Recovery and Programming:  How long do I have to wait between working muscle groups?

By Ryan Darling, RMT, R.Kin, CSEP-CEP, B.Sc, M.Sc. Kinesiology (Owner/Operator, RD Athletics – Therapy & Training)

When I began high school and had my first experiences in the weight room, most of the advice I was given or what I observed in other people’s programs led me to adopting a body-building type of split for my work outs. We all know the type: Monday is chest, Tuesday is back, and so on and so on. Even arms had their own dedicated day.

I continued with this type of approach to my training until late into my undergraduate degree and even into my Masters. It was during my Masters degree that I was lucky enough to get involved in Olympic Weightlifting. The approach to this type of training threw everything I thought I knew about recovery, program design, and rest requirements for specific muscle groups out the window.

In school, I was taught - like most of us who have taken any physiology courses - that most muscles require 48 hours, or 2 days between work outs to make sure they are fully recovered. Like many things we are taught in school, we are often provided with a very black and white answer, but the answer is often not so simple.

Splits garnered a lot of attention and popularity from the field of bodybuilding. For these athletes, inducing as much specific muscle damage from a lot of volume and damage to each individual muscle is a key aspect that leads to their desired goals of muscle gain. But consider for a moment, how many of you or your clients are specifically interested in gaining a lot of muscle? I don’t know about you, but personally I’d say it’s less than 2% of my client base. The majority of my client base is interested in either weight loss, or good, all-around fitness.

Full-body training sessions are usually much better suited to weight loss and overall fitness. And, it's interesting to note that many professional sport athletes are now also making use of a more full body approach to their training. It obviously requires us to adjust the amount of volume and number of exercises for each muscle group.

The full-body approach allows us to work muscles in quicker succession requiring less days of recovery. Involving large muscle groups - like the legs - has a far greater effect on the energy expenditure during the actual workout. But, more importantly, the use of larger muscle groups induces hormonal changes leading to more effects outside of the session itself.

This means individuals can create a larger metabolic effect, while reducing the individual muscle damage, allowing for quicker recovery so those muscles to be trained again.

Even in specific sport training like Olympic Weightlifting, we would train full-body every day of the week. Even two training sessions on some days. The way this is accomplished is by slowly getting your body used to loading the movements more frequently, and secondly, making sure you are waving your intensity. So for example, if I performed a heavy back squat on one day, the next day would likely be a less intense variation (overhead squat – lighter load), or pause work to allow for a reduction in the load used. This also gives us different contexts for the use of each exercise (i.e. pause work might be used more for positioning vs. brute strength).

So, what does this all mean? If you or your clients aren’t necessarily interested in gaining anymore muscle mass and you're training 3 days a week or less, I highly recommend you move to a full-body approach. At the very least, it will be a drastic change from your current split approach. And these types of changes are what ensure our bodies are being given new and varying types of stressors which is imperative in continuing to make progress and create physical changes. 

Joanna Whitney