Want to know the #1 mistake people make when lifting weights? This single mistake inevitably causes poor performance, long training plateaus and motivation-sapping frustration. And all can be avoided.
OK, you probably already guessed the answer from the title of this article. The #1 mistake is training with the wrong frequency. Frequency refers to the number of days per week you perform weight lifting workouts. The most common training frequency is “3-days-per-week” often performed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If this is your training frequency, I’ve got some great news for you. You can do far, far better!
Knowing the proper amount of time off between workouts is the single most misunderstood concept in strength training. The truth is, even if you do everything in the gym perfectly – number of reps, number of sets, optimum weight, proper rest between sets and proper exercise form – all of it can be worthless if you aren’t training with the right frequency.
The “Dirty Little Secret” of Strength Training
Fixed training schedules are insane. Every fixed training schedule, such as “3-days-per-week”, will ultimately fail you. Here’s why. As your strength increases, your workouts become more demanding and you will require more time to recover.
The average guy sitting in front of a computer has the capacity to increase his muscular strength by 300-400%. However, recovering from physical activity puts demands on many of the body’s organs, such as the liver, kidneys and pancreas, to name but three. These organs do not have the capacity to increase their metabolic functioning by the same 300-400% your muscles can.
When you think about it, this is something you already know from experience. If you do a light workout it hardly takes anything out of you. Your recovery is swift. But when you do a grueling workout involving heavy weights and high intensity overload, it can take days to feel fully recovered.
And since the indispensable key to strength training gains is progressive overload, you must find a way to increase the intensity of every workout and allow more time to recover from that workout.
Why “Splitting” Your Routine Won’t Avoid Overtraining
To keep workouts less demanding, it is a common practice to “split” workouts, such as: Monday – upper body, Wednesday – lower body. While this is a sound tactic (one I recommend) it alone will not solve the problems of a fixed training schedule. The reason is stated in Sisco’s Maxim: “Every day is kidney day.”
The fact is, whether you work your chest, arms or legs today doesn’t make the slightest difference to your kidneys (or to your liver, pancreas and other organs critical to full recovery). They still have to filter all the metabolic waste products out of your blood so you can fully recover. And remember this – until you are fully recovered you will not grow new muscle. That is a physiological law. A split routine helps reduce the amount of work your kidneys and other organs have to perform, but as you get stronger and hoist heavier iron, your kidneys will need more time to perform their job.
Amazing Progress by “Doing Nothing”
Once you understand how to adjust your personal training frequency, your results will soar. Here’s an example of what happened for a very tough-minded client of mine named Stanley.
After we discussed his training and lack of progress, particularly in the barbell shrug exercise, I told Stanley to take three weeks off of all training. He said there was no way he could stay out of the gym that long. Actually, this is a common problem with serious bodybuilders. Psychologically, when you want to make progress, it is very difficult to do what seems like “nothing.” Not training feels like throwing in the towel or admitting defeat in some way. But the truth is your body needs time to recover. Time off is not wasted time; it’s time that is critical to the growth process. It took a lot of talk to convince Stanley but, to his credit, he did take the three weeks off.
Two months later he called me back with results that will shock you. His strength increased in every area of his body and his shrug power had skyrocketed. His first workout after the layoff was a personal best. Now he’s training once every nine days. That’s 18 days between workouts for the same body parts, because he uses an upper/lower body split. Before this correction in his training frequency, Stanley was training four times in just nine days. Look at the numbers that he sent me.
|November 8||December 17|
|365 lbs. 20 reps||405 lbs. 20 reps (easy)||405 lbs. 20 reps|
|400 lbs. 20 reps (very tough)||455 lbs. 20 reps||505 lbs. 20 reps|
|505 lbs. 16 reps||600 lbs. 12 reps|
When was the last time you had a three-week period that was that productive?
Think about it. Three weeks of no training whatsoever, nothing but sitting on his ass for three weeks and his progress outpaced everybody he trained with! His training buddies couldn’t believe their eyes. There’s Stanley, who found it “very tough” to do 20 reps with 400 lbs. now hoisting 505 lbs. for 16 reps – after doing 455 lbs. for 20 reps! In his following workout he’s playing with 600 lbs! And as far as his bonehead buddies are concerned he’s “missed” the previous 20 workouts! That’s what I mean when I talk about “training smart.”
How to Completely and Permanently avoid Overtraining
The key to avoiding overtraining and finding your optimal training frequency is to closely monitor the progress you make on each exercise in your workout and identify any sign of slowed or arrested progress. Not progressing in one exercise out of 5 is a yellow flag. Not progressing in two or more is a red flag and means you need to add time off.
3 Quick Measures of Overtraining:
- The weight used on each exercise did not increase. Strength training is all about progressive overload. That means you should return to the gym fully recovered and able to lift slightly heavier weights than you did last workout.
- The number of reps or the static hold time on each exercise did not increase. If your weight on an exercise did not increase (see above) then your reps or the time of your static hold should have. (Note: recent research suggests that static holds beyond 5 seconds yield less benefit than increased weight with shorter hold times.)
- It took you longer to do the same workout. Progress is driven by intensity of muscular output. Intensity is a function of time. So even if you do the identical workout today that you did three days ago but manage to do it in less time, your intensity has increased. But the reverse is also true, so watch out for taking extra time to do the same routine. Lower intensity can not build new muscle.
Try This on Your Next Workout
If you’re not doing Static Contraction training yet, try this simple test on your next workout. On each exercise multiply the number of reps you do by the poundage. For example: bench press 175 lbs 12 times and you get 2,100. Next time you do the bench press see if that number has increased. If it hasn’t, you have not fully recovered and need more days off between every workout. I work with advanced trainees who do one workout every six weeks. That’s not a misprint. That means it takes them twelve weeks to get back to training each bodypart. And they make progress on every exercise on every workout and they lift enormously heavy weights. You can too.
How long have you been training with the same frequency? Look for the yellow flags that indicate your training frequency is not optimum. Adding an extra day or more time off can turn a stale workout into a fantastic mass and strength booster.
Train smart and seize the opportunity to make measurable progress!