Which one is right for you?
The debate goes back long before most of you were born. Which is best, volume or frequency bodybuilding? Each has legions of proponents as well as success stories, just as each has its multitude of detractors and those who sneer at its ineffectiveness. Who’s right? Which one really would deliver superior results in terms of mass gains? Let’s delve into the divergent training styles and see if we can’t come up with an answer!
In the 1940’s and 50’s, the era of bodybuilding champions like John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Reg Park, workouts were based on both concepts. The men of that time typically trained the full body three times a week in workouts that could take two hours or more to complete.
At some point, someone decided hitting every muscle group in one session was counterproductive. There is simply no way the muscle groups and bodyparts worked near the end of those marathon sessions could get the same level of energy and focus after you had already slogged your way through most of the body’s musculature.
Thus, the split routine came into practice, where bodybuilders split the body into different workouts. Those could be anything from upper/lower, push/pull/legs, or what would eventually be called the standard or ‘Bro’ type of split, where your training sequence might look something like this:
This allowed bodybuilders to train each muscle group with more volume. Since they only had to focus on one or two muscle groups in a given workout, they could now do as much as 4-8 exercises for it, for an average of 3-4 work sets per exercise.
The volume approach had (and has) several benefits. First, working a muscle group with more volume means you can train it from many different angles. For areas like the back, this is critical for working all of the various muscles and functions that comprise ‘the back.’
You could do a couple different vertical pulling movements like pull-ups and lat pulldowns with different grip positions and hand spacing, and the same for horizontal pulling movements like rows. Add in perhaps a pullover, shrugs, and deadlifts and you have a complete, effective back routine that covers all the bases properly.
If you were attempting to do such a comprehensive back workout along with doing justice to every other bodypart in that same workout, good luck! No one has that type of endurance. You could certainly complete the workout, but there’s no way you would be doing anything productive after about 60-90 minutes in.
In the old days, they had to pare the bodypart exercise selections down to just 2-3 at most, and this wasn’t sufficient for maximum results. This might explain why we didn’t see much development in the back or legs in that bygone era relative to what we witness once split routines and volume training came into vogue. The introduction of AAS into bodybuilding around the early 1960’s certainly played a role in physiques becoming larger, but the importance of volume training can’t be discounted.
Just as few people could withstand full-body workouts, not everyone is suited for volume training. Hitting a muscle group with a blitzkrieg of up to 8-10 different exercises for 3-5 work sets will help some make excellent gains, while others will become overtrained and over time will lose size and strength because their bodies never have a chance to recover and grow.
Another issue is the time factor. A volume workout for an area like back or legs can easily stretch into 90 minutes or even two hours. Not everyone has that kind of time on his or her hands to devote to the gym 4-6 days a week. Recovery will also take longer to complete after a high-volume workout, as the muscle has been subjected to substantial damage.
Those of you who have known what it’s like to have difficulty going up or down stairs for a week after a brutal volume leg workout know exactly what I mean. And in fact, by nature, volume training means you only hit a muscle group once a week There is a school of thought that believes a muscle group needs to be worked more frequently than that for optimal gains. If that’s true, you might be sabotaging your full potential by training a muscle with high volume just once every seven days.
Frequency bodybuilding grew from two things. First, it was a holdover from the old days up to and including the 1980’s in which working bodyparts twice a week was standard. It also had its origins in the Heavy Duty/Blood and Guts/HIT styles in which workouts were extremely intense, yet very brief and thus low in volume. Along the way, someone melded these concepts into the idea of working bodyparts more frequently, yet with less volume.
The idea was that this would give the muscle group more opportunities to stimulate growth, without beating it into the ground with high volume, thus allowing for ample recovery and growth. Probably the best and most successful example of this in application is Dante Trudel’s DC Training. Though the fundamental premise behind DC is becoming gradually stronger in order to get bigger, you can see the role of higher frequency in this sample split:
Monday: chest, shoulders, triceps, back width, back thickness.
Wednesday: biceps, forearms, calves, hamstrings, quads.
Friday: repeat of Mondays body parts.
Monday: repeat of Wednesdays’ body parts.
The first and foremost advantage of higher frequency training is that you have more ‘growth hits.’ If you train your biceps just once a week, that’s 52 growth hits a year. If you work them every third day, that’s 122 chances a year to improve them, or more than twice as many. Many have sworn they experienced their best results training bodyparts twice a week or once every 3-4 days. The workouts are also shorter, or at least they should be, meaning you don’t spend as much time in the gym when you have places to go and things to do.
Even using lower volume, some people do not feel ready, either mentally or physically, to train a muscle group twice per week or even more often. They prefer to have certain days of the week designated for specific bodyparts, such as Monday being their chest day, Saturdays are for legs, and so on. They may even have rituals around these, like having a massive cheat meal the night before their weekly leg workout.
Another issue is DOMS. Some of us experience soreness that is more pronounced and lingers longer. Even if the volume is fairly low, there are those whose legs or chest will stay sore for a minimum of 5 days after workouts. Training a bodypart while it’s still sore is an exercise in futility, as the body is still trying to repair the damage incurred from the last workout.
It seems that those who thrive on volume-based training are usually both older and who have a great deal of training experience. As such, they don’t recover as quickly as they used to, so it makes sense for them to blast a bodypart with plenty of different exercises and multiple sets, then leave it alone for a week.
Though I think most could benefit from training muscle groups with a higher frequency, two groups come to mind who would be best suited for it: beginners and natural bodybuilders. Beginners have not yet built either much size or strength, so they can’t do the same type of damage to their muscles as they will in the future (don’t get confused by the horrible soreness we all experience in the very first workouts we ever do). Most will recover and be ready to train that same muscle group again in 48-72 hours.
Natural bodybuilders also tend to do well hitting muscle groups with less volume but more often. My pet theory on this is that since they lack the powerful anti-catabolic advantages of steroids and GH, waiting an entire week between bodypart workouts means they take two steps forward and one back, losing some of the gains they’d made from the workout because too much time went by. Once a muscle is fully recovered, it needs to be trained again or else it will begin to slowly diminish in size and strength. With powerful drugs combating that process, one can retain their gains longer between workouts.
By now, you may have already come to the conclusion, based on your own preferences and situation, that one of these training styles is a better fit for you than the other. If so, great! But I also feel you don’t necessarily have to choose. You could follow one approach for a period of 2-4 months and then switch to the other for the same amount of time. This would perhaps be even better than choosing one to stick with forever.
I always tell people to try many different approaches and techniques, because otherwise you can never know if there’s one that might have worked fantastically for you. If you only employed the volume approach, it’s possible frequency could work even better for you and you would have missed out on those gains, and vice versa.
Another thing to consider is that your mind and body are both incredibly adaptive. As such, staying with the same routine forever would eventually lead to stagnation and no further improvements in your physique. Why not cycle them? Or, if you have given both a fair trial and find one definitely delivers superior results over the other, that tells you to stay with it and ride out the awesome gains.
So, in the matter of volume vs. frequency bodybuilding, there is no clear winner. Each can do wonderful things for you, or you may even find that cycling back and forth between the two over time is ideal. Never be afraid to try new things and flaunt convention. Now more than ever we are all realizing that ‘thinking outside the box’ often leads to results and solutions we never even dreamed were possible.