Stressors are a chemical or biological agent, environmental condition, external stimulus or an event seen as causing stress to an organism. Psychologically speaking, stressors can be events or environments that individuals might consider demanding, challenging, and/or threatening individual safety. Wikipedia
One of the most common questions that I am asked as a strength coach is, “How many days a week should I train?”
The person usually wants a simple answer from me, but the answer usually isn't that simple. I ask them what they are looking to get out of their training. Are they bodybuilding, powerlifting, or just getting stronger and more fit? And then I ask them, “How stressful is your life?” They usually look at me like I am crazy, but then I explain to them how stress is a huge factor in recovery and also determines whether one makes significant gains or not.
I was first made aware of stressors as a factor in recovery, both mental and physical, by a conversation that I had one day with one of my mentors, strength coach Dr. Phil Wagner, when I was the strength coach at Penn. I was concerned about the increased injuries at the beginning of each training camp for the football players. Phil explained that many things in life, not just training, contribute to the stress of the athlete’s recovery. He explained how the players went from just lifting and running some during summer break to going to training camp and all of a sudden practicing twice a day and banging into each other, getting very little sleep and also wearing equipment. Not easy for a 300 pound offensive lineman. Even standing on their feet for four hours a day was an adjustment. And when their classes began, the stress was even greater. Their bodies and minds needed to adapt to the new stress thrust upon them, and it took a while. The worst thing I could have done is to ask them to squat and deadlift heavy while all this was happening to them. When I sat back and looked at it the way that Phil was explaining, I cut back on their training until they adapted to the increased workload and then added back heavier lifts slowly and the occurrence of injuries decreased.
For the person who is only training with free weights and doesn't have football practice to worry about, one must analyze the “stressors” in the situation. What is the person's lifestyle? Do they have a stressful job? Or is their occupation being a bodybuilder, where they can train, eat and sleep and get paid for it? If it is someone who wants to be a world class powerlifter, do they have a job working heavy construction everyday or do they work in an office? One must see it as a big picture, not just as training in the gym. Occupation and family life are two of the biggest stressors in people's lives.
Let's just assume that you are working a job, let's say a construction job, where you are on a job site all day, breaking walls down and pushing wheelbarrows of cement and dirt. This is done five days a week for eight hours a day. This trainee may be best suited for doing a light, assistance work session during the week and putting his heavy days on the weekend when he can eat, sit around some and recover. If the job is sitting at a desk all day, this person may be able to train more often than the construction worker, provided that the mental strain isn't overwhelming. And don’t discount mental stress. Someone who owns their own business or is in high level sales may be just as exhausted as the construction worker at the end of the day. Mental stress takes a huge toll on someone physically also. And what about family life? Does the person have three kids running around at home? Are they going through anything rough in their personal life? What about diet? Is their diet on point or are they eating fast food five days a week? Are they getting the correct macro nutrients to fuel what they need to make gains? Are they working third shift and then only sleeping four hours because they have to get up to pick the kids at school?
What I am getting at is that when deciding on frequency of training, one must look at all the factors involved, and that it's much more than the training. I see it as someone starting each week with a full tank of gas and with each different stressor in their lives, a little bit of gas is used. The goal is to keep that gas tank as full as possible by managing the stress with proper planning and a common sense approach to training, meaning that there is no one size fits all prescription for every individual.
And with all that being said, I bet you still want to know, how many days a week do I train? I'll tell you how to figure it out : Sit back and write down all the stressors in your life. Decide on the factors that you can control, like nutrition. Everyone can eat well if they really try. Then look at some stressors that are not under your control. Take a look at your heavy stress days. For example, if you are a student, maybe you don't schedule your heavy squat day on a day when you have five classes. Put that day on a Friday when your first and only class is at midday. Look at your schedule and be honest with yourself. If you are a person who has all the time in the world to train and your lifestyle allows it, by all means, get in the gym six days a week. But for most folks, that is unrealistic. Most of us have stress factors pulling at us at least a few days a week. If these are things that are not able to be controlled or changed by you, develop a plan where you can work around them so that you can train, recover, and make the gains that you deserve with all of the hard work that you put in.
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.