For the last five months I’ve trained with a full body routine 4 times per week. Yes, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon last summer. So I thought I’d give you my thoughts on high frequency training since I’m sure you’ve seen the trend and might be interested in trying it out.
In short, I like it a lot. I think it’s my favorite training style ever (if I ignore an injury which I’ll talk about later). The main idea of my full body routine is very simple. I’ve kept the same amount of volume I’ve been doing on my ShredSmart bulking routine but I rearranged it throughout the week so that I do only one or two exercises for each muscle group every workout.
Now I’m sure the first questions you’ll ask is: Why? Is it better than bro splits, upper lower splits, and push, pull, legs? Should I be doing this too? My short answer is: on paper it should be better, but in the real world it’s probably more or less equal to programs where each muscle group is trained around twice per week. My fitness philosophy falls mostly into the nihilistic camp: I don’t think there are big differences between training programs as long as there’s progressive tension overload – that is the weight on the bar goes up in a medium rep range. Guys have gotten big with all sorts of volumes and frequencies but one thing is always the same: big natural guys are also strong as hell. If you’re currently getting stronger on the program you’re doing, it’s unlikely higher frequency would get you better results. But if you’re not progressing despite not missing workouts and tracking your lifts, it’s worth trying different training styles. That is my nihilistic view.
But what do I know? Let me now give you the long answer and see what the research says.
Several recent meta-analyses have analyzed the effect of training frequency on muscle growth and strength and they’ve all shown a small advantage to training a muscle group more than once a week when volume is matched. In other words, if you do the same number of sets in a week, bro splits are the least effective choice. However, when volume is matched and muscle groups are trained at least twice per week, it’s no longer clear whether a higher frequency is better. It seems to be pretty equal…although the trend usually favors the higher frequency. Simply put, beyond a frequency of 2 times per week you might not get any additional benefits in terms of muscle growth and strength assuming you do the same number of sets per week.
But the interesting thing is that on paper, full body programs should be the better choice, especially for advanced lifters. Remember that the main drivers of progress are weekly volume and intensity. Beginners can make maximum progress with just 10 sets per body part per week, intermediates do well on around 15 sets per week, and advanced lifters might need 15 to 20 sets. This volume is effective when each of those sets is be taken to within 1 and 3 reps to failure (7-9.5 RPE) while the rep range can vary. Generally, around 70% of the sets should be done in the 5 to 8 rep range and 30% in the 1 to 4 and 10 to 15 ranges.
When you look at it this way you can see that low frequencies pose a problem. As an intermediate or advanced lifter, with a bro split you have fit 15 to 20 hard sets in a single workout. Obviously the last few exercises are going to suffer due to fatigue. So it makes sense to split that volume in two workouts of around 10 sets each. This is much more manageable and the idea behind upper/lower or push/pull/legs splits. But perhaps you could distribute the weekly volume over even more workouts so that you can perform just one or two exercises per muscle group in a fresher state. For instance, say you do three exercises for chest one after the other: bench press, incline DB press, and hammer machine press. You might use 100 kg on bench, 40 kg dumbbells, and 80 kg on the hammer press. Naturally, if you did incline DB press and hammer machine press on different days instead, you could use more weight or perform more reps because you wouldn’t be fatigued from the previous exercises. And since progressive tension overload is the main driver of gains, you should be making better progress.
Now of course, an objection to this might be: One exercise!? You don’t even get to stress the muscle fibers properly!
That’s actually a valid point. While high muscular tension is the initiating factor for protein synthesis, a certain number of contractions (aka reps) are needed to turn it on. We don’t know exactly how many. For instance Mattocks and colleagues (2017) found that a group that did two workouts a week each consisting of 5 sets of one single max rep didn’t gain any muscle over the course of 8 weeks. So 5 heavy singles on the bench press machine per workout does not seem to be enough to turn on muscle growth.
However, if there is such a thing as a lower threshold of volume you need to perform for a workout to become effective, it seems to be very low. A recent study by Colquhoun and collegues (2019) showed that it’s probably less than two sets per muscle group. They took two groups of intermediate lifters and had them do the same number of weekly sets for the same number of reps but with different volume per workout. One group did 3 workouts per week consisting of 4 sets per exercise while the other group did 6 workouts per week consisting of just 2 sets per exercise. At the end of the study both groups gained almost exactly the same amount of strength and muscle. So just 2 sets of 3 on the deadlift, 2 sets of 5 on the squat and 2 sets of 8 on bench press per workout was enough to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains. In fact, the higher frequency group slightly outperformed the lower frequency group in all measured categories except squats.
