Q: I’ve been involved in training since I was 14. I’m 40 now. I’ve never touched steroids, and for the most part have been committed. I’ve never had the look I wanted, however. I was either too lean and looked skinny, or I was bulky with something of a gut. I spent the past few years training at home, which was nice and kept me fit, but I recently decided to go back to the gym. I live on Long Island in New York and joined Bev Francis’ gym, where I used to train back in the ’90s. It’s as hardcore as a gym can get, but most of the guys I know there are on a different supplement program from mine.
I’m making another attempt to get the look I have always wanted, and I researched guys around my age who have been in the game for a while and look good. I found Clark Bartram and yourself. I read article that you wrote to go along with your IRON MAN cover [September ’11]. Congrats! So here’s my question. I have been following programs that I read that were created by guys who use chemicals. I’ve been following those programs since I was 14. I hit every bodypart twice a week, usually following a push/legs/pull routine. From what I read online from you and Clark, I gather that you guys only train the bodyparts once a week. Now I’m starting to think I may have been overtraining since forever. I’ve read many times that a muscle takes 48 hours to recover, but does that apply only to chemical muscles? My workouts have always been barbells and dumbbells and mostly compound movements. I tried the train-each-bodypart-once-a-week workout that you included in your article. I had great workouts—I keep them 45 to 60 minutes—but I felt the muscles needed to be stimulated again before the next workout for that muscle came around. I stuck with it though, hitting chest and tri’s on Sunday, legs and abs on Monday, back and bi’s on Wednesday, shoulders and traps on Friday and sprinting on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I’m in my second week of that routine now. I will be reading your book on natural bodybuilding. Thanks for giving me your take.
A: There are many theories on how often one should train each muscle group. Back when you and I started training, everyone was working each muscle group twice a week because that was what was accepted. Slowly, things began to change, and now everyone seems to be working each group only once per week.
How often you train your muscle groups depends on your recuperation and your training intensity. If you’re training a bodypart extremely heavy and intense, it may take up to five or six days to recover before you can train it again. I’ve had leg workouts that kept me sore for almost a week, so it would have been foolish to try to train those muscles again before they recovered.
Beginners to weight training will usually train each muscle group as often as three times per week. They can do that because the volume for each bodypart is so low, the muscle recuperates in as little as two days. Beginners will typically do only one exercise for each muscle group for three sets per exercise.
The more advanced you become with your training (adding exercises, sets and resistance), the more recuperation you will require. When I was in my early 20s, I made a lot of progress training each muscle group twice a week. I split my body over two workouts—chest, shoulders, triceps and calves in the first workout and upper legs, back and biceps in the second—and I trained four days a week.
Although I was training very heavy, using mostly compound exercises with barbells and dumbbells, I was still recuperating fast enough to be able to train each muscle twice a week. I believe my age had a lot to do with that, as I was still very young, with no joint problems or injuries.
Now, although my muscles may be able to handle two training sessions per week at my age, I don’t think my joints and connective tissues can. As I’ve gotten older, my tendons and ligaments seem to need more time to recuperate before I can subject them to heavy training again.
The only alternative is to train each muscle group twice a week by doing one heavy workout and one pumping workout. I have used that system several times, and it seems to work well.
For example, if I’m going to train my legs twice, I might train them heavy on Tuesday, doing heavy squats, heavy hack squats and heavy stiff-legged deadlifts along with some other movements. Four days later I would do another leg workout using much lighter weights and different exercises—plus supersets and higher reps. That way I’d still be working the muscles by getting a great pump, but I wouldn’t be stressing the joints or connective tissues as much due to the lighter resistance.
Here’s a sample program with these two different types of workouts:
Leg extensions 3 x 15, 12, 10
Squats 5 x 10, 8, 6, 6, 6
Hack squats 3 x 8, 6, 6
Leg curls 3 x 10, 8, 6
Stiff-legged deadlifts 3 x 8, 6, 6
Leg extensions 3 x 20, 15, 12
Leg presses 3 x 15
Sissy squats 3 x 10
Barbell lunges 3 x 12-15
Seated leg curls 3 x 12
Eccentric leg curls (bodyweight) 3 x 12
Another important point to remember is that being sore is not a good indication of muscle growth. I know we all like to get sore after a workout because it feels as if we accomplished something and had an effective training session, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to muscle growth.
If you haven’t exercised for several weeks or longer, you will definitely be sore after your first workout. If you’re doing a new exercise or one that you haven’t done in years, you will most likely be sore afterward because the muscles are not used to it. The soreness does not mean that you will be building more muscle, however.
As long as you can impose more stress on the muscles consistently, they will respond by growing. Even if the increases in resistance or repetitions are small, the muscles will still have to adapt to the new overload by increasing in size and/or strength.
The key is not to give the muscles too much or too little rest. You need to stimulate them with progressive resistance so they grow by adapting to the new load, but then they need to be stimulated again after recovering. The recovery period is individual, but as long as you are training them within seven days, your muscles should not regress.
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 for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to [email protected]. 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 radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM