How Often To Train: Getting Faster Results Without Overtraining

Trying to figure out an optimal training schedule for your goals can be a bit of a challenge, and there’s no shortage of dubious advice out there about how often to train. It’s usually one-size-fits-all advice, and the “one-size” is always the author’s. But unless you’re his clone, your body is likely to need a different stress load to get the same results.

In a previous article on the SAID principle, we discussed how specific your body’s reactions are to the type and the intensity of the training that you do, and how different tissues have their own recovery schedules. As a quick reminder:

  • Connective tissue and bone takes longer than muscle
  • Larger masses take longer than smaller masses
  • Your central nervous system takes longer than peripheral nerves
  • Significant trauma takes far longer than micro-trauma
  • Metabolic changes take the least time to recover, but a longer time to improve

So what do you do? If you wait until everything has recovered, something is going to detrain. If only wait until the first thing has recovered, something else is going to over-train. In other words, it’s basically impossible to design a training regimen in which everything perfectly recovers and nothing detrains from one training session to the next.

[pullbox]It’s basically impossible to design a training regimen in which everything perfectly recovers and nothing detrains from one training session to the next.[/pullbox]

But don’t let that discourage you! There’s a simple tactic that Soviet trainers developed in their golden age of athletic performance that can level the playing field for you.

Here’s how to do it in a nutshell: train according to the earliest indicators of recovery—when your muscles and peripheral nerves are able to perform again–and then give your slower tissues their own dedicated downtime at a later date.

This is the most efficient way to make steady progress. So let’s take a look at how quickly your earliest indicators of recovery start to show up. Have a look at this chart:
NOTE: Each of those bars represents an 8 hour period, and the height of the bars demonstrates the percentage of increased protein synthesis.

This chart represents how quickly your body’s short term responses to muscle micro-trauma are. After a bout of effective training, protein synthesis levels increase steadily in order to repair and super-compensate, and at their peak, they are up over 100%. But then they drop fairly rapidly down to zero after that.
Even though the remodeling process can and will continue for many days after this, the point is that, unless you’ve totally beat the hell out of them, your muscles will be ready for another intense bout in as little as 48-72 hours.[1],[2]

 NOTE: if you are doing heavy impact training, like hitting heavy bags or iron palm, then your recovery involves much more stress to connective tissue and bone, not just muscle and peripheral nerves, and your recovery window may be longer. This chart only displays muscle tissue recovery, which usually has the fastest turn around.


Tune Your Volume and Intensity to Match Your Frequency

You want to ‘tune’ your workout volume and intensity to a level where your physical recovery from soreness matches this window. Otherwise you’re just slowing yourself down.

It doesn’t matter if you’re still sore after this point. As we discussed in our article on DOMS, soreness is the result of inflammation, and is not directly associated with elevated muscle protein synthesis. Even though the same stimulus triggered each process, they are separate processes that use separate resources running on separate schedules.

So many people miss this point! They get so excited about how sore they are, thinking that it’s guaranteed to leave them with huge benefits once they get over it. But again, how excited would you be about a massive sunburn? That, too, is an inflammatory response that has nothing to do with the melanin stimulation that leads to a sun tan.

You tune your soreness level by dialing in the right among of volume and intensity for your current level of fitness. The details of choosing the right degree of volume, intensity, and frequency are too much to cover in this article, and depend greatly on both your goals and your current fitness level.

But what is universally true is that they all influence each other, and you can’t maximize all of them at the same time. The harder you work, the shorter you can do it. The more you exhaust yourself, the more time you need between bouts. This is mostly common sense.

Fortunately, science has helped us narrow down a sweet spot: A study at the University of Alabama specifically explored the difference between training 3x a week versus 1x a week, they found that, over time, performance was 40% greater in the group that trained 3x a week. [3] They sent three adaptation signals per week instead of one.

Now think about this from a standpoint of an entire year:
[et_table class=”calltable” th=true]
“Training Frequency”, “# Adaptive Triggers per Year”
“1x a month”,”12″
“1x every 10 days”,”36″
“1x a week”,”52″
“3x every two weeks”,”78″
“2x a week”,”104″
“3x a week”,”156″
“4x a week”,”208″
“5x a week”,”260″
How many times do you want to improve this year? 12, 50, or 150?


“What if I Want to Train Everyday?”

If your goal is to improve certain core athletic abilities, such as strength or endurance, you have to be recovered enough to beat your previous record to gain an adaptive advantage from it. Otherwise you’re just maintaining.

If your goal is just to rehearse a skill, you’re confusing practice with training. Don’t do that. You can practice your skills every day, for hours a day, as long as you do it in such a way that doesn’t create massive amounts of systemic fatigue or tissue damage.

The more often you train, the more you run the risk of overtraining one or more of your systems. So the more you increase the frequency of your training, the sooner you’ll need some time off, because you’ll more quickly expend something called your current adaptive reserves[4].

Think of your adaptive reserves as simply your body’s collective ability to handle stress in all systems. There comes a point in your long term training when markers of fatigue overtake your current fitness level, and one of two things happens: either you reach a performance plateau, or you get injured.

What’s more, your muscle tissue also develops a new kind of resistance to overload called the repeated bout effect[5]: it begins to thicken the layers of connective tissue that encapsulate each fiber. As these tissues thicken, it becomes harder and harder to drive home the stimulus that triggers further adaptations.

This creates a dangerous, no-win scenario: On the one hand, the cumulative stress of slower adapting systems makes you more susceptible to injury and less capable of performing at your peak, and the thickening of the sheaths around your muscle fibers requires an even greater degree of stress in order to get any benefit. In this state, your body is really working against itself.

When you get here, it’s time for a break. But not just any break. In part II, I cover how long you’ll need to take off, and what to do to maximize the benefit you get while renewing.




[1] Nosaka K, Clarkson P.M. Muscle damage following repeated bouts of high force eccentric exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exrc., 27(9):1263-1269,1995
[2] Chen, T. C.; Hsieh, S. S. FACSM, “The effects of a seven-day repeated eccentric training on recovery from muscle damage.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 31(5) Supplement:S71, May 1999.
[3] McLester JR., Bishop P., & Guilliams M. Comparison of 1 and 3 day per week of equal volume resistance training in experienced subjects. Med. Sci. Sports Exrc. 31(5 Supp) pp.S117 1999
[4] Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. 1995. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.
[5] Lavender AP, Nosaka K. A light load eccentric exercise confers protection against a subsequent bout of more demanding eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2008 Jun;11(3):291-8. Epub 2007 Aug 17.

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