One of the first questions that tends to get asked by new clients, is how often should I be training?
Whilst we may have read or heard that we need a minimum of “x” number of sessions per week to develop “x” component of fitness, it really is a far more personalised equation when we get down to the reality of it.
There will always exist both high, low and moderate responders to any stimulus, something we often forget.
It’s due to this short-sighted belief, that we only tend to consider a single factor when it comes to exercise prescription and that’s often just the exercise session itself.
Say for example, I want to increase overall muscle mass. An often quoted basic prescription would be 2-3 sessions per week, around 6 sets per muscle group in a rep range of 8-15, roughly 60-80% 1RM, with any single set being between 1-4 reps from complete concentric failure.
With these guidelines, we would expect to see some pretty significant gains in muscle mass over time purely from a loading perspective, and often we do. However this only accounts for between 3-5hrs of a persons week, just the time spent actually training…
It’s like seeing an Instagram photo of a fitness model and not appreciating the thousands of hours and dedication outside of the gym that went into building such physique.
What we do with the other 160+ hours is going to have a vastly greater impact on the results we see than the minutiae of what we do within the session in terms of rep scheme, % RM and so on.
We need to broaden our viewpoint and factor in other significant components to get a true idea of the likelihood of a successful outcome.
As a starting point…
- How are you sleeping?
- What’s your daily activity like?
- How do you handle stressors? Work? Family?
- Is your only outlet for stress exercise? (P.S. If yes, you’re dealing with stress with another stressor…)
- What’s your current nutrition like?
- Are you starving yourself during the week and binging on weekends?
Simply put, are you actually in a position to recover from what life is currently throwing at you?
For the purpose of discussion, imagine our energy levels run from 0-10. 0 being you are clinically exhausted both mentally and physically, 10 being you’ve had a great night’s sleep, looking forward to the day and life seems good.
So using our above exercise prescription for muscle mass gain, let’s estimate that each of our sessions takes 4 points away from our energy score, it’s tough, but we can get through it unscathed. We’re now an energy level of 6.
Say I regularly sleep 8 hours with a consistent wake time, average 8000 daily steps, a somewhat stressful job but I enjoy reading and take long walks in nature with my spouse and the family dog. I have an active social group with healthy personal relationships. Nutrition is mostly whole-food based with the occasional alcohol consumption. I don’t track calories or macros but have been the same weight for a decent amount of time without an impact on energy levels, sleep or menstrual cycle in a female population.
In this scenario, it may only take me 24-48 hours to refill my bar from 6 back up to 10. My lifestyle and recovery support my training. I can complete the 3 sessions a week and see progress both in terms of performance (volume and intensity changes) as well as overall health (body composition, resting HR etc…).
Imagine a second scenario with an identical session using our guidelines above.
Yet now I sleep 5 hours a night, but not really because I consume a half bottle of wine a night which sedates me rather than allowing me to actually sleep. I’ve got a job with a 90min commute in traffic, I’m sat for 8-10 hours a day, step count barely above 1500. My colleagues describe me as “tightly-wound” and I come home and berate a spouse as some form of unhealthy cathartic release. I live on service station food and caffeine and can’t pronounce 95% of the ingredients that I consume, that when I remember to actually eat or drink. My resting HR is in the 80’s and my blood pressure is verging on requiring medication…
In this example, I’m not starting from an energy meter score of 10, no way. My lifestyle is already sapping me of energy. Even on my best day I’m beginning from at best a 6 or 7…
This perfectly planned session as part of a periodised, personalised plan set out by my super expensive Personal Trainer (alliteration at it’s finest…) is still going to rob me of 5 energy points.
I’m now a energy level 2 after my session, and its only 8am on a work day…
Yet I’ve still got the same lifestyle and recovery strategies underneath me. In 48hrs time, I’m barely back up to a 4/5 at best, but my PT wants me training 3 days a week because thats what his current addition of Men’s Fitness tells him or her…
This is a perpetual state of recovery debt.
I have no opportunity to adapt because all my spent energy is going into clawing through life and just trying to desperately get through the gym sessions which are run verbatim.
Four weeks into a programme and not only am I not lifting more, I’ve actually gained weight and I’m also dreading every time I step through the gym doors for my next execution (In addition to my pockets also being significantly lighter…).
