High Frequency Training for a Bigger Total: Research on highly trained Norwegian powerlifters

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[note: edits were made and figures were removed on 2-26-2014 at the request of the orignal study’s authors]

Hey guys.  Today we have a guest post from my friend Martijn Koevoets.  He’s one the top powerlifters in his weight class in the Netherlands, and through some of his connections in the European powerlifting world, he got his hands on a really awesome study that hasn’t gotten much press yet, but which has obvious applications for most peoples’ training.

How would you like to double the effectiveness of your current training plan?  No gimmicks, no extra work – just improved results. I know it sounds like a ridiculous headline from one of the popular fitness magazines. But it’s not. It’s the result of a Norwegian powerlifting experiment by Raastad et al[1]. In this experiment, the researchers compared two groups of competitive powerlifters. The only thing that was different was their training frequency.

What makes you so different?

Right now, you are probably on either a full-body routine for three days a week, on a four day per week upper/lower split where you train the squat, bench, and deadlift twice per week, or you’re using a split where you train each major lift once per week. And why wouldn’t you? These programs have been giving powerlifters excellent results for decades. However, it is common for elite Olympic weightlifters to train a particular lift up to six times a week, sometimes even multiple times a day. As you might know, Olympic weightlifting training methodologies are deeply influenced by the methods used by the eastern European countries in the ’60s to ’90s.  These countries have developed an understanding of how to train for maximal strength that will transfer to Olympic weightlifting.

I’m sure you have heard about the Bulgarian method and the fact they ruthlessly dominated the sport of Olympic lifting for more than two decades. How about the impact that the old Russian Olympic weightlifting manuals have on modern day powerlifting?

Sure, Olympic lifting is not powerlifting: Weights are heavier and harder to recover from. But I think powerlifting has more in common with Olympic lifting than it may appear at first – and certainly more than it has with bodybuilding, for instance. So, in light of similarities between the sports, should powerlifters train more like weightlifters?

The answer is hiding in Norway.

The Norwegian experiment

Just like you, for years, most Norwegian powerlifters were training three days a week. And, just like you, they were training each big lift (squat, bench press, deadlift) one or two times per week. But around the year 2000, something surprising happened: A German native and former Olympic weightlifter and weightlifting coach was appointed as the new national powerlifting coach – Dietmar Wolf. He used his knowledge and experience from his days as a member of the Western German national Olympic weightlifting team and started to incorporate training methodologies that closely resembled his weightlifting background, although he made sure to make the necessary adjustments to match the demands of powerlifting.

To determine whether high frequency training worked better than the typical three-day program, the Norwegian school of sport sciences decided to do a formal experiment.

Participants in the study had all trained continuously for competitive powerlifting for at least one year.  On top of that, they all competed in national Norwegian IPF affiliate powerlifting competitions within the last six months before the start of this experiment – so we’re not dealing with brand new lifters, but rather people with at least a fair amount of training and competition experience.

The experiment group consisted of 16 competitive powerlifters between 18 and 25 years old, squatting between 125kg and 205kg (275-451lbs), bench pressing  between 85kg to 165kg (187-364lbs), and deadlifting between 155kg and 245kg (342-540 lbs).

There were 13 male and 3 female lifters in this group.

This is a group of experienced lifters, so results probably generalize better to readers of this blog than most training studies do – that’s what makes this so exciting!

Let’s take a look at was done in this experiment.

The results

All lifters were put on the same 15-week program (same exercise selection, volume, and intensity) before reviewing the results by maxing out in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. All maxing was done without powerlifting suits.

The only difference between these two groups was their training frequency:

  • The first group trained a classic three times a week.
  • The second group had six smaller training sessions a week.

Everything else was the exactly the same:

  • exact same routine
  • exact same exercises
  • exact same total volume and intensity

This means that the 3/week group needed to do twice as many sets as the 6/week group in each session.

And these are the stunning results after 15 weeks:

  • The increase in the squat was 11±6% in the 6/week group vs. 5±3% in the 3/week group
  • Bench press increased 11±4% in the 6/week group vs. 6±3% in the 3/week group
  • In the deadlift, there was no significant difference when compared in both groups (9±6% vs. 4±6%)

This means that total weight lifted in all three lifts increased about an average of 10% in the 6/week group, as opposed to 5% in the 3/week group. I told you this wasn’t like the many headlines of fitness magazines; these are real results. In addition to looking at the changes in 1RM of each of the lifts, the researchers also looked for increases in muscle mass of the vastus lateralis and the quadriceps as a whole. The average increase in the 6/week group was almost 10% in the vastus lateralis and nearly 5% in the quadriceps as a whole. In just 12 weeks, that is great progress. The 3/week group did not make significant increases in muscle mass.

