Q: I’ve read articles that say you should reduce the number of workouts per week as you get older, due to reduced recovery ability. But I’ve also read the exact opposite. What gives?
I love this question and have addressed it with clients many, many times over the years. The answer is a bit involved, but stay with me here, because this is an important subject.
So first, before we discuss optimal training frequency for recovery purposes, let’s first make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the definition of the word “recovery.” Recovery is assessed not based on how you feel, but rather, on how you perform.
According to Mike Israetel, Ph.D., a professor and coach at Renaissance Periodization, recovery is defined as “a return to expected performance.” So, to put this in real-world terms, assuming you’re training regularly, if you can normally crank out 10-11 pull-ups, but on today’s workout, you can only manage 7, you’re under-recovered—or at least the involved muscles are under-recovered.
Now as a quick aside, here’s why I specified “assuming you’re training regularly:” Poor performance can also be caused by under-training. For example, if you can normally do 10 pull-ups, but you can only do five after you stopped training for eight weeks, your recovery is fine, you’re just detrained.
With that distinction in mind, the next step is to appreciate that while age affects recovery rates, so do a lot of other things, including:
- Muscle mass: Hard-training people with more muscle take longer to recover than less muscular people.
- Strength levels: Stronger people do more damage to themselves during workouts than weaker people do. I wrote about this in my article “Why Full-Body Workouts Make You Stronger,” saying, “When Layne Norton deadlifts 500 pounds for 10 reps, it takes a far greater toll and necessitates more recovery time than when you (please don’t take this personally) deadlift 185 for 10.”
- Training intensity: For anyone, hard workouts require more recovery than most efforts. When lifters try to cheat this, they end up as an injury waiting to happen.
- Height: Taller people move weights over greater distances on everything from squats to bench press, and therefore need slightly more recovery time than shorter people.
- Sex: Women generally recover faster than men, possibly for physiological reasons, but also possibly because of different training styles.
- Hormonal status: People with relatively low levels of androgens need more recovery time than people with higher levels.
- Programming: You’ll recover faster while on a sound training program than you will from a suboptimal program.
- Sleep quality: People with good “sleep hygiene” recover faster than those who don’t.
- Energy status: You’ll recover better when on a hypercaloric diet, and worse on a hypocaloric diet.
- Stress: People dealing with significant financial or interpersonal stressors need more recovery time than those who have more manageable stress levels.
That may seem like a lot of variables stacked up against you. But it’s actually entirely possible, depending on the variables just listed, that a 60-year-old man could successfully recover from five sessions a week better than a much younger guy could recover from three workouts a week.
Here’s what I mean: Yes, if you’re of a “certain age,” sure, that’s an extenuating factor when it comes to your overall recovery ability. However, if you’re training smart, sleeping well, eating enough, and managing stress successfully, you’ll recovery as well as if not better than a lot of much younger guys.
On the other hand, if you’re conspicuously strong and muscular, and if you train hard, your workouts will create a lot of tissue damage, which will lengthen your recovery times. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness!
So How Does This All Translate Into Programming?
First off, it’s worth noting that I’ve seen great results with men and women of all ages using three full-body sessions a week, like in my Total-Body Strong system on Bodybuilding.com All Access. If you stick with that approach, alternating heavier strength-focused phases and higher-rep muscle-focused phases, and alternating exercises every four weeks or so, you can keep progressing for a long, long time.
However, there are other subtleties worth mentioning. For one, most people can recover faster from upper-body training than they can from lower-body training. After all, lower-body muscles are bigger and stronger, and therefore likely to incur greater damage during your workouts.
Therefore, as a general rule, train your biggest/strongest muscles the least frequently, and your smallest/weakest muscles most frequently. Here’s one way you can approach this:
- Monday: Lower body
- Tuesday: Upper body (chest and back, no direct arm training)
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Lower body
- Friday: Upper body (chest and back, no direct arm training)
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Direct arm training
With this arrangement, your lower body is trained twice a week, and the big/strong upper-body muscles (mostly chest and back) are also trained twice. During these upper-body sessions, your arms are receiving indirect training stimulus. Then on Sunday, you train your arms directly. This way, your arms (the smallest, weakest muscles) are in essence being trained three times a week, while everything else is trained twice a week.
That approach, combined with a reasonable approach to cardiovascular training, should allow most lifters to recover adequately and keep performance high in the gym.
However, recovery is a highly personalized process. Sure, age is a factor, but only one factor of many, and probably not even the most important one at that. Start with what you can do now, take notes as you recover, and keep coming back for more.