Infrequent Strength training.
Revolution in Training: Observations On Infrequent Training
Richard A. Winett, Publisher Master Trainer
From time to time every fitness/training publication offers its readers the latest revolution in training. Often it's tied to some new breakthrough in exercise machines or a line of expensive supplements. At other times, the actual training routines may be new but may require lengthy or multiple daily training sessions to implement. Thus, most revolutions in training are beyond the financial or time resources of all but a handful of elite athletes.
The "revolutionary" training approach I'm going to tell you about is an exception to this trend. The new training approach I'll discuss is exquisitely simple:
Train Less Frequently
Athletes (and bodybuilders in particular) are often excellent empirical scientists. That is,
They often keep detailed training records (data).
They study how they've performed while using different training regimes (data analysis).
They make choices based on their findings (hypothesis testing).
In recent years Lee Lebrada, Frank Zane, Dorian Yates, and Clarence Bass have all conducted such scientific experiments and altered their training based on how they've responded to different routines. If you look at the changes they've made in their routines, they've all focused on frequency of training and training cycles (forms of periodization), not exercise selection or groupings of body parts trained together!
Lebrada, Zane, Yates, and Bass now train each body part only once every 5 to 8 days.
The notion of hard/easy training has been dropped, except for the practice of starting cycles in a relatively easy way. At least in weight training, the notion of an "easy" day has been redefined as a complete rest day.
There is no more 70% or 85% training. You either train hard or you rest. This is an interesting change for many of us who've used a hard/easy training schedule -- a system adapted from endurance athletes' schedules of the 1960s and 1970s.
Years ago an exercise physiologist (Dr. Lucille Smith) and a sports medicine specialist (Dr. Joseph Horrigan) told me to do essentially the same thing. They explained that when you work a muscle group hard it can take up to a week (or more) to fully recover. Easy training does not speed recovery, and can even be counterproductive by undermining the body's natural recovery process. It appears that the "conventional wisdom", fueled by bodybuilders' own data, has finally caught up to the scientific evidence!
It's interesting to conjecture what might have happened if, during the 1970s and 1980s, strength athletes had chosen to experiment with training frequency rather than training intensity to deal with the limits of then popular training approaches. Many of us can recall that in the 1960s any respectable bodybuilder always worked each body part three times per week. By the 1970s and 1980s, the "golden rule" was two times per week. But, many top flight lifters found that even that much training was too much.
For example, by about 1980, Clarence Bass found he could no longer recover sufficiently to train the same body parts hard every fourth day, using his three on/one off routine. He tried to compensate by experimenting with training intensity -- by trying routines that involved a set of hard workouts followed by a set of easy workouts (70-85%). These trials evolved into a periodization approach which featured alternating hard/easy workouts rotated on a weekly basis. Thus Bass (and others) sought to solve the recovery problem by varying intensity but maintaining the same training frequency.
Make no mistake about it. It worked! But, because we analyzed the benefits using the training models we learned from runners and other endurance athletes as our exemplars(where megamiles were the rage), many assumed that the effectiveness of this "new" approach was based on its varied intensity (with easier workouts maintaining strength and tone) and hard/easy routines became the norm. Perhaps, though the "real" reason it worked was because athletes using this system were training body parts hard only once every 7 to 10 days. I. e., they were actually varying FREQUENCY of hard workouts. If we had been able to recognize that, many of us would have been training less frequently but harder during the last 10-15 years. Oh, the time we might have saved!
Dorian Yates, Mr. Olympia
It's impossible to be intrigued by less frequent training and ignore the training of two-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates. Dorian has always favored high-intensity, lower-volume, infrequent training programs. He's simply taken this Mentzer-type, heavy-duty program a step further by increasing intensity somewhat, decreasing volume to 3-4 sets per body part, and decreasing training frequency. When you consider that he was already at or near his peak when he started with this approach, the gains he was able to make in a year using this modified approach were outstanding.
Yates' overall training philosophy and program have been spelled out in a number of articles and in his excellent book, Blood and Guts: The Ultimate Approach to Building Maximum Muscle Mass, written with Bob Wolff: (1993, Y B Small Books, Woodland Hills, CA). Does Yates train exactly as his book describes? I don't know, but I suspect so. Are Yates' fabulous gains attributable to chemical enhancement? I don't know that either (and I certainly don't mean to imply that that they are!). But, even if these gains were, in part, chemically enhanced, I'm not sure it's the key point. The real point (it seems to me) is as follows:
Here's the world's top bodybuilder, and he trains four times per week for about 45 minutes each session. He cycles his weight training sessions logically over a four- to six-week phase. In addition, Yates does between 30 to 60 minutes per day of easy aerobics (for fat-burning and fitness) and follows a high-calorie, high-protein, high-carbohydrate, very low-fat diet. His weight training program primarily involves simple basic movements (albeit often done past failure), and much of his aerobic training involves only walking and stationary cycling.
Some of the Mr. Olympia competitors were training as much in a day as Yates does in a week! Although, there's probably only one person on earth (or beyond) capable of achieving Yates' outcomes, almost anyone can follow his program. It requires no exotic equipment and doesn't take a great amount of time. All it really requires is a good deal of motivation (which you have to supply yourself). Following his program certainly offers no guarantee you will reach the heights of bodybuilding (or any other sport for that matter). Probably, however, following such a hard but abbreviated schedule will help you achieve whatever your potential may be.
Moreover, as noted before in the Master Trainer, intensive but infrequent training is probably ideal for mature athletes because as we age we are 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 Personal Observations
I believe after all these years I've come up with a simple way to test the adequacy of an overall program. Although any training program induces some systemic fatigue and local soreness, the key question in this test 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 your cardiovascular training. If you do, your supplementary training is too hard. Likewise, if your strength or bodybuilding training uses progressively harder training sessions, you should never become tired or sore from your scheduled "easier" training sessions. If you do so, these sessions need to be made easier or simply dropped.
I must confess I've often flunked this simple test. Long, hard aerobic sessions left me tired and sore, and sometimes I felt more sore from an easy weight workout than a hard workout (probably because I wasn't recovered enough from a previous workout and shouldn't have been doing any training!). Keep reminding yourself what the right stimulus is for your goals and, you're bound to improve.
Some Last Minute Notes
Is this type of hard, very low-volume, infrequent training approach for everyone? I don't think so. Training body parts very infrequently only works if each training session is highly intense. If you can't (or don't want to) train intensely ALL THE TIME, it seems reasonable that you could train more frequently. Intensity, frequency, and duration (volume) are interrelated training variables. You can tradeoff among them based on personal preferences and still make excellent gains.
For example, the Iron Man Training System calls for training body parts twice per week, with many sets. However, there is a very gradual build-up to heavier weights, plus specific training cycles and planned unloading weeks. This system can also be used productively by many people, but it is quite different from the very high-intensity, infrequent training model I've discussed here.
Some individuals do seem to recover more quickly than others and can train more frequently. For example, even after a very hard (100%) lower body workout (see August, 1991 issue of Master Trainer), I'm recovered enough after 2 days to do an 85-90% version of the same routine. In the past, I've been able to do that even though the time between the two workouts was not rest time. It included one other weight workout, two aerobic sessions, and some easy walking. Thus it appears I've been blessed with good recovery ability and can probably train more frequently that other people.
Discussion and input ?