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Training Frequency and Split

This is an excerpt from Overload System for Strength, The by Christian Thibaudeau & Tom Sheppard.

The first thing to discuss is training frequency as well as schedule. I (Christian) have been all over the board when it comes to frequency in the past. Mostly because I just love to train and eventually became more addicted to the training itself than to getting results. That’s why I tried (and was able) to find justifications to train 6 days a week. This led to stagnation, feeling run down, and getting injured.

Most of my clients, even pro athletes, have always lifted 3 or 4 days a week. It turns out that 3 or 4 workouts a week is what is ideal for most lifters, especially with the intensity of the work involved with this system. Let me be clear: You absolutely can train 5 or 6 days a week if the overall stress of the sessions is low enough. This normally equates to a very low volume of work. For example, I wrote a series of articles on “The Best Damn Workout for Natural Lifters” that used 6 training days a week, but the overall volume was extremely low: 4 to 5 total work sets per workout (not per exercise). I have also produced some plans based on a very high frequency of submaximal work, where you would go heavy-ish but keep 3 or more reps in reserve (e.g., sets of 3 reps at 80 to 85 percent of your max). However, a plan where you train brutally hard and do even a moderate amount of work will yield better results at 3 or 4 weekly workouts than 5 or 6 workouts. The harder you train, the less you can train. It should actually be pretty obvious to anyone who has actually trained. Just look at some examples:

  • Before the 1960s, most lifters trained 3 days a week (Mon-Wed-Fri or Mon-Wed-Sat). That included strength legends like John Grimek, Steve Stanko, and the legends who came before them.
  • Ed Coan, the greatest powerlifter of all time, trained 4 days a week.
  • The Westside Barbell guys (if you don’t know them, you don’t know strength!) train 4 days a week.
  • The Metal Militia lifters (who, for a while, were among the best pressers in the world) train 4 days a week.
  • Hafthor Bjornsson (one of the best strongmen in the world) lifts 3 days a week and has one event day per week.
  • Bill Kazmeir (strongman legend and possibly the best strongman ever) trained 4 days a week.
  • Brian Shaw (one of the best strongmen in the world) trains 4 days a week.

Now, many of these men take anabolic steroids. Steroids help you recover faster. Yet they only train (or trained) 4 days a week. Why would someone without that advantage train hard 5 or 6 days a week? Granted, there are exceptions. There are guys who did train hard and often. However, you will find that the norm is 4 days a week, not more. Try not to look at what the exceptions can handle but what most lifters can do.

Before you tell me about Olympic lifters training 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day, I want to remind you that, first, most of their workouts are skill workouts and they don’t push the sets hard, and second, they are essentially professional athletes who have nothing to do but train and recover. So, what I recommend with this system is hard workouts 3 days a week, on nonconsecutive days. With the possibility of adding a fourth, smaller workout to work on weak points. I call this lower stress workout a gap workout. My traditional schedule looks like this:

Traditional schedule

I also sometimes use a 1-on/1-off schedule without a gap workout. In other words, some weeks you train 3 days a week; other weeks you train 4 days a week. For example, the schedule might look like this:

1-on/1-off schedule without a gap workout

Or, I will use a 1-on/1-off schedule with a gap workout, which might look like this:

1-on/1-off schedule with a gap workout

I use the traditional schedule with 90 percent of the people I work with. The 1-on/1-off without a gap workout works well for people with a bit more stress in their life. The 1-on/1-off with a gap workout is the option that I use with people who have the most stress or a physical job.

Note that some people don’t like whole-body workouts, so I do use an upper-lower split or a whole-body, upper body, and lower body split from time to time. Another option that I really like with this system is the lift-specific approach, which is also a form of upper-lower body split. A lot of people prefer that approach because it allows them to focus on one single goal per workout (improving one lift), and it also works very well with the overload system because it allows us to use several methods for each lift in the same workout (partials, functional isometrics, and holds seem to work better if they are done in the same workout as full-range exercises). In this lift-specific split, you select four lifts you want to focus on and that cover the whole body. For example, the schedule could look like this:

lift-specific split schedule

You can also use a 1-on/1-off schedule instead of the set-in-stone 4 days a week plan:

1-on/1-off schedule

While there are six main lifts in this system (deadlift, squat, bench press, military press, row, explosive pull), and each will have an important impact on your physique and strength, there is another important point I want to make:

  • They don’t all have to be used in every program. You can rotate them.
  • They don’t all have to be treated as primary lifts. For example, the row or high pull can be a secondary movement on one of the training days.

Just because you are doing whole-body sessions doesn’t mean you have to hit four or six main lifts in one workout. You could do two main lifts per day (e.g., overhead press and squat on day 1; bench press and deadlift on day 2; and power cleans and rows on day 3). This would allow you to use two methods and one assistance exercise per lift in each workout, or three methods. It can be a very interesting use of whole-body training. It would essentially be a cross between a whole-body and a lift-specific approach.

There really is more than one way to skin a cat. And no, I’m not saying this to take the easy way out. I always said that the split you use is just about the least important training decision you make. If you pick from one of these, it will work:

Three whole-body workouts (plus an optional gap workout)

Lift-specific split

Lift-specific and whole-body hybrid (one upper and one lower body main lift)

By now, you might be happy to know there are various ways of making this system work, but you may be confused about which split to use. I’ll help you make up your mind!

First, let me say that I learned the hard way that it is always better to recover too much than barely enough (let alone not enough). If you train brutally hard on the methods presented in this book, there is pretty much no way to undertrain with this approach. The other training split options are mostly to fit a certain type of personality. Do not neglect the importance that liking the way you train can have on the gains you get. The more you like your training, the more motivated you will be in the gym and the better you can perform, leading to more gains. So, I’ll be up front and tell you that the two approaches that I like best are the traditional schedule (whole-body workout 3 days a week split with the possibility of adding a gap workout) and the lift-specific split. Which split you choose may depend on your recovery capacities. You can go either with the static 4 days a week schedule (e.g., Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat or Sun-Tue-Thu-Fri)—that’s if you have good recovery capacities—or a 1-on/1-off schedule if you need more recovery time. Table 11.1 provides a brief look at the pros and cons of these two types of schedules.

Table 11.1 Pros and Cons of Lift Schedules: Traditional Versus Lift-Specific Split