I have observed confusion regarding training frequency often enough (HAH) that I feel it’s time to address it as I understand it. This won’t be anything new in terms of the ideas I’ve expressed, but I feel it will help frame the subject in a manner that will make it more understandable.
Ya know...something like this
A prevailing belief at the moment is that frequency of training a movement is the primary determinant in building said movement. One must squat frequently in order to build a bigger squat, one must deadlift frequently in order to build a bigger deadlift, etc. This is why programs like Starting Strength are popular for beginner lifters and Smolov popular for non-beginners; they have on frequently performing a lift, so they are good at building said lift.
This understanding creates confusion when analyzing programs with low frequency of lifts. Plain vanilla 5/3/1 has you perform each lift once a week, Westside doesn’t have you perform the competition lift UNTIL the meet, DoggCrapp takes 2 weeks before you come back to a lift, etc etc. These programs WORK, and people can’t understand HOW. How can you possibly improve the squat if you aren’t squatting? The answer always boils down to steroids and genetics, and this is simply the lazy way out of the problem. There is a real answer, and it’s far simpler, yet not easy.
Beating the Hulk is simple; just punch him hard enough. No way is that easy though.
We once again have arrived at the topic of skill vs strength; two ways one can improve the lift. Performing the movement frequently greatly improves the skill in performing the lift. This typically results in dramatic increases in the amount of weight moved, as one rapidly improves their skill at the movement and gets better and better at it with such frequent practice. It’s like practicing and instrument; the more you pick it up and play the scales, the better you get. However, skill can only be so perfected before one has reached the point of diminishing returns, which is why we eventually witness plateaus and, in most cases, regression after one has “overpracticed” the movement through frequency. Eventually, repetitive motion injuries set in and it is time to reduce frequency in order to recover.
So the other way to improve a lift? Strength, as we mentioned earlier. How do we improve strength? By strengthening the muscles involved IN the lift itself. Now, popular internet folklore would have you believe that the best assistance movement for the squat IS the squat. This is once again the work of people who don’t like thinking. These people misunderstand the difference between strength and skill. When given the task to make their squat stronger, they simply interpret that to mean “squat more weight”, so they pick the avenue that results in rapid improvement; skill work. Strength takes TIME to develop. Strength doesn’t accumulate rapidly, which is why most folks don’t like to build it. It’s unrewarding to get stronger, and most folks would rather get better.
Or this I suppose
This is how programs like 5/3/1, Westside, DoggCrapp, etc, all improve the numbers on lifts; they make STRONGER lifters, not necessarily BETTER lifters. These programs are more focused on improving the muscles involved in the lift and developing the ability of the trainee to strain and grind. These programs tend to be rife with assistance work that isn’t at all similar to the movement being trained. Westside is especially notorious for this, with lots of sled dragging, reverse hypers, glute ham raises, etc, all to build the posterior chain. DoggCrapp is a “bodybuilding program”, but I benched the most I ever did in a powerlifting meet while I was following it, and many followers report amazing strength gains while following it. Even though the movement isn’t being practiced much (if at all), the muscles involved are becoming STRONGER, and as a result, improvements on the lift are observed.
Why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be that frequency ALSO builds strength? Well, as already discussed, too much frequency is a bad thing. Repetitive motion injuries are common (look up all the horror stories of people following Smolov and having the hips and knees of an 80 year old…and they consider that something to be proud of), and performing the same max effort movement for more than 3 weeks tend to result in burnout, while changing things around keeps your body fresh. One other significant point to consider is this; if you perform ONLY the squat to improve your squat, you will always strengthen the same strongpoints and neglect the same weakpoints. If the movement does not change, neither does the stimulus, and you will eventually reach the point where your weakpoints are holding back your ability to employ your strongpoints. If your squat style emphasizes your hamstrings and downplays your quads, eventually your quads will be too weak to allow you to recruit your hamstrings, because your squat style has done NOTHING to bring up your quads. However, if you run a cycle of front squats, or reverse sled drags, or god forbid leg extensions, you will actually strengthen your neglected area to the point that you can tap further into the potential you’ve built.
This understanding is necessary to intelligently make decisions regarding training. Too many people oppose a program like 5/3/1 for a beginner because it “lacks frequency”, but this is an amateur understanding of the process. A beginner that employs a program with low frequency of movements might observe slow improvements on the amount of weight moved, but this doesn’t indicate a slow progression of strength built. The strength may not be REALIZED as quickly as possible…but why does that matter? Why is it that the same beginners who say they have no interest in competing are all locked into this weird pseudo competition to see who can squat 225lbs first? You can “maximize beginner gains” at the start by rapidly practicing a few movements before you eventually plateau and HAVE to spend time in a dedicated strength BUILDING phase OR you could just build strength while also getting some practice in and just keep up the increases at a steady pace. The “slow” progression of programs like 5/3/1 is simply the process of building strength as you realize it, which means you can just keep training for an almost indefinite period of time while observing steady increases in the amount of weight moved.
I mean...it worked for this guy
I mean…doesn’t that sound awesome?