Friday, September 25, 2009

Making High Frequency Training Work: Part One

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Updated: Oct 7th, see bottom.

As many of my readers know, I have favored low volume, high intensity training performed relatively sparingly.

At the extreme end of this spectrum is the type of routine I built my foundation on, such as the one I wrote about in The Minimalist. Here, I performed three different sessions over a 10-day cycle. The other regimen, one which I "refined" my foundation on, was built around Reverse Pyramid Training. Workout frequency was higher, typically three sessions over a 7 to 9 day cycle; still a low workout frequency, at least in comparison to some of the more traditional routines for strength and hypertrophy.

Such routines have worked tremendously well for me and my clients, but one should never feel constrained to one approach solely, nor claim the superiority of it, without having thoroughly explored alternatives.

With that in mind, I will focus on high frequency training in the next few posts, starting with this entry. Today I will discuss the reasons I developed a high frequency program, and the results I have seen with my clients and me. In the next part, which will be up in a few days, I will present the actual template in its most basic form and talk about some of the finer points that are the key to making it work.

Mastering Temperance

I am no stranger to higher frequencies of training for muscle hypertrophy and strength, and have had moderate success with them in the past.

For example, using a technique called synaptic facilitation while training for a one-arm chin many years ago, I increased my chin-ups from a measly 8 reps to 20 reps in a relatively short time span, and later, to 5-6 reps with an additional 100 lbs attached around my waist. The template, partially inspired by some of Pavel Tsatsouline's work “Power, had me chinning 3 times per day, 5 times per week in addition to performing weighted chins on the two weight training sessions I did during the week.

However, such success was the exception rather than the norm. On other occasions, while weight training 4 to 6 times per week I would always end up overtrained sooner or later.

This was due to my foolish ignorance of one key factor that needs to be thoroughly controlled when training with high frequency: intensity. (A quick note: intensity is often defined as using heavy weights (85-100% of your one-rep max) but in this case I am referring to the perceived exertion of the set. You might catch me using the term interchangeably, which is why I wanted to make that clear.)

Being a student of Stuart McRobert's workBeyond Brawn(see this post for more, book recommendations at the bottom), I am inclined to exert maximal effort on every set. Almost every set I’ve performed in the gym in the past five years has been taken to failure. Only when convinced that another rep would be impossible to perform without failure, or by severely compromising form, would I rack the weight.

Such high intensity takes a toll on your muscles and central nervous system, which is why it is best used sparingly and in the context of low volume and frequency. Lifts and muscle groups are trained no more than once weekly. I have found this to be a very productive form of training, especially when considering the time invested versus the reward gained.

However, on my past excursions into higher frequencies of training, 4 times per week or more, I would often bring the same balls-to-the-wall-mentality with me. Needless to say, I didn't last long on such a strenuous regimen and I would scurry back to the comfort of my old training regimen. Ironically, I have created many high frequency routines, and successfully coached clients on them. I just never had much success with them in my training (I talked about the paradoxical nature of coaching others and coaching yourself in this post, #2. Being Impatient/doing stupid shit).

In order to make high frequency training work, I would need to master my temperance: the art of holding back. This has been a great challenge, but one I needed to attempt after coming to the realization that I hadn't broken any personal records in the last 18 months. Clearly, going into the gym with the attitude that I need to set a new PR every single workout wasn't working.

In those 18 months , the goals I had set for myself, such as deadlifting 650+ lbs, had gradually faded (I made decent progress up to spring 2008, which is why I'm counting 18, not 21, months). My lifts had reached total stagnation, and even regression, as I settled into lame acceptance and indifference, going to the gym every third or fourth day to do maintenance work.

However, simply embarking on a high frequency routine with the simple strategy of stopping with a few reps left in the tank wouldn't work. Using a much too vague plan contributed to my past failure. I needed to delve into the finer aspects and create a system that had clear guidelines with regards to progression, intensity, volume and other relevant variables. I reviewed both the scientific literature and successful real-world examples, arriving at what I considered to be a basic, workable template in theory. Luckily, it has worked in practice, as was confirmed by my clients’ results.

