Exercise frequency is defined as the number of training sessions you perform over a certain amount of time. For convenience purposes, training schedules usually are planned to repeat on a weekly basis. But, there’s no reason why a schedule can’t be designed around a monthly or even longer duration cycle. The proper frequency for you in a particular training program depends upon two major factors: your ability to recover from intense training and the way that you choose to divide your exercises. For example, assume you find, as many people do, that you progress most efficiently in strength and muscle size by working each major muscle group or movement once a week. There are myriad ways to divide that work. One option is to perform a whole body workout once per week. You could alternatively split upper and lower body exercises into two separate days. You could also do a “push, pull, squat” type of division in which you work all of your pushing movements on one day, your pulling movements on another, and your squatting or lower body movements on a third. There are others, but those three can be effective for a large percentage of the population.
If, on the other hand, you find that you recover faster than most (or are a rank beginner) and progress better working each muscle group or movement twice per week, then your split needs to be changed to fit your needs. Since you do NOT want to be in the gym six days per week, a “push, pull, squat” split working each twice a week is not going to work. However, you could reasonably perform an upper/lower split twice per week for four total training sessions. You could also choose to execute two full body workouts per week, instead. As you can see, your recovery ability has a say in the way that you divide your work, but you also need to keep your total number of work days per week under control. Personally, I find that two to four training sessions per week is best for most people, assuming that each session is intense and focused.
Now that you have your training frequency worked out, you need to decide on the volume of work that you will do during each session. Exercise volume can have a number of definitions, but the one that I find to be most useful for general application is: Volume = Repetitions x Sets x Exercises. What that means is that the total training volume is found by multiplying the approximate number of repetitions per set (you may miss a few in there when things get tough, but that’s ok) by the number of sets per exercise and multiplying that product by the total number of exercises you plan to perform. It’s worth noting that the first one or two warm-up sets of each exercise are not counted towards the total. Count only sets that make you work at least moderately hard.
For example, if I were doing a “push, pull, squat” split and I was planning my pushing day, I might set this schedule as such (not including warm-ups):
Barbell Bench Press 3 (sets) x 8 (reps)
Dumbbell Overhead Press 4x5
Rear Deltoid Raise 3x10
Triceps Pushdown 3x8
My total volume would be calculated by multiplying 7.75 (average number of reps) by 3.25 (average number of sets) by 4 (number of exercises). The total is just over 100. While this number means little on its own, over time you will compare volumes used in different programs and find a range that allows you to progress most efficiently. In fact, various areas of your body may require distinct amounts of volume due to variances in muscle fiber type distribution and other physiological factors.
Volume also is useful when assessed on a weekly and even monthly basis. My total volume per week will help me relate how I feel and how I am progressing overall to the amount of total work I perform. The stress put on the body when training intensely is not localized to the muscle group being worked; it is systemic. It affects immune function, energy levels, and other “whole body” metrics. Overtraining is a state, induced by putting out too much work for too long a time. It exhibits symptoms including a lack of training progress, disinterest in exercise, excessive fatigue, poor mood, and lowered resistance to disease. Avoidance of overtraining is essential to maintain consistent, long-term improvement. Keeping track of your total exercise volume over periods like weeks and months can help you adjust your training plan to prevent overtraining and maximize your progress.
As an example, if I completed a 16 week training plan and found that during the cycle I felt more and more run down and less interested in training as it went on, it is plausible that the volume and/or frequency was too high. When designing the next training schedule, I will calculate the total volume of work and make sure that it is less than that of the previous, non-optimal cycle. Through this process of analysis and revision, I will eventually find a balance of volume and frequency that allows me the best progress and prevents problems with overtraining.
Volume and frequency are integral parameters to any strength training program. Getting them right can be the key to optimizing your results. Too much volume or frequency will prevent the body from recovering properly from one session to the next and can negatively impact not only strength and muscle gains, but also immunity, mood, and overall wellbeing. Pay attention to your body and use that feedback to help pinpoint the amount of training that works best with your particular physiology!