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Workout Frequency for Muscle Size

Q: I’m from the U.K., and I bought your book Natural Bodybuilding after seeing it advertised in IRON MAN a few years ago. I’m 27 years old and have been training naturally since I was 17. Your book really is very good, and I’ve found it a massive help in my training. I am, however, a little confused about a few things. On pages 73 through 84 you talk about training programs and advise training two on/one off, three on/one off and even four on/one off. Am I reading that right? I thought that a natural bodybuilder couldn’t train more than three days on in a seven-day week. Also, I’m a little confused about diet. On page 86 you mention eating about 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for a natural, which sounds right. I’m wondering, though, about the grams of carb per pound a person should eat, especially as I’m an endomorph. I tried a low-carbohydrate diet with my training, but all that happened was I shrunk all over—including my muscle—and kept the same degree of bodyfat. I’d really appreciate some help.

A: Thank you for purchasing my book, and I’m glad it helped you out with your training. When it comes to workout frequency, it really depends on your training experience and how well you recuperate.

Someone who begins training doesn’t need to do a lot to get results. The muscles aren’t used to being trained, so doing even three sets of one exercise for each muscle group will be enough to get them to grow. I always recommend that beginners with no experience in weight training start out training the whole body in one workout.

A beginner should use only one exercise for each muscle group and do three sets for each exercise. You’d perform about 10 to 12 exercises in each workout, training the whole body. The emphasis would be on gradually increasing strength and, eventually, muscle size.

After three to six months on the beginner routine, you can advance to the intermediate workout, which adds more exercises for each muscle group in order to train it more thoroughly. For example, instead of doing only the bench press for chest, you’d do both the bench press and the incline press, doubling the amount of work you do for that muscle group. Because you’re doing that for every bodypart, it becomes impossible to train your whole body in one workout.

That’s where the split routine comes into play. By training only half of your muscles in one workout and then the other half in another workout, you can do more exercises and more sets for each bodypart without running out of energy or overtraining.

When you add more exercises and sets for a muscle group, increasing the workload for that group, you have to rest it longer before you can train it again. So, instead of training each muscle every other day—as when you trained three days a week—you rest it for two to three days before you train it again.

For example, you could train your chest, back, shoulders and abs on Monday and Thursday and your thighs, calves, triceps and biceps on Tuesday and Friday. Although you’re training each muscle group with more sets, you’re also training it less frequently—twice a week instead of three times.

If you continue to progress by training heavier and increasing your muscle size and strength, you’ll probably want to split your workout again, dividing the whole body over three or even four sessions. That will enable you to do more exercises for each muscle group because you’re training only one or two per workout.

By splitting the muscle groups into three or four workouts, you train each muscle less frequently. For example, if you split your muscle groups into three different workouts, you’d train each individual muscle once every four days. For example:

Day 1: Chest, triceps, biceps

Day 2: Abs, legs

Day 3: Shoulders, back, calves

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Cycle begins again

If you split the bodyparts over four days, you get even more rest for each individual muscle group. With that routine, you’d be training each muscle group once every five days. For example:

Day 1: Chest, triceps, calves

Day 2: Abs, legs

Day 3: Shoulders, calves

Day 4: Back, biceps

Day 5: Rest

Day 6: Cycle begins again

I like to take a complete day off from training after two days of heavy workouts in a row. Using the above routine as an example, I would take a day off from training on day 3 and continue with the next two workouts on days 4 and 5 followed by another day off on day 6. That would give me six days of rest before I trained each muscle group directly again.

Another factor to consider when designing a training program is your age. As you get older, the body cannot recuperate as quickly as it did when you were younger. The muscles, tendons and joints need more time to recuperate, particularly the connective tissues like the ligaments and tendons. That’s especially true if you’ve been training for a long time.

So, to answer your question, a natural bodybuilder can definitely train more than three days a week and still make progress. I believe, however,  that a natural bodybuilder should not train more than two to three days in a row before taking a day off—and natural bodybuilders should not work out more than four or five days a week.

In regard to the amount of carbohydrate you should eat, that’s a very individual matter. Some people are more insulin sensitive than others and can’t take in too many carbs without adding fat. Your age and metabolism also play a big role in how many carbs you should be taking in.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I followed a high-carbohydrate diet—50 percent of my total calorie intake. When I was bulking up, I would take in as many as 700 grams of carbohydrates a day and then go down to 350 when I was dieting for a competition. The high count of complex carbs I was eating would help me put on mass and fuel my heavy workouts.

As I got older—late 30s and into my 40s—I found that my metabolism had changed, and I couldn’t eat as many carbohydrates. I had to drastically reduce my carb count in order to get lean. In fact, I missed my peak when preparing for some competitions for two years in a row because I was still eating the same number of carbs that I ate when I was younger. It was only when I dropped carbohydrates to 25 to 30 percent of my total calories that I reclaimed the definition and muscularity I needed to compete.

You mentioned that you lost muscle when you reduced your carbs. That’s common among natural bodybuilders who try the very-low- or no-carb diet. Muscle cells contain glycogen from carbohydrates, and carbs are the primary energy source for anaerobic exercise; that is, weight training. If you cut your carbs too much for too long, you’re quite likely to sacrifice muscle tissue at some point.

One popular method of dieting now is the carb-cycling technique. It lets you keep carbohydrates in your diet for their benefits—glycogen storage, energy for training and recuperation—but also reduce your bodyfat.

When you cycle carb, you alternate the amount of carbohydrate you take in each day. Instead of going on very low carbs or high carbs every day, you cycle them to adjust for energy and recuperation needs. For example, you could eat one gram of carb for each pound of bodyweight on training days and go down to .75 gram per pound of bodyweight on rest days. That would give a 200-pound bodybuilder 200 grams of carb on training days and 150 grams on nontraining days.

I’ve found that if I go low carb for two to three days and then increase the count the next day, my metabolism seems to be stimulated on the higher-carb day. I tend to lose weight and inches after the increased carb intake. If I go low all the time, my metabolism tends to shut down, and I either hit a plateau or make very slow progress. Give the carb-cycling technique a try the next time you’re looking to lose fat.

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, or send questions or comments to [email protected] 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, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at

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