Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable
for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy?
Scott J. Dankel
•Kevin T. Mattocks
•Matthew B. Jessee
•Samuel L. Buckner
•J. Grant Mouser
Brittany R. Counts
•Gilberto C. Laurentino
•Jeremy P. Loenneke
ÓSpringer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
Abstract The principle of progressive overload must be
adhered to for individuals to continually increase muscle
size with resistance training. While the majority of trained
individuals adhere to this principle by increasing the
number of sets performed per exercise session, this does
not appear to be an effective method for increasing muscle
size once a given threshold is surpassed. Opposite the
numerous studies examining differences in training loads
and sets of exercise performed, a few studies have assessed
the importance of training frequency with respect to muscle
growth, none of which have tested very high frequencies of
training (e.g., 7 days a week). The lack of studies exam-
ining such frequencies may be related to the American
College of Sports Medicine recommendation that trained
individuals use split routines allowing at least 48 h of rest
between exercises that stress the same muscle groups.
Given the attenuated muscle protein synthetic response to
resistance exercise present in trained individuals, it can be
hypothesized that increasing the training frequency would
allow for more frequent elevations in muscle protein syn-
thesis and more time spent in a positive net protein balance.
We hypothesize that increasing the training frequency, as
opposed to the training load or sets performed, may be a
more appropriate strategy for trained individuals to pro-
gress a resistance exercise program aimed at increasing
Individuals are likely completing a volume of
resistance exercise above that which is beneﬁcial for
The muscle protein synthetic response to resistance
exercise would seemingly favor higher frequencies
Reducing the training volume and increasing the
frequency may be beneﬁcial for muscle hypertrophy.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends
that individuals looking to increase muscle size perform
two to four sets of exercise targeting each muscle group
two to three times per week . It is also recommended
that individuals perform between 8 and 12 repetitions per
set using a load corresponding to C70 % of the individual’s
one-repetition maximum (1RM) . As individuals
become trained and start to adapt to resistance exercise, an
increased stress must be placed on the musculature to allow
the possibility for further muscle growth. This principle of
progressive overload can be adhered to by undertaking one
or more of the following three modiﬁcations: (1) increasing
the absolute training load performed for a set number of
repetitions, (2) increasing the number of sets, and/or (3)
increasing the frequency of exercise. It is well known that
increases in muscle size are attenuated with training [2–5],
with *70 % of muscle growth proposed to occur within
the ﬁrst several weeks . While part of the attenuated
&Jeremy P. Loenneke
Department of Health, Exercise Science, and Recreation
Management, Kevser Ermin Applied Physiology Laboratory,
The University of Mississippi, P.O. Box 1848, University,
MS 38677, USA
muscle growth can be attributed to individuals approaching
their genetic potential (i.e., the ﬁnite amount of muscle
they can accrue), it may also be partially due to an
increased difﬁculty of providing a more effective stimulus.
Herein we discuss the current literature examining different
methods of progressive overload and explain why, in our
opinion, increasing the training frequency may be the most
effective way for trained individuals to progress a resis-
tance training program aimed at increasing muscle size.
2 Increasing the Absolute Load
One strategy by which an individual can progress a muscle
hypertrophy-focused training program is to increase the
absolute training load that is lifted for a set number of
repetitions (or maintain a constant absolute training load
and perform more repetitions per set). However, increasing
the absolute training load will become more difﬁcult as
strength gains are attenuated with continued training .
Once an individual can no longer increase the absolute
training load while maintaining a similar repetition range,
they must adhere to the principle of progressive overload to
further increase muscle size. This can be done by either
increasing the number of sets performed for each muscle
group or increasing the frequency at which each muscle
group is trained.
3 Increasing the Sets
Individuals can progress a resistance training program by
increasing the number of sets performed for a given muscle
group. While this is commonly referred to as exercise
volume, the reporting of exercise volume has notable lim-
itations in that it is entirely dependent on the absolute and
relative load used. Brieﬂy, muscle growth appears to be
highly dependent on fatiguing the muscle, whereby the
muscle is brought to a point at or near contractile failure to
increase motor unit recruitment/activation . Low-load
protocols require substantially more repetitions to elicit
contractile failure, thus requiring more volume to produce
similar elevations in muscle protein synthesis [9,10] and
muscle hypertrophy . Given that the level of effort to
reach volitional failure, as opposed to fatigue per se,
appears to be primarily driving muscle hypertrophy , we
refer to ‘sets of exercise’ rather than ‘exercise volume’ to
account for negligible differences in the reporting of
exercise volume (i.e., lower loads require greater absolute
volume to reach contractile failure ).
