Effective Versus Optimal Training Volume and Frequency

How much exercise you should do and how often depends on several factors. Due to genetic differences individuals vary in how much of any kind of physical stress their bodies can tolerate within some time period, and how quickly they recover from and adapt to it. This is also heavily influenced by your diet, how much sleep you get, and other stresses including the demands of your job and other activities. All else being equal, someone with a desk job who does a few hours of light recreational activity a few days a week can train longer and more frequently without overtraining than someone who has a very physically demanding job or does several hours of hard athletic training most days of the week.

Your goals must also be considered because some aspects of recovery may require more or less time than others, some adaptations may be produced or lost more slowly or quickly, and some goals may benefit from the acute effects of exercise thus more frequent training. For example, the optimal frequency for improving metabolic conditioning may be higher than for improving muscular strength and size for some individuals, so one might train with more or less volume or frequency depending on their priorities.

Fortunately, although the range of volume and frequency that is optimal for any particular goal (produces the fastest possible improvement) may be narrow (and is also a moving target since it is affected by many other non-constant variables), the range that is effective (produces consistent, measurable or noticeable improvement) is a bit broader, so for most people it is not necessary to fuss too much over it. If the requirements for effectively stimulating improvements in functional ability were too precise the adaptive responses would have been of no survival value and not have evolved.

High Intensity Training Workout Charts

My contest preparation workout charts from spring 1995

As long as you train consistently and with a high level of effort very little exercise is required for good results. Minimally, you need to perform one set each of enough exercises to work all the major muscle groups (those involved in gross body movement as opposed to fine movements of the hands, fingers, feet, toes, mouth, etc.), and work out just frequently enough that you do not allow any improvements produced in response to the workout to be lost due to detraining. Considering clients consistently match or exceed their previous workout performance after being gone for a month or more due to work or vacations I suspect the minimum effective frequency for most people is very, very low. As your workout volume and frequency increases you will very quickly hit a point of diminishing returns; research shows no significant differences in strength increases between performing single and multiple sets of an exercise and little difference in results between training once, twice, or three times per week.

I recommend twice-weekly full body workouts as a starting point for most people because beginners usually don’t train hard enough to get as much out of less training and the higher frequency benefits learning and skill practice and neural adaptations, and once a trainee has become more skilled and capable of training more intensely it isn’t too much for most people to recover from and adapt to. That being said, for the majority of people just one, brief full-body workout a week is effective as long as they are training hard enough.

Diminishing returns is not the same as no returns, however, and while for most of people it makes little sense to invest fifty to one hundred percent more time and effort for only a few percent more improvement over weeks or months, for a few it does. If you are a competitive athlete or work in a profession where your life or the lives of others may depend on your physical capabilities a small percent can make a big difference. If you want to improve as quickly as possible you have to go past the point of diminishing returns to the point where any further training results in a reduction in progress, but no further. You must also optimize your eating, sleep, and other factors influencing response to exercise.

The principles for determining it are the same; keep accurate records of your workout performance and other goal specific measurements and other factors affecting your response to exercise for regular evaluation. Gradually adjust your training volume upwards (primarily frequency, you only need so many exercises to effectively hit all the major muscle groups) while paying very close attention to your rate of progress. When you reach a point where you begin to see a reduction in rate of progress, take a brief layoff to allow for full recovery, then resume training at the volume and frequency which produced the fastest improvement.

I think most people will be surprised to find this is still much lower than what is typically recommended, especially when it is combined with intense physical athletic or work training. I suspect most people will find a frequency of once every three to four days, around twice-weekly, to be as much as necessary for optimal results, and that in most cases doing more will result in slower rather than faster improvement if they really are training intensely. And, while there will be a few “fast responders” who do better with more there will probably be even more “hard gainers” who require significantly less volume and frequency just to avoid overtraining.

Keep in mind all of this assumes you are training as hard as possible. Your results have far more to do with the effort you put into your training than the volume and frequency of your workouts and you can not make up for a lack of effort by doing more work.

One of the most important things to take away from this is, no matter how little free time you have you can exercise long enough and often enough to get worthwhile results, because very little volume and frequency is required for an exercise program to be effective. A lot of people believe you need to work out most days of the week for an hour or more to get something out of it and that if they aren’t willing to commit to that kind of schedule they might as well not bother, but that’s simply not true. You do have to commit to training  hard, progressively, and consistently if you want results, but you absolutely do not have to spend several hours a week exercising to get something out of it, much less live in the gym like some people do.

