I’ve spent a lot of time in the past talking about workout frequency.
Most of that time has been from the perspective of how often to train each body part per week. You know, comparing the pros and cons of training everything once per week, twice per week and three times per week, as these are the most commonly used training frequencies.
And the conclusion that I (and countless others) have come to is that – based on an equal combination of scientific and anecdotal evidence – training everything three times per week is usually most effective for beginners, and twice per week is usually most effective for everyone else (intermediates and advanced).
Once per week, while certainly not ineffective, tends to be least effective (although it is perfectly sufficient for maintenance).
With this in mind, the ideal training split choice for beginners is pretty obvious: the 3 day full body split. You know, the split my beginner routine and every other intelligent beginner routine uses.
But what about the “twice per week” frequency that intermediate and advanced trainees should be using? There are a ton of different split options for making that frequency work.
There’s upper/lower, push/pull/legs, push/pull and plenty more. And then slightly different variations of each. And sometimes even variations of the variations. My book (Superior Muscle Growth) contains a workout program for damn near all of them.
But, I’m not really interested in that today.
3, 4 or 5 Workouts Per Week?
You see, rather than comparing the structure of the splits themselves and the manner in which body parts are grouped together (a fun topic for another article), I want to look specifically at the number of workouts each split involves over the course of the week.
For example, the always popular upper/lower split has a version that involves 3 workouts per week and a version that involves 4 workouts per week. The rotating version of push/pull/legs involves 4-5 workouts per week.
In these examples (and a dozen others using other splits), that same ideal training frequency of (about) twice per week will still be reached just fine. However, depending on which split you choose, there will be 3, 4 or 5 total workouts being used throughout the week to make it happen.
And so an obvious question emerges: which is the best for you?
If the same frequency is being met in the end, does it really even matter how many weight training workouts you use to get you there? And if so, how do you determine which is most ideal for you?
To answer these types of questions, there are 3 factors that need to be taken into account. They are:
- Your personal schedule.
- Your recovery capabilities (and the various factors this encompasses).
- Your needs.
Let’s take a look at each…
Factor #1: Your Personal Schedule
The first factor worth taking into consideration is your personal schedule. And it really all comes down to basic common sense.
You know… just like most things do. (True story: one day I plan to write a diet/fitness book called “Basic Common Sense.” Seriously.)
If you can only fit in 3 workouts per week, and attempting to somehow do more than that (e.g. 4 or 5 workouts per week) is going to become unsustainable from a scheduling standpoint – which will then lead to you missing workouts or maybe even eventually stop lifting altogether due to the inconvenience of trying to fit in more workouts than your schedule allows for – then the decision is simple: a 3 day split is what will be best for you.
If, however, you have a schedule that is flexible enough to allow for 3, 4 or even 5 workouts per week, then it’s going to be the other factors that will help you make this decision. Starting with…
Factor #2: Your Recovery Capabilities
The next factor that needs to be taken into account is individual recovery capabilities. As in, how does your body respond to the stress of training? Or really, what is the amount of training you can do each week that will maximize your body’s potential for progress without crossing the line of what your body is capable of recovering from.
Because that line… THAT’S the sweet spot. That’s when you’re providing the full training stimulus your body can optimally recover from. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s when your best results will come.
The only problem is, that line is not universally consistent. It can and will vary quite a bit from one person to the next based on a handful of factors specific to us.
What factors, you ask? These…
Factor #2a: Your Age
The younger you are, the better your recovery, performance, work capacity and damn near everything else of a physical nature will be. Shocking, I know. So it’s pretty safe to say that the average 18 year old will be capable of different things than the average 48 year old.
In the context of this article, that means someone younger is more likely to be capable of doing well with more training days per week (e.g. a 4 or even 5 day split) than someone older (who is more likely to do better with fewer training days per week).
There are exception to this, of course. And these exceptions will all stem from the other factors I’m about to cover. But, generally speaking, my default recommendation for men and women over the age of 40 is to stick with a 3 day split.
If you’re under 40 (or just one of the exceptions to this default recommendation), then it’s going to be the other factors that will help you make your decision.
Factor #2b: Your Genetics
The better your genetics are, the better your recovery, performance, work capacity and damn near everything else of a physical nature will be.
Go ahead… I’ll give you a minute to recuperate from the shock you must be in after hearing something so mind-blowingly unexpected.
But, yeah. If your genetics are above-average, you’ll typically do just fine (possibly even better) with more weight training days per week. If your genetics are below-average, you won’t.
