August 2, 2018 in Programming

How do you increase your training frequency? 

If you’ve been thinking that you should train your lifts more often, then this article will provide you with a practical framework to doing so.

Training frequency is the number of times per week an athlete performs one of the powerlifting movements.  For example, if an athlete squats three times/week, their squat frequency is 3 times.

In thinking about how athletes and coaches program training frequency, the following approach is usually taken:

  • See what the athlete is currently doing
  • Are they making progress with that frequency?
  • If yes, maintain frequency
  • If no, increase frequency

The Current Problem

Where we go wrong is not with that decision-making process,  but with how we actually implement an increased frequency.

There is a problem with implementation generally, the idea of taking something ‘theoretical’ (a concept) and putting it into practice.  Athletes (usually in the absence of proper guidance or a coach) haphazardly implement a popular training concept without the framework to support ‘said’ concept.  People just like the ‘idea’ of doing something (especially if it’s the ‘new and cool thing’ to do) rather than going through any critical examination of whether the idea is applicable to their context.  Athletes immediately jump on a Bulgarian-squat-every-day program and either

(1) don’t see the results they were seeking;

(2) can’t adhere to the program/sustain it long term (often jumping to the next ‘cool idea’ #ProgramHopping); or

(3) get injured.

Therefore, this article will explain a process to increasing your training frequency.  This article will not argue whether you should or shouldn’t increase your frequency. But rather, once you decide to increase your frequency, a framework to do so will be offered.

Before going any further, I want to mention two things (Don’t skip reading this):

1.  I was inspired to write this article after reading the awesome literature review from Greg Nuckols on training frequency.  I highly recommend you read his article, Training Frequency for Strength Development.  He reviews the most recent literature on training frequency and it’s impact on strength development.  He builds the case that higher frequency training (4-5X/week), even when volume is matched with lower frequency training, can be beneficial (there are several caveats to this, so please do yourself a favor and read the article).

Where I pick up on Greg’s literature review is expanding on his ‘practical recommendations’.  This is the important bridge coaches need to build — taking ‘a concept’ and figuring out how to ‘put it into practice’ with a specific athlete.

2.   On MyStrengthBook we have experimented with a programming approach to increasing frequency for athletes.  Our Shifting The Curve Programs designed by The Strength Guys implements a system where an athlete starts with their current training frequency, trains at that frequency for three meso-cycles, and then based on their results, moves to the ‘next level’ of frequency.  When an athlete moves to the ‘higher frequency’ version of the program, several variables are considered in how the added frequency is programmed — some of which will be discussed further below.

If after reading this article, you want us to analyze your frequency and recommend a program strategy moving forward, please fill out our Program Questionnaire.  I read each of these questionnaire personally, and provide a tailored recommendation.  

7 Things to Consider When Increasing Training Frequency

The key takeaways of this framework are:

  • Decide whether you can afford to increase training frequency from a time-cost perspective (economy of training).
  • Treat ‘increasing your frequency’ like a training experiment.  Run it for a short period of time to gauge the results.  The literature suggests that 12-weeks is a sufficient amount of time to run a training experiment.  Make sure you have indicators to measure effectiveness of the experiment.
  • Only tinker with 1 variable at a time when running this experiment, including only changing a single lift’s frequency at a time.  The literature suggests that bench press is the most sensitive to increases in training frequency.  When considering to increase training frequency, I suggest either increasing bench press first or your lagging lift.
  • Consider using ROM reducing exercises to aid in joint and tissue health.  This could include boards for bench press or blocks for deadlift.
  • Match your weekly total volume from your previous training program (to start).  Practically speaking, this would look like putting your weekly volume within a 10% spread of your baseline volume
  • Keep your average and peak intensities within the same ranges from your previous training program (to start)
  • Keep your relative intensities within the same zones from your previous training program (to start)

1. Training Economy

The first consideration is whether or not you actually have time to do ‘higher frequency’ of training.

It’s important to note that high frequency training, doesn’t always equate to a high number of training sessions per week.  You can ‘get away’ with still implementing a high frequency training program on a 4-day per week split, which is a relatively moderate number of training sessions.

For example, if you only train 4 days/week, but you squat, bench, and deadlift on each of those  days, then you could still implement a high frequency training program.

Although, at some point, training economy needs to be considered.  This is the idea that you are limited by both the number of training hours in a week, and number of training hours within an individual session.