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends
that more advanced lifters use split routines training one to
three muscle groups per workout to allow for more sets per
muscle group to be completed within a given training
session . In support of this recommendation, the
majority of bodybuilders perform around four sets per
exercise, while performing four different exercises target-
ing each muscle group, thus totaling 16 sets of exercise
targeting a speciﬁc muscle group within a single training
session . While increasing the number of sets per-
formed in a given session would adhere to the principle of
progressive overload, there appears to be a point where no
additive beneﬁt (with respect to muscle hypertrophy) is
seen from performing additional sets of exercise within a
given training session. The point at which the anabolic
response is maximized would also appear to be much lower
than what is typically performed by trained individuals
. For example, one acute (short-term) study found no
difference in muscle protein synthesis after performing
three or six sets of resistance exercise , and this is
supported by a training study illustrating similar increases
in muscle size upon completing either four sets or eight sets
per training session . Although both of these studies
were performed in untrained individuals [13,14], similar
increases in muscle size have been observed comparing
one, two, or four sets of exercise per training session over
10 weeks in trained individuals .
Although a meta-analysis supports the efﬁcacy of
greater exercise volume , considerable heterogeneity
was present in the studies included for analysis , and
the only signiﬁcant difference was observed when com-
paring one set with three sets. Even if a small difference
exists between one and three sets of exercise, there is likely
a threshold whereby increasing the sets of exercise per-
formed per muscle group within a given training session
does not necessarily provide greater muscle growth .
Speciﬁcally, this point of diminishing returns would likely
be much lower than what is typically performed by trained
individuals looking to increase muscle size (16 sets) .
This may be analogous to protein consumption where 10 g
of protein may be better than 5 g for muscle growth, but
consuming 80 g is not necessarily better for muscle growth
than consuming 40 g . For this reason, increasing the
number of sets performed in a given training session may
simply prolong fatigue without providing a greater increase
in muscle size.
4 The Case for Frequency
Few studies have examined the efﬁcacy of high-frequency
training, which may be in part related to the American
College of Sports Medicine’s recommendation that indi-
viduals rest at least 48 h between training similar muscle
groups . This recommendation may also explain why
68 % of bodybuilders report only training a speciﬁc muscle
S. J. Dankel et al.
group once per week , and none of the 127 that were
sampled reported training a speciﬁc muscle group more
than twice per week . It is also likely that the longer
recovery periods are necessary to allow sufﬁcient recovery
from the previous bout of exercise, given that the average
bodybuilder performs 16 sets of exercise targeting a
speciﬁc muscle group within a given training session .
In response to resistance exercise, individuals undergo
an elevated muscle protein synthetic response that lasts at
least 24 , 36 , or 48  h post-exercise. The
magnitude and duration of the elevated protein synthetic
response appears to be blunted in trained individuals .
Therefore, given that a relatively low number of sets (i.e.,
four sets to volitional failure) may be sufﬁcient to elicit a
large increase in protein synthesis for up to 24 h post-
exercise , performing fewer sets may be more effective
at reducing prolonged fatigue and allowing the same
muscle group to be trained more frequently. The more
repetitive stimuli would hypothetically result in a greater
time spent in a net-positive protein balance, and it can
therefore be hypothesized that trained individuals may see
greater beneﬁts in muscle growth by keeping the same
number of sets performed per week but simply dispersing
them over a greater number of training sessions (Fig. 1).
This would allow for the avoidance of ‘wasted sets’ in
terms of muscle hypertrophy, while also allowing for a
hypothetical refractory period to pass before additional
exercise is performed. While hypothetical, this refractory
period may work in a similar manner to that of nutrition-
induced muscle protein synthesis , whereby a certain
time period must elapse before the muscle protein synthetic
response from resistance exercise can be re-stimulated.
However, this refractory period may be relatively short and
may even be overcome within a 24-h window .
Increasing the training frequency may be somewhat less
effective for untrained individuals given the longer dura-
tion for which muscle protein synthesis is elevated post-
exercise (Fig. 2). Nonetheless, for trained individuals, it
would likely be beneﬁcial to progressively increase the
training frequency from one to two times a week to two to
three times a week in which the same muscle groups are
stressed. As individuals become accustomed to training the
same muscle group at higher frequencies, it may be ben-
eﬁcial to perform full-body routines daily, or every other
day, depending on how individuals recover from exercise.
