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In Defense of Frequent Training

June 2, 2003 11:27 AM

In website 'courtrooms' all across the internet, you can find the same trial played out time and time again: Frequent Training stands accused of the heinous crimes of Causing Overtraining in the First Degree, Causing Injuries in the First Degree, and Simply Not Working in the Second Degree. And the verdict is always the same: Frequent Training (often four or more days per week) is sentenced to be outcast from society, to be replaced by Infrequent Training (usually only one or two days per week). As Not-So-Legal Representation for the Defendant, Frequent Training, I intend to prove, through the testimony of numerous Expert Witnesses, that Frequent Training has worked in the past and still works today. I submit to you as well, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, that the blame for Overtraining and Injuries lies not with Frequent Training but with the manner in which it is applied by the trainee.


If it pleases the Court, I would like to call my first group of Witnesses for the Defense. They are all Subject Experts of some renown in the areas of Physical Culture and Weightlifting; their names should be instantly recognizable to everyone on the Jury. They would, if they were here to do so, swear to tell the truth, and nothing but ... etc.

Arthur Saxon -- In his first book, 'The Development of Physical Power', he states "... I would say that if you must use dumb-bells for daily training, use heavy ones with fewer repetitions rather than light bells with numerous repetitions." He goes on to say that a practicing weightlifter in good hard condition "... would perhaps find it beneficial to use about 15 or 17 lbs. in either hand, at least, and to do a series of useful exercises similar to the positions practiced in heavy weight-lifting proper, say six or seven times each hand. This might be done with advantage perhaps twice per day, except when practicing with weights, on which days no other exercises need be taken." As for a routine of training, Arthur later declares that "... it will be found correct in most instances to practice twice per week ... On the days when you do not practice with heavy weights you might try a few movements with a heavy pair of dumb-bells from 10 to 30 lbs. in weight, according to your strength and development. Add to this your favorite sports ... and the weight-lifting practices, and you should be doing quite sufficient work to not only keep you fit but to bring you to the top of the tree ..." As a means of avoiding the dreaded Overtraining, or going 'stale', Arthur suggests adjusting your work to your condition at the moment. He states, "If you feel yourself in good form -- specially 'fit' -- then that is the time to try a 'limit' lift. Note what you have raised that day -- the weight and the date -- and at another suitable time see if you can surpass your last record lift by a few points." In his second book, 'Textbook of Weight-Lifting', he puts it most simply: "If a man seriously proposes to go in for lifting heavy weights, he should make a point of practicing certain lifts every day. This daily practice is absolutely essential to the achievement of any real success." Few would argue with Mister Saxon's success!

George Hackenschmidt -- Early on in his book, 'The Way to Live', George declares his position quite clearly: "I have the firm conviction that in time everyone will recognize the necessity of daily bodily exercises ..." In response to the excuse-makers he is equally clear: "... there is always some time available every day which can be devoted to physical exercises ... If you wish to become strong and well, you must attend to this ..." George testifies that, "As a principal rule I should stipulate for regularity of training ... Hence it is advisable to exercise as nearly as possible at the same hour every day." He follows that with the recommendation that "... exercises should not exceed one quarter of an hour at the commencement, and should only be increased by five minutes in a few months. Afterwards, about thirty minutes are fully sufficient to the acquisition and preservation of strength and endurance." He further states that his readers should "... map out a certain plan, according to which they exercise all the muscle groups twice ... on six days, if time allows." George goes on to suggest -- for beginners and for those without access to equipment -- a series of calisthenics to be performed every day. However, he's fairly quick to add that, while a man "... may secure and maintain a condition of fair physical fitness by means of exercise without weights ... he cannot hope to become really strong unless he exercises with weight ..." He then details several series' of barbell exercises to replace or supplement the daily bodyweight work. But of course, there's more; and I believe this is the most important part. After a period of time -- three or four months -- spent on practicing the barbell exercises, one should perceive a great increase in strength. "If it is intended to further increase it, one should begin to train once or twice per week ... with heavier weights." In the interests of safety and easing into it, George recommends "... the use for six months only of such weights as one can handle at least five to ten times ... and on such days avoid part, if not all, ordinary exercises." He concludes his testimony by establishing certain timetables for training. "I would here suggest a general classification of daily training ..." In short, his idealized program would be: 15 to 20 minutes light exercises following the morning bath; breakfast followed by a long walk; an hour of any kind of vigorous exercise around noon; lunch, and perhaps a nap; an hour of vigorous exercise for all muscles between 5 and 6 PM; dinner and some restful activity outside; and then to bed. He also outlines a more convenient and practical schedule of training for those with full-time jobs, wherein people should extend their exercises over a longer period: In the AM, before breakfast, a short cold bath followed by light-weight exercises for muscles which specially need development; in the PM, after dinner and a short rest, perform your vigorous exercises. In direct response, it would seem, to the Prosecution, Infrequent Training, George writes how "... it might be said that no one can continue to perform these exercises every day without 'knocking oneself up'. To these I would reply, try it, and you will probably decide differently afterwards. Remember, though, that you must go slowly." The significance of this last sentiment cannot be understated!