Let’s say you did implement the training split above; squatting, benching, and deadlifting 4-days/week across 4 training sessions.  Practically speaking, this would take two hours (likely more) to accomplish, especially when considering an athlete’s general warm-up routine, and number of ramp up sets required.  Depending on how much time an athlete can spare after the primary work, there is likely no time leftover to do any other exercises (economy of training). If you do, great.  But most people have jobs and other commitments where they can’t spend 3+ hours in the gym.

Let me be clear:  there is nothing wrong with squatting, benching, and deadlifting 4 times/week.  But, it does warrant a discussion on one’s priorities in training.  Perhaps a purist type program is not what should be prioritized given other areas of training development.  You need to ask:  what is your priority?  If you need specific upper back exercises, core work, and hamstring development, for example, then the training program above would not be optimal.

One way to problem solve the economy of training within a single training session is simply to increase the number of training days within the week.  For example, moving from a 4 days weekly split to a 5 or 6 days split.  You could then stack some of your accessories on the extra days of training, and leave other days for just the powerlifting movements (this is the approach taken in Shifting the Curve).  However, whether an athlete can or can’t commit to an increase in the number of sessions per week is another consideration.

There is certainly a balance based on the athlete’s commitments outside the gym and personal preferences.

So while the science might say “higher frequency of training leads to greater increases in strength”, it might not be practical for most people.  If you fall into this category, that’s okay.  You can still make progress within your current structure.  Don’t stress out about what you can’t do because of what the science says — work with what you got.

The key takeaway is: 

  • Consider increasing your training frequency within the context of training economy.  From a time perspective, can you afford to increase it?  And if you do, will it match your current training priorities if you need to sacrifice time that could be spent on other areas of focus?
  • If economy of training is a serious factor limiting your ability to increase frequency, don’t worry, you can still get stronger within your current structure.

2.  Increase frequency for 2-3 meso cycles then return to baseline 

The way you should approach ‘increasing your frequency’ is as a short-term experiment over 2-3 meso cycles.  Run the experiment for a fixed time period, and commit to it throughout the process to see whether your results are favorable or not.

Most of the studies examined in Greg Nuckols’ literature review  ran for 12-weeks.  It would appear that 12-weeks is sufficient enough to yield results, so you should prepare 2-3 meso-cycles that align with that 12 week time-period with the focus on increasing frequency.  If you were previously training 2X/week frequency, you could increase it to 4X/week frequency across 4-5 sessions/week.

Ensure that you have ‘indicators’ to gauge your success both before and after you implement the program.  This is a training experiment, so you want to measure your strength for effectiveness.  If you’re a competitive powerlifter, perhaps your indicator is a 1RM test; however, it could also be a 2RM or 3RM test where you then estimate a 1RM based off those numbers.

After the 12-week experiment, you’ll want to drop your frequency back to your baseline — the frequency you were at before the intervention.  In our example above, this would be returning from 4X/week to 2X/week.  The primary reason here is to facilitate a ‘sustainable training approach’.  Understand that we actually don’t know the long term effects of high frequency training.  The long term effects haven’t been fully researched, and so we don’t know what outcomes will come from ongoing exposure to high frequency.

Practically speaking, if you spend 12-weeks under a high frequency training context, you could do an equal ratio of training at your baseline frequency (12-weeks high to 12 weeks baseline).  However, over time, you could tinker with this ratio.  Perhaps doing a 2:1 ratio of high frequency to baseline frequency (12 weeks high to 6-weeks baseline).

The key takeaway is: 

  • Run an experiment for 12-weeks with higher frequencies, measure it’s effectiveness by having indicators, and then return to your baseline frequency for a period of time.

3.  Increase one lift, not all lifts at the same time

Not all frequencies for each lift should be equal, nor should they be increased equally.

I mean, sometimes frequencies between lifts are equal.  For example, some athletes can get a benefit from squatting, benching, and deadlifting 3X/week.  This would be considered an equal distribution.

But, an athlete’s frequency split is a highly individualized training variable, and we often see unequal distribution splits, such as 4X/week bench frequency, with only 2X/week squat and deadlift frequency.  There are several reasons for this, but a couple practical examples you’ll hear:

  • “I can’t recover from high frequency deadlifting before my next squat/deadlift session”
  • “Squatting and benching with high frequencies (especially within close proximity of each other) is too hard on my “X, Y, Z”, joints/tendons”

In order to limit the variability, and run a successful experiment (like I mentioned above), you’ll want to only pick 1 lift at a time to increase.  For example, if you’re doing all three powerlifting movements with 2X/week frequency, you would decide only a single lift to increase to 4-5X/week frequency while leaving the remaining lifts untouched.

