“What are you working today?” This is a question commonly heard in the gym. A familiar answer is usually formatted with a single muscle group as that day’s priority; an answer like, “Monday is shoulders.” What makes the situation even worse is when it involves a new trainee – soaking wet at 150 pounds of muscular fortitude! Unfortunately, many follow the overused mantras that tie muscle groups down to certain days of the week. This structure has many flaws in it. It is the most abused pattern employed by entry-level bodybuilders. By discovering an optimally progressive training frequency, an athlete can assure every workout is a step in the right direction – maximizing time and results.
These widespread training protocols are projected to the masses by many glorified magazine publications. The truth is: many magazines work better at selling advertising space than they do at producing helpful content. The frequently published magic-solution workouts, “of the pros,” tend to mislead readers. The real irony occurs as athletes search for in-depth answers about productive training routines; many times the best practice is KISS; keep it simple, stupid.
When initially starting an active lifestyle of resistance training, no healthy individual is going to put significant stress on their system; as compared to a powerlifter going for brutal increases in limit strength or a highly developed bodybuilder using advanced principles to really fatigue a muscle group. This can be seen by measuring metabolic waste, some of which can be seen through elevated liver enzymes.
Lifestyle adjustments are an external requirement for a beginner trainee as well. They have to learn to make changes in their daily routine to better focus on fitness goals; so it begins to resemble the importance of basic personal hygiene.
New athletes benefit from simply becoming active. In the beginning, loads are light and less rest is needed between workouts. Full body training splits can often be the most productive. On that note, it is important to remember this is very individual and dependent on a person’s ability to recover from a given training intensity.
Through athletic advancement, a pivotal adaptation is learning to tolerate and handle lactate build up, but putting up with the burn is more motivational than physical. This initial change is amplified by properly developing a strong central nervous system connection – a solid mind-muscle relationship – for fluid weighted movements. People are shaky in the beginning because of two main reasons: undeveloped joints and lack of how to actually recruit a muscle group properly.
As a trainee gets bigger, the stress put the body becomes more pronounced. Lifting 315 pounds for 10 repetitions puts more stress on the entire system than 135 for 10. Peter Sisco and John Little wrote a great phrase in their book, Power Factor Training: “every workout is a kidney workout.” Your muscles grow but internal organs and many other variables associated with filtering metabolic wastes and handling this stress do not make large changes.
Find the correct frequency by using training days, not days of the calendar week. Setting a specific day of the week aside for one or two muscle groups can limit potential progress of a routine. Instead of thinking in terms of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; think of day one, day two and day three. None of these training days have to fall on any particular day of the week. What happens if you become ill? What if sleep patterns have been off balance or proper rest is otherwise retarded? Do you skip that day? A trainee working independent of a calendar can simply add required rest days until they are recovered or otherwise more prepared to get back to 100 percent effort. At that point, the individual can simply pick up with the next training day – without skipping or neglecting anything.
Furthermore, not all muscle groups are created equal. They each have a different ratio of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. Each has a unique ability to recover and adapt to a training stimulus. Typically the largest muscle groups, like glutes and quadriceps, will require the most rest. Smaller groups, like calves, abs or shoulders, will tend to recover very fast. So why should an advanced trainee use the same amount of recovery days with all muscular systems? They shouldn’t. One approach is to give a muscle a variable amount of recovery days, dependent on how hard it was trained and it’s physiological capability.
An athlete should also monitor how they feel during a workout – a third party, especially a training partner, can sometimes better point out obvious overtraining symptoms that the athlete may be ignoring. These symptoms may need to be treated with further rest days before they become too severe or lead to injury.
Keep in mind, new trainees can over-reach easily by working above their experience level, by sticking with training programs that their personal genetics can’t handle progressively. How many people do you see begin a routine only to drop it and never come back? Or they may come back but not for several months later. They may have consistently overtrained themselves every time they entered the gym; never really getting anywhere. Would you return to work if your employer stopped paying you?
Factors that influence recovery from training
- Training volume and intensity
- Muscle group architecture (size and fiber composition)
- Current level of conditioning
- Dietary changes
- Use of ergogenics (pharmaceutical, nutritional, mechanical, motivational)
- Quality rest and relaxation
- Genetic predispositions (metabolism, body type)
To determine suitable training frequency, the supercompensation curve must be identified. Bodybuilding success can occur through properly riding a streak of waves that allow a consistent ability to re-train progressively. The following curve is based on the research and diagrams of Tudor Bompa in his book Perdioization.
Stage I, Stimulus then fatigue: You go to the gym and train to total failure. This creates a stimulus followed by a fatigue effect, temporarily dropping your performance ability. If you quickly re-train them the same way, you would feel sluggish, motivation would be low. The muscle itself would not have recovered its energy stores, let alone able to rebuild itself to become stronger.
Stage II, Compensation: At this point, your body begins to repair and return to normal homeostasis. It begins recovery. If you lift hard and heavy everyday with full intensity but not enough rest, you can be stuck at this stage indefinitely with no progress.
Stage III, Overcompensation: This is where the magic happens. The system will overcompensate to allow more ATP/CP energy stores and increased performance ability. Hitting the highest peak of this supercompensation before re-training is the ultimate goal.
Stage IV, Involution followed by a return to homeostasis: If you decide to take too much time off and neglect sending your system the stimulus it needs to retain gains, it will return to normal levels and detraining begins.
Everyone’s curve is different, depending on ability to recover, diet, sleep, so forth. But when all those variables are consistent, finding the point where a curve peaks can place an athlete on track for continuous gains and exploitation of genetic potential. Aerobic, or cardiovascular training, generally has a shorter curve (requiring less rest) then anerobic strength or hypertrophy training.
The use of pharmacological ergogenics, especially anabolic-androgenic steroids, will affect the training curve. Concurrent AAS use can lead to increased overcompensation. The curve can shorten at stages I and II with an increased peak at stage III, resulting in a longer return to normal homeostasis, or stage IV. A lot of this would depend on the dose and duration, as well as the actual compound(s) used. Additionally, inadequate food intake can stunt any period of growth – even puberty-induced. Everyone must intake an adequate amount of calories for growth or bulking cycles; otherwise, an athlete can be jacked to the gills and it won’t produce much in muscular growth.
The bottom line is to focus on training at the top portion of the supercompensation curve. If a training program has stalled, an individual may either be training incorrectly or they simply outgrew a previous training split and are no longer training at their full potential.