Alan Calvert, the so-called Originator of Progressive Weight-Lifting in America -- In his 1911 text, 'The Truth About Weight-Lifting', Alan first clarifies the difference between weight-lifting proper, which is "... the lifting of heavy dumbbells in the standard feats [in other words, the competition lifts: snatches, swings, jerks, etc.]" and heavy dumbbell exercises, which "... are practiced with moderately heavy dumbbells, or barbells, and are intended to prepare the muscles for the more arduous work of weight-lifting." He goes on to state: "... I have known many athletes who got very good results by practicing heavy dumbbell exercises two or three times a week, and practicing weight-lifting once or twice a week ..." Later on, when comparing the training of weight-lifters with prize-fighters, he declares that "The average weight-lifter trains from 15 to 30 minutes every day [Jurors, please note: this falls directly in line with Hackenschmidt's testimony regarding the duration of daily exercises.] ... while the prize-fighter will subject himself to a period of the most vigorous training and will then relax into a period of the utmost indulgence. Prize-fighters frequently die of consumption." Towards the end of the book, he writes about how most professional lifters "... train only for a short time every day" and how a "... total of two hours' time each week is enough to keep a man in the highest possible condition ..."

Henry Higgins -- Henry, in his 'Strength and Muscle Course: The Secret of the Professional Strong Man's Strength', does indeed divulge that secret. He makes perhaps the strongest case of all for Frequent Training. He declares that "... the secret ... is so simple that when it is known most any man can make use of it to make a physical marvel out of himself." He then goes on to tell of employing the secret in his own training and that of hundreds of others. "This secret," he writes, "in a word, is nothing more than graded training with heavy dumbbells and heavy weights of various sorts. Daily practice in lifting dumbbells and weights is all that is necessary in order to become a very great strong man." He does, however, warn that the training must be intelligently done, or serious injury could result. Henry lays it out plainly when he testifies that any man who "... sets out to train himself for strength by daily doing some lifting of dumbbells or other weights, will become far stronger than the average athlete. With a little care and judgment he can avoid straining himself or otherwise over doing his exertions. [Again we see the common thread of training smart, of using common sense.] He commences to explain how he met a young Harvard medical student who was just recovering from typhoid fever, and how Henry trained that fellow to the point where the man was able to push up a bell of 100 lbs. with one hand; six months later the same man was pressing a bell of 160 lbs. It seems clear that Henry's method of Frequent Training works! He does emphasize, though, that one should work within their limit, and when he trained people he always made a point of "... starting them with weights suitable for their strength ..." His recommended training procedure was the same even for the feats of strength such as back-lifting, harness-lifting, etc. "By daily practice at all these feats, the average man can so improve himself that he can, in time, vie with the professionals." In discussing his own training of the back-lift, Henry makes some telling remarks: "... I used to lift 20 times each day a weight that I could easily handle. At the end of each two weeks I would add such weight as my improvement permitted. But I always made it a point not to lift to the limit of my powers. By lifting well within himself in practice, a man will do much better in training." Henry also makes it clear that there are no quick fixes or overnight miracles: "The man who practices with care and judgment and keeps it up for a number of years, he can become a lifter of the first rank ... it will take a few years to make a big showing. Many strong men practice for a period of 10 years." He concludes his testimony by saying that any pupil who practices every day "... will at the end of a year be surprised at the great increase of strength that he will build up in himself." He then provides sage advice on routine design, as well as -- again! -- an emphasis on working within one's ability: "... the pupil should work in 2 week periods, and then add weight to his lifts. Care should be taken not to add much weight in any advance effort. It is always safe to lift less than your full strength will permit." Obviously a very strong Witness, providing rebuttal to two of the Prosecution's most damning charges: that Frequent Training does not work, and that Frequent Training will cause overtraining.


