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Ask Greg: Weightlifting Training Frequency & Volume
Greg Everett

Mike Asks: Please consider a Newsletter or other forum for discussing the rationale and recovery implications for training multiple days in a row. I know those in the Oly community take it for granted that a 3 or 4 on, 1 off schedule is standard, but to those of us new to the sport it is less obvious why this is so different from any other form of weight training in terms of ability to do this productively over time. As someone who has trained all his life and has competed in powerlifting, it is not intuitive that training 4 or 5 days in a row is something one can recover from, regardless of age. What is unique about the Olympic lifts that require so much volume; and why can one recover from this more so than any other kind of resistance training? Is it because the eastern Europeans do it? Then again, for those of us living a normal life, not 18 – 22 years old, and drug free, it becomes much harder to adapt to this. I have found the Oly lifts much more taxing than any powerlifting training I ever did, due no doubt to the nervous system load from high power output and concentration on form. No such thing as “walking through” a Greg Everett workout! It would also seem that your workouts run counter to the recommendations of your friend Robb Wolf, who is so acutely concerned about cortisol and overtraining.

As a side note, I get regular blood work from a sports medicine doctor. She recently informed me that my cortisol levels are through the roof, and said it is clearly from overtraining. While I am 52 and know that is a big part of it, I still question whether anyone with a real job/life can handle the rigors of daily high output training. Please comment.


Greg Says: Very interesting topic, and I will try to do it justice. First, I wouldn’t say that weightlifting requires high-volume and frequency training, but certainly it’s a common approach. It’s also important to acknowledge that volume and frequency are relative, and what’s high to one athlete may be moderate or even low for another. Within my own gym I have some lifters who thrive on 400-500 reps per week, while others can handle only 200 or fewer, and this doesn’t always align with age.

The snatch, clean and jerk are more complex than the powerlifting squat, bench and deadlift by orders of magnitude; the degrees of technical skill involved in the two pursuits are not even comparable. I don’t say this to disparage powerlifting or powerlifters in any way, but it’s an unavoidable truth, and it plays a role in training differences. This being the case, it’s obvious that in order to master the competitive lifts, far more time and far more quality reps must be performed by the weightlifter than the powerlifter. Weightlifting is a unique sport in that the lifts inextricably link the motor qualities of precise movement and timing with strength and speed. Powerlifting has a huge strength component, but minimal skill; something like pitching a baseball has a huge skill component, but minimal strength. People are not usually resistant to the idea of a baseball pitcher throwing a lot of balls in a day, week, month or year, because the need to practice the skill is obvious. The skill of weightlifting is not as obvious because most people are viewing it from a perspective largely shaped by history with bodybuilding and powerlifting training.

Next, there is an issue of adaptation. Anything you do that is a sudden and significant increase in volume, intensity or frequency is going to hurt. The key is that elite weightlifters didn’t begin training 6 days a week with 600 reps; the best of the best spend years developing in well-designed programs that allowed them to build the conditioning for this volume of work. Do drugs play a role in many cases? It’s inarguable that drug use will allow you to train heavier with more volume and frequency, but being drug free does not mean you can’t adapt to high volume and frequency (just not as high and not as quickly). You’re able to walk every day without a problem. That’s leg training seven days a week; but you’re adapted to that particular intensity and volume level. The same thing can be accomplished with lifting to a great extent.

The snatch and clean & jerk are less systemically taxing than squats and deadlifts because they’re smaller percentages of a true total body maximal effort, although in many cases, not that much smaller. This alone means they can be done more frequently by anyone. The classic lifts also overwhelmingly train neurological adaptations rather than morphological ones, which also means you’re not waiting around for tissue remodeling between workouts ala the bodybuilder.

Also, complete recovery between training sessions is not something that the weightlifter is necessary striving for; instead, you’re looking at blocks of training sessions to create a cumulative effect.

Training multiple consecutive days also doesn’t mean that every day is maximal intensity and volume. Day to day volume and intensity will fluctuate to allow some degree of restoration. Even Bulgarian-style purists use such modulation—they just allow the body to dictate the timing and degree rather than planning for it ahead of time.