It may be a case that 3 sessions, or even two sessions, is too much of an additional stressor until I can address the lifestyle factors that underpin my recovery.
It’s sacrilege to some in the industry, but it may actually be that by allowing your client less time with you, and sacrificing income, and allotting more time to an environment that offers things that you can’t from a cognitive standpoint (Swimming, Cycling, Yoga, Zumba, Boxfit etc.) you may reap both greater rewards and client respect.
I’ve seen first hand on countless occasions the difference in intensity level when I’m present in a session vs when a client performs one alone with the same basic template. But maybe that’s OK if they still get the adaptation we need?
Let’s track over time and adapt as needed…
When a client first enters into our initial consultation, only a small section of what we discuss is really about training, i.e. what they’ve done previously, did they achieve the results they wanted, what did they enjoy/not enjoy. The vast majority of discussion around that will be about the other 160 hours of their week.
How are you sleeping?
- Do you have use of any monitor? Apple Watch, Fitbit, Oura Ring
- What’s your sleep hygiene like? (Sleep mask, bed size, environment, temperature, light exposure)
- What’s your sleep routine? (Sleep time/rise, consistency, screen exposure, reading)
What’s your daily activity like?
- Do you track any measures?
- Office bound?
- Travel time?
How do you handle stressors? Work? Family?
- Meditation, Headspace App, Calm App, Walking, Sun Exposure
- Close friendship groups (What did you do on the weekend etc…)
What’s your outlet for stress?
- Hobbies and Interests
What’s your current nutrition like?
- Meal skipping
- Protein intake
- Fruit and Vegetable consumption (is it varied or habitual)
- Processed carbohydrate consumption
- Fluid consumption
- Consistency across the week?
- Do you have a healthy enough relationship with food to actually track???
Once we understand the other 160 hours of the week, we can begin to make estimations as to how we can prescribe exercise to allow for recovery and progression.
Training is the stimulus, it’s lifestyle that provides the adaptation.
We fall into this fallacy of more is better, it’s an inbuilt part of our society. Dramatic circumstance admittedly provides dramatic results, however there is no continuity or resiliency in this approach.
We’ve happily allowed clients to finish up a block of sessions and not renew because regardless of the guidance provided, they simply can’t look at lifestyle as a contributing factor and continue to burn the candle of both ends obliviously. Equally we’ve assisted by reducing costs on sessions to allow individuals the opportunity to push harder for goals without finance being a barrier when genuine effort is made to make a health or fitness alteration.
The most impactful changes that we’ve made, and will continue to make, revolve around this other 160+ hours of clients lives.
Over the past 8-10 months we’ve began using more quantitative and qualitative measures of establishing client readiness and recovery.
These range from simple facial freshness assessment (Yes, every time a client comes through the door we’re rating from 1-5 how “fresh” they look…) and a standardised battery of pre-session questions (sleep, travel, activity, food/fluid intake that day, mood…).
All the way to the use of personalised wellness diaries (soon to be updated to ATHLETE MONITORING), heart rate monitoring during sessions, and heart rate variability measures between, as well as the use of OURA rings to track sleep and daily readiness.
This has enabled far more flexibility in terms of programming. We still have an end goal, there are still targets to hit both short and long term, but we can be far more adaptable in terms of matching a client to what they need that session, week or month.
Some days this may mean completely deviating from plan to improve overall recovery for the next session, other times it means pushing harder when a clients subjective feeling (“I feel awesome today…”) may override what a sleep score/resting HR or HRV, may be saying.
The goal is not to become a slave to technology (though this seems to be the way the world is going…), but to use technology effectively to enhance the outcomes of our efforts.
We are on the cusp of being in an age where exercise will be prescribed similarly to the way we prescribe medicine. Matching an individuals physiological and psychological readiness through a combination of objective and subjective markers, just have a brief scan at OMEGAWAVE or Joel Jamieson’s MORPHEUS system for an idea of how health and fitness is changing.
Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring new measures of monitoring clients, introducing simple measures for daily readiness, updating current processes and adapting programming to mirror this.
Our goal is to maximise the quality of time actually training individuals by minimising lifestyle factors that inhibit recovery and adaptation.
So to take it back to our first question, how often should we train…
My answer is always, only as much as your lifestyle allows you to recover and continue to see adaptation.