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.


  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


  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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