Most of today's popular bodybuilding magazines periodically offer their readers what is touted as the latest "revolution" in
training. Typically, the revolution is tied to new exercise machines or an extensive line of expensive supplements. In some
cases the program itself may be new, but it requires lengthy or multiple daily workouts. In other words, most revolutions in
training are beyond the financial or time restrictions of all but a handful of elite athletes.
That's not the case with the "revolutionary" training approach discussed in this features fitFLEX article. This revolution
is exquisitely simple - you train less frequently; that is, you train each bodypart about once per week.
Bodybuilders and other athletes are often excellent empiricists. They keep detailed training records, they study how they
respond to different training regimens, and they make choices based on their own data. Good examples of physique athletes who
have altered their training in recent years based on how their bodies responded include Lee Labrada, Frank Zane, Dorian Yates
and Clarence Bass. If you look at the changes they've made in their routines the changes have little to do with exercise
selection or how they split up their bodyparts. Instead, the adjustments have a little more to do with cycling training, or
forms of periodization, and even more to do with frequency of training. Labrada, Zane, Yates and Bass now all usually train
bodyparts only once every five to eight days.
What's more, most of these bodybuilders have apparently stopped doing hard/easy training-except for the common practice of
starting a cycle with a relatively easy workload. This is an interesting change, since so many of us follow hard/easy schedules,
a system adapted from the programs of endurance athletes in the 1960's and 1970's.
What has apparently happened, at least in weight training, is that the easy day has been redefined as a complete rest day. There
is no more 70 to 85 percent training. There is hard training, and there is rest.
This approach makes sense. Years ago exercise physiologist Lucille Smith, Ph.D., and sports medicine specialist Joseph Horrigan,
D.C., basically agree on the exact same theory. They both say that muscle groups that have been worked hard with basic movements
can take a week or more to fully recover. Easy training won't speed recovery, won't contribute to your gains and can be
counterproductive because it actually undermines recovery.
In light of these findings, it's interesting to speculate about what would have happened if during the '70s and '80s certain
strength athletes had taken a different course. For example, by about 1980 Bass found that he could no longer train bodyparts
every fourth day with his three-on/one-off routine because he couldn't sufficiently recovery. It was then that Clarence began
using an approach that involved a series of hard workouts followed by a series of easy, 70 to 85 percent, workouts. Eventually,
this system evolved into a periodization approach that still featured hard/easy training every week. Thus, Clarence and others
sought to solve the recovery problem by varying intensity.
Make no mistake about it-the system worked. Perhaps it worked, however, not because of the varied intensity, with the easy
sessions maintaining strength and tone, but because the athletes using the approach were only training body-parts hard once
every seven to 10 days. So maybe it wasn't the easy workouts that were the key but, rather, the infrequency of hard training.
If models from running and endurance sports hadn't been so prevalent at the time, strength athletes might well have focused first on
varying the frequency of training as a means of enhancing recovery. In that case many of us would have been training less frequently
but harder during the past 10 to 15 years.
Indeed, if you look at the history of popular weight-training systems over the past 30 to 40 years, it's clear where the most change
has occurred. Many of us can recall that during the '60s any respectable bodybuilder was working bodyparts three times per week. By
the '70s and '80s it was two times per week, and by the mid-'90s the norm seems to be about once per week.
For Example, Dorian Yates
It's impossible to be intrigued by less frequent training and not carefully study the program of Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Always
an athlete who favored high-intensity, lower-volume, infrequent training programs, Yates has simply taken this Mike Mentzer Heavy
Duty-type program a step further by somewhat increasing the intensity while decreasing the volume and frequency. The gains that
he was able to make before the '93 Mr. Olympia using this modified, three to-four-sets-per-bodypart approach were outstanding for
someone who was presumably already near his peak the year before.
What you have is a person who is the world's top bodybuilder training four times per week for about 45 minutes per session, with
the weight-training workouts logically cycled over a four-to-six-week phase. In addition, Yates does 30 to 60 minutes of easy aerobics
for fat burning and fitness per day and follows a high-calorie, high-protein, high-carbohydrate but very low fat diet. His weight
training primarily involves basic movements-albeit often performed past failure-and much of his aerobic training in volve only
walking and stationary cycling.
Indeed, some of his competitors at the Olympia train as much in a day as Yates does in a week. The main point is that while there's
probably one person on earth (or beyond) capable of achieving Yates' outcome, almost anyone can follow his program. The routine
requires no exotic equipment or great amounts of time. It does, however, require a good deal of motivation-which you have to supply
yourself-and there's no guarantee that you'll reach the heights in bodybuilding or any other sport. By following such a hard but
abbreviated schedule, however, you'll very likely achieve whatever your potential may be.
Moreover, intensive but infrequent training is probably ideal for mature athletes because as we age, we're fighting to hold onto
muscle mass in the face of a reduction of fast-twitch fibers and, possibly, recovery ability. So one antidote for aging is to train
like Mr. Olympia.
Some Other Observations
I believe that after many years of weight training and experimentation with it, I've come up with a simple method of testing whether
a program is adequate. Every training program induces some systemic fatigue and local soreness. The key question for this test, then,
is, Am I tired and/or sore from the right stimulus?
