Monday, September 27, 2010

Train Less....

Bill pointed me to this really good piece by Paul Ingraham:

Less is Not Less
Go to the gym much less frequently and still gain strength just as quickly

This article thoroughly summarizes scientific research on the question of strength training frequency, and it is a rare example of consensus in exercise science. There is no controversy here: 20+ years of evidence is overwhelmingly clear that most people train more often than they need to.
Read the rest of the article here.

It is interesting in the light of what Doug McGuff wrote last week: The Adaptive Time-Course

This experience has got me thinking that we really have everything about the HIT approach well worked out, except our understanding of the time course of the adaptive process. Ed Garbe discussed his observations that clients always perform better when they come back from vacation and have been off for 14 days. His guess was that for hard-training clients every 9-10 days might be optimal. John Little’s BodPod data shows a range of 10-12 days as an average. In many ways I think that anabolic steroid use may increase the rate of DNA transcription and turnover to compress this time course to accommodate the higher training frequencies of the athletes that are prone to use performance-enhancing agents. It may be that a relatively small portion of their effect is related to supranormal adaptations. Stated differently, perhaps this kind of response could be experienced by natural trainees if we were just patient enough to wait.


Conny said...

As a counterpoint: A metastudy (albeit in German, but the abstract is in English) shows: 3 days per week is the way to go.

John Sifferman said...

That is very interesting. When referencing my training journal, I see some anecdotal evidence that less frequent training still works remarkably well - although maybe not the best for performance-enhancement.

I think the take-home point for me is that adequate strength training progress is still possible with less-than-recommended training frequency. That opens up a sky of possibilities.

Thanks for posting this, Chris.

Sven said...

Here is another german study:

Three times per week achieved the best hypertrophy and strength results but not far ahead of two times per week. For beginners training once a week hypertrophy gains were lower (but not significant) than training two/three times week. The advanced group did not show any hypertrophy gains training once a week.
The study was done on biceps training and lasted 8 weeks. Maybe things start to change when you train bigger muscle groups.

Anonymous said...

Another counterpoint: Olympic weightlifters.

They somehow manage to train twice a day, 6 or 7 times a week without running into over training.
I think the general idea is that this works as long as the lifts aren't so heavy as to be mentally exhaustive.

Eddie said...

I'd suggest that sometimes perceived enhancement might be a consequence of enhanced neurological coordination and efficiency that comes from repetition... at least in part.

Eddie said... regards to people who perceived strength or performance gains in 3+ sessions a week.

Anonymous said...

Oh how funny! Such rare consensus. NOT! 177 studies say so.

"Two meta-analytical investigations, consisting of 177 studies and 1,803 effect sizes (ES) were examined to extract the dose-response continuums for intensity, frequency, volume of training, and the resultant strength increases... For untrained individuals, maximal strength gains are elicited at a mean training intensity of 60% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM), 3 days per week, and with a mean training volume of 4 sets per muscle group. Recreationally trained nonathletes exhibit maximal strength gains with a mean training intensity of 80% of 1RM, 2 days per week, and a mean volume of 4 sets. For athlete populations, maximal strength gains are elicited at a mean training intensity of 85% of 1RM, 2 days per week, and with a mean training volume of 8 sets per muscle group."

Paul Ingraham said...

Hi all, Paul Ingraham here. Thanks for the link to the article.

Thanks for pointing that paper out, Anonymous. Very interesting. However, it does not contradict the consensus I’ve reported. Quite the contrary, it is consistent with the consensus that there is a diminishing returns problem. It states only that that 3 days per week produces maximal strength gains in untrained individuals. Fine. I do not dispute that this may be so. But “maximal” is not the same as “proportionately superior to lower frequencies.”

And the evidence is unanimously clear that 3/week is not proportionately superior to lower frequencies. For the vast majority of people, the time and energy saved by working out less is “the story” here. I have yet to see any evidence that isn’t consistent with that story. That’s the consensus. Show me evidence that 3/week is at least proportionately superior to 2/week or 1/week and that would wreck the consensus!

But the consensus thing is only an interesting angle. With or without consensus, there would be interesting science to discuss!

Sven said...


Look at the study I posted. Regarding hypertrophy you see diminishing returns when you compare 3 times a week with 2 times a week, but not when you compare 2 times a week with once a week.

The advanced group (more than 1 year training experience):

Muscle hypertrophy

1 p.w.: +2,5%
2 p.w.: +4,6%
3 p.w.: +5,3%

1 RM

1 p.w.: +2,7%
2 p.w.: +7,3%
3 p.w.: +12,8%

Paul Ingraham said...

Hi, Sven. Thanks for re-emphasizing the data you cited. I’ve been a bit swamped with correspondence and discussions about this article, so some things are slipping through the cracks. But that study is interesting and I’ll get back here with a more detailed reply later today or tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Paul, let’s go over the references in your article found here:

1/ Only represents an ability to maintain strength for 12 weeks on one day per week. This is not the same as what you say in the header to your article: “Go to the gym much less frequently and still gain strength”.

2/ Does support your new position of proportionality but does not support your original assertion in the article: “The evidence that lower training frequency is more effective seems to be quite substantial”. Less is still less, there was roughly a 10% increase in strength between three workouts per week vs. one per week. It is also possible that insufficient volume further diminished the difference between one day per week and three. See my post where four sets was the mean for maximal gains.

3/ Same as for number one above. Good for maintaining strength not gaining strength.

4/ Same as for number two above. It does support proportionality but, again, two days resulted in roughly a 10% increase in strength over one which is not equivalent to one being “more effective”. Interestingly there was a slight decline in strength for three days per week, possibly due to overtraining given the ages 65 – 79, and the volume and intensity – three sets of eight exercises done at 80% 1RM.