And this is a factor that can override the age factor we just talked about. It’s how there are 50 year olds who are doing well with 4-5 weight training workouts per week, while some people in their teens or early 20’s can’t progress for crap with anything more than a 3 day split.
Behold the power of genetics.
So if you find that you fit into the below-average genetic category in terms of the amount of training your body can handle AND progress optimally with, then my default recommendation is to stick with a 3 day split.
If you have average or above-average genetics, then it’s going to be the others factors that help you make your decision.
Factor #2c: Your Lifestyle
Age and genetics are probably the factors playing the largest role in your recovery capabilities, but they aren’t the only factors. Another big one is your lifestyle.
This includes stuff like…
The better all of these things are (sufficient sleep, low stress, sufficient diet), the better your recovery, performance, work capacity and damn near everything else of a physical nature will be.
You can insert your own hilariously sarcastic comment here regarding the obviousness of this statement.
And just like before, these are factors that can override other factors. So someone young or someone with good genetics who may otherwise be capable of doing well with more workouts per week can very easily find themselves doing poorly solely as a result of not sleeping enough, being overly stressed, or having a shitty diet. #oxfordcomma
This can sometimes work in reverse, too. Someone older or with worse genetics may find themselves capable of more training per week than they assumed they could handle for no reason other than that they’re taking good care of these lifestyle factors.
Since these factors are changeable, I don’t really have a recommendation to go with them. Well, except for the basic common sense one: sleep enough, minimize stress and make sure your diet supports your goals.
Factor #2d: Your Non-Weight Training Activity
Next up we have the other physical activity in your life besides weight training.
In addition, your job fits into this category as well. So whereas one person might sit at a desk in front of a computer all day, another could be a construction worker or furniture mover.
Since the human body can only handle so much physical activity within a given period of time before it crosses that “line” I mentioned earlier, the more of this type of stuff you have in your life, the more potential there is for that line to be crossed.
And – bonus fact – this is another one of those factors that can override some of the others.
So what does that mean for you? Well, if you’re a construction worker who is training for a marathon on the side and doing MMA work a few nights a week while throwing in some HIIT on the days you don’t go rock climbing, you may want to consider a 3 day split.
Yes, that was a highly exaggerated example. But it was more fun than saying “just use your basic common sense.” Which of course is what the real answer is.
If you don’t have much activity like this in your life, or maybe not even any at all, it will be the other factors that help you make your decision.
Factor #3: Your Needs
And last but not least, we have the individual needs of the person. Let me give you an example from my own experience…
In 2012, I was dealing with an elbow injury. And I found that limiting the amount of stress being placed on my elbow (as well as my forearm/grip) was extremely beneficial for recovering from this injury. So, for most of that entire year, I switched from the 4 day split I was using at the time to a 3 day split to allow myself to have one less day per week where I’d be putting significant stress on my elbow.
This also allowed me to have at least one rest day between each of the 3 workouts, which is another thing I found beneficial for this injury.
For my specific needs at that specific time, this was what I needed to do and all other factors mentioned in this article automatically became secondary to it.
So what do I recommend? Unfortunately, due to my lack of individual-need-sensing-mind-reading powers (don’t worry, I’m working on it), it’s impossible for me to give any kind of concrete advice beyond [cue the trumpets!!] Basic. Common. Sense.
And that is, if there is some specific need you have right now that warrants adjusting your total number of weight training workouts per week to something different than it currently is or may otherwise ideally be… do it.
Summing It Up
Let me make this really easy…
- Can you only train 3 days per week? Use a 3 day split.
- Are you over 40 with average (or below-average) genetics? Use a 3 day split.
- Are you someone at any age with below-average genetics in terms of your recovery capabilities and work capacity? Use a 3 day split.
- Are you someone who has a very significant amount of intense non-weight training activity in their life? Use a 3 day split.
- Are you an average person with average genetics under 40 whose schedule can accommodate a 4 day split? Use a 4 day split.
- Are you a person who is younger and/or with above-average genetics? Use a 4 day split and feel free to experiment with a 5 day split.
- Are you someone with some individual need that requires a specific split to suit that need? Do that.
What If I’m Not Sure What To Do?
I’ll make this really easy, too.
Pick something (e.g. a 4 day split), give it time, and see how things go.
Then, try something else (e.g. a 3 day split), give it time, and see how that goes.
After that, maybe try something else (e.g. a 5 day split), give that time, and see how it goes.
Be sure to pay attention and monitor progress throughout all of this self experimentation.
From there, use your (say it with me…) basic common sense to determine what was best for you.
And then… you know… keep doing that.