4 Reasons Why High Frequency Training Leads to Faster Strength Gains
My own training has been going really well as of late, which can be evidenced by numerous PR’s I’ve hit over the past few months.
I believe a big reason behind this is increased training frequency coupled with performing only a handful of key lifts while training with submaximal weights, something that I rarely see mentioned in fitness magazines where the typical recommendation revolves around increasing exercise selection and workout volume within a single session.
I’ve always believed the standard way of splitting the body in smaller muscle groups, then training each body part once per week is about the worst thing you can do as a natural person with average genetics when trying to improve strength and athleticism.
However, for the longest time I bought into the notion that you could only train “heavy” three times per week for fear of overtraining.
While I still think 3 full-body or upper/lower training sessions per week works well for quite a while for just about anyone looking to experience marked strength and size increases, at some point you need to try something different to blast through plateaus.
I touched briefly on high frequency training (HFT) in my book Next Level Strength Training, and have continued to find more and more proof for its effectiveness ever since.
Things really started hitting home for me a few months ago as I came across Christian Thibaudeau’s article on HFT over at T-Nation.
In that article, Thibaudeau outlined a 5x/week training program consisting of 2 upper body + 2 lower body + 1 full-body session per week, which means you’ll hit the prime muscle groups/movement patterns three times each week.
Having followed the plan for 17 weeks now, I can vouch for the effectiveness of this approach. A few recent training highlights of mine include:
– chin-up 40 kg x1
– ring dip 35 kg x6
– barbell split squat 100 kg x5
I know these numbers won’t impress anyone in the training world, but taking into account that I have the same natural knack for strength training as Patrik Stefan has for scoring goals, I’m quite happy with how things have been progressing. Not to mention I feel there’s still quite a lot of progress to be milked training this way.
Below are four reasons why increased training frequency works so well for getting people stronger, fast.
Reason #1 – Neural Adaptations via Multiple Low-Rep Sets
There are two main ways to get stronger:
1. By increasing the size of your muscles (bigger muscles have the potential to develop greater strength than smaller muscles) and
2. By improving neuromuscular efficiency (the connection between the brain, nervous system and muscles)
The vast majority of people I see working out in public gyms train exclusively in the 8-20 rep range (and sometimes even higher) and as a result, lack the ability to recruit high-threshold muscle units required for high force, speed or power production.
What these trainees fail to realize is that if you want to maximize your potential for strength gains, you need to train with lower reps (1-5 per set), which means lifting at 85% and above of your 1RM.
Following a typical training regimen consisting of 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise may produce decent gains in hypertrophy (though I’d argue there are better ways to produce hypertrophy in genetically non-blessed folks but that would deserve its own article), but it will do next to nothing for improving neural efficiency.
That’s the reason why you can see relatively “small” dudes get freaky strong and outlift their bigger peers.
From a muscular standpoint these guys should have no dice in a lifting contest against someone with big pecs and arms who solely trains in the typical hypertrophy rep ranges – however, a properly trained nervous system can tip the scales in their favor by quite a margin.
Maximal strength can only be expressed if the nervous system has been “conditioned” to allow the muscles involved to produce force at their highest level.
However, you can’t be doing three sets of three reps and expect to progress for long because of the low total training volume.
As you decrease the amount of reps, you’ll need to bump the number of sets up.
Depending on the amount of big lifts you choose for a training session (hint: 1-3 would be a good starting point), I’d recommend anywhere from 5-8, up to 12-15 sets per exercise.
A workout with two big lifts could look like this:
1. Snatch high pull off blocks 12×1
2. Front squat 10×2
And one involving three main exercises could look as follows:
1. Power clean from hang 10×1
2a. Push press 8×3
2b. Chin-up 8×3
Once you get acquainted with performing multiple low-rep sets, you’ll notice something interesting taking place: performance goes up as the workout goes on.
It’s not uncommon to be hitting your fastest, technically most sound lifts at set #7 or later into the workout – a sign of improved neuromuscular efficiency within that session.
Reason #2 – Technical Mastery
As Pavel Tsatsouline told us years ago, strength is a skill.
The more you practice something, the better you get at it.
What happens to hockey players who shoot a couple hundred pucks in their backyard every day over the summer?
The accuracy and power of their shot improves.
I know of no better example for this than the one off-season Sidney Crosby spent working on his shot after already having won the Hart as the league’s MVP.
While widely recognized as the best player in the NHL – and having posted
33-, 36- and 39-goal campaigns over the past four years – Crosby still felt his shot was merely average, so he dedicated an entire summer to getting his shot up to par with the rest of his game.