Each of the following workouts effectively works all the major muscle groups and requires less than twenty minutes to complete if you move quickly between exercises. Most people can get good results doing this just once a week, but I recommend twice as a starting point if you are able. If you are really pressed for time, you can even shorten it to just the first six exercises in each workout and still effectively work all the major muscle groups in the body.

Machines

  1. Leg Press
  2. Pull Down
  3. Chest Press
  4. Compound Row
  5. Overhead Press
  6. Trunk Extension
  7. Trunk Flexion
  8. Heel Raise
  9. TSC Neck Extension
  10. TSC Neck Flexion

Free Weights

  1. Squat
  2. Pullover (or Chin Up)
  3. Bench Press
  4. Bent Row
  5. Standing Press
  6. Stiff Legged Deadlift
  7. Push Crunch
  8. Heel Raise
  9. TSC Neck Extension
  10. TSC Neck Flexion

Bodyweight-Only

  1. Squat
  2. Chin Up
  3. Push Up or Dip
  4. Inverted Row
  5. Shoulder Press Up or Handstand Push UP
  6. Prone Trunk Extension
  7. Crunch
  8. Heel Raise
  9. TSC Neck Extension
  10. TSC Neck Flexion
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41 Responses to Effective Versus Optimal Training Volume and Frequency

  1. Tommy March 22, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    Drew,

    Great article – philosophical and physical food for thought as always:)

    You mention at the beginning of this piece – Genetic factors.

    Whilst the pressures and demands of modern life often dictate how we train – lack of sleep, poor nutrition etc … I am sure there are alot of people reading your posts (I count myself as one of them) Who make it their business to get the requisite amount of sleep, train ferociously hard and eat very well. Assuming these variables are on point/in place, the one factor left would be ones “Genetics”

    How do you go about ascertaining your “genetic lot” ?. Is it a case of mere trial and error?

    Tommy

    • Drew Baye March 22, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      Tommy,

      It is only a matter of time before a person can have their DNA tested and get an exercise prescription tailored to their genetics and goals. Until then, I like what Fred Hahn said in his presentation at the ’95 SSEG convention; we should treat our exercise programs as a lifelong experiment. Keep accurate records of your workouts and other relevant factors like diet and sleep, don’t change too many variables at once, be honest in evaluating the results, and make adjustments accordingly (or have someone else monitor and adjust your workouts for you).

  2. Scott Rhodes March 22, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    Another informative and fascinating article, Drew.
    For what it’s worth, I train once every 6 to 10 days and decide on an adhoc basis. I ask myself: “could you do an all out set at 100% effort of leg press today?” If the answer is “yes” I workout, if it is “no” I wait until I feel I can do it.
    Seems to be working thus far as my strength and size are consistently increasing since resuming my training last October.

    • Drew Baye March 22, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

      Thanks Scott,

      It just goes to show how little is necessary when you train intensely enough.

      • Scott Rhodes March 23, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

        Hi Drew,
        I understand that you modified your frequency from once every 7 days to once every 4 days.
        Were there specific reasons for this change (i.e. lack of progress, surplus of energy, etc.) or was it an experiment in frequency?
        And, has this change proven beneficial?
        Thanks,
        Scott

        • Drew Baye March 23, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

          Scott,

          It was an experiment in frequency. I made good progress training once weekly but progress slightly faster with more frequency. The individual workout volume was kept roughly the same, so it was a doubling of weekly program volume.

          • Scott Rhodes March 23, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

            Interesting. Thanks

  3. Steven Turner March 22, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    What I have found to be my most favourite routine is on Monday’s similar routine to your machine routine and on Thursday’s your machine metabolic 3×3 routine. I feel that I can apply maximal amount of effort to both routines. If I feel that I can’t apply maximal effort to both routines I do as Scott suggests I wait until I feel I can do it. My routine allows me plenty of time to enjoy my recreation activities of walking 3-4 times per week and swim a couple of times per week – no stress.

    Sadly for many people the traditional fitness recommendations just set people up for failure, most of the fitness recommendations are unachievable and provide little or no health benefits, refer to The “The Truth about Exercise”. I think that in the series of shows that they were trying to come up with genetic testing procedures. In the show there were only a small percentage of people that responded in some positive way to the traditional “cardio” or high volume training recommendations. I would presume that the small percentage of people that did respond positively would respond to almost any type of training program.