Having spent most of your training life with an infrequent schedule means you’re conditioned, physically and psychologically, to just that. With time and a smart progression, there is no reason you wouldn’t be able to significantly increase your training volume and frequency. Of course, being 52 with real life obligations and the attendant stress will ultimately limit what you can do. But again, it’s all relative. You just need to experiment to find what works best for you, but build up to those experiments wisely.

Regarding cortisol levels, I’m not sure how your doctor can be certain high levels are due to overtraining; stress is stress, whether it comes from training, work, family complications, poor sleep, etc. Any given level of training could be “overtraining” if the rest of the stress in your life exceeds a tolerable threshold. So in such a case, why is it overtraining, and not overworking, under-sleeping, over-having-your-wife-use-your-credit-card?
Mike Asks: Please consider a Newsletter or other forum for discussing the rationale and recovery implications for training multiple days in a row. I know those in the Oly community take it for granted that a 3 or 4 on, 1 off schedule is standard, but to those of us new to the sport it is less obvious why this is so different from any other form of weight training in terms of ability to do this productively over time. As someone who has trained all his life and has competed in powerlifting, it is not intuitive that training 4 or 5 days in a row is something one can recover from, regardless of age. What is unique about the Olympic lifts that require so much volume; and why can one recover from this more so than any other kind of resistance training? Is it because the eastern Europeans do it? Then again, for those of us living a normal life, not 18 – 22 years old, and drug free, it becomes much harder to adapt to this. I have found the Oly lifts much more taxing than any powerlifting training I ever did, due no doubt to the nervous system load from high power output and concentration on form. No such thing as “walking through” a Greg Everett workout! It would also seem that your workouts run counter to the recommendations of your friend Robb Wolf, who is so acutely concerned about cortisol and overtraining.

As a side note, I get regular blood work from a sports medicine doctor. She recently informed me that my cortisol levels are through the roof, and said it is clearly from overtraining. While I am 52 and know that is a big part of it, I still question whether anyone with a real job/life can handle the rigors of daily high output training. Please comment.


Greg Says: Very interesting topic, and I will try to do it justice. First, I wouldn’t say that weightlifting requires high-volume and frequency training, but certainly it’s a common approach. It’s also important to acknowledge that volume and frequency are relative, and what’s high to one athlete may be moderate or even low for another. Within my own gym I have some lifters who thrive on 400-500 reps per week, while others can handle only 200 or fewer, and this doesn’t always align with age.

The snatch, clean and jerk are more complex than the powerlifting squat, bench and deadlift by orders of magnitude; the degrees of technical skill involved in the two pursuits are not even comparable. I don’t say this to disparage powerlifting or powerlifters in any way, but it’s an unavoidable truth, and it plays a role in training differences. This being the case, it’s obvious that in order to master the competitive lifts, far more time and far more quality reps must be performed by the weightlifter than the powerlifter. Weightlifting is a unique sport in that the lifts inextricably link the motor qualities of precise movement and timing with strength and speed. Powerlifting has a huge strength component, but minimal skill; something like pitching a baseball has a huge skill component, but minimal strength. People are not usually resistant to the idea of a baseball pitcher throwing a lot of balls in a day, week, month or year, because the need to practice the skill is obvious. The skill of weightlifting is not as obvious because most people are viewing it from a perspective largely shaped by history with bodybuilding and powerlifting training.

Next, there is an issue of adaptation. Anything you do that is a sudden and significant increase in volume, intensity or frequency is going to hurt. The key is that elite weightlifters didn’t begin training 6 days a week with 600 reps; the best of the best spend years developing in well-designed programs that allowed them to build the conditioning for this volume of work. Do drugs play a role in many cases? It’s inarguable that drug use will allow you to train heavier with more volume and frequency, but being drug free does not mean you can’t adapt to high volume and frequency (just not as high and not as quickly). You’re able to walk every day without a problem. That’s leg training seven days a week; but you’re adapted to that particular intensity and volume level. The same thing can be accomplished with lifting to a great extent.

The snatch and clean & jerk are less systemically taxing than squats and deadlifts because they’re smaller percentages of a true total body maximal effort, although in many cases, not that much smaller. This alone means they can be done more frequently by anyone. The classic lifts also overwhelmingly train neurological adaptations rather than morphological ones, which also means you’re not waiting around for tissue remodeling between workouts ala the bodybuilder.