51 goals during the 2009-2010 season and the “Rocket” Richard Trophy that no doubt looks good on the mantle along with all the other accolades he has amassed over the years.
Whether a squat, Olympic lift, chin-up or press variation, when you repeatedly practice a certain lift with challenging (but not maximal!) weights and excellent form you begin developing technical mastery in that exercise.
I highly recommend watching competitive Olympic lifters – who have perfected their technique with the clean & jerk and the snatch – in order to get a sense of what high frequency training can do to refine one’s lifting form (not to mention strength and power capabilities!).
Every repetition looks similar, whether they’ve got 20 or 200 kg on the bar.
Reason #3 – Increased Training Volume
I’ve said it before and will say it again:
The key to experiencing continuous strength gains lies in progressive overloading.
For a beginner, this is best done by incrementally adding more weight on the bar – 2.5 kg/5 pounds – as often as possible.
For the first 12-18 months of your lifting career, this strategy can’t be beat. You’ll get stronger week after week. But you can’t keep increasing resistance linearly forever.
If that were the case, we’d have guys benching in excess of 250 kilograms within two years of starting training.
Obviously that ain’t happening.
So instead of overloading exclusively via intensity, we’ll strive to increase training volume over time as well.
With high frequency training, exercise volume needs to be dialed back within a single training session but over the course of a week or month, it will end up being higher than with more traditional training frequencies – i.e. 1-2x/week per body part or movement pattern.
Here’s an example that should open your eyes to what I’m after:
Let’s say it’s leg day – hang cleans, squats, block pulls, hip thrusts, rear-foot elevated squats, Romanian deadlifts, hack squats… take your pick.
Let’s also say today’s training volume comprises 30 000 kg (because it’s a nice round figure and serves well as an example) – so when we add all the loads, reps and sets performed for each exercise together, you ended up lifting 30 000 kg in total weight (which is quite much).
Still with me?
But because the workout volume was so high, you can only perform this type of lower body training session once per week – any more than that and you’d feel under-recovered come time for next week’s leg session.
Now, what would happen if we cut the volume in half – or stated otherwise, if you did four sets of each exercise before, you dropped it down to 2 sets from now on?
Fatigue probably wouldn’t be as big of a factor as previously due to the lowered stimuli (volume), which means you’d recover faster.
And when you recover faster, you don’t need so many off days.
With that in mind, let’s say you can now train the same muscle groups three times per week.
So training frequency for legs: 1x/week -> 3x/week and workout volume per session 30 000 kg -> 15 000 kg.
Which amounts to 45 000 kg of weekly training volume – 50% more tonnage than what you did with the lower frequency approach.
While the numbers will rarely add up so nicely in real life, the point still remains:
Decreased intra-workout volume coupled with a notable increase in training frequency drives up total exercise volume.
And as should be clear by now, more quality volume leads to better strength and muscle gains.
This is really no different than learning to play guitar (or any activity involving a skill component).
What will improve your guitar skills faster, practicing 30 minutes every day or 60 minutes twice a week?
The first approach nets you 210 minutes of total practice time per week with 7 potential stimuli for improvement, whereas the latter option amounts to 120 minutes and two opportunities for getting better.
Reason #4 – Physical and Mental Freshness
Now, I realize this is purely subjective speculation on my part but I’ve noticed that the more often I train, the better I feel.
This probably has got a lot to do with weekly training volume being spread over several days as opposed to one or two high-volume workouts for a body part that most people are familiar with (which I discussed in point #3 above).
Thus, from a fatigue management perspective it’s not hard to imagine how HFT will positively affect performance.
You simply start every training session in a much fresher state, do enough volume to reap a training effect, but never too much to cause excessive DOMS or neural fatigue that would lead to decreased performance in a subsequent workout.
Keep repeating this cycle for several months and you can’t help but witness some great strength gains.
Another aspect I’ve noticed relates to the perceived “easiness” of this type of training.
There’s just something to be said for the reinvigorating effects of handling weights that used to feel heavy that you don’t even have to psych up for anymore. You treat every work set as if it were a warm-up – fast, excellent form, no thinking about it.
Sometimes I’m still amazed by how effortless “big weights” can feel.
The first time I did DB reverse lunge singles with 50 kg dumbbells, I remember how surprised I was by the fact that the concentric part didn’t require a 3-second struggle: “That was it? Damn, smooth like a baby seal!”
With all that being said, I’m not saying you can’t sprinkle in some higher-rep pump work via assistance exercises after you’re done with the big lifts to provide more of a hypertrophy stimulus (which I do as well).
But for fast strength gains on main exercises I regard HFT as an excellent training approach and something I plan to keep experimenting with for quite a while.
I highly recommend you do the same.
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