How often you should train is unique to each athlete.
Simply put, strength athletes need workout programs unique to their specific strengths, weaknesses, and genetic makeup. And customizing a workout program, a process called “individualization,” is how we figure that out.
The number we’re looking for is simple: how many days of activity per week can you handle? The amount of work you can take is referred to as “volume,” so as we start getting into things, we’re really dealing with a question of volume.
When individualizing our clients’ programs, some of the biggest changes we make revolve around the client’s lifestyle habits.
By “lifestyle habits,” I mean the cold hard facts about a person’s life outside of the gym: their type of job, sleep schedule, overall stress, and other real world factors. These habits directly determine how much volume a lifter can handle in their program. As a result, ensuring progressive overload depends on accurately programming around the client’s lifestyle.
When volume tips out of this optimal range, even one day a week too many or too little, a lifter’s progress can stall like nobody’s business.
You may have experienced stalls from overtraining or undertraining yourself, and I’ll bet it was with a program you found online.
Thing is, cookie-cutter templates from the internet don’t address your individual lifestyle factors. That lack of individualization leads them to fail you in a multitude of ways. Think of the classic “Build Muscle Quick” programs that you can find after Googling around for a while. They give you 12 reps for every exercise usually, and they’ll give you four days of training a week with a rest day on Wednesday.
Maybe by sheer coincidence, you happen to be the perfect candidate for that program. But, if you’re part of the vast majority of athletes with different volume requirements, you’ll get stuck with either too much or too little volume.
But finding that optimal workload volume? That’s where remarkable progress occurs.
Your lifestyle factors help us figure out your MRV, or maximum recoverable volume. MRV is the highest amount of activity that any given muscle group can handle and recover from before you exercise it again.
A common correlation between lifestyle and MRV has to do with stress. Athletes with high stress levels outside the gym will usually exhibit a lower MRV than athletes with low-stress lives. That goes for mental as well as physical stress, to be clear. A construction worker who works long hours with their hands might only be able to train 75 minutes at a time, while a desk job employee might be able to handle 90.
Sleep is another vital factor. Athletes getting between 8 and 9 hours a night will definitely recover better than someone averaging about 3-5.
Diet plays a simple role, in theory. Someone in a caloric surplus should be able to strength train more often and recover more quickly than someone in a deficit.
This is difficult to put into practice, though. It’s tough to know the degree of your surplus or deficit, which is where talking to your coach about diet or even working with a nutritionist can prove a huge benefit.
It’s harder to meet your fitness goals when life gets stressful. When none of the above factors are working in your favor, there’s a very high likelihood your MRV will suffer.
Maybe you’re a student who just squatted 225lbs for 1 set of 8, and you’re mad because you used to do the same thing for 4 sets of 8. Then, you look back and realize that 4x8 happened during summer break, when all you had to do was lift weights and live your life. Now, though, you’re working through your hardest semester of school, getting less sleep, and stressing out more.
Or maybe you’re a new parent, and keeping up with your workout schedule seems harder and harder every day.
When facing a major lifestyle change, it’s important to almost treat yourself almost as a different lifter. No, that previously mentioned 225 for 1x8 isn’t an all-time rep max, but it is a PR for your current situation.
And by the way, if you’re dealing with higher stress and fatigue than ever before and you’re still showing up at the gym, that is something to be proud of. Lifestyle stresses will come and go, but the work put into the gym during these times is what separates the great from the average, and it will pay huge dividends once life outside of the gym returns to normal.
Individualizing your programming not just to yourself, but to your current stage of life can be crucial to developing a long term progression for weight loss, muscle gain, and overall health and fitness. In other words, lifestyle factors simply have to be addressed when developing a lifter’s program. It is an extremely important factor that often gets overlooked with template programs and cookie cutter coaching, and embracing it is tantamount to success.