5/ You conceded that less was less here but still managed to misrepresent the study. It specifically represents equal volume regardless of one day or three so your comment about “reclaiming the time spent on two workouts per week” would be factually incorrect.

6/ The information on this study makes it hard to draw conclusions. They used 1RM scores to determine outcome but there is no reference as to what % of 1RM was used for the actual exercise protocol. Apples and oranges?!? Also single sets for nine weeks is not strong data.

7/ This one looks better than number six above, apples to apples, but still is measuring only single sets for eight weeks. Plus it doesn’t quantify the results only stating that they were “statistically similar” which is too vague to hang your hat on.

8/ This study is equal volume like number five above which negates your premise of less time.

9/ Makes no specific claims about frequency.

There are additional issues concerning small sample sizes and potentially better strength gains for untrained people which suggests that one day a week will leave something to be desired beyond a brief initial training period.

All in all I think you overstate your case in the article.

Paul Ingraham said...

Sven, I have published an update to the article. There is a new section that specifically addresses “the German study,” near the end, fairly substantial. In nutshell, I concede that it disturbs the perfection of the consensus I reported, but is “not so much at odds with the themes of this article, namely that the data still confirms that lower training frequencies will get the job done.” I emphasize that it’s just one study, the others can’t be dismissed, and that what matters to most people is that there is at least a respectable chance that reduced frequency doesn’t mean they are wasting their time, and that the worst case scenario is that they will still make steady progress.

Paul Ingraham said...

“Anonymous,” I have no idea who you are, and I’m not much inclined to debate an anonymous critic any more than this:

You make some good points and managed to find a couple trivial inconsistencies in a long article — good work and thanks for the editing. But I can easily debate half your criticisms of the studies, while the other half are minor flaws. And your conclusion that I have “overstated” my case strikes me as being quite non-dire. In a world overflowing with egregious hype and hyperbole and barely ever a mention of actual evidence, I think my article is sober and diligent.

Paul Ingraham said...

I’ve now changed the article to address some of the points Anonymous made that I agreed with, and I’ve also posted a summary of responses to miscellaneous criticisms and suggestions.

Chris said...

paul. Thanks for your comments - really helpful. i am away from the pc at the moment but will respond later.

Chris said...

paul. Thanks for your comments - really helpful. i am away from the pc at the moment but will respond later.

Anonymous said...

Paul, hats off to you for responding to the criticisms posted here. I think you are honest in your endeavor and your update helps people to make informed decisions about their exercise time/effort commitments and expected rewards. I couldn't agree with you more about a world of "egregious hype". You were tested here and responded well which is much to your credit. Again, hats off!

As to your disinclination to debate an anonymous critic I will simply point out that people tend to unquestioningly accept information if they think it comes from a credible source. I choose to post anonymously because I want to promote discovery on the part of interested individuals so they can make their own informed decisions. I make a living in the fitness world. I work with elite athletes and also specialize in rehab (if you're curious about my background) but I don't seek to adorn my comments with a name or reputation for the reason stated above. I am not looking for recognition, prefer my privacy, and am only interested in the quality of the discourse and keeping people honest. The discussion should be focused in the facts and not names and reputations.

Paul Ingraham said...

Thanks, O Anonymous. Point taken about anonymity, and an interesting one it is. I didn’t particularly find your anonymity offensive or inappropriate, and I did respond, as you’ve given me credit for (and thank you) — but, being a primate, I do tend to limit my investment in a debate with an unknown critic. ;-) But feel free to contact me privately by email, if you’d like to introduce yourself. Thanks again for your feedback.

Paul Ingraham said...

Thanks for giving me credit for responding smartishly, I appreciate that. I have little investment in a position here — I’m just interested in what the data actually says. I will go wherever the evidence takes me. If it takes me too far from the theme I started with, I will change the theme and publish an actual retraction. I’ve done this many times on It’s kind of fun to admit wrongness. Liberating, really.

As for the anonymity thing, rest assured I wasn’t offended or outraged. My reluctance to engage much was just a primate thing: I just like to know who I’m talking to. But point well taken that there’s a lot to be said for debating the evidence and not a personality.

Dan said...

I would guess that nutrition is a limiting factor that partially determines the rate of diminishing returns. Adding additional workouts won't do you any good if your body doesn't have all the fuel it needs to rebuild itself.

Has nutrition been adequately addressed in these studies? Is it possible that the nutrition variable could explain the proportionately seen in the German study?

Paul Ingraham said...

Dan, that does seem logical, but if the last fifty years of exercise science have proved anything, it’s that what “makes sense” is not necessarily the case. ;-) No, I don’t think any of these studies looked at nutrition. Most experiments are trying to eliminate variables so that the effect of a single factor can be studied. Of course, in the real world we are very much interested in the relationship between factors like training frequency and nutrition — in fact, I was wondering exactly that over the past month, as I am currently both dieting and training. But to effectively study such intersections, you have to have much larger and more carefully designed (i.e. more expensive) studies. That kind of money only gets spent on the most prominent questions in exercise and nutrition ... and, of course, even then the results are generally highly controversial and debated ad infinitum.

It would be interesting to live in a world where there was enough respect for science, and a high enough value placed upon it, that we actually could get questions like this answered!

Jeffrey said...

I love the way you say it, "less is not less". Even much less you visit your gym, you still gain strength.

Thanks to this article...

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alprazolam buy online said...

Dan, that does seem logical, but if the last fifty years of exercise science have proved anything, it’s that what “makes sense” is not necessarily the case. ;-) No, I don’t think any of these studies looked at nutrition.