a basic, workable template in theory. Luckily, it has worked in practice, as was confirmed by my clients’ results.
My clients’ success with this new high frequency template has contributed to reigniting the fire and passion I have for my own training. Most of these clients using the new template are in the same situation I find myself in: muscle and strength gains have decreased to an unbearably slow pace or stagnated completely. The new program has pushed them past their old strength plateaus with a minimal amount of body weight gained (for intermediates and advanced clients I use relative strength gain as a success indicator for lean mass gain – minimizing weight gain is a goal in itself in order to minimize fat gain).
The intermediates I work with have gained muscle and strength at what I consider an impressive rate. These clients start out with a more basic plan than advanced trainees (for example, training 4 times per week instead of 5 times per week).
My clients’ results convinced me to try the high frequency set-up. After barely four weeks, the routine feels great. “Feels great” is a rather vague term to use when evaluating a training template, but the cyclical nature of it is such that I don’t expect to set new PRs in several months.
But what I mean by “feels great” is that despite being a 5 times per week setup:
- I am looking forward to each session, and I feel refreshed, pumped and in good spirits when I leave the gym. I almost feel like staying longer and doing more, but fighting that temptation is part of mastering temperance. This is the key to make this routine work. The ego needs to be kept in check and the desire for instant gratification whipped into submission.
- I have no trouble recovering from sessions, despite training muscle groups 2-3 three times weekly, sometimes back to back. For example, biceps are worked indirectly, but extensively, in back movements such as chins. Yet they can be trained directly (curls) on the next day without negative effect. This was impossible in the past, and following a hard chinning session I would need several days before I could curl without the lingering soreness affecting strength output.
(Random note: I never trained biceps for any greater amount of time, yet this muscle group stands out. I attribute that to chins. For biceps development, I am a stern advocate of beginners and intermediates not doing a lot of direct work; effort is much better invested in chins and its variations, such as close-grip chins, rope chins and towel chins.)
- Better conditioning and intra-set recovery. Having trained muscle groups almost exclusively with few sets, high intensity and long rest periods, I have high maximal and relative strength, but comparatively poor work capacity; I needed several minutes between sets to be ready, physically and mentally, for another set. But with the new set-up, I have noted rapid improvements in this area.
This ends part one of this series. As I wrote earlier, I’ll share the basic template for high frequency training in the second part as I am very interested in getting feedback from as many people as possible concerning its effectiveness.
Oct 7th: I’m going to give the template a solid 12 week run myself before putting part two up, rather than extrapolating solely from client data. There are many interesting aspects I want to delve into further, such as determining optimal rest for different lifts at various loads and volumes. I think I may have something great here, and I don’t like to half-ass things or rush this. I doubt two parts will be enough to make this justice.
ETA part two: mid-December.