When it comes to optimal training frequency for strength, a few important considerations have to be made.
The 'Stress-Recovery-Adaptation' model by endocrinologist Hans Seyle published in “Nature” in 1936 remains the cornerstone for setting up a progressive strength training program.
The focus is on PROGRESSIVE. That means: session frequency, exercises, as well as rest and recovery have to be selected in a way that allows for the lifter to make consistent progress over time.
Diving deeper into Seyle’s model, a stressor (i.e. training) is applied – the body recovers from the stressor (e.g. better recruitment of muscle fibers) – and eventually, it adapts to a higher level (i.e. greater strength).
Below I would like to describe three principles which the 3x/week training approach fulfills in the best, most productive way – eventually given us best results on our strength journey.
PRINCIPLE OF OPTIMAL LOAD/RECOVERY
During a strength training session, muscle tissue is being “destroyed”. Not literally, but damage is created through the frequent performance of muscular contractions, especially when they are of eccentric nature. This is a trigger for muscle protein synthesis and a host of other physiological mechanisms to take place in order to allow the lifter to perform at a higher level next time (s)he trains.
Let’s take an example: Performing 3 sets of 5 in the back squat on a Monday will tax the system of the lower body as well as back musculature: the nervous system has to supply “information” from the brain to the body to perform forceful contractions. Those forceful contractions lead to disruption in muscle cell metabolism (and as outlined above, damage is created). Furthermore, the body has to coordinate its muscular actions between different body parts to perform the squat with proficient technique. This requires a hell of a lot of energy on a cognitive level and thus depletes the nervous system.
All of the above mechanisms will take a minimum of 72h to recover before they can be performed again in a subsequent session. Practically, this means that squatting heavy on a Monday and Wednesday doesn’t work. The time period for the body to recover is too short (and this applies to ALL lifts!). The earliest a heavy workout of the same exercise can and should be performed after a Monday session is Thursday or Friday. This ensures that through diet and sleep interventions, the body has enough time to lay down more “material” and resources to be ready for the next session.
PRINCIPLE OF OPTIMAL TRAINING FREQUENCY
Each of the major barbell lifts has to be performed a certain number of times within a week in order for the lifter to make steady progress. Apart from the deadlift – which is an anomaly and should only be done once a week – every lift should be performed twice per week. In my experience, performing every lift 2x/week is the optimal training frequency for making rapid and consistent progress.
Below is a table which displays this principle in which every lift is performed 2x/week or 3x within ten days:
Bench press: Monday/Friday
Power cleans: Wednesday/Monday
As we can see in the table, the bench press and press are alternated from workout to workout, whereas everything else stays the same from week to week.
PRINCIPLE OF OPTIMAL TIMING OF A STIMULUS
The 'Stress-Recovery-Adaptation' model tells us that once the body has recovered from a bout of training, the next stimulus has to be applied at the appropriate time in order to build on the previous session. Bench pressing on Monday and Saturday leaves too much time between the sessions in order for the body to be in an optimal state for the next training load again. In other words: the body will have recovered from Monday’s bench press bout by Thursday or Friday – which means that either of those days is the “perfect” day to apply a new stimulus that builds and therefore progresses on the previous one.
Bench pressing on Saturday after a workout on Monday has the body going back to its “initial” state of performance. That means: adding 2.5kg to the bar might well not be possible that day as the body has “lost” its optimal state of adaptation to build on the Monday workout. This doesn’t mean that strength built earlier is lost. It just means that the next stimulus (Saturday) hasn’t happened at the PEAK OF ADAPTATION for the next step of progress to be made. Even more so, if the new training stimulus is applied after only a week’s time (say benching Monday/Monday), the best we can hope for is maintenance of strength from the previous workout - if at all. The body will feel a bit “lax” and definitely not strong enough to build on the previous session.
Applying the next training stimulus at the optimal time is absolutely crucial for making consistent progress. It will take a bit of trial and error, but from my experience, a Monday/Friday, Tuesday/Saturday, or Wednesday/Sunday (i.e. three full days between the training days) has proven to be the “golden solution” for getting stronger rapidly.
Needless to say: this approach works very well for novices - that is, for those who are not yet adapted to a level where adding weight to the bar from workout to workout is not possible anymore.
In other words: for about 95% of the population – which is likely YOU.