For example, if your primary goal is strength or bodybuilding, you should never become tired or sore from cardiovascular training.
If you do, it means your supplemental training, the aerobics, is too hard. Likewise, if your strength or bodybuilding training revolves
around progression, you should never become tired or sore from easier training sessions. If you do, you need to make those sessions
easier or simply drop them altogether.
I must confess that in the past I often flunked this simple test. Long, hard aerobic sessions left me tired and sore, and sometimes
I felt sorer from an easy weight workout-because I wasn't sufficiently recovered to do any training-than a hard workout. I find,
however, that if I just keep reminding myself what the right stimulus is for my goals, I'm bound to keep improving.
As you might guess, I've recently been experimenting with less frequent training. My basic schedule involves a three-way-split routine
performed on nonconsecutive days during a seven-day cycle. I do my aerobic training on the same day as my weight training, and on my
off days I just do a leisurely one-hour walk. The routine is the same one I've used for years-exercises, periodization plan, number
of sets and pace-except for two differences: 1) I dropped an end-of-the-week, easy whole-body workout; 2) I train on nonconsecutive
days as opposed to the three-on/one-off schedule I previously used.
The following are some observations on less frequent training and the mostly positive results I have to report:
1. The most obvious difference between the two schedules is that I'm no longer as tired as I had always been. Training on three
consecutive days leaves almost anyone constantly tired. What's more, there's a very small margin of error with frequent training.
For example, a bad night's sleep is disastrous. Even under the good circumstances, however, the third day is usually difficult because
of systemic fatigue and because certain body- parts like the shoulders and arms are involved in almost all movements.
2. Because I wasn't so constantly tired, I noticed that I was better able to assess how hard I was training and how I was recovering.
Since I had rest days and wasn't so drained all the time, if I did feel very tired or sore, I knew I'd pushed too hard. With that kind
of feedback you can fine-tune your training program.
3. Because I was no longer tired, I was stronger in a number of movements. Although the effects of a serious arm injury still lingered,
I particularly noticed that I was stronger in curling movements. In my former routine I worked biceps hard on day 3, the third consecutive
training day, and easy on day 5. I'd been stuck on the same weights and reps on incline dumbbell curls for a long time, specifically
47x14 for each arm for seven sets. With my new routine I do biceps on day 5, right after a rest day Within a few workouts I was up to
47x20, then 50x15 and then 53x10. As I showed a similar significant strength increase in a few other upper-body movements, it's now
obvious that I was previously overtraining my upper body.
4. Less fatigue also resulted in a greater ability to focus on work. On my old routine I was often close to exhaustion by day 4, after
three training days, and was usually very sore on day 6, after my whole-body workout on day 5. Sometimes it was a bit difficult to do my
5. Because you can train harder with infrequent training, there's a danger of going overboard. The common practice of throwing on some
more weight or doing a couple of extra sets because you feel good catches up with you. Such seemingly small changes drastically increase
the training load. For example, if you're only doing four hard sets per bodypart, doing a couple of extra sets increases the volume of
your routine by 50 percent. It's tempting to train very hard at each session and then drift away from a planned periodization approach
or other progressive program. The result is going to be overtraining.
6. As item 5 indicates, you can overtrain while training infrequently by increasing the volume or intensity-or both-too much. There's
also a systemic fatigue that builds up as you progress through a training cycle. In other words, even if you work out infrequently, you
need to stick with a plan that varies the training load over a number of weeks. For most people training infrequently does not equate to
training full blast at every session. You just can't do that week after week.
For example, one simple change I made in my lower-body workout was to add an extra set of squats. In this second set 1 drop the weight
by 5 to 6 percent from the first set and increase the reps. Because of the extensive warm-up I do for squats and the fact that I recruit
a great number of fibers on the first, heavy set, the slightly reduced weight in the second set feels light (although it felt heavy when
I was warming up), and I can really grind out the reps. Even so, this one set increases the volume of my quad workout by 25 percent, and
the set itself is a very high-intensity effort.
Overall this change in my routine has had a positive effect on my legs, but I've noticed that I'm now a bit sore for several days after
I do this workout-not the one or two days of soreness I experienced with the similar workout that included one less set of squats. Thus,
a seemingly small change is really big change and requires more recovery time.
I've also noticed that because I can train harder by training less frequently, I'm definitely spent after three hard weeks and I need an
easy, download week to keep going. Consequently, you still need some form of periodization with less frequent training-or perhaps you
especially need it-because you can train harder than you did previously.
7. On the other hand, when I was training more frequently, I seemed to have an easier time keeping a lower bodyfat percentage. Even when
I felt tired and overtrained, my bodyfat percentage was routinely low. This so far has not been the case with less frequent training. My
inability to stay very lean may, however, have something to do with my current inability to handle top weights in many movements because
of injuries. In other words, the stimulus for developing muscle mass, the very heavy weight, isn't there. U I recover from my injuries
and can use top weights again, infrequent training may well lead to an even better body composition, since it will be easier to reliably
use heavy weights on all movements. I'm also willing to speculate, however, that perhaps there is another, yet-to-be-identified factor
related to more frequent training that may help to reduce bodyfat while preserving muscle mass.