My clients’ success with this new high frequency template has contributed to reigniting the fire and passion I have for my own training. Most of these clients using the new template are in the same situation I find myself in: muscle and strength gains have decreased to an unbearably slow pace or stagnated completely. The new program has pushed them past their old strength plateaus with a minimal amount of body weight gained (for intermediates and advanced clients I use relative strength gain as a success indicator for lean mass gain – minimizing weight gain is a goal in itself in order to minimize fat gain).

The intermediates I work with have gained muscle and strength at what I consider an impressive rate. These clients start out with a more basic plan than advanced trainees (for example, training 4 times per week instead of 5 times per week).

My clients’ results convinced me to try the high frequency set-up. After barely four weeks, the routine feels great. "Feels great" is a rather vague term to use when evaluating a training template, but the cyclical nature of it is such that I don't expect to set new PRs in several months.

But what I mean by "feels great" is that despite being a 5 times per week setup:

* I am looking forward to each session, and I feel refreshed, pumped and in good spirits when I leave the gym. I almost feel like staying longer and doing more, but fighting that temptation is part of mastering temperance. This is the key to make this routine work. The ego needs to be kept in check and the desire for instant gratification whipped into submission.

* I have no trouble recovering from sessions, despite training muscle groups 2-3 three times weekly, sometimes back to back. For example, biceps are worked indirectly, but extensively, in back movements such as chins. Yet they can be trained directly (curls) on the next day without negative effect. This was impossible in the past, and following a hard chinning session I would need several days before I could curl without the lingering soreness affecting strength output.

(Random note: I never trained biceps for any greater amount of time, yet this muscle group stands out. I attribute that to chins. For biceps development, I am a stern advocate of beginners and intermediates not doing a lot of direct work; effort is much better invested in chins and its variations, such as close-grip chins, rope chins and towel chins.)

* Better conditioning and intra-set recovery. Having trained muscle groups almost exclusively with few sets, high intensity and long rest periods, I have high maximal and relative strength, but comparatively poor work capacity; I needed several minutes between sets to be ready, physically and mentally, for another set. But with the new set-up, I have noted rapid improvements in this area.

This ends part one of this series. As I wrote earlier, I’ll share the basic template for high frequency training in the second part as I am very interested in getting feedback from as many people as possible concerning its effectiveness.


Oct 7th: I'm going to give the template a solid 12 week run myself before putting part two up, rather than extrapolating solely from client data. There are many interesting aspects I want to delve into further, such as determining optimal rest for different lifts at various loads and volumes. I think I may have something great here, and I don't like to half-ass things or rush this. I doubt two parts will be enough to make this justice.

ETA part two: mid-December.

48 comments:

Anne said...

Great post...really looking forward to part two. Its hard to believe english is not your native language...your writing is so good:) Hugs, Anne

Anonymous said...

+1

im itching for part 2

great post!

LBSS said...

+2

One thing, in a paragraph about chins near the bottom: "Yet they can be trained directly (curls) on the preceding day without negative effect."

Schway said...

Looking forward to the 2nd part. I'm new to lifting and don't have a routine to work with yet, so I'll try this one when you post it.

Martin Berkhan said...

LBSS,

thanks, corrected, meant to say next day.

Schway,

it's not a beginner's routine. If you're new to lifting, Starting Strength or Beyond Brawn is a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you have read 'Power to the People!".

I will be interested to hear how you set the diet up for a higher frequency workout.

In the past I have had great results from training deadlifts five times a week. That was in the days when my office was 5min from the weight room! Yes - you need keep intensity (%1RM) in check and avoid failure on a program like that.

btw got the half body weight one arm press a few months a go.

All the best,

Suleiman.

Manveet said...

Looking forward to part 2.

Anonymous said...

Martin,

Interesting read. I look forward to part two.

