Looking at the title of this article, you might expect a short article with a simple answer. After all, at first glance it’s not a hard question, right? Well, that’s where you’re wrong!
But fear not, because this article will explain why and provide the answer.
Before I go any further, and those that know my articles know this – let me say that I am a huge advocate of recovery. I don’t believe people want to admit the true importance of recovery – they simply want to train and they think the more they train, the more they gain.
Here’s the deal and if there ever was a “secret”, this is it…
You don’t grow when you’re in the gym. Training causes muscle protein breakdown (catabolic) and yes you can now use an intra-workout drink and go a long way to limiting this but ultimately, you leave the gym in a far more depleted state than when you came in.
So when do you grow if not in the gym?
You grow when you allow yourself to recover – outside the gym.
Read that last line about 10 times until it sinks in.
If you don’t recover, you won’t grow – unless of course you have “help” which pretty much changes everything – but even then, recovery still equals growth.
However, I’m natural and I write with the natural guy in mind. I have nothing against steroids, more power to those who use them. The truth is, however, that the rules are different if you’re a natural.
Recovery is the key to growth – for everybody. That’s huge because I see a lot of guys brag about never taking a rest day, or not believing in over-training or whatever – bullshit.
You grow when you recover, period. If you take nothing else away from this article, take that point.
Back when I first started training, we’re talking 1980 – there were primarily two main camps when it came to training frequency – Arnold’s idea of 6 days a week, each body part trained twice per week, and the Heavy Duty H.I.T (High Intensity Training) concepts of Mike Mentzer – who advocated a lower training frequency of working each body part just once a week over 3 days.
As you’ll see, there are bodybuilders out there training anywhere from 3 – 6 days per week, all of whom are massively muscled.
But in my opinion – for most genetically average drug free trainees – 3 workouts per week would be an absolute minimum, 4 – 5 being optimal to gain the most amount of muscle each year.
You always had those that were more moderate in their approach, with some even combining the two extremes. The HIT concepts have survived and today you actually have a lot of belief systems when it comes to how often you train – the trend I’ve noticed is that hitting each muscle group twice per week is becoming more common – again because the advocates think the more you train the more you grow.
Push / Pull / Legs Training Split
I’ve always advocated training each muscle group once per week on a split routine – such as a 3 day push/pull/legs split. I see this as a good split because it works well with the lives of most people. However, the push / pull / leg routine, hitting each muscle group every 5 days is more optimal for growth and the best option if you have the freedom to workout on different days each week.
Remember, the goal is to get as many growth stimulating workouts in each week while being able to adequately recover, this workout routine / structure ticks that box!
Here’s how such a workout split would look hitting each muscle group every 5th day.
|Day / Week||Workout|
… and so on, performing the same workout every 5th day.
Using this push / pull / legs structure would mean you’re doing 4 workouts per week and hitting each muscle group every 5 days.
The thing is, for many of us, it’s more a question of getting into the gym than anything else and this is based on the simple fact that many of us lead a very busy and active lifestyle. I always have led an extremely active lifestyle and even though I have a home gym, for many years I had to be willing to be creative in my approach to training.
So, to get the most from recovery and training, I believe a push-pull –legs split is an ideal approach, with each workout done once / twice per week – to clarify, under ideal conditions, you should be fully recovered and able to train the grouping of muscles based on the split again by the 5th day – so if you do pushing exercise (chest, shoulders, triceps) on Monday, for example, by Friday or Saturday those muscle groups should be fully recovered and ready to train again.
Remember with recovery, it’s not only the muscles you just trained that have to recover; it’s your entire system.
Two points to be made about this split:
It’s adjustable – you should take 1 day off between workouts but many people train 2 days in a row then take a day of before hitting workout number 3. This is fine, so for example you may train on Monday and Tuesday but wait until Thursday or Friday to hit it again, this works because it allows good recovery time.
You can hit the somewhat standard 3 days a week approach – M-W-F which does promote good recovery time when using a split routine. The point is, based on such factors as age, your recovery ability and your lifestyle; you can adjust this split to fit.