5 Previous Studies Assessing Training Frequency
A review paper demonstrated that the increase in muscle
size per training session (*0.15 %) does not differ
depending on whether high or low frequencies are
employed . Therefore, individuals who train more
frequently would likely observe larger increases in muscle
mass over the same time period given that more training
sessions can be performed. However, this review  was
not designed to examine the importance of training fre-
quency as all other training variables were not held con-
stant. Another recent meta-analysis concluded that volume-
equated resistance training dispersed over two sessions per
week was more effective than performing a larger volume
in one session ; however, the analysis included insuf-
ﬁcient studies to enable evaluation of training frequencies
greater than twice per week. To our knowledge, only three
studies have set out to directly assess the importance of
training frequency while using a direct measure of muscle
size. One study assessed trained individuals targeting the
same muscle groups once versus three times per week 
and noted a general trend toward greater muscle growth
among those training three times a week. However, the
results from this study were somewhat inconclusive as the
only signiﬁcant difference was noted in a muscle group that
was not directly trained (i.e., biceps brachii). Another study
assessing female athletes illustrated greater increases in
muscle size when the total resistance training volume was
split into two sessions per day as opposed to one . It
was likely that the group training twice a day avoided
performing ‘wasted sets’ as described in Fig. 1and was
able to re-stimulate muscle protein synthesis after it
quickly returned to baseline, as is the case in trained
individuals. A similar study comparing the same training
volume over one or two sessions per week found no dif-
ferences in muscle size ; however, this study assessed
untrained males, and may differ for reasons mentioned in
Fig. 2. Despite two of these studies supporting our
hypothesis, the vast majority of studies assessing training
frequency have focused speciﬁcally on strength adapta-
tions, whereas those providing a measure of muscle size
have been limited to indirect measures of total lean mass
(e.g., skinfold measurements, whole body dual-energy
X-ray absorptiometry) [30–34].
6 Decreasing the Training Frequency
Although increasing the training frequency may provide
greater muscle growth, it may be difﬁcult to increase the
training frequency beyond a certain point. We propose that
once an individual has been training at a higher frequency
for a sufﬁcient duration (e.g., 16 weeks), it may then be
beneﬁcial to decrease the training frequency for a period of
time (e.g., 24 weeks). A previous study  demonstrated
that the muscle mass gained following 16 weeks of training
(nine sets per session three times per week) was maintained
after drastically reducing the exercise stimulus for an
additional 32 weeks (three sets per session once per week).
Frequency of Training for Muscle Hypertrophy
Therefore, once an individual increases the training fre-
quency and hypothetically increases muscle mass over a
period of time, he/she may then be able to reduce the
training frequency while still maintaining the added muscle
mass. While also hypothetical, this may allow for the
down-regulation of metabolic brakes  and the re-sen-
sitization of the muscle to the anabolic stimulus ,
whereby an individual may then beneﬁt from increasing the
training frequency again for reasons previously mentioned.
Some support for this hypothesis may exist in that the
rebounding of muscle hypertrophy following detraining is
such that no differences were observed when comparing
24 weeks of continuous training with another group per-
forming cycles of 6 weeks of training followed by 3 weeks
of detraining . Even if this hypothesis is correct, there
would inevitably come a point where an individual can no
longer increase muscle mass as he/she has reached his/her
7 Limitations of this Hypothesis
While increasing the training frequency would hypotheti-
cally allow for more frequent elevations in muscle protein
synthesis, the body would likely adapt, forcing a further
increase in training frequency to produce greater muscle
growth. Even so, many trained individuals are not training
the same muscle groups at high frequencies ; thus, this
Fig. 1 a Hypothetical protein
synthetic response to two
different exercise protocols with
the same number of sets
performed per week.
Performing fewer sets per
session at a higher frequency
will likely be sufﬁcient for
increasing muscle size while
also limiting fatigue to allow for
higher frequencies and thus
more frequent stimulations of
muscle protein synthesis.
Performing more sets per
session while using a lower
training frequency may reduce
the time spent in a positive net
protein balance because the
large number of sets performed
within a given session may
exceed the ‘anabolic limit’,
resulting in wasted sets.
Additionally, performing more
sets within a given session
requires greater recovery time,
causing muscle protein
synthesis to return to basal
levels until re-stimulated again
during another training session.
bDemonstration of the greater
anabolic potential during each
protocol. No shading in the area
under the curve illustrates a
similar anabolic potential
between both frequencies. The
difference in the area under the
curve between protocols can be
attributed to the ‘wasted sets’
completed above the volume
threshold during the twice-
weekly protocol. AUC area
under the curve
S. J. Dankel et al.
would likely be the most beneﬁcial way to further progress
a training program aimed at increasing muscle size.