By increasing frequency one lift at time, you begin to realize which lifts are sensitive to the change in stimulus.  The conclusions you’re seeking are: (1) which lift(s) respond positively, or negatively/neutral, and (2) how the change in frequency impact the training system as a whole (i.e. how it may effect your other lifts).

When it comes to running your experiments:  bring up the frequency for a single lift for a 12-week time-period, then assess your lifts.  Return that lift to your baseline frequency, while increasing a different lift.  Rinse and repeat.  Once your experiments have been conducted for each of the lifts, and your strength has been evaluated, you may decide based on the evidence to increase the frequency across multiple lifts at the same time.  However, I’m not suggesting you start like that.

So which lift should you increase frequency first?

In the literature review by Greg Nuckols, it’s suggested that upper body lifts (bench press) are more sensitive to increases in frequency compared with lower body movements (squat/deadlift).   You might decide to start with increasing your bench press frequency since it seems like the data supports an increase in strength alongside an increase in frequency.  However, you may also consider starting with your lagging/plateaued lift first as a matter of priority.

The key takeaway is: 

  • Bring up the frequency for a single lift as you first experiment with higher frequencies
  • Start with bringing up your bench press frequency, or your most lagging lift

4.  Add ROM (Range of Motion) Reducing Exercises

Increasing frequency is something that needs to be determined by an athlete’s readiness to handle multiple training sessions per week of the same skill.

One of the primary considerations is an athlete’s tissue and joint integrity. This is the idea that an athlete’s tendons, ligaments, and joints need to be healthy enough at the onset to handle increased frequency; but more importantly, planning and programming an increased frequency means allowing adequate time between sessions for tissues and joints to adapt to the new stimulus.

This is where introducing ROM-reducing exercises can assist in maintaining an athlete’s tissue and joint integrity in the process of increasing frequency.  As long as intensity stays within the same relative zone, and the exercise is not used as an ‘overload day’, then the body should have an ‘easier’ time adjusting to the increased frequency.

For example, a ROM-reducing exercise could be using boards for bench press or blocks for deadlifts.  After a few weeks or months of this implementation, the goal would be to slowly reduce or eliminate the variation (i.e. moving from 3-boards to 1-board on bench press) in order to have that additional training day completed at a full range of motion. From there after, increasing frequency should follow the same pattern: perform your normal training days with a full range of motion, add the additional training day using ROM-reducing exercises, and then incrementally reduce the variation until the movement is performed at full range.

The key takeaway is: 

  • On the days you plan to increase frequency, consider using a ROM reducing exercise.  This would be especially important if you don’t have good tissue and joint integrity.

5.  Match Your Weekly Volume

When you’re looking to start increasing training frequency, do so by matching your existing total weekly volume.

In case it’s not clear, higher frequencies may or may not mean higher training volumes.   Yes, you can increase your total weekly volume by adding another training day.  But this is not necessarily always the case.

For example, if an athlete has a total weekly volume of 10,000lbs, this can be accumulated throughout the week in several ways:

(1) Accumulate all of the volume on a single training day (10,000lbs)

(2) Distribute the total volume evenly across multiple training days (two days of 5,000lbs each)

(3) Distribute the total volume unevenly across multiple training days (one day of 7,500lbs and one day of 2,500lbs)

(4) Or any combination thereof

The point here is that you can increase training frequency, but tinker with the volume on each individual training day so that your weekly volume targets remain the same.  In other words, you can take the existing volume you’ve already been doing but spread it across multiple training days (taking the approach outlined in #2 or #3 above).

Furthermore, in the literature review by Greg Nuckol’s, several studies took this exact approach and concluded that even when total weekly volume is matched, higher training frequencies lead to larger strength gains.

Let me be clear:  The research is saying that even when you control for the same total weekly volume, the groups with the higher training frequency yield greater gains in strength.  Reasons discussed for this were:  higher frequencies allowed for greater hypertrophy, superior skill acquisition/motor learning, and improved average training quality.

Practically speaking, what I would do is maintain your weekly volume within a 10% spread of your baseline volume.  Your baseline volume is the average amount of volume you do within a specific time period.