In response to cries from the Prosecution, Infrequent Training, that "These Experts are too old! Things were different then! Things have changed in the training world, thanks to science!", I would like to present my second set of Expert Witnesses. Again, they will be people who are recognized for their knowledge and ability in the fields of strength training and physical fitness. They would swear, for the most part, to tell the truth, etc ...

Steve Justa -- Steve is a big old boy from the Midwest, and he is ridiculously strong. He's over 40 years old now, and he still uses his training philosophy to get stronger every day. Anyone who has read his book, 'Rock, Iron, Steel: The Book of Strength', or any of his articles in MILO magazine, will know his position on the frequency of training. He outlines in his book several different training ideas, from carrying, dragging, or pushing weight, to isometrics, to partial movements, to barrel lifting. In almost every program, he suggests training every day. In his chapter on heavy singles he offers several strategies for making singles work. The first involves choosing one lift and working that lift every day, starting with three singles at 70% of your max and adding two reps per day up to 15 reps; then you add 5-10 pounds and start again at three reps; once per month you test your max and adjust your training weight up or down to keep it at 70%. Steve writes: "This workout must be done seven days a week, 365 days a year. Each week, you are building your endurance and toughening your tendons and ligaments by doing more work by the end of each cycle, and then during the next week, or cycle as I call it, you're adding more weight and doing it all over again. The great thing about this type of training is that you will build great strength without really ever making yourself tired because the body is adjusting naturally and rhythmically." He then explains his concept of the training zone, which is a percentage of your max in any lift, normally between 70%-80% of your 1RM. "This is the zone you must stay in when training to get stronger the fastest. I believe the 70% of max range is better than the 80% of max range. There cannot be enough said about staying in this zone to develop super strength ... Nothing will stop your progress in your quest for strength faster than when you try to lift too heavy too fast." [Again we see the importance of working within your limits!] Steve explains how something happens to you mentally when the weights start to go above 70% or so of your max, when you go too heavy too fast. "For some reason, to the ambitious strength athlete, the thought of having to take weight off of a lift you've already done is a fate worse than death itself. And this is a mentality you must not carry." He stresses again and again that not staying within your limits "... is the single biggest factor in defeat when talking super strength." At the end of the book, Steve outlines a training philosophy and plan of attack for would-be lifters. He emphasizes the need to establish a base, to be patient, persistent, and consistent, not to jump into doing more work or more weight than you are able. "You build the base over and over again, layer by layer ... Gradually let it build, little by little, bit by bit ... Too much work for a weak base is disastrous ..." Then he slips in his most profound advice yet, and this is the key to making Frequent Training work: "Remember, you should always feel stronger after your training than before you started. If you feel weak after a training session, you've overdone it." He finishes with some advice on putting together a routine. "Start with weights that feel fairly light, and work and build up from there ... Then after a couple of weeks of working with light weights, you should be tough enough to start adding weight ... After your two-week break-in period, you need to jump to weights that feel medium-heavy to you." Again he emphasizes the key: "Now the key is to have the patience to stay with this medium-heavy weight every day until it actually starts to feel light, even if you have to stay at that same weight for a month." He makes a case for being smart in your training: "... a little bit every day is a whole lot smarter and more productive than a whole lot one day a week." He warns about too much volume in your workouts as well, by commenting that, if you choose to do six or seven lifts a day, you'll want to cut back on the sets to avoid doing too much work; if you do only one lift a day, you can obviously work it a lot more. "The best thing to do is a little bit of everything from time to time, but for most of the time, stick to the workout strategy and the lifts you choose on a consistent basis." In concluding his testimony, Steve writes: "The best advice is to do as much as you can without ever making yourself tired. Learn to listen to your body. Always try to end your workouts feeling stronger than you did before you started. In this way you'll have plenty of strength."

