There is not a set in stone protocol on how often you should train each muscle group, nor a prefect training frequency because they are strictly intertwined with volume per workout and intensity, as well as training age.
You can only go as far as finding your own optimal training frequency which may be or may be not typical or in line with what other people are doing.
However, as a general rule the more often you train the same muscle group, the better and faster the results providing that training frequency does not exceed your recovery capacity.
Train Each Muscle Group As Often As It Is Fully Recovered
Your ability to fully recover before you hit the same muscle group again depends very much on these factors:
- Volume – or total workload of repetitions performed in a workout for a particular muscle.
- Intensity – here intended as the effort and stress techniques used in the sets regardless of load, not the 1RM load percentage.
- Adequate nutrition – a balanced diet with all the macro-nutrients well organized.
- Good Sleep.
- Training age.
Sets performed shy of failure provide mild intensity and recover very quickly but are not very effective, while sets performed to technical failure, when you cannot performed one more repetition, offer a more robust stimulus to the trained muscle and take longer to recover from.
More still, sets performed beyond technical failure with the addition of high intensity techniques offer the most potent stimulus to the muscle and thus require even longer recovery times, workout volume being equal.
High intensity techniques after the regular set to failure include but are not limited to:
- Static holds.
- Drop Sets.
Each one can be used for different goals, like hypertrophy or strength, or both, but all of them add on considerable stress to the trained muscle, making recovery times longer and thus dictating how often you should train each muscle group.
How Life Stressors Affects Recovery Ability And Training Frequency
Given that all these factors by default play a role in concocting the ideal frequency for you, you should also consider your own training history, age and your own personal life stressors, like job, studies, family commitments as well as time available.
Life stressors and time can greatly influence the outcome of recovery times and workout frequency, as the situation of a young guy still at home with his parents is well different from a middle aged guy working 70h/week, a family with three kids and mortgage to pay off, or a senior guy.
Given that life variables are individual and varied and profoundly affect workout protocols, let’s take them out of the way for the moment to see what happens in an ideal, friendly environment by playing around with just the workout variables of volume, intensity and nutrition.
The Carburetor/Injector Analogy – Train Each Muscle Group With The Correct Volume And Intensity For Muscle Growth
Maybe an easy, though approximate way to get how these variables work with one another is by comparing the volume, intensity and nutrition mix with the fuel and air mix in carburetors or injectors.
These mechanical devices are designed to mix the right amounts of air and fuel into the engine for optimal combustion and performance. Whenever something goes wrong, say too much air or too much fuel, or too little of it, problems start, consumption goes up and power down.
If the problem is left untreated it can aggravate itself until the engine chokes or over-heats and eventually dies down or becomes damaged.
Likewise, getting intensity and volume wrong for a training frequency that you have arbitrarily designed can lead to over training or under training, the equivalent of the engine stalling or over heating.
Either muscle workout frequency is designed as a result of volume and intensity, or you need to adjust muscle volume and intensity to a predetermined frequency.
In other words, if one factor goes up, the other must come down, you cannot have high volume and high frequency or low volume and low frequency.
The first method will fry your muscles, the second will do nothing at all.
Also, you cannot train each muscle group once a week with the same volume of 3 days or more per week, as there is a limit to how much volume and intensity a muscle can take in a single bout.
By doing so, it will certainly take longer for the muscle to recover from fatigue, but it will not grow more because of it, since after 24/72 hours protein synthesis will eventually taper off (more on this later), regardless of your efforts.
This means that you cannot arbitrarily keep piling volume and intensity onto a certain frequency just like you cannot increase frequency if your volume and intensity are in place, as this would lead to over-kill.
In both cases you will end up overloading your body with too much volume, intensity and training frequency and end up burned out.
Having said this, the best way to find out how often to train each muscle group and eventually organize a whole body training frequency is by starting with the frequency itself and not with an arbitrary volume.
Volume and intensity can be applied as appropriate once determined your ideal training frequency for the same muscle group and the whole body.
Why is this?
Because for natural trainees muscle building and recovery are strictly related to protein synthesis, which naturally lasts for 24/72 hours after stimulus, thus dictating the natural gym warrior schedule.
