Written by: Kevin Cann
“How many days a week should I be training” is a question I get practically every day. I encourage people to do some type of physical activity daily, but this does not mean picking up a barbell every single day. We need to take into consideration how the training program affects our central nervous system.
Let us think of our nervous system as a battery. We come into the gym on day 1 to start our new powerlifting program. We are feeling excited and ready to go. Our battery is at 100%. We did some high volume squats, bench press, and accessory work. At the end of this training day our battery has depleted to 75% let’s say.
It takes 48-72 hours for our nervous system to fully recover and our glycogen stores to be replenished. However, we enjoyed the first training day so much that we want to hit it again the next day. Now we go into the gym with a battery that is starting at say 90% because we ate well and slept well yesterday.
The deadlifts felt a little heavy, but we grinded through the session. This session took a toll on us and our battery drops to 50%. We take the next day off from lifting because DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) has finally set in. However, we decide to do a Crossfit workout to keep the blood flowing. We start the workout with 60% battery power in our nervous system. We have trouble getting through it and at the end our battery power is getting close to the red.
We go home eat, sleep, and prepare for our lifting session tomorrow. We can all see where this is going by now. Over time if we do not let our nervous system recover we run the risk of overtraining. Performance will suffer and so will mood. Training with a low nervous system battery also increases the risk of injury. The nervous system is in charge of how we move. When it tires, our movements are not optimal.
This is known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) which was discovered by Hans Selye in 1939. When we program for our athletes and clients we need to keep this all in mind. We also need to understand that there is a lot of individualization with recovery time and a lot of variables that go into it. How well we eat, sleep, and handle our daily stress are all very important to our performance and recovery.
There is also individual differences in recovery time. The research states 48-72 hours, not the same for everyone. Pay attention to how well you feel, how well you perform, and how well you are sleeping when you begin a program. If any of these feel off you just may need more time to recover.
Now, we do not need the nervous system to be 100% every time we enter the gym. You want your nervous system to be 100% leading into competition, but in the off-season we have some wiggle room. We need our nervous system to recover enough to hit our numbers in the gym with appropriate speed and technique. Remember, our nervous system controls how we move. If we are all over the place with our technique, the bar is moving slower, or we are failing to hit our numbers, these are all good signs we are not recovered enough.
I recommend most people pick up a barbell 3-4 times per week to perform the competition lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift). I lean more to the 3 days per week for beginners. And even for more advanced lifters, 3 days of competition lifts and a fourth day of more accessory work can be equally effective.
There are always exceptions to this rule. I work with Russian powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko. For 6 months we were training 3 days per week. For those unfamiliar with Sheiko programs, they tend to be high volume in the competition lifts. A typical day might look like this:
1. 2 second pause squat, 50%x3, 60%x3, 70% 4×3
2. Bench Press, 50%x5, 60%x4, 70%x3, 80% 5×2
3. Squat 50%x3, 60%x3, 70%x3, 80% 5×2
You can see that we squat twice in the example above. This is a way to get the volume while minimizing fatigue. I am more likely to perform technically sound lifts if the volume is split up like the above instead of all at once.
I had some technique issues where coach Sheiko felt if I trained 4 days per week they would fix themselves faster. He removed all of the fatigued competition lifts. Basically, we did not complete the same competition lift twice in one day. This helped correct my technique very fast. The volume was kept at the same it was on 3 days of training.
When we decide on how many days per week we train, we need to pick our training intensities very carefully. If we train at an intensity that is too high every training day then we can run into some problems. Each of the competition lifts is not identical in its effects on the nervous system.
The bench press is the easiest to recover from. This can be trained at a slightly higher percentage than the other 2. The deadlift is the most difficult lift to recover from. The only time that coach Sheiko has me lift over 75% for deadlifts is from blocks. The deadlift makes up the smallest amount of my competition lift volume, followed by the squat, and the highest volume is on the bench.
There are ways to increase the intensity of the lifts without having the same negative effects on the central nervous system as increasing bar weight. Deficit deadlifts are one way in which intensity is increased in the pull without adding bar weight, paused squats can increase squat intensity without increasing bar weight, and using bands on the bench can do the same thing. These are just a couple of examples, pausing all of the lifts is great to work on technique and increase intensity.
Mike Tuscherer is a powerlifter and coach who actually developed a system based on the General Adaptation Syndrome. He uses an RPE scale instead of percentages. He states that we use percentages as a matter of effort. Our body does not know the difference between 500lbs or 600lbs on a deadlift. It just knows one is much harder than the other. The RPE system works off of this perceived effort.
For example, an RPE 10 is a max effort lift in which no other reps could be completed. An RPE 9 would mean you had 1 rep left in the tank, an RPE 8 means 2-4 reps left in the tank with the lifter maintaining fast bar speed. RPE 7 is speed work, RPE 6 light speed work, and anything less is basically a warmup. His site is www.reactivetrainingsystems.com. There is some fantastic stuff on there.
The only downfall to the RPE system, in my opinion, is you need to be really in touch with how you are as a lifter, and really honest with yourself. Too often someone will still let the total number on the bar dictate the weight for the day. You grind out a couple of reps and tell yourself that was an RPE 8, but in reality bar speed was too slow and it was more of a RPE 9. I struggled with this and found that I worked better with given weights.
Sheiko uses a sliding scale of 5-10% in his gym. If the weight is light and moving fast that day, you can increase weight, but you CANNOT miss reps. Bar speed and technique should look the same as it did with lighter weights. Also, if it feels heavy it is ok to decrease the weight by that much to ensure proper technique and speed are being utilized.
Now, I did state earlier that I suggest that people perform some type of physical activity on a daily basis. What should we do on the days between training sessions? We have options here. Doing some low level aerobic activity can be great for recovery as it helps flush lactate out of the system. This does not mean we need to go on the treadmill for an hour, but light circuits with bodyweight exercises, light dumbbells, and kettlebells can be great. It is ok to come into the gym and do a bunch of mobility stuff on off days. I feel this makes me feel great and gets me ready for the next training day best. Of course this goes along with eating well, sleeping well, and managing daily stress.
Pay attention to how many days you are pushing the envelope with your nervous system. You should be keeping a training log where you write down everything from weight on the bar to how you feel. Give it a look over and see if any changes need to be made to maximize your p