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The Biggest Flaw in Your Program: How to Choose the Right Training Frequency

Training frequency is probably one of the most talked, written, and blogged about topics out there. The main question is: How often should I train? There is no easy answer, and it’s tough shifting through all the various and conflicting information out there.

Lets first define training frequency. According to Charles Poliquin, training frequency is measured by the number of training sessions devoted to a given muscle group or lift per unit of time. Lets take this definition and plug it into an analysis of the following sample program:

Day One:

  • Pullups, 3×5
  • Pushups, 3×10
  • Bodyweight Squats, 3×20

Day Two:

  • Chinups, 3×8
  • Incline Pushups, 3×8
  • Lateral Lunges, 3×8

Day Three:

  • Mixed Grip Chins, 3×6
  • Hindu Pushups, 3×12
  • Squat Jumps, 3×8

In this example, if we’re looking at muscle groups, then we can claim that we’re training our chest, back, and legs, 3 days a week. If we look at movements, then we can claim that we’re training each movement once a week.

  • If your goal was to improve your pullups, then you’d probably get rid of the pullup variations and just focus on pullup for all three workouts.
  • If your goal was to improve your lower body mass, then incorporating a variety of different exercises makes sense. You might even want to throw in an extra lower body exercise.
  • If you goal is to improve your level of conditioning, then you’d want to perform the workouts as a circuit, and base training frequency solely on how fast you’re able to recover between workouts.

Training Frequency for Newbies

The biggest problem newbies make when designing a training program is over-estimating their ability to recover from a workout. They’ll be so excited about a new training program that they’ll give all they got on Monday, give a little more on Tuesday, and by Wednesday and Thursday they’re already burnt out. When Monday rolls around again, they have absolutely no motivation to train simply because they still haven’t recovered from last weeks workout.

For a newbie, it’s better to under train then it is to over train. People still haven’t understood the concept of physical activity and what it takes to get results. Intensity levels are based on your past performance. Here is a perfect example:

Joe has never exercised before. He decides to hire a personal trainer and tells him that he wants to lose as much weight as fast as possible. So his personal trainer gets cracking and comes up with his revolutionary extreme fat loss program:

  • 30 minutes of treadmill walking, 3 days a week

The first week, Joe loses 5 pounds. He’s ecstatic! The second week, he loses 3 pounds. He’s now really happy. The following two weeks, he loses 1 pound each week. Total weight loss is 10 pounds. Joe’s personal trainer tells all his prospective clients about Joe’s amazing results – 10 lbs in 30 days! He goes on to write a book about it, and makes a lot of money.

Ok, so from this example, I simply wanted to illustrate how smart Joe’s personal trainer is, and how not-so-smart most newbies are when it comes to program design. All you need to do create a really effective program is to do more than you did before. And if you haven’t been doing anything, well, there’s your perfect answer – DO SOMETHING.

Training Frequency for Advanced Athletes

The question of training frequency and intensity becomes a real issue for advanced athletes. Believe it or not, advanced athletes love to over train . Maybe it’s just human nature to do more, or at least to believe that we can do more. But once you realize that doing more doesn’t necessarily give you better results, you’ll stop immediately.

Image By Crossfit Las Vegas

Image By Crossfit Las Vegas

Too much exercise can cause over training. Over training is another talked about topic that very few people understand. Over training is simply a combination of physical and mental symptoms that result in a “reversal” of the benefits of exercise. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Feeling extremely tired, all the time
  • Decreased appetite/Upset stomach resulting in extremely fast weight loss
  • Consistent soreness in muscles
  • Extreme pain in joints
  • A depression of immune system resulting in constant sickness
  • A decrease in exercise performance

Over training is a real threat. But once again, over training is based on your training background. What is easy for me may be difficult for you. Lets go back to the example of Joe again. Fast forward two months later. Joe’s now doing 6 days of cardio, 45 minutes at a time. He’s been losing 8-10 pounds for the past three months, but his training intensity has not increased. Instead, his FREQUENCY has increased. Let’s crunch the numbers:

Month One:

  • Total Training Time: 360 minutes per month
  • Total weight loss: 10 lbs

Month Three:

  • Total Training Time: 1,080 minutes per month
  • Total weight loss: 10 lbs

You’re doing 3 times more work for the same results. In business, you call that stupidity. Successful people have learned to scale systems. In other words, you look at a program, you figure out what works, and you modify it so that you’re steadily doing less work for more results. That should be the goal of a training program, and that should be the prime determinant factor as to how many days a week you spend exercising.