So the 6/week group got bigger AND stronger, compared to the lower frequency group! I will try to do my best to explain these results in a minute, but first I want to point out that it’s important that when training high frequency, you cannot max out out every time you hit the gym. The Norwegians recognized this, so with the new routines, both the training frequency and the total training volume were dramatically increased, but intensity was reduced. In this experiment, the average intensity was 72% to 74% of 1RM for squat, bench, and deadlift.

You probably can do 10 to 12 reps with that weight, but in this experiment, reps were between 3 and 8 for the big lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift), so the only time the lifters were grinding lifts were when they were going for new PRs at the end of the program.

Let’s review:

  • This study was done on experienced powerlifters.
  • Both groups did the exact same program. The only difference was that one group divided the volume in six sessions instead of three.
  • On average, the high frequency group increased their bench and squat by 11% vs. 5 and 6%.
  • For deadlifting, high or low frequency does not seem to matter much.
  • Their total in the high frequency group increased on average by 10% vs. 5% in the low frequency group.
  • Muscle mass increased more in the high frequency group

These are staggering results. Although the experiment didn’t cover it, let’s try and see if there is any science relating to these results. After that, we will try to put these results into practice.

How is this possible?

We know that weight training triggers protein synthesis and muscle building. Research done by MacDougall et al.[2] and Phillips et al[3]. shows that this peaks in the first 24 hours after training.

So my guess is that by training every 24 hours, you can keep muscle protein synthesis and muscle building peaked. In this way, you probably can build more muscle training six times a week compared to training three times a week. More muscle means more strength potential.

But that’s probably not the only factor.

Another important factor could be that if you can start your squats fresh more often, you can work to improve technique. It is quite hard to perfect technique when in a fatigued state.  And if you’ve ever done a true 1RM attempt, you know that your technique needs to be perfect. Additionally, because you feel fresh more often when you squat, it’s probable you can produce more force on average. There are actually studies done by Häkkinen et al.[4] and Hartman et al.[5] that show improved neuromuscular activation when training more frequently.

What you should do

Today, the best lifters in Norway typical train 5-6 days a week, some even train two times a day. This is in stark contrast to current conventional wisdom and popular powerlifting programs. Admittedly, the Norwegians have only presented these findings at conferences, but haven’t submitted them to peer-reviewed journals, so I don’t have any more information about the program than I have given you in this article.

Since workout volume is important for triggering muscle growth, it would be great to know the total volumes, for instance. But luckily for you, I can give you a few pointers. The typical Norwegian program has you doing some form of squatting and bench pressing every session. Variation mostly comes from switching up your stance, grip, and tempo. Deadlifts can be done about two times a week, alternating conventional and sumo for instance. Sometimes the frequency and volume of the deadlift is increased by adding some variations like block pulls or deficit deadlifts, or you can add some resistance bands. Furthermore, some basic assistance like OH presses and rows are included. Other than that, it’s dependant on individual strengths and weaknesses.

What now?

So there you have it. If you want to be bigger and stronger, you should try to divide your current training program into smaller, but more frequent sessions. It can skyrocket your strength and size. Just make sure to keep your intensity in check.

What do you think? Is this something you would like to try? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Note from Greg:  Keep in mind that these results haven’t been published in peer-reviewed journals (so naturally be a bit skeptical), although the idea of increased frequency improving outcomes echos other authors like Siff, Verkhoshansky, and Zatsiosky.

Also, keep in mind that although the IPF allows the use of gear, this study was done with lifters training raw.

Martijn is a dutch competitive powerlifter, who is in the business of getting people bigger, stronger, and faster. By combining science and practical information, he can help you get results.

If there’s anything at all you’d like to chat with hime about, just shoot him an email at martijn@fortiusfitness.nl or send him a message through his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/fortiusfitness.nl. If can read Dutch, go check out his website at http://www.fortiusfitness.nl


• • •

Next: The Bulgarian Method
The New Approach to Training Volume

[1] Raastad T, Kirketeig, A, Wolf, D, Paulsen G. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week (abstract). Book of abstracts, 17th annual conference of the ECSS, Brugge 4-7 July, 2012.

 

[2] MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 1995 Dec;20(4):480-6

 

[3] Phillips SM, Tipton KD, Aarsland A, Wolf SE, Wolfe RR.  Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 1):E99-107

 

[4] Phillips SM, Tipton KD, Aarsland A, Wolf SE, Wolfe RR.  Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 1):E99-107

 

[5] Hartman MJ, Clark B, Bembens DA, Kilgore JL, Bemben MG.: Comparisons between twice-daily and once-daily training sessions in male weight lifters. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2007 Jun;2(2):159-69.

 

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