What are your thoughts on taking the high-frequency philosophy to the extreme? Since you were successful on such a program for chins, do you feel that this could be used for other movements?

Here's an example of such a routine (by the "legendary" Chad Waterbury):

http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/bodybuildings_next_frontier&cr=

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

High frequency lifting has been a staple in many powerlifters training and has proved to be extremely effective with proper tonnage (volume/load) sequencing.

Martin Berkhan said...

'What are your thoughts on taking the high-frequency philosophy to the extreme? Since you were successful on such a program for chins, do you feel that this could be used for other movements?'

Sure. Definitely doable and potentially very effective.

But it's all about cycling intensity and volume in a planned and structured manner - while still having the ability to know yourself well enough to restrain yourself and take days off if you're not feeling 100%.

You also need to consider that specialization such as that will require you to focus your efforts on the movement you're trying to improve in favor of other movements - which means cutting down your regular training load.

So you see, there's a whole bunch of variables here where people potentially risk screwing up.

Martin Berkhan said...

Suleiman,

was a while ago, but I recall it being a good read - I will have another look at it and perhaps do a thorough review on the blog. Congrats on the one arm press, that is quite a feat.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Martin,

I have never tried this but when I have frequent access to a bar and platform I would like to. It is Steve Justa's singles program from 'Rock, Iron, Steel: The Book Of Strength."

Take 70% of your 1RM, Train 7 days a week.

Mon : 3 singles
Tue : 5 singles
Wed : 7 singles
Thu : 9 singles
Fri : 11 singles
Sat : 13 singles
Sun 15 singles

Then add 2.5-5kg and repeat.

Test your 1 RM once a month.

Obviously you can only train one lift on this program.

Cheers,

Suleiman

Tan Yew Wei said...

When you say that beginners and intermediates should not focus on direct bicep work, is the concern that bicep fatigue may hamper Chinning progress?

Ogg the Caveman said...

Finding the proper balance between dose, frequency, and intensity is a tricky process. I'm looking forward to part II.

Martin Berkhan said...

Suleiman,

that looks interesting. Is this meant to be performed in addition to your regular routine?

Tan,

wrt chins, it's just another way of saying get strong in the basics and don't focus too much on assistance. Yes, direct biceps work will obviously hamper chinning progress if you overdo it, and it's all too common when it comes to this particular muscle group. Weighted chins > endless sets of curling in the squat rack.

Anonymous said...

Martin,

According to Pavel Tsatsouline;

"Pick one lift and train it daily. Do no other work for the involved muscles, although you may carry on with regular lifting for the rest of your body."

Steve Justa is an interesting character, his book is full of strange lifts like the 'Shovel Lift' (load one side of an olympic bar and 'shovel'), barrel lifts, partial lifts, back lifts, carrying railroad rails for distance. He also recommends fasting once a week.

Cheers,

Suleiman

Martin Berkhan said...

Interesting. Didn't know he was into fasting. Need to look into his work when I have some spare time.

douglis said...

I tried "Grease The Groove" in the past and it's a miracle method for strength gains(or better the ability to lift weights).But the results were rather dissapointing for hypertrophy.

Yavor said...

Ok that was a great intro and just when I was ready to read your template, the post was over lol.

You tease!

Looking forward to the next part,

Yavor

Martin Berkhan said...

Should be up next week, Monday at the earliest.

Douglis,

I actually got good arm growth from implementing the chinning regimen. Specifically, forearms and biceps.

Yash said...

Hey martin,

Nice post. I'm in the middle of a high frequency program and I think one of the problems I'm facing is not being able to go light enough. I've been going pretty heavy on chins and I think I'm stalling due to fatigue.

This post sort of cinfirmed the need to back off a little on the weight when you're training something more than 3x a week [mine is currently about 5x, same lifts every day]. Hopefully it works!

yash

Vasco said...

is there a part two to this yet?

Martin Berkhan said...

No. Considering how busy I am, this is not on my list of priorities for the time being. But it will be up eventually.

Anonymous said...