Image by World News Australia

Image by World News Australia

Three Categories of Training Frequency

Training frequency falls into three categories:

High Frequency

  • 4 Days a Week
  • 3 On, 1 Off
  • 5 Days a Week
  • 6 Days a Week
  • 4 On, 1 Off
  • 2 On, 1 Off


Moderate Frequency

  • Monday/Wednesday/Friday
  • Every Other Day
  • Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday


Low Frequency

  • Every 3 Days
  • Two Days a Week

Newbies should start out with a low to moderate frequency training program. If you’ve never been physically active before, you’re better off starting with a low frequency program. Intermediate and advanced athletes can get results from low frequency programs, if they’re training intensity is extremely high. Bodybuilding programs like DoggCrapp and Heavy Duty are examples of low frequency, high intensity programs. However, most trainees do not understand high intensity training, and can potentially hurt themselves if they do not have a trainer or partner who understands this training style.

I personally have gone from a high frequency, moderate intensity program to a high frequency, high intensity program. The way this works is that because my workouts only last 10-20 minutes, I have close to 24 hours to recover from the workout. The goal is to get enough sleep and food for full recovery.

Most people abuse high intensity training in the following ways:

  • Their high intensity workouts are too long
  • They don’t eat enough
  • They don’t sleep enough
  • They blindly follow someone else’s program

Two Reason Why I Prefer High Frequency, High Intensity Programs

  • Training five days a week keeps me on schedule. It’s like a habit, and if I take a rest one day, I’m more likely to take a rest the second day. In fact, this happened to me very recently. I tried to follow a lower-frequency, three day per week program. What I would do is perform Monday’s workout, then take Tuesday off. Wednesday I would just make some excuse not to workout. Then I would do Wednesday’s workout on Thursday and take Friday off. Weekends I work at my father’s store for 12 hours each day, so there’s very little chance of getting in a workout. So three days a week suddenly becomes 2 days a week
  • Every time I’m in my garage or backyard working out, I feel like I’ve transformed into another person or teleported to a different planet. This is my time. I don’t have to do any chores, answer any emails, or listen to any one’s boring lectures on how the financial crisis is effecting them. This is my time to reflect, understand, and meditate on my life. Exercise is my release. If I’m angry, I crank out some pullups. If I’m sad, I crank out some pushups. And if I’m happy, then I’ll just crank out some nice jump roping tricks. I want to be in my “happy place” as often as possible (but not too often).

A Few Last Pointers

In the end, it’s your decision, but lets review some important points in determining the perfect training frequency for you:

  • Remember that to get results, you simply need to do more than you did before. This does not mean that you need to go from doing 10 Pushups per workout to 100 Pushups per workout within a week. Monitor your body, and make gradual changes over time.
  • You can follow a high intensity program at a high frequency or low frequency level. The three main things that will determine your success include sleep, food, and a customized program (do not blindly copy someone else’s program).
  • Over training is a real threat. You’ll only over train yourself if you fail to listen to your body. You should take rest days or even rest weeks if you feel extreme soreness, see extremely fast weight loss, and a decrease in exercise performance.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that training frequency is not as important as finding what works for you. Don’t spend so much time on the mechanics of program design that you forget to get results. I’ve pondered over a piece of paper for hours on end, only to find that the workout I wrote was either too impossible or too easy when I actually got working. You’ll discover your greatest lessons at the gym (or garage, or backyard, or bedroom, or [fill in the blank]).

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