Recent posts have looked at Training Volume and and the science behind Rep Ranges. This next article will look at how often we should be training to improve strength. Is it better to split the volume between 2 sessions per week or is it better to do the same amount of work but split is over 5 or 6 sessions?
Imagine we are doing 10 sets of pull ups per week. We have the choice between doing 2 sessions with 5 sets of pull ups, or we could do 5 sessions, with 2 sets of pull ups. Which is better, this article will explore this topic in what I hope will be a short an concise manor.
The Summary of the Research
There seems to be a very small advantage to higher frequency (splitting the volume up over many sessions) but this is small and there is limited research looked into splitting the sessions up in 4-6 sessions.
In real life doing more sessions per week also allows you to do more volume as it us less stressfull and higher volume also leads to greater development.
The research in this area has been very limited and when the real science is limited the bro-science starts to take over. Ask any ‘bro’ in the gym and I am sure they will be able to the best way to split up the volume. If they are a bit more educated they may even quote a study known as the “Norwegian Frequency Project” which showed that splitting your volume over 6 sessions per week is better than the same volume over 3 longer sessions per week. There is an issue with this study as it was not a real study and was never published or reviewed by other scientists. We simply don’t know if the study was well conducted and therefore if the results have meaning or not!
More recently some other studies have come out and we are a bit more educated about the best method. A meta analysis in early 2018 showed when volume is kept the same (eg everyone does 12 sets per week) there is no difference in strength gains whether you split this volume into 1 (all 12 sets) session, 2 sessions (6 sets per session), 3 sessions (4 sets per session) or 4 sessions (3 sets per session).
Since this study came came there have been a couple more studies conducted. Below is a table of a number of studies, I have color coded them to show studies that recommend higher frequency and ones that recommend lower frequency of training.
|Small advantage to high frequency|
|No difference between high and low frequency|
|Low frequency training is better|
Author and Year
Summary of Results
|1 vs 2 vs 3 vs 4||No difference in strength|
|Barcelos (2018)||2 vs 3 vs 5||No difference in strength or muscle size|
|Thomas (2016)||1 vs 3||No difference in strength (muscle size not measured)|
|Gomes (2018)||1 vs 5||No differences|
|Zaroni (2018)||1 vs 5||No difference in strength but muscle size increased with 5 sessions per week.|
|Yue (2018)||2 vs 4||Slight increase in muscle size for low frequency groups|
|Ochi (2018)||1 vs 3||No difference in estimated 1 rep max *or muscle size although there was a difference in isometric Strength (greater in 3 times a week)|
|Colquhoun (2018)||3 vs 6||no difference between groups|
|Arazi (2011)||1 vs 2 vs 3||No difference in strength but high frequency group improved muscle size|
|Schoenfeld (2015)||1 vs 3||Increase in muscle size for forearms but not in any other muscle. No difference found in max strength.|
|Candow (2007)||2 vs 3||No difference|
|Brigatto (2018)||1 vs 2||No difference|
|McLester (2000)||1 vs 3||Greater strength gains in the group that trained 3 times a week.|
On this list there are 4 studies that suggest higher frequency is best, one saying low is best and 8 saying that is does not make a difference. So how do we deal with all these studies? Well luckily someone who is much better at maths has done this for us. Greg Nuckols is one of the leading scientists in this area and he has done a meta analysis of all this data. By taking all the results from each one of these studies and pooling them we can compare the results of them all.
Although many of the studies did not find a significant difference this was often due to the fact that the studies did not have enough people in them, rather than anything else. By pooling the results we can overcome this issue. He found that there was a small advantage to higher frequency training (up to 4 sessions per week). It is worth noting that this is a small effect (d=0.35 for the science nerds).
There is not enough data at the moment to suggest that anything more than 4 times a week will provide added benefits (it might, it might not, we just dont know).
Like all studies, there are some limitations with Greg Nuckols work (which he is the first the point out). These include the issue that there where not that many studies looked at higher frequency training (4+) per week, the statistical power of the results was small and therefor not have much value or effect for real people, and the fact this many not transfer into real life as people use frequent gym sessions in order to do more sets (higher volume) which does lead to greater muscle growth and strength gains. It is also worth noting that Greg Nuckols included a study that compared training on consecutive days vs a group that had rest days (Hunter (1985) Another study did not match volume between groups (Barcelos (2018).
Further reading ….. an article looking into frequency of training for muscle size
How I am dealing with this information
As I find time to do workouts hard, I often struggle to get all the volume done. It currently works well for me to get my volume done in two dedicated sessions rather and trying to find time for 4 (abeit shorter) ones. Although is seems to would be very slightly better to split my sessions up further I am not sure if I will have the time to do this as well as all the other training I am doing. As the effect is small I am not too worried about only do two strength training sessions but I will keep this in mind when planning a future workouts or if I find I am not progressing any more.
Another thought is that I kayak up to 5 times a week I could consider these kayaking sessions as strength training too and therefore I am already splitting by frequency of training up a lot as it (7 sessions per week)
This is defiantly one area that could be explored more within my training and I will keep this in mind for the future.