Q: Thanks for your willingness to give advice. I’m a natural bodybuilder myself. When I was 19, I was 5’7” at 143 pounds and won the contest I entered back then. I’m now 44, still 5’7” and weigh 180 pounds at about 12 percent bodyfat. In the old days I trained three days on/one day off. Today I find it difficult to get all the bodyparts trained in three days. I’ve been grappling with what split to use. I want to train as a bodybuilder and nothing less. Lee Haney says he can’t understand how guys today get so huge training each bodypart once per week—four times a month. I agree. It sounds silly to me. I’d love to train a bodypart once a week, but I don’t make gains on that. I was considering an eight on/one off schedule. What do you think?
Day 1: Chest, biceps, abs
Day 2: Back, traps, calves
Day 3: Shoulders, triceps, forearms
Day 4: Quads, hams
Days 5-8: Repeat cycle
Day 9: Off
A: How often you train really depends on how fast you recuperate. If you can recover from a training session in only a couple of days, it would be possible to train that same muscle again when it’s fully recuperated.
There is more to consider than just muscle recuperation, however, when deciding how often to train a muscle group. What is training’s effect on the tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues? What about the strain on the overall nervous system that heavy, intense training brings about.
A younger person—teens and 20s—will be able to train much more frequently than someone who’s been doing it for a long time or who is older, say, over 40. The body recuperates much faster when you’re younger. Plus, if you don’t have decades of wear and tear on your joints and tendons, you won’t have to take those valuable connective tissues into account when you decide how often to train.
The quote “No man is an island” is relevant when it comes to training frequency. Although you may be able to design a workout program without overtraining or overlapping muscle groups, many of those groups are indirectly related to one another. So training on too many consecutive days may lead to chronic overtraining.
You work both the deltoids and the chest on chest exercises—bench presses, incline presses, dips and flyes. If you were to train chest one day and shoulders two days later, as in your suggested split, you could eventually overtrain your shoulders because of the frequent overuse of the front delts in those workouts.
Other areas of the body may be indirectly worked as well. For example, the lower-back muscles are indirectly involved in exercises for your back, quadriceps and hamstrings. Barbell rows, T-bar rows, seated cable rows, squats and stiff-legged deadlifts all involve the lower-back muscles. If you don’t take the lower back into account when spacing out your leg and back workouts, you may end up overtraining or straining your lower-back muscles.
Beginners will be able to train each muscle group much more frequently than advanced trainees. That’s because beginners will be able to do only a small amount of work for each muscle group without overtraining, typically three sets for each muscle group. With that small volume, you can train each muscle every other day for an average of three times per week.
As trainees become accustomed to the work and the muscles can handle more stress, they add more volume and intensity by increasing the number of exercises performed for each muscle group as well as the resistance lifted. The increases in volume and intensity necessitate more rest and recuperation time for the muscles.
The harder you train a muscle, the more rest it needs. We’ve all experienced workouts that left us feeling sore for several days. If I have a particularly hard workout, it’s not uncommon to be sore for almost a week. It would be impossible to train a muscle group several times in one week after a workout like that.
When I began training as a teenager, I was working out six days a week, hitting each muscle group two or even three times a week. I gained 20 pounds of muscle training like that my first year. It wasn’t because I was genetically gifted. It was just my body’s response to the stress of weight training. Plus, I was only 14 and could recover very quickly.
When I cut back my training to only four days a week, hitting each muscle group twice per week, I found I was able to train much heavier, and I increased my muscle size even more. I was training chest, shoulders, triceps and calves one workout and legs, back, biceps and forearms the next, focusing on the basic exercises for only six to eight reps per set.
Eventually, I decided to split up my workouts over three days instead of two. It was getting increasingly more difficult to train two major muscle groups like the legs and back in the same workout. Instead of training six days in a row in order to hit each muscle group twice a week, I added a rest day after I’d trained my whole body.
That routine had me working out three days on/one day off. I was training my chest, triceps and biceps on the first day, legs and abs the second day and shoulders and back the last day. I was now training each muscle group every five days, or twice every 10 days.
The reason I added a rest day after three days of training is that those complete days off from training are necessary for growth. Even though I was working different bodyparts on different days, I was still stressing my body as a whole every time I worked out. Six days in a row would have been too much.
That’s a mistake many bodybuilders make. They’re careful not to overtrain individual muscle groups by rotating the workouts, but they don’t take into account the whole body. The nervous system needs a complete day of rest every couple of days in order to recuperate from intense weight training. If you’ve ever done a very heavy squat or deadlift workout, you know how wiped out your whole body feels the next day.
If you’re training as hard as you can, your body should be pretty tired after two or three consecutive days in the gym. Keeping that up when you need a day of rest is counterproductive.
If you’re doing less intense workouts and basically just pumping the muscles up, though, you could train more days in a row before taking a day of rest. The more stress you impose on your body, the more rest you need. Lighter and less intense workouts won’t tear down the body as much as high-intensity workouts pushed to the limit.
As I mentioned above, age definitely plays a role in how often you can train and how much rest you need. Although your muscles may recover after a few days of rest, the other connective tissues may need a full week before they can be trained again.
One option is to do two workouts a week for each muscle group but employ different workout strategies at each session. You can train a muscle group heavy one day and then do a lighter, pumping workout for the same muscle group several days later.
Give the following schedule a try if you feel your muscles need more stimulation than just once every seven days. Remember, however, that more is not always better. You might make more gains by training less instead of more often.
Monday: Chest, triceps (heavy), shoulders (light)
Tuesday: Legs (heavy)
Wednesday: Back, biceps (light)
Friday: Shoulders (heavy), chest, triceps (light)
Saturday: Legs (light)
Sunday: Back, biceps (heavy)
Tuesday: Cycle begins again
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM