Tag Archives | training frequency


Every once an awhile it’s possible to have an interesting exchange on social media. Recently I had an exchange with a smart and well-respected trainer who questioned whether infrequent training was even necessary.

We went back and forth a bit and it made me realize that most people just don’t look at this issue the way I do. They basically start with the belief that they love lifting weights and want reasons to do it as often as possible. I use golf as an example to explain their thinking. Golfers want to golf more often, not less often.

The difference is golfers don’t claim every single game makes them better and lowers their score.

Golfers don’t claim to “make progress” on every game. I think that’s because they actually measure their strokes! The numbers never lie. If most people could take a stroke off their game every time they played, they’d be better than Rory McIlroy in a year or so.

That got me wondering. What if these guys training two and three times per week actually did make progress on every workout the way many of them claim? 

To help visualize this, think about what you can lift on any exercise and how far that is from the world record. Using the bench press as an example, let’s say you could lift 200 lbs right now, and the world record for a ‘raw’ lift is 800 lbs (which is a bit high, but I’m approximating for simplicity).

So, can we agree that 800 lbs is the absolute heaviest you could ever expect to bench press, and that your reality is very likely substantially below that? Like 500, 600, or 700 lbs?

So if you can bench press 200 lbs now, it means the greatest possible improvement you could achieve in your lifetime is to lift 400% of that weight and hoist 800 lbs.

That’s it. Over a lifetime of lifting, under ideal circumstances, the most you could ever expect to improve is to lift 400% of what you can already lift.

So here’s a chart showing how quickly your strength would improve if every workout yielded 2 to 5% improvement. I’ve used 100 lbs, not 200, as the starting weight. So think of being able to do a bench press today with 100 lbs and then you can see how quickly you’d be lifting multiples of that weight.

For example, if you made a tiny 2% improvement on each workout and started with 100 lbs, after 10 workouts you would be up to 122 lbs. After 20 workouts you’d be hoisting 149 lbs. In the real world, I think most people would expect to make faster progress, but it’s still nice to see small gains on a consistent basis.

But look what happens to our 2% gains after 70 workouts. The trainee has gone from 100 lbs to 400 lbs. It also means the guy who started with a bench press of 200 lbs would be at the World Record 800 lbs.

So he’s done! For life! No matter how often he trains or how he trains he will never, ever make progress beyond this point.

But remember – most trainers tell their clients to lift 100 to 150 times per year (two or three times per week)! They tell them to lift up to 750 times in five years.

Why?

How can people possibly make progress with such frequent workouts? Do they make 0.001% improvement per workout? Are these trainers measuring with that exacting granularity and precision?

No. They aren’t.

In fact, they really don’t measure at all. That’s how they can fool themselves the way no golfer could ever fool himself.

Next, look at how ridiculous it is to expect to improve on 150 workouts per year. A guy who could bench press 100 lbs at the beginning could now bench 1,950 lbs? Or if he could leg press 300 lbs at the beginning he could now leg press 5,850 lbs?

This is how ridiculous it is to assert that people can “make progress” training so often. The reality is, if you train logically and with careful measurement you should be able to reach your peak power output within just a few dozen workouts but they will need to be carefully spaced apart in order to guarantee full recovery and the growth of new muscle before returning to the gym.

I can almost hear the objection; “Actual increases are really small – like less than 2% – so training often is still a good idea.” 

Really? Because if gains are, say, 0.1% per workout it means that after 20 workouts a trainee’s bench press would improve from 100 lbs to 102 lbs. Does that sound right to you? Even ten times that rate of improvement, 1%, only gets a person to 122 lbs after a whopping 20 perfect workouts. Still seems low to me.

One More Thing

In our recent Mass Gain Study, we tracked the progress of strength gains over 10 workouts. If we measure from the very first workout we get a pretty big number. But that number isn’t fair, because people take time to get accustomed to lifting in the strongest, safest range of motion, so they make fast progress because of technique rather than pure strength gains.

So we also measured from their third workout to their tenth workout. Over six different exercises the trainees in the study gained about 80% in those last seven workouts. That’s a compounded increase of 8.8% per workout.

Also, it took these trainees nearly 80 days to do all ten workouts. So figure eight days between workouts, although near the end it was even more. So these guys would be at a point of doing maybe three workouts per month, whereas all the other guys spinning their wheels in the gym would train roughly 13 times to their 3 times.

So take a look at how fast a person would reach his peak power output if he could maintain that  8.8% improvement per workout (which does not seem likely over a long period of time, frankly. But I also would not call it impossible.)

After just 20 workouts a person who started at lifting 100 lbs would be lifting 540 lbs. Of course, in the real world, we have to remember it’s really hard to be so consistent. We can miscalculate a new goal, or our recovery time, or we can misjudge how tired or stressed we are. Or how much of our energy was taken from shoveling the driveway or loading a truck. We can screw up our diet and have our energy drop. A lot can go wrong, so it hard to hit a home run on every single exercise during every single workout.

But those are all reasons to take MORE measurements, not fewer measurements. Those are also reasons to space workouts farther apart, not closer together.

Do You Want to Make Progress, or Just Lift Weights?

