Ask 10 coaches what the optimal training frequency for the squat, bench press and deadlift is and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. In powerlifting’s early days, these exercises were typically advised to be trained once per week with squats being on one day, bench on another and deadlift on another separate day. The thought of training an exercise more than twice per week wasn’t very popular and viewed very unorthodox by the majority of lifters.
Discussions regarding optimal training frequency in the past have been difficult as most coaches and/or athletes only had anecdotal evidence to consider as the scientific literature was very sparse. However, in 2012 a group of scientists from Norway decided to conduct a study on training frequency with a group of high-level powerlifters. They compared two groups; one group trained 3x per week and the other trained 6x per week. Both groups completed the exact same sets, reps and intensities and the only difference was how many sessions it was split in to. Without boring you with the details, the 6x per week group had significantly greater strength gains compared to the 3x per week group even though volume was equated. This subsequently led to a heightened interest in training frequency and for the number of scientific studies focusing specifically on frequency and strength to double since 2012.
This research was recently analysed by Greg Nuckols on his site and the results were really interesting. After analysing 13 studies it was clear that higher frequencies resulted in faster strength gains (20-23%) for both trained and non-trained lifters. Interestingly, it was also shown that high frequency training has a significant effect on the upper body but not for the lower body. It was found that pressing exercises can be performed 4-5x for faster strength gains when compared to lower frequencies. However, lower body strength showed no significant differences when high and low frequency was compared.
This analysis may not come to a surprise to you if you are familiar with the Professor of Powerlifting, Boris Sheiko’s methods. Sheiko is famous for his high frequency training, notably using variations of the same exercise within the same session, often times split up by a completely different exercise i.e. squat, bench, squat. Much like Dietmar Wolf, the Norweigan coach at the time of the Norweigan Frequency study (above), Sheiko comes from an Olympic weightlifting background and it was this experience that influenced and shaped his coaching methodology that led Russia to be completely dominant during his reign.
Proponents of a higher frequency model, such as Professor Sheiko, claim that the benefits of this style of training include:
- Potentially greater hypertrophy of the relevant muscles to powerlifting as each muscle is trained more frequently.
- Greater skill acquisition/learning/mastery of the movements themselves as there are simply more opportunities to practice the lifts.
- Improved training quality due to each session being well-within a lifters physical and psychological capabilities.
In the real world, an increase in training frequency is normally used to cause an increase in training volume. It has been shown in the research that increases in training volume can lead to faster strength gains in trained and non-trained populations. For example, by increasing the amount of bench sessions per week it is possible to hit more volume without causing a lifter a massive increase in fatigue. It has been suggested that because the muscles in the upper body are smaller they create less fatigue and recover faster thus meaning they can be trained more often.
Of course, the scientific research is based on averages and we, as coaches/athletes, deal with individuals. This means that optimal training frequency will likely be different from lifter to lifter. For example, a new lifter may benefit from higher frequencies in all of the lifts as they have more opportunities to practice the lifts, greater hypertrophy potential and also aren’t using heavy enough weights to cause significant overall fatigue. However, an elite-level lifter may only squat once per week, deadlift once every 10 days and bench once or twice per week as the loads they are using are so heavy and they are already masterful technicians.
My personal go-to method is to bench/variation 4x per week, squat/variation 2-3x per week and deadlift/variation 1-2x per week. I prescribe a mix of heavy/overloading exercises and technical correction exercises within this prescription to ensure that a lifter is training with enough of a stimulus to cause positive adaptations whilst not over-training. However, this is just a starting point and is adjusted based on the dynamic-relationship between the athlete and the programme.