Tudor O. Bompa -- As a very brief Scientific Witness for the Defense, Tudor submits the following from his book, 'Serious Strength Training, Second Edition', under a discussion on the rest intervals between strength-training sessions: "The energy source used during training is probably the most important factor to consider when planning the RI between sessions. For example, during the maximum-strength phase, when you are taxing primarily the ATP/CP system, daily training is possible because ATP/CP restoration is complete within 24 hours."

Matt Furey -- In his 'Combat Conditioning' book he responds to the question, "How often should I train?" -"Follow animals in the wild. They don't exercise once or twice a week ... My advice is simple: Do a few of the exercises in this book every day. Work harder some days than others, but do something every day." When asked whether one can do the squats, push-ups, and bridging every day, he replies, "Yes, you can ... Combat Conditioning is not like bodybuilding, where you train certain body parts one day and others the next. Take monkeys and other primates ... They do the same type of exercises each day and they're far stronger than human beings." In response to the question, "How long should my workout last?", Matt states that it all depends on your goals and how much time you have. "You might train 15 minutes and you might train for a couple hours or more." The Prosecution, Infrequent Training, might at this time exclaim that this advice is in reference to bodyweight-only exercises and would not apply to the lifting of very heavy weights! Well, I submit to you, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, that bodyweight drills can be quite demanding, and if improperly used can, in fact, lead to overtraining -- in much the same way as lifting weights.

Pavel Tsatsouline -My star witness' work is founded on a combination of the training of the Old-Timers and the research of modern Russian Sports Science. In fact, he gives scientific validation to many of the methods used by the Old-Timers, proving that they were a lot smarter than we might give them credit for. His methods, while effective for anyone, have found particular success with those who put on the line every day their most valuable possession: their lives; these are members of various military special operations units, Federal law enforcement agencies, and local law enforcement/SWAT teams. If these people trust his methods to save their lives, that should say all that needs to be said. 'The Evil Russian' has done more in the past few years to champion the cause of Frequent Training than anyone else that I'm aware of. In his landmark tome, 'The Russian Kettlebell Challenge', Pavel offers several training guidelines, the first of which is to train 2-7 times a week, varying the length of each workout. He declares that, if you are in the military or law enforcement or are a serious athlete "... you will be better off training daily; you will get a lot less sore. Naturally, do less than you would if you trained less frequently." He continues by discussing the duration of the sessions: "... in the beginning you may be shot in less than ten minutes, so obviously ease into it." [Yet again, we see the admonition to use common sense and not to over exert yourself.] According to Pavel, "Manipulating the length of a session is an indirect way to manipulate the training load. Varying the latter from day to day helps to make quicker progress." Pavel puts it quite simply when he writes: "Do not freak out about training the same movement or the same body part for two or more days in a row ... The key to successful frequent training is constant variation of the loading variables: weights, reps, sets, rest periods, tempo, exercise order, exercise selection, etc." In response to the Prosecution, Infrequent Training, regarding their overwhelming fear of Overtraining, Pavel is quite clear: "Do not be afraid to push into slight overtraining and then back off with lighter workouts ... A controlled state of overtraining followed by easier training is THE most effective tool of strength development if used wisely." In his most recent work, the book 'From Russia with Tough Love', he again offers guidelines for freestyle kettlebell training, in which he stresses, first and foremost, the need to be smart in your training and to "Use your good judgment, and listen to your body." A favorite catch-phrase of the 'Evil Russian' is Professor Zatsiorsky's 'Train as often as possible while being as fresh as possible.' Pavel takes this to mean not only daily workouts, but multiple daily workouts: "Russian researchers discovered that fragmentation of the training volume into smaller units is very effective for promoting strength adaptation, especially in the nervous system ... In other words, 1 set 6 days a week is superior to 2 sets 3 times a week ... Try to train daily, if you can. Better yet, chop up your daily workload into multiple mini-sessions. Motor-learning Comrades know that while the number of trials is important, the frequency of practice is even more critical." In his phenomenal video series 'Rapid Response: The SWAT Strength and Conditioning Program', Pavel gives quite a dissertation on why Frequent Training with heavy weight and low reps is best: "It was discovered ... if you keep your reps to five and less; if you rest sufficiently between sets -- like 3-5 minutes -- your soreness is virtually non-existent. Fatigue is very minimal." He then goes on to sum it up: "Here's the point: If you gradually ease into that sort of program; if you never train to failure, but go heavy; keep your reps low, sets low -- for example, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps -- your muscles are torn down minimally. Mostly the adaptation comes in the nervous system; you learn to contract them harder. As a result of that, you're getting stronger, you recover from it immediately, and you're combat-ready all the time." Pavel likens strength training to an exercise in skill; it is the skill of using your muscles more efficiently. "To excel at a skill, you must practice it perfectly, which means without burnout or fatigue. And you must practice it frequently; you get better at something the more you do it." As a result of this type of training, Pavel points out that "... you will have great energy, little or no soreness whatsoever, and a great level of strength." What more could one ask for in a strength training program?

