You want to build the greatest amount of muscle in the shortest time possible. What's the game plan?
One of the most common approaches is to split the body into different muscle groups and bomb each target into submission on a certain day -- chest on Mondays, back on Tuesdays, and so on.
Everything gets hit once a week with a massive assault of exercises, sets and reps, followed by tons of rest and recovery.
While some people get decent results with this type of routine, there are better options available.
In fact, a number of studies have shown working a muscle more frequently increases the rate of muscle growth.
In one trial, subjects who trained a muscle three times a week built muscle more quickly than the ones training it once a week.
When a team of scientists compared studies that investigated training muscle groups once, twice or three times a week, they concluded that “the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week” to maximize growth.
Why is hitting a muscle group twice a week (or more) a better way to build muscle than hitting it just once a week?
Protein synthesis – a key driving force behind muscle growth – is raised for a day or two after you train a muscle.
But then the building ends and it returns to normal.
And simply creating more muscle damage (for example, doing a 3 hour workout vs. a 1 hour workout) doesn’t appear to make the rise in protein synthesis last any longer.
The best way to get more protein synthesis to occur in a muscle is to spike it again as soon as it falls back to baseline -- every couple days.
Elevating a muscle's protein synthesis just once per week (for example, training chest on Monday only) leaves a lot of potential progress on the table.
Also, the rise in protein synthesis after training peaks earlier and returns to normal more quickly in experienced lifters.
That means that in order to continue making progress, advanced lifters will need to train more frequently than beginners.
When you train a muscle group directly only once per week, the muscles might spend a few days “growing” after the workout. But if you leave an entire week between training each muscle group, you’re missing several additional opportunities to stimulate growth.
To gain muscle as fast as humanly possible, most people should structure their workouts to hit each muscle group 2-3 times a week.
If you’ve got a few years of training under your belt, or you want to focus on certain muscles to make them grow faster, hitting them up to four times a week can be very effective.
Here are a few ideas of how to design your workouts for a hypothetical week to maximize muscle-building. No matter your schedule, there's a plan in here you can do.
The first option is to train your whole body twice a week (great for people who are insanely busy -- no excuses!).
Monday: Whole Body
Thursday: Whole Body
Two workouts a week might not sound like much. But, as long as your program is set up right, you can still make decent progress lifting weights twice a week.
In fact, when Canadian researchers compared the same amount of training divided across two or three weekly workouts, gains in muscle size and strength were virtually identical with both routines.
Another option is to train your whole body three times a week on alternate days.
Monday: Whole Body
Wednesday: Whole Body
Friday: Whole Body
Pretty straight forward.
If you’re able to train 4-5 times a week, the number of effective routines on the menu becomes much larger. Training more often comes with the added benefit of more frequently elevating your metabolism.
Higher training frequency can help lower body fat and improve your hormone profiles, giving you an extra edge. That means extra benefits, like lowering hormones associated with fat-gain like estrogen, increasing testosterone, and improving the way your body uses insulin and sugars.
Training more often means that you can divide your body into two or even three separate compartments, and still hit each muscle group twice a week or more.
Here’s an example for training four days a week using an upper/lower split.
You hit the upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, then take Wednesday off. Thursday is upper body, Friday is lower body and you have the weekend off. Each muscle group is trained twice a week.
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
Here’s another way of getting in 4-5 workouts a day week: The push/pull/legs split.
You train either four or five days a week, doing the pushing movements (chest, shoulders, and triceps) on Monday and the pulling movements (back and biceps) on Tuesday.
Then you take a day off before training legs on Thursday, followed by another day off on Friday. On Saturday you go back to the beginning and do the push workout again.
Day 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2: Back, Biceps
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Legs
Day 5: Off
So you train for two days, take a day off, followed by one day of training, followed by another day off. Each muscle group is trained every fifth day.
*Because you don’t train on the same days each week, you’ll need a very flexible schedule to pull this one off.
You can also take the upper/lower split and use it to work each muscle group three times over a 7-day period. This way, you train for two days followed by one day off, and just keep repeating the process.
Day 1: Lower Body
Day 2: Upper Body
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Lower Body
Day 5: Upper Body
Day 6: Off
The higher frequency of training works well if you have the capacity to recover from the stresses of training five days a week for two weeks out of every three. Not everyone can do it, so approach with caution.
It’s often said that beginners should avoid split routines and stick with full-body workouts that involve working each muscle group three times per week.
But as long as their training program and diet are set up correctly, beginners can still make good progress on split routines that involve training 4-5 days per week.
Increasing training frequency to at least two workouts per muscle group, per week, will pay off massively. Consider the following:
-- In one Baylor University study, a group of beginners gained 12 pounds of muscle in just 10 weeks using a 4-day split routine.
-- A 12-week trial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this time using untrained beginners on a 5-day split routine, achieved average gains of almost nine pounds of muscle with no additional fat.
-- In much the same way that beginners can make impressive gains using a split routine, anyone who has moved past the beginner stages of training can still add a substantial amount of size by working their whole body three times a week.
-- University of Alabama researchers, for example, found that a group of men who’d been lifting weights for several years gained almost 10 pounds of muscle on a full-body routine performed three days per week for three months.