How Protein Synthesis Dictates How Often You Should Train Each Muscle Group And Eventually The Whole Body
Bro splits of old and new are designed for artificially enhanced bodybuilders who are in an increased anabolic state 24/7. The impressive hypertrophy or strength results of bodybuilders or strength athletes on gear are the result of their “supplementation”, not their workout schedule.
They are very muscular and strong “despite” their training, not because of it, because their protein synthesis works over time 24/7, thus they can afford to train a muscle group once or maybe twice per week at most, hitting it with tons of volume for each session.
Not only is their protein synthesis turbo-charged, but steroids also enhance workout recovery in the short term, meaning more sets and repetitions per workout are possible while on gear, further contributing to the bro-split method.
A natural trainee does not have such luxuries. Without the help of gear, his/her recovery abilities are limited by the natural physiological response of protein synthesis which is activated only after hitting a muscle and which lasts for just 24/72 hours, no matter what.
Piling volume on the muscle, more sets and reps in the same session will accomplish nothing, and the workout intensity will quickly go down the drain without the help of gear, while excessively fatiguing the muscle at the same time.
Even resting for a whole week will not lead to overcompensation and growth at all, as the protein synthesis will taper off after 24/72 hours anyway, regardless of volume and intensity.
This means most sets and repetitions will be wasted, as will be wasted the rest of the week when the muscle is not being trained.
Only beginners trying to emulate pro bro-splits may have few short lived, limited results by such an approach, because their bodies initially react to any stimulus that is not doing nothing at all and their protein synthesis is still on the long side (more on this later).
Very soon, they’ll hit a wall and dig themselves into over training, plateauing and eventually regression, or involution. Thinking that they are not working out hard enough, they may even try to increase their volume, eventually falling into a self defeating cycle. A common scenario.
The solution to this conundrum is by giving just about the right volume and intensity for the muscle to elicit response and growth and then repeat it again after 24/72 hours approximately.
Once you get around this concept, then it becomes easy to train each muscle group with the correct volume and intensity and organize a training frequency for the whole body, as you will have a better understanding of these factors.
The Sun Tan Analogy – How Much Is Too Much For Each Muscle Group?
As often is the case, mother nature provides you with the answer to any question that relates to the natural process of growth, evolution and adaptation to stimulus, you just have to observe.
If you want to get a good sun tan without getting burned, which one of these two methods is the most effective?
- Hit the beach the first day and lay on the sand for 10 hours (then get burned, peel your skin off and after 2 weeks start worse off than you were before, time to go home).
- Hit the beach every day and then lay on the sand for 10/20 minutes at most for the first few days (then 30 minutes, then even 1 or 2 hours as you get nicely tanned and resilient to the rays, but no more).
You get the point? High volume split routines are artificial and not intended to suit human physiology as given by mother nature. They can only work for steroid users.
So back to the point. It should be clear by now that higher frequency training is the way to go for the natural trainee in order to determine how often he/she should train each muscle group and eventually the whole body.
It remains to be seen exactly how much volume and intensity to apply for each session, which should be just enough to elicit progression with the correct nutrition and sleep, but not so much as to go overboard and fall into over training once again.
How Often Should You Train Each Muscle Group Then?
Notwithstanding that training frequency for a natural gym-goer should be higher than what bro-splits methods lead you to believe, it still leaves open the question of “exactly how often per week” should you train each muscle group.
That could be anything from 2 to 6 times per week.
A bit loose answer, but before you can decide what frequency is best for you, you have to consider that protein synthesis does not last equally for everyone and may vary considerably depending on training age, chronological age, personal genetics, nutrition and stressors.
As a general rule, the less experienced you are, the longer the protein synthesis, up to 72 hours, while for experienced lifter it can last for as little as 24 hours.
In other words, the longer your training history is, the quicker your muscles recover from a session and can be hit again, providing that nutrition and sleep are in place. In this case, waiting for an unnecessarily long time between session turns out to be just a waste of time.
On the contrary, a beginner can expect to retain an elevated protein synthesis for up to 3 days. This means that if you are just starting out you should wait at least 72 hours before training the same muscle group.
Depending on your current fitness level, you may need to change schedule as you progress with time. As a beginner 2 times per week seems to be a good place to start from.