    What is interesting about the Truth about Exercise research backs up what Arthur Jones wrote many years ago that intensity of effort is the key factor and that no amount of low intensity training equals a small amount of high intensity training. Arthur again many years ahead of his time.

  4. Craig March 22, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    “If the requirements for effectively stimulating improvements in functional ability were too precise the adaptive responses would have been of no survival value and not have evolved.”

    Yup!

    But I do fear that you won’t reach your full earning potential asa fitness guru if you keep offering up such sensible ideas, avoid dogmatic assertions, and refuse to admit that you possess secret knowledge that others don’t have! :-)

    From the growing number of publications I’ve seen which flag a very sedentary lifestyle as an active health threat, wouldn’t it also be wise to counsel people to engage in as much low intensity non-exercise activity as they can manage outside of the gym, i.e., walk as much as you can, be on your feet as much as possible (versus sitting). Not because these activites produce significant positive adaptations so much as they prevent negative kinds of metabolic changes that have been shown to occur with long periods of sitting.

    I am somewhat curious about the inclusion of the pullover exercise in the free weight routine. I never felt like those did very much for me, at least not with the weights that I felt comfortable using. For me, at least, pullups seem to be a far more challenging and effective exercise.

    • Drew Baye March 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

      Craig,

      There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The first category is smaller than the second and the first two categories combined are probably smaller than the third. Anybody who believes they know it all is mistaken, and anyone who tells you they know it all is either an idiot or a huckster, and often both. I know what I know and what I don’t know, and I try to provide the best information and advice with that in mind. So far it’s worked pretty well, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find a way to make it work even better later on and if that happens I’ll adjust my recommendations to fit the best evidence wherever it might lead.

      Both proper exercise and regular general physical activity are important. People need to distinguish between exercise and recreation or general physical activity though and not try to mix the two, or count on increased activity alone for improving body composition as most tend to grossly overestimate it’s contribution to energy expenditure.

      If a person is unable to do chin ups or a chin up bar is unavailable and assuming no neck or shoulder problems for which it would be contraindicated a properly performed, partial range barbell pullover is an effective alternative for the torso musculature. I suggest starting with a very conservative load and avoiding both the deep stretch traditionally recommended and the top ten to fifteen degrees of the movement. It is a myth that breathing squats and pullovers performed with a deep stretch expand the rib cage and once you get within ten to fifteen degrees of vertical the moment arm the muscles work against is so small they encounter little resistance.

  5. Pete March 23, 2013 at 5:01 am #

    Hey Drew,

    Great article! And was wondering, with regards to intensity, how you feel about Mike’s levels of bodybuilding, beginner/intermediate/advanced/omni, and whether one should implement them? I’ve been doing the big five with additional calf raises once a week for the last 12 weeks and have consistently increased exercise loads by 10 lbs a week on all exercises, a plate a week. Only recently did I find that my chest isn’t really getting the action from the chest press anymore… Should I kick it up a notch by introducing the pec dec as a pre/post-exhaust OR increase the interval of hitting the gym only every 1,5 week? I mean maybe it’s just that my arms are not recovering as fast as my pectorals anymore?

    And, are all pneumatic exercise equipment poor at negative or was the one I used in bad shape? Tested a HUR leg press the other day and while the ergonomy was good, correct back angle and curves, the negative which I so love for its feel was not smooth rather jagged and twitchy – ruining the whole exercise. Also observed their chest press machine had the handles set so back that if it was a regular barbell the barbell would run through the torso around half way…

    • Drew Baye March 23, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

      Pete,

      I don’t recall anything about Mike’s levels of bodybuilding and would have to find where he wrote about it before I can comment. He never mentioned it during any of our conversations.

      As for your chest, I’m not sure what you mean about it not “getting the action” but doing more exercise usually isn’t the answer. If you mean it isn’t progressing as quickly as other muscle groups this can be a lot of things, and it is normal for the rate of progress on any program to level out after a period of time, especially after the first six to eight weeks. This is the kind of thing better addressed with a consultation as a lot more discussion is required.

      I am not familiar with HUR equipment but pneumatics are a poor choice for resistance and I don’t recommend those types of machines. Just looking at the pictures on the HUR web site I see numerous design flaws and wouldn’t recommend them. If no other equipment was available bodyweight training would be a better choice than training with very poorly designed machines.

