For a certain kind of gym-goer, pain is a badge of pride. The inability to climb stairs for a week after a frenzied squats session incites kudos rather than concern. It hurts because it works, and the longer the soreness lasts, the thinking goes, the more effective the workout must have been.
But when you examine the science behind training frequency it soon becomes clear that destroying each muscle group once a week is rarely the best strategy. Some people will achieve decent results with this type of routine. But they’re in the minority.
After training a muscle, protein synthesis is raised for anywhere between 36-48 hours. Then it drops back to normal. And if you’ve been lifting for many years, the rise is over a lot more quickly.
Assaulting your muscles with multiple exercises and all the forced reps and drop sets you can muster will, of course, create more muscle damage and extend your recovery time. But it won’t make the post-training rise in protein synthesis last any longer. In short, there’s a limit to the amount of stimulation your muscles are capable of responding to in any given workout, and hitting a muscle group just once a week means missing out on additional opportunities to trigger growth.
What the research says
Researchers at the University of Alabama looked at the effect of two different training frequencies in guys with several years of lifting experience. Both routines involved three sets of nine different exercises working the whole body. The only difference was in how frequently each muscle group was trained.
The 3-day group performed one set of each exercise three times a week. The 1-day group performed three sets of each exercise once per week.
Even though the total weekly training volume was the same, it was the guys training each muscle group three times a week who saw the greatest gains in both size and strength.
Follow-up research on a group of elite Norwegian powerlifters also showed better results with more frequent training. Subjects taking part in the study – 13 men and 3 women – were assigned to one of two groups. They all followed the exact same workout routine, but with one important difference. Group one trained three times each week. Group two did the same volume of work, but over six weekly sessions. Study subjects training three times a week simply performed twice as many sets in each workout.
After 15 weeks, it was the 6-day group who made the fastest progress. On average, strength gains in the big three moves – the bench press, deadlift and squat – were roughly twice as great as those seen in the 3-day group.
Naturally, there’s no universally correct training frequency that works equally well for all people all of the time. But the vast majority of research, as well as the real-world experience of drug-free bodybuilders and strength athletes, shows that you’ll get better results training a muscle group more often than once per week.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health UK