With a full body program you’d be doing 3 to 6 sets per muscle group per workout and therefore that should provide enough contractions to stimulate gains. And actually, if anything, it should be better than doing a lot of volume per session. A recent study by Barbalho and colleagues (2019) had 4 groups of intermediate lifters do either 5, 10, 15, or 20 sets to failure per muscle group in a single workout, once a week. After 3 months, they found that the guys doing 5 and 10 sets per workout gained more muscle and strength than the guys doing 15 and 20 sets. Their finding suggests there seems to be an upper threshold of effective volume per workout, around 5 to 10 sets performed close to failure, above which additional sets don’t stimulate further gains. Basically, if you train heavy, the first few sets of a workout are actually the most important. They stimulate most of the gains which explains why reverse pyramid training works.
This can also be observed in one of the most influential studies on muscle growth of all time by Wernbom and colleagues (2007). They found that 30 to 60 reps per muscle group per workout appear to yield the largest gains but 20 reps per workout produced almost the same results. Sure, the guys doing more gained more but nowhere near twice as much.
My takeaway from these points of evidence is that there are definitely diminishing returns to volume performed per workout. The first few sets seem to be the most effective at stimulating muscle and strength gains and as you progressively add more, they stimulate gains less and less. So once again, it would make sense to distribute that volume among multiple workouts because it would make it more effective. Now remember, this is mostly theory.
The best proof we have that this is true in practice as well is the controversial Norwegian Frequency Project. In this study, the Norwegian elite powerlifting team was put on the exact same weekly volume and intensity with the exception that one group did 3 workouts a week while the other group did 6 workouts per week. This means that the 3 times per week group needed to do twice as many sets per session compared to the 6 times per week group. And after 15 weeks, the high frequency group increased their squat 11% compared to 5%, bench press 11% compared to 6%, deadlift 9% compared to 6% and they also gained more muscle. These are staggering results. What’s even left to debate? High frequency wins hand-down. However, the full paper of this study was never published for us to be able to see how exactly the lifters were training. One reasonable criticism of the study is that it seems the low frequency group was put on the same intensity as the high frequency group and that wasn’t optimal for them. When you train a lift every day you have to stay away from failure and so the high frequency group was lifting at around 75% of their 1 RM. But when you train less frequently, it’s optimal to go heavier, perhaps 85-90% of 1 RM. The low frequency group may not have been able to do that in order to keep everything the same and as a result some of them made no progress or actually lost muscle. If this is indeed true and the low frequency group would have been allowed to go heavier, perhaps the difference wouldn’t have been so large. On the other hand, if the high frequency group would have been made to train at 85-90% of 1 RM they could have burned out and overtrained. In the end, we just don’t know. We’re going to have to wait for the full paper to be published.
So at the moment, it isn’t settled whether a full body program is better than an upper/lower program for instance. However, it seems to be at least equal so it’s worth trying out. Worst case scenario, your results are more or less the same but if you’re one of the lucky guys who’s body responds well to high frequency, then you might make better progress than ever before.
But if it’s not yet clear whether full body programs are actually better for muscle and strength gains, why did I try it? Well, if I’m totally honest, it was just to avoid leg day. Yes, at heart, I’m a bro. I hate leg day. And surprisingly, doing one or two leg exercises every workout is actually way easier than doing 5 or 6 exercises in a single session because you don’t get as fatigued and you no longer get sore.
In my case, other than leg training being easier I haven’t noticed any difference. I didn’t build more muscle and I didn’t gain strength faster. The workouts are just more fun because you can do each lift in a fresh state. And I guess another bonus is that all your muscle groups are pumped all the time. Because of this, even if you’re not actually more muscular you appear to be bigger compared to when you’re doing body part splits.
Before we wrap up, there’s one concern about this training style that I need to warn you about. You know how I said I switched to this program to be able to train legs every workout? Yeah. Ironically, that’s exactly what I couldn’t do. I made the mistake of going from training legs once a week straight into doing squats 4 times per week: Bulgarian split squats on Monday and Thursday and back squats on Wednesday and Friday. Everything was fine for about two months and I made excellent progress but then one day I went to sit on the couch and I felt like I was stabbed in the knee. I developed what I think was quad tendinitis. Apparently, this can happen if you suddenly expose your tendons to a lot more stress than they’re used to. I talked with my buddy Mario Tomic about this and he told me he developed knee pain as well when attempting a Squat Every Day challenge for 60 days. Lyle McDonald expressed the same concern about this new trend of high frequency training: it could be bad for connective tissue and some people might develop tendinitis because of it.
I personally kept the weekly training volume the same and I still got the injury. This makes me think the sudden change in training frequency was the problem. Now of course, it was a stupid decision on my side because I only did squats for legs. Maybe if I also did some deadlifts, leg press and isolation exercises, I wouldn’t have had any issues. But still, if you’re currently on a bro split, I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending you to jump straight into a more than 3 day a week full body program because you might get joint pain after a few weeks. It would probably be better for you to gradually increase training frequency until your connective tissues can handle a 4 or 5 times per week full body program.