      • Pete March 23, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

        Drew,

        I was pointing out to the techniques Mike used to up intensity, Infitonic, Omni-Contraction and Rest-Pause. Now obviously I’ve never met Mike but this is what I’ve read, however cannot recall where have the texts on my clipboard.

        • Drew Baye March 23, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

          Pete,

          It is not necessary to do these with advanced trainees, and not appropriate to do them with beginners.

  6. Barry March 23, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Hello Drew, I am a 49 year old male who followed the Nautilus protocol of a full body routine 3x per week 2/4 cadence as outlined in the Ellington Darden book titled, “The Nautilus Book” published in the early 80′s until I came across your site and BBS a few years ago.

    With regard to genetic factors in your recent post, in the Ellington Darden book he writes about different body types ie, mesomorph,endomorph and ectomorph. Would you recommend a different protocol for each body type, with every thing else being in order, rest, diet, sleep ETC.

    Thank you. Barry.

    • Drew Baye March 23, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

      Barry,

      Somatotype is not a reliable indicator of individual response to exercise or what protocol a person should use. It is not necessary for a person to train in a particular way just because they are a mesomorph, endomorph, or ectomorph. The general principles are the same for everybody, and each person has to apply them based on their individual response to exercise and goals, and these things can vary considerably even for people with similar somatotypes.

  7. David March 24, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    What is your recommendation for including specific work-out of the 4 rotater cuff muscles in a typical program? How few exercises will cover all of them?

    Best regards.

    • Drew Baye March 24, 2013 at 9:30 am #

      David,

      Unless you are addressing a specific injury or condition additional direct exercise specifically for the rotator cuff muscles is unnecessary. They work to stabilize the shoulder during the pushing and pulling exercises mentioned, and as long as those exercises are done correctly they will benefit from them. Contrary to popular but ignorant opinion, bench pressing and chest press machines are not bad for the rotator cuff; doing them with bad form is.

      • David March 24, 2013 at 11:19 am #

        Thank you very much.

  8. Vanner March 24, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    Great article Drew.

    Personally, I’ve found that KPIs are the most important tool for ensuring consistency and patience for exercise. Without those written down and established measures, I would less accurately know if I was progressing. After all, why would I want to exercise if I wasn’t showing progress.

    The 2 exercises that I cannot measure progressive strength improvements on is the TSC neck flexion and extension. I can only measure neck circumference to ensure I’m not losing muscle mass. Maybe neck exercise popularity will grow, and better machines will become more commonly available. For now, I’ll have to assume improvements are similar to other exercises.

    • Drew Baye March 24, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

      Vanner,

      The RenEx iMulti machine is great for TSC neck exercise, unfortunately I doubt we’ll see them outside of very high end personal training studios and rehab facilities. Without equipment that allows you to measure force output keeping track of neck circumference is a practical way to evaluate the effects over time. As long as you are maintaining or improving neck size it’s working.

  9. Jonathan March 27, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    Hello Drew.
    Thankyou for this article your info is always very helpful and informative.
    I just wanted to share a few things in my comment here.
    I have just recently on Monday completed a chest tri’s and front delt workout.
    And i must say that my back is hammered! along with my chest.
    I was planning to train my back the next day but i caught a cold so had to call the back and bis and traps workout off.
    I noticed how my chest workout really hit my back as well!
    Obviously its not as intense as a direct back workout but it sure hit my back!
    Any thoughts,i do realise the back probably supports the chest in any work it does……..
    Best wishes
    Jonathan
    And by the way the gym where i train was handing out slabs of chocalate coated cookies for members as they entered the gym..i could not believe my eye-balls!!!

    • Drew Baye March 30, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      Jonathan,

      There is a lot more overlap in muscle involvement between different exercises than most people realize. Partly because of this, even on a split routine working out two days in a row is not recommended.

  10. Andy March 27, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Drew,
    Do I interpret your excellent article right by
    saying:
    In the long run the consistently and intensely
    exercising trainee will achieve his genetically
    predetermined potential for size and strength even
    when his volume and frequency is not optimal but reasonable.
    When he trains a bit less frequently than optimally maybe
    just once per week he will just reach that goal later.
    Whatever that timespan means, some months or a year.

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

      Andy,

      Yes. However, don’t assume once weekly is less than optimal. For some people once weekly might be as often as they can train and for those with extremely poor recovery ability it can even be overtraining.

      • Andy March 31, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

        Drew,
        Thank you very much!