In conclusion, I submit to you, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, that Frequent Training has a long history of safe and effective use. In light of all the previous testimony given by the Expert Witnesses, it should be obvious that Frequent Training is not to be condemned and subsequently outcast based on its misuse by an ignorant few (and I hate to admit that I was once one of them). Ultimately, however, the fate of Frequent Training is in your hands; do with it what you will.

Making Frequent Training Work For You
In reviewing the 'court records' of the testimony of the various Witnesses, one can compile a short list of guidelines that the trainee can use to make Frequent Training safer and more effective:
- Most importantly, ease into it. You can't lift to your max -- weights, reps, or overall volume -- right from the jump and expect to succeed. After a couple weeks of lighter break-in work, gradually but steadily move your weights/reps up.
- Listen to your body. If a weight feels too heavy, it probably is. A rule of thumb: if you have to psyche up for a lift, it's too heavy to be training with. You should always be training within your limits. (Training for a competition is another story; sometimes you need to push a little harder.)
- If you choose to push the envelope in some sessions, only do it once or twice a week, then back off with easier workouts. Ideally, you should max only a couple times a month. And don't be afraid to skip a couple workouts if you feel the need to.
- Understand that the purpose of a workout is not always to leave you in a quivering, sweat-soaked lump on the floor. (If you are training to effect morphological/compositional changes in your body -- to gain muscle or lose fat -- this rule may not apply; harder but somewhat less frequent training may be necessary in these cases.) It may help you to think of your training sessions as a practice rather than a workout. End your practice feeling stronger and more energized than when you started.
- Keep your sessions short. An hour is a long workout if you are training daily; 45 minutes should be the top end, with most of your practices averaging about 20-30 minutes.
- Keep your routines simple. Pick a couple core drills that you want to focus on and work them regularly and consistently, then vary the rest of your training according to how you feel -- within reason, of course. Have a handful of other lifts that you enjoy, and rotate them into your program on a steady basis, but don't try to do it all at once.
- Training daily while not doing the same thing every day may work best for many people. According to Pavel, from one of his many posts on the Dragon Door forum, "... when you train for strength rather than bodybuilding, you may split the lifts, but not muscle groups. E.g., squat day, DL day; not quad day and back day. There is such a thing as fatigue specificity which means that even though you have not recovered enough from SQs to SQ, you are good for DLs which use the same muscles."