By doing the Monday / Wednesday / Friday workout routine it provides a stable routine to follow each week. However, this would mean you’re training each muscle once every 7 days – effective but not as good as every 5 days.
Working Out 3 Vs. 4 Days a Week
Following the recommended 4 days per week workout structure above would mean that you’re training on a different day every week, which is not suitable for everyone. I understand people have family and work commitments and absolutely need certain days of the week free. If you’re in that situation then run with the 3 days per week, Monday / Wednesday / Friday structure. You just need to make sure every workout counts and you’re training balls to the wall.
If you have time available then go with the 4 days per week routine as this would be more optimal for growth and allows you to squeeze in more overall growth stimulating training sessions over a year.
So how does each push / pull / legs workout look?
- Lying Leg Curls
- Standing Calf Raises
- Ab work.
I’m not listing set totals or rep goals as that’s not the purpose of this article, although I typically advocate 8-10 sets for big muscles, 6-8 for smaller ones like deltoids and 5-6 for arm work, with reps in the 6-10 range – but this is all dependent on your goals.
You may notice I have Squats listed and that’s it – work them hard enough and that should be all you can need for great legs.
Push – Chest, Delts, Tris
- Bench Press
- Incline Press
- Overhead Press
- Lying Extensions – combine pullovers and close grip benches with this – keep your elbows tight to your head with pullovers, it’s a triceps exercise, not a lat exercise. Do close-grips last when your triceps are fatigued.
Pull – Back and Biceps
- Chins (or Pulldowns)
- Bent Rows
- EZ Curls – super set into Drag Curls
- Ab work (optional)
This routine is an example and the days can be switched – but separate back from legs, don’t do them too close together since both days hit the lower back and you want to avoid muscle overlap.
I advocate the use of compound work with some intensity on arm work on this routine but again, this is to be tailored to your preference.
So what was the other point?
There’s a trend that I’ve seen that advocates full-body routines and this approach, if done correctly, changes things.
Those of you that have read my articles know I have a very hesitant outlook on full body routines. In my library I have a book that advocates nothing but this type of training and, when you get to the “advanced” stage, you are doing 90 sets a workout, 3 days a week (you guessed it, M-W-F).
Are you serious?
You want me to do 90 sets on a full body that often? You’re supposed to be hitting it hard on your last, oh, I don’t know, 20-30 sets?
There is no way you’re going to be standing up let alone hitting set #90 hard. Even more, there is no way – no way! – you can possibly recover in just 1 day from this type of insanity.
If you are natural, you’re doomed with a full body workout like this!
My approach to a full body has always been to do 4-6 carefully chosen exercises and do 3-4 sets each. In fact, the classic 5X5 routine would work with the full body approach.
A full-body done this way – low sets, well-chosen compound exercises and hard training should mean you’re looking at 2-3 days between workouts. So in this case you’d train Monday, Thursday and Sunday but the next week your first workout would fall on Wednesday.
In my opinion full body workouts should be reserved as “filler” workouts when you’re strapped for time. Your main workout routine should consist for 3 – 5 hard workouts with a variety of exercises.
Here’s an example of a full body workout routine;
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Deads (deadlifts)
- Bent Rows
- Incline Press
- Wide Grip Upright Rows – this is a very short range of motion exercise that really hits the traps and delts. Use a wide – really wide grip, you’re lifting the bar maybe 4-5 inches.
- Arm work/ab work optional.
So far, I’ve only talked about routines. I have not mentioned rep/set performance. For years I did a lot of high-intensity work, drops (drop-sets), rest-pause sets, static holds. I always did a strength set or two but jumped right into the intense stuff.
More recently, I feel workouts should be progressive in the sense of consistently (yet gradually) adding weight to the bar which creates measurable progress because it translates to strength and size gains. In fact, my most advanced routines utilize a core strength program and then allow for the use of extended set techniques that change – constant variety yet measurable progression.
As for rep tempo, I have always advocated explosive up, slow and controlled down. This type of training can be severely taxing and again, it’s about recovery.
If your goal is to build muscle optimally, anywhere from 3 – 5 hard, properly structured weight training workouts per week – performed constantly and progressively – will produce best gains.