  11. Ondrej March 30, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    My father is 52. He is obese (120+kg)and has no experience with HIT or training. I’d ?ike to train him once a week, so I prepared a “big 6″ of

    Squat
    Pullover
    Bench Press
    Bent Row
    Standing Press
    Stiff Legged Deadlift

    What if I reduced it only to

    Squat
    Bench Press
    Bent Row

    to assure compliance with the protocol and easier learning? Bad idea? He has no bodybuilding aspirations and I feel this still hits it all. Thanks.

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

      Ondrej,

      If you are training him at a gym I would suggest leg press, pull down, and chest press to begin with. As he gets stronger and his conditioning improves I would add a trunk extension, row, and overhead press assuming he has no physical problems for which they would be contraindicated. These are easier to teach and learn and safer for most people when done correctly.

  12. Tommy March 31, 2013 at 6:39 am #

    Hello Drew,

    One’s individual genetic potential has been touched upon several times in this article. As it’s a case of trial and error – finding out what works for you.

    But what about CNS (Central Nervous System) factors?

    There are a lot of naysayers on the internet who seem to use the argument CNS against HIT – (with somewhat questionable data I might add).

    Irrespective of an individuals genetics – Do we not all have quite similar CNS recuperative/recovery times?

    I’m just thinking in the pursuit of finding out what training frequency works – there could be a danger of frazzling/damaging the body’s CNS.

    Thanks

    Tommy

  13. Greg Roseman April 3, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    Drew,

    excellent article.

    Greg

  14. David April 14, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Hi Drew.

    I live in Denmark and have a problem finding a gym with nautilus or medex equipment. What is your take on the Hammer Strenght equipment? As far as I have read it is somehow related to A Jones theories. It’s easier to find for me in danish gyms.

    Best regards David.

    • Drew Baye April 16, 2013 at 9:41 am #

      David,

      The Hammer Strength equipment started out as Nautilus leverage equipment. Arthur’s son Gary Jones and strength coach Kim Wood started Hammer Strength using those designs. Overall they are good machines, however I am not a fan of the independent movement arms on some models.

  15. David April 17, 2013 at 7:09 am #

    Thanks a lot, Drew.

  16. Paul August 24, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    drew, just wondering do you think i could do the big 5 workout but instead of the leg press a deadlift so that way i hit my lower back which isnt normally worked in the big 5 workout

    • Drew Baye August 25, 2013 at 11:48 am #

      Paul,

      I would try adding a stiff-legged deadlift or trunk extension instead of substituting it for the leg press at first. If you find you have difficulty recovering from the additional volume you could alternate the two, but I don’t think this is too much for most people.

  17. Roy September 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Congrat´s Drew of your excelent web site and rich informations!!

    My name is Roy from Brazil and my english is not good but let me try to explain to you…
    Here in Brazil the Hight Intensity Training information is very poor and I don´t now anyone who train H.I.T.

    I´m training the Ideal Workout Heavy Duty that have 4 workout spit: Chest and Back, Legs and ABS, Shoulders and arms, Legs again.

    Three months ago I´m training this workout of a Book “High Intensity Training, The MIke Menzer Way”.

    My strenght incresed workout to workout…but my mass continues the same.

    The workout is not very infrequent ang legs very frequent?? It´s that normal not gain mass??? I´m ectomorf with 38 years old…

    Thanks!!

    • Drew Baye September 16, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

      Roy,

      The potential for muscular strength and size gains varies considerably between individuals and there is no way to predict how fast an individual will respond or how much muscle they are capable of gaining in the long run, and therefore whether a particular volume and frequency of training is optimal for them. You have to experiment with these things to determine what works best for you. That being said, most people do not train hard enough at first to require that little volume and frequency, and I recommend two full-body workouts per week as a starting point.

  18. Joe May 29, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    Drew,

    I originally found your blog via Doug McGuff (the acknowledgments in his book, and he mentions you in his 21 conference video). Since then I’ve watched some of your 21 conference video and have been reading your blog. After you responded to one of my comments about frequency, I thought “Ok, let’s see what some of his other posts about frequency say…” Wow, I wasn’t disappointed!! This post is direct and really breaks it down nicely, and then offers 3 different routines one could follow. All this in one blog post!

    BTW, I’ve pre-ordered your HIT Workouts 2ed. Looking forward to it.

    Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge and experience.

    –Joe

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

      Hey Joe,

      You’re welcome and I’m glad you’ve found the web site helpful.

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