When a person tell me he’s trained three times a week for three years, all I wonder is how many of those 450 workouts were absolutely wasted in terms of making objective progress. Was it 400? Was it “only” 250? Or, frankly, was it 435 of his 450 workouts that basically did nothing whatsoever to improve his strength and build new muscle? (Because, don’t forget, every workout digs a metabolic hole that you have to recover from. So people can and do move backwards in terms of progress. This is when their trainers tell them their routine is “getting stale” and they should just switch to other – lighter – exercises and keep training frequently. Again – the trainer’s secret is to never take objective power measurements so their lame advice is never clearly revealed.)

Granted, I’m the first to agree that there are other ways to measure strength than just a one-rep max for a world record. I’m the guy who coined the terms Alpha Strength and Beta Strength to differentiate the calculations of momentary and sustained intensity. But, again, these are things that deserve to be accurately and objectively quantified and tracked so progress can be measured in a clear and meaningful way.

I think the burden of proof is on the trainers who tell people that they need to train 150 times per year to actually show how you can get stronger 150 times in a row when doing it. This is something they will never prove. I’ve never seen a single example of a person who could stay on a fixed training schedule of 2-3 times per week and demonstrate progress month after month. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it on 10 consecutive workouts of regular folks performing multiple exercises every workout.

The reality is, training frequency is a complex calculation that is a constantly moving target. In a perfect training routine your recovery would never be exactly the same twice, if you could measure down to the hour.

Similarly, no two workouts should ever be the same twice. Because if your previous workout was successful, you are returning to the gym a new and different person who can and should lift a little more total weight on every single exercise.

And when you realize that all that separates you from the peak of human power demonstrated by world record holders, you see that increasing your Alpha Strength power 300-500% is all you can likely do in a lifetime. And there is no good reason to divide that gain over a thousand workouts when it can be done in a few dozen workouts spaced apart at the right intervals, guided by objective and meaningful measurements.

 

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What I Learned Since Quitting

A few years ago I decided I’d had enough of the world of strength training.

I’d spend nearly 20 years talking about it and investigating ways to use good reasoning, math and physics to try to make sense of what worked well and what did not work well in terms of gaining strength and muscle mass.

I suppose I got a little burned out. So I left.

But after a couple of years with no day to day involvement, I began to miss it a little. Then I got thinking about all the things that could still be investigated and my curiosity got the best of me. There was still so much that could be examined and discovered. So I rolled up my sleeves (again) and dived back in.

1. Timed Sets Generate Your Highest Output

Once you understand the role of high intensity in building muscle, you start wondering what techniques generate more intensity than others.

I’ve always been amazed that with all the thousands of trainers who talk about ‘high intensity’ virtually none of them has a measurement of it that they use when lifting. (???)

What’s equally amazing is never knowing whether, say, strip sets or pyramid sets generate more intensity. Because if you did know, would you ever use the inferior, lower intensity method?

Anyway, we testing the common variations and discovered that timed sets cause trainees to generate their highest output per unit of time.

The free report is here:

 

2. A Way to Guarantee Strength, Mass & Size Gains

It’s a tricky business to get steady progress in the gym. A big part of the reason is because a person has to be recovered before new muscle will grow. Ignore that and you’ll just dig a metabolic hole, get very tired, and stop making progress no matter how often you train.

Keeping track of the objective intensity of each exercise, plus personal recovery, plus training frequency can be very complex. To add to this, while things like adding a second set will double workout volume, it will not double the needed recovery. The relationship between volume and recovery is not linear.

On top of that, adding more weight is disproportionately more demanding than adding more reps. Two reps with 200 lbs is not the same as one rep with 400 lbs. That’s another non-linear relationship.

One of the first things I did when I came back was to create the Engineered Strength Gym to keep track of all the above and a bit more. I don’t talk about it the way I should. To be honest, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever come up with. Especially for evaluating the complexity of a Power Factor workout. It’s basically guaranteed strength, mass gains. Plain and simple.

Engineered Strength Gym

3. A Mass Gain Study

But there is something very fascinating that I’ve recently come to realize.

We started an informal Mass Gain Study where volunteer trainees did very specific workouts so we could measure their results.

We discovered a lot of really interesting things. And it’s made me realize that – as our own little community of people interested in rational strength training – we can examine anything we want. Together.

I don’t want to go all philosophical on you, but personal freedom is a hugely important theme with me. So whenever I discover an aspect of personal freedom that I can enjoy, it really resonates with me. And I’ve realized that you and I and everyone else on my mailing list and in this little marketplace can explore anything we want as it relates to strength training.

How cool is that?

 

4. Crowdsourcing New Data

Recently some of us have been chatting about how LITTLE exercise it might take to trigger systemic muscle growth. That’s a good question. So we put together a quick and easy way to test that in ten workouts.

We’re running a really valuable informal study to discover the effects of minimal exercise using maximal effort as it relates to strength, mass and size gains.

I call it the Power Factor Minimalism Study and it would be great if you could participate and contribute the data from your experience.

TFS

This is a form of crowdsourcing stuff we are all interested in. And I think it’s a very positive new application of technology and social media. There is so much knowledge to discover. And keeping a curious mind is a good way to stay young. That’s another thing I think about as I approach 60. Ha!

So please take a look at what we’re doing to examine the question of how little exercise can still achieve a goal. This is very valuable information for those of us who have busy, enriching lives outside the gym and don’t care to waste precious time doing more than what is necessary to maintain good health.

If any of that resonates with you, I hope you’ll want to participate.

Thanks for your continued interest in rational strength training.

 

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