As you progress, you may need to increase training frequency to 3 or 4 times per week for the same muscle group, while keeping volume for each session low and nowhere as near as bro split routines levels.
Advanced trainees can train each muscle group even 6 days per week for full body workouts, while keeping volume to a minimum, as shown in this Norvegian study, taking great care NOT to go at full intensity each and every day.
Of course, this is a situation of best case scenario whereas you can train every day. For most people with commitments the good old classic full body routine 3 to 4 times per week is the best compromise between workout effectiveness and personal free time.
Having clarified that you can increase your training frequency as you get stronger and more resilient, it remains to be seen how much volume and intensity to apply for each session, as these two factors also greatly affect your recovery ability, regardless of protein synthesis.
How Intensity Greatly Affects How Often You Should Train Each Muscle Group
For example, a natural trainee may do 3 to 4 working sets per muscle group after warm-up, 3 to 4 times per week. This is just an example, not an invitation to do exactly so.
You can advance by applying progressive overload within a 8 to 12 week time-frame, starting with moderate resistance, like 12/15 reps per set and work your way up to low repetition range and heavy loads in the 4/5 rep range. This is also called accumulation and intensification.
However, intensity also plays a big role in how many sets and repetitions you can perform within each session, as special techniques like rest-pause, drop sets or static holds at the end of a regular set to failure can considerably tax your muscle and limit the total workload you can do.
This means you should scale down the total sets even further if you plan to use these shock-technique, even down to as little as 1 working set, after warm up. As you progress with time, you may find yourself using rest-pause and the other techniques more and more often, because regular failure may be not be a stimulus potent enough for growth anymore.
Muscles adapt, no matter what. What used to be effective in the past may be not working anymore and need to be challenged to a new level, bearing in mind that greater intensity equals more recovery, hence the need to scale down volume even more to keep recovery in check.
How Nutrition And Sleep Also Affects Your Recovery Ability And Training Frequency
This is self explanatory, really. How you should eat properly and make sure you get a sound night sleep in beyond the scope of this article.
However, it goes without saying that if you eat a poor diet with the macro nutrients off the mark and go partying at night you cannot expect to have recovered well enough to train again with effectiveness and your results will suffer as a result, even if your training frequency, volume and intensity are on track.
Eventually, you’ll hit a plateau and start regressing. If that happens you may need to take a break and reconsider your eating habits and lifestyle, then start off again with a better nutrition plan and healthy sleeping habits.
Learn To Listen To Your Body’s Signals
This is an aspect that is often neglected and not just by beginners. We are all different, and we all respond differently to the same stimulus. Yes, general guidelines and the way physiology works is the same for everyone , but the devil is in the details.
What works well for one may be too much or too little for another one. And again, a training frequency that was working well before for you, may be not so ideal anymore. A technique that was reaping benefits earlier, may not be no longer effective as you progress.
When this happens, you may need to back off a little bit in frequency or intensity, or you may need to switch things up a little bit.
See how your body responds, listen to its signals and make little adjustments here and there as you go along, but never give up. That’s the name of the game.
Growth Happens In Spurts – No Matter What Training Frequency
Also, consider that progression happens in spurts, not in a liner way, even if you are doing everything correctly. If you are a bit stuck with the same weight or repetitions for a while, do not be discouraged and think that you need to change your training schedule.
Not necessarily. Unless you have pain, or start losing strength over few sessions, you may not need to re-structure your plan after all, just stick with it for long enough for your body to adapt and kick into a new phase of growth later on. This is what happens all the time.
Wrapping It All Together – How Often Should You Train Each Muscle Group?
The bottom line is that you should train each muscle group as often as your training history, volume, intensity and nutrition allow. The more advanced you are, the more frequently you can train the same muscle group, the less experienced, the more sporadically.
By carefully dosing volume and intensity for each workout while keeping nutrition and sleep in check, you should be able to find a balance between fatigue and recovery, which in turn will allow you to make progress over the long term.
Be your own judge, experiment and tweak as you go along, change things up over time, but stay away from marathon bro split-workouts and instead lean toward a frequency as high as your recovery capacity allows for your current fitness ability.