Additionally, this hypothesis is based largely on the muscle
protein synthetic response to resistance exercise, which
does not always correlate well with long-term changes in
muscle size , nor does it take into account changes in
muscle protein breakdown. Even so, acute changes in
muscle protein synthesis would appear to be the primary
driver of muscle growth from resistance training in humans
[40,41], and the lack of a correlation between muscle
protein synthesis and muscle size may simply be due to the
‘snapshot’-speciﬁc nature of how muscle protein synthesis
is measured (i.e., muscle biopsies). Nonetheless, an
increase in muscle size would need to occur through the
accretion of new proteins, and would likely correlate well
with muscle growth if measured over time , making the
acute marker of muscle protein synthesis at least somewhat
indicative of the efﬁcacy of a resistance exercise protocol.
8 Future Research Questions
The hypothesis that increasing training frequency, rather
than training load or sets performed, may be a more
effective strategy for trained individuals to increase muscle
size opens an avenue for future research to test whether
increased training frequency does indeed result in greater
muscle hypertrophy. Future studies may seek to compare
two groups of trained individuals performing at markedly
different training frequencies (e.g., 1 vs. 6 days per week)
while equating the total number of sets performed to
volitional failure. While this type of study design would
oppose the recommendation of resting at least 48 h
between exercises of the same muscle group , we have
unpublished data suggesting that even three sets of exercise
per day, for 21 straight days, elicited no signs of over-
training in previously trained individuals. By using a direct
measure of muscle size (e.g., ultrasound, magnetic
Fig. 2 Hypothetical depiction of muscle anabolism illustrating why
increasing the training frequency may be more beneﬁcial in trained
individuals. aTrained and untrained individuals performing the same
frequency of exercise. (b) Depiction of where the area under the curve
favors trained or untrained individuals. No shading illustrates a
similar anabolic potential between trained and untrained individuals.
Notably, untrained individuals demonstrate longer durations in which
the muscle is primed for anabolism. cUntrained individuals training
the same muscle groups with different frequencies. dDepiction of
where the area under the curve favors higher frequency. No shading
under the curve illustrates similar anabolic potential between low and
high frequencies. Increasing the training frequency is of less
importance in untrained individuals because the muscle is still primed
for greater anabolism as a result of the previous bout. AUC area under
Frequency of Training for Muscle Hypertrophy
resonance imaging), the two groups can then be compared
and any differences in muscle size could be attributed to
differences in training frequencies. To test whether a
muscle could then be re-sensitized to the anabolic stimulus,
the high-frequency group could then be split into two
groups, one of which continues training at a high frequency
while the other reduces the frequency for a short period in
an attempt to sensitize the muscle to the reintroduction of
Future studies may also be designed to compare differ-
ent exercise volumes to more closely detail the speciﬁc
point at which the anabolic potential of a given training
session has been reached. While a previous meta-analysis
was only able to assess one set versus three sets ,
previous research in trained individuals found no differ-
ence between performing one, two, or four sets of
exercise within a single training session. Thus, the speciﬁc
point at which performing more volume is not more
advantageous for muscle growth has not been determined
and may be exercise speciﬁc. For example, compound
movements may require additional sets to fully activate the
muscles of interest (e.g., bench press vs. triceps
While the majority of studies within the resistance training
literature focus on increasing the sets of exercise to pro-
duce greater adaptations in muscle size, it is our opinion
that it is likely more beneﬁcial to increase the training
frequency. Contrary to the American College of Sports
Medicine recommendations that trained individuals use
split routines to perform more sets of exercise within a
given training session , we feel that trained individuals
should train similar muscle groups more frequently while
reducing the number of sets performed in a given training
session. This hypothesis is made based on previous
research demonstrating that (1) increasing the number of
sets beyond a certain point has negligible effects on muscle
hypertrophy given the relatively low volume that appears
to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis; and (2)
the duration of the time period when muscle protein syn-
thesis is elevated in trained individuals appears to be
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Funding No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation
of this article.
Conﬂict of interest Scott Dankel, Kevin Mattocks, Matthew Jessee,
Samuel Buckner, J. Grant Mouser, Brittany Counts, Gilberto
Laurentino, and Jeremy Loenneke have no conﬂicts of interest rele-
vant to the content of this review.
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Frequency of Training for Muscle Hypertrophy