Also, complete recovery between training sessions is not something that the weightlifter is necessary striving for; instead, you’re looking at blocks of training sessions to create a cumulative effect.

Training multiple consecutive days also doesn’t mean that every day is maximal intensity and volume. Day to day volume and intensity will fluctuate to allow some degree of restoration. Even Bulgarian-style purists use such modulation—they just allow the body to dictate the timing and degree rather than planning for it ahead of time.

Having spent most of your training life with an infrequent schedule means you’re conditioned, physically and psychologically, to just that. With time and a smart progression, there is no reason you wouldn’t be able to significantly increase your training volume and frequency. Of course, being 52 with real life obligations and the attendant stress will ultimately limit what you can do. But again, it’s all relative. You just need to experiment to find what works best for you, but build up to those experiments wisely.

Regarding cortisol levels, I’m not sure how your doctor can be certain high levels are due to overtraining; stress is stress, whether it comes from training, work, family complications, poor sleep, etc. Any given level of training could be “overtraining” if the rest of the stress in your life exceeds a tolerable threshold. So in such a case, why is it overtraining, and not overworking, under-sleeping, over-having-your-wife-use-your-credit-card?

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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the USA Weightlifting National Champion team Catalyst Athletics, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting, publisher of The Performance Menu journal, fifth-place finisher at the USAW National Championships, masters national champion, masters American Open champion, masters American record holder in the clean & jerk, and Olympic Trials coach. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.

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6 Comments
 

Will 2016-01-01
I would also think that the general lack of eccentric contraction might play a role in the ability to tolerate more frequency.
Dirk brouwer 2016-09-19
Hi,
I bought the holy bible of weightlifting;) ik am currently following program skill level3 and im wondering if there's a time window for the high rep sets. Today im doing 8 rep backsquats and do i need to do it asap? Or can i rest a few seconds while still holding the bar?

Thx for the great guide's !
You would like to complete the set as a whole and not re-rack the bar in between. So you are able to take a few breaths for a few seconds between reps if you need to. 

Alyssa Sulay
Laura Arbour 2017-01-31
In another article Greg mentioned one of the athletes training anywhere from 5-9 times a week. Obviously this would mean some days training twice a day. When is an athlete ready to move on to that kind of training frequency and how would the training vary between the 2 training sessions?
Would be an advanced lifter who is training full time, i.e. not working a real job, etc. - life is weightlifting. Honestly for most lifters it's arguably unncessary even at high levels, but it does offer some advantages, e.g. preserves mobility well, allows shorter sessions which means more energy and better focus overall and for each exercise.

Typically in a double day, I'd split the sessions in a way that divided the total work pretty evenly in terms of volume and difficulty, and also try to keep related lifts together. I also typically put more speed or tech oriented lifts in the first session and more strength oriented in the last session - same basic way you'd order exercises in a single session.

Greg Everett
Dominick 2017-06-08
Very interesting read. I am a recreative trainee focusing on the old-school clean & press (PR = 220 lbs) and the conventional deadlift (PR = 525 lbs). I am 45 years old and have been lifting four years.

Training the clean & press implies training the power clean. Also training the deadlift brings a challenge, because it's easy to overdo things when you are cleaning bars every time you press, and then I have to deadlift heavy bars.

When I train three times per week, I have to focus on pressing or on deadlifting. If I focus on deadlifting, I need to train my lower body at the start of the session on two sessions, and then, overhead pressing afterwards doesn't work too well, so I have to do some horizontal pressing (like floor presses). Conversely, overhead pressing 3 times a week with ondulating volume and intensity has worked tremendously well, but at a price: training the lower body at the end of the session may be fine when squatting or deadlifting is not a main lift, but when you are actually specializing on such a lift, I don't think you can get away with always working the deadlift late in the session; my press improved (from 205 to 220), but my deadlift stayed pretty much the same.

I've also found, however, that I don't need to train my power clean 4-6 times a week. I use a crude technique, just like they used to do it when it was time to press: a muscle clean with a very slight kneebend, if any. It just takes raw power and there is much less technique refinement than a true clean & jerk. I also train the power snatch with a split style, and it doesn't need crazy frequency either (I've seen improvement doing it twice a week after pressing).

In my case, I would benefit from shorter, more frequent sessions: days for deadlifting or lower body strength, and days for the press and upper body strength.
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