Every once in 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.
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.