Martin, it would be nice to have a section regarding High Frequency Training in your upcoming book, maybe giving some template of coupling it with IF.

Vattha said...

If you're training 4 times a week, I'm assuming it's still 3 carb refeeds a week. Would 4x carb overloads a week be overkill and cause you to put on excess fat?

Martin Berkhan said...

Vattha,

It won't be overkill if the diet is properly balanced (i.e if the accumulated caloric surplus and surplus per training day isn't too high).

Amar said...

FYI, interesting discussion by Matt Perryman on Training with high frequency. Can't wait for "Making High Frequency Training Work: Part Two!"

Serguei said...

what a pity, that such an interesting topic was not continued...or should we expect part 2?

Martin Berkhan said...

Perhaps

Clement said...

Hi Martin, when is part 2 coming out?

Martin Berkhan said...

Don't know

Anonymous said...

Martin...what would you recommend for someone who wants to do HIIT cardio once or twice a week for heart health, while having an IF lifestyle?

Maybe a decent amount of carbs and protein a hour or two beforehand, then a post workout meal like usual?

Thanks! Cant wait to buy your book!

Martin Berkhan said...

Something along those lines, yeah.

SuffolkPunch said...

Martin, Do you think your higher frequency training template would suit someone with slow twitch dominance?

I think it was Ironaddict that said that fast twitchers need less overall volume but higher intensity - and vica versa for slow twitchers.

Maybe this is because slow twitchers can do higher reps with a given %age of 1RM?

BTW - do you think that you are slow or fast twitch dominant?

Martin Berkhan said...

Based on theory alone, yeah, maybe. Slow-twitch recover faster.

I'm pretty sure I'm fairly typical, middle range. The 1RM calculators are generally speaking very close to my 1RMs based on 2-10RM, especially Beachle's formula, and those are based on average folks (i.e. not slow/fast-dominant).

Anonymous said...

Martin, what about diet in a HFT context?
Given 5-6 workout days in a week:
a) the eating window is still 8 hours?
b) the daily calories should be a bit lessened for a recomposition?

Thanks, Alex

adamthwaites said...

Is it just me or is there no part 2? HFT may be just what I need as i've plateau'd on most of my weights :/

Anonymous said...

Martin,

Do you still intent to write the part 2 of this article down? If not, can you please tell us what do you currently think of high frequency weight training?

Thanks a lot.

br0k3 said...

I'm wondering if there will ever be a part two to this article?

I'm curious about what Martin's stance would be in regards to his leangains nutritional program and high frequency training (each body part 3x/week). If I were to follow the surplus on training days and deficit on rest day it would 6-1 ... any thoughts on this anyone?

Anonymous said...

Part Two?

Anonymous said...

Hi Martin, would be very interesting if you could share with us the programm you followed regarding the HFT Training

anton said...

Martin
For the sake of public enlightenment, and to deserve your great ego; take some time to share your knowledge.

Great squatting efforts compares with non-profit work, but motivationg yourself into the latter is much more impressive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,
any chance for the 2nd part of "Making High Frequency Training Work" coming out soon? Switched to your higher intensity and lower volume approach and absolutely love it, especially while cutting at the moment, but I would love to increase volume after the cut is over, and see how my body reacts to it.
Greetings from Germany,
Stefan

Steve said...

I too would love a new post on higher frequency training. For cutting/bulking I've found less volume to be a superior choice for me. But would love to give the higher frequency a try just for a change in focus. How would you structure calorie/carb cycling with a much higher frequency approach?
Thanks. Steve.

Anonymous said...

Maybe can we get a update ?

Geoff said...

What criteria do you use to end a set if you are not training to failure? I have been conducting a similar experiment in my own workouts, but it is difficult somtimes to know when to end the set.

Unknown said...

Where is part 2 - of high frequency training?

Ed

Unknown said...

Martin,

This is interesting stuff. Did you stay with High Frequency Training? It's been several years waiting for part 2.

Ed




My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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