The graph below shows my baseline volume for the past 6 weeks (represented by the horizontal line graph).  While my week to week volume changes over this time period (represented by the bar graphs), the average over this time period is 8,800 kg/week.  Therefore, as I plan my increases in training frequency, I would try to keep my volume within 10% (either lower or higher) of this weekly baseline.  A 10% variance shouldn’t yield any difference in training effect if you’re a well-trained athlete.

The key takeaway is: 

  • Track your total weekly volume for each lift.  Once you have an average amount of volume over a specific time-frame, aim to match that volume as you increase your training frequency.  This will result in doing less volume on each individual training day, but because you’re doing more training days per week, you’ll be able to achieve the same levels of volume relatively easily.
  •  Several studies concluded that even when total weekly volume is matched, higher training frequencies lead to larger strength gains
  • Maintain your weekly volume within a 10% spread of your baseline volume

6.  Keep Average and Peak Intensities Within Same Ranges

Your average and peak intensities define how close you’re working to your rep maximum and how often.

Average weekly intensity is the average intensity completed across all workouts for a given training week

Peak weekly intensity is the highest intensity completed across the week of training, which can further be broken into the heaviest weight lifted for squat, bench press, and deadlift.

When you’re changing a training variable like frequency, especially if it’s remained static for a long period of time, you’ll want to keep both your average and peak intensities within the same ranges as you make the transition to higher frequencies.

The following graph is a snapshot of my last 6 weeks of training.  My average intensities ranged from 67-75%, and my peak intensities ranged from 75-80%.  If you plan to increase your training frequency in the next meso cycle, you should program these same intensity ranges.

Practically speaking, if you’re competing in 4-weeks and your average and peak intensities should be increasing, this is not the time to experiment with a higher frequency of training.

The idea here is to limit your training risk, and increase your certainty that “X” change in your training lead to “Y” result.

To increase the average and peak intensities at the same time as increasing frequency might yield an over-reaching or over-training stimulus, which would be difficult to recover from and see a positive adaptation.  Furthermore, because you’re running a training experiment with higher frequency as the manipulating variable, you’ll want to be sure that it was the ‘higher frequency’ that lead to a particular outcome, and not the ‘higher intensity’ variable.

The key takeaway is: 

  • Keep your average and peak intensity within the same range as your most recent training program as you increase frequency.

7.  Keep Relative intensities Within Same Ranges

Relative intensity is a metric that measures how close you are working to fatigue’.

Using percentages, 70% for 5 reps is going to be a lower relative intensity than 70% for 10 reps — even though it’s the same bar load.

Using Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), RPE 6-7 work is a lower relative intensity than RPE 8-9 work.

Whether you use percentages or RPE, relative intensity can be more simply broken down into sets that feel ‘easy’, ‘medium’, hard’, or ‘maximal’.  Each of those categories would be increasing in the zone of relative intensity.

I’ve described relative intensity in more detail before.  If you want to track this metric you can easily see how much volume you accumulate within different relative intensities zones on MyStrengthBook.  While it might be somewhat simple to track volume and intensity, relative intensity requires a bit more detailed analysis.  

As you increase your training frequency, you’ll want to keep your relative intensity within the same ranges as your prior training.  For the same reasons described before, this will reduce your training risk, and increase your certainty that “X” change in your training lead to “Y” result.

The following is a snapshot of my weekly relative intensity for the past 6 weeks.  It’s showing that out of the total weekly volume completed, approximately 70% of it is in the “medium” zone (yellow).  This would be a zone of relative intensity that is still meaningful, where most sets feel like a challenge, but certainly not “heavy” (red) or “maximal” (black).

Practically speaking, If I’m planning to increase my frequency of training in the next meso cycle, I would ensure that my relative intensity stays within this yellow zone.

The key takeaway is: 

  • Keep your relative intensity within the same range as your most recent training program as you increase frequency.

Conclusion

There has been good evidence to suggest that increasing training frequency can lead to greater gains in maximal strength.  Because science typically deals with averages, and doesn’t account for outliers and individual differences, the results from ‘increasing frequency’ can be highly individual on the ground level.  Therefore, the framework I’ve suggested above should be used as an implementation tool when deciding to increase frequency.

If after reading this article, you want us to analyze your frequency and recommend a program strategy moving forward, please fill out our Program Questionnaire.  I read each of these questionnaire personally, and provide a tailored recommendation.

About the Author

Avi Silverberg is the Co-Founder of MyStrengthBook.  He holds a M.Sc in Exercise Science, and has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting over 7 World Championship cycles.  He’s also a bench press enthusiast with a career high equipped bench of 300kg and raw bench of 227.5kg.

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