Is less training better?
Strength coach legend Dan John said it best, "four days of lifting is better than five and three days is better that four".
Now before you get outraged at a statement like that, lets discuss why less training might be better for a lot of folks over more training. As I get older one thing has become pretty clear to me: I don't recover the way I used to. When I was in high school I can remember a night where a friend and I dragged a keg of beer out into the woods for a party around a campfire. The total trek out was probably close to a mile....with a keg of beer! We then proceeded to drink all night, I know from a foggy recollection that I had at least 10 solo cups of beer. I remember this because it was a new milestone for my beer consumption. In the morning I woke up, dragged my sorry ass home and showered before heading to work. And I felt "OK".
Move any of that to my current 33 year old self and I'd be in for serious hurtin'.
Less is often more
Nutrition and training done RIGHT becomes more important as you get older. With age you are fighting a decreased recovery, resiliency and slowing down of your metabolic processes. The bulletproof kid you once were now has some weak links. Since you can't turn back time or fall into radioactive waste and become superhuman, you've got to adapt in other ways.
Nutrition is something I talk about all the time. But what about training? Lets go through a typical scenario for an adult who works 40 hours a week, takes care of a home, possibly has kids, probably has pets, needs to spend time with family, work on continuing education, self development or any other time consuming process. Does having 6 training days with one dedicated just to arms make sense? If you're training really hard each session I doubt you could recover optimally if you're in your 30s or beyond. And if you are just training often but not very hard, then you're wasting time.
Recovery as a bucket
I can't remember who compared recovery to a bucket and I am sure it's not just one person anyway. But the adage goes, if recovery is a bucket you can only fill it with so much. The bucket represents your maximum capacity to recover and adapt to stress. Stress is what fills the bucket and it is NOT just training. It's work, relationships, mowing the lawn, sitting in traffic, having a loved one die, your puppy poops on your carpet - you get the picture. When you are an adult, WAY more non-training stress fills the bucket leaving less room for recovery from training.
With time being a factor, it also makes sense to get the most you can out of less time in the gym. Every day you train is a day you don't recover. And I can tell you that if you are in your 30s, 40s, 50s or beyond and training 5-6 days a week (unless you are a competitive athlete or juicing) you are probably training like a weenie. Or......overflowing your bucket which means being constantly under-recovered. This manifests itself with more injuries, chronic soreness, poor sleep, fatigue, brain fog, lack of progress in the gym and probably an overall staleness in how you feel. And if you are on the weenie side of the equation then it's just wasted time. Also not good!
A new way to approach training
What if you approached training with an emphasis on gettiing your ass kicked but then turning that around and kicking ass with recovery? Why not train really hard and then recover maximally? Dan John was suggesting this with his statement. Not because you can't train 5 or 6 days a week and do very well, just that most people don't. Athletes do, young people do, but that probably isn't you and if you give it another 5-10 years you'll know exactly what I mean. Lets not quibble about 3 vs 4 days, just the concept of doing more with less.
Training less also means having to prioritize. Hmmmm, I only have a finite amount of time in the gym so maybe trap bar deadlifts take precedence over triceps kickbacks. Check. Hmm...I can't have each day be a body-part only because it'll mean training legs every other week, maybe I'll do full body days instead. Check. Hmmm....if I have fewer days to train I can train SO hard each session that I am required to recover more, thus justifying 4 days off from training. Check.
See that if you think through what three days of training requires, lots of good things happen. Things fall into place like prioritizing big movement patterns, training whole body, making each session high quality and intense.
I've seen so many nutrition clients I work with fail to achieve their body comp goals before coming to me because they are chronically under-recovered. Each session is taking more and more from them without giving anything back. This clients has to constantly modify their training to work around injuries, chronic soreness, fatigue and lack of interest. Their form gets worse, the training takes too long and the productivity drops. These clients desperately need to cut back and focus on lots of high quality movement through appropriate motor patterns. Not doing lateral band walks.
How it affects your body comp
First off, if you are experiencing any of the things in the above paragraph, know that your ability to get a positive adaptation from exercise is diminished. This means all the squatting you do might not result in bigger quads, glutes or hamstrings. It might not mean gaining strength. It probably means motor compensations, missing lifts and getting injured. So how do you think that would impact your physique?
Stress is responded to via cortisol, adrenaline, the immune system, changes in hormones, resting heart rate and much more. But lets go back to cortisol. Cortisol is cool because it helps free up glucose from liver glycogen so you have more free energy substrate to fuel activity through muscles and nervous system. Your immune system comes in after to help repair muscle cells, clean up damaged and restore homeostasis. But cortisol turns off immune cells. With chronic training and underrecovering your ability to mount a full immune response for repair and growth is hampered. This is where chronic injury also happens as bone and connective tissue, which have much less blood supply than muscles, get overworked. It screws with your blood sugar because cortisol is constantly stimulating liver glycogen to be released into the blood stream as glucose. If you aren't training then insulin needs to be present to shuttle the glucose back out of the bloodstream. If the muscles won't take it up, fat cells certainly will. Chronically high cortisol also impedes motor learning - so if you're stressed, it is actually much more difficult to get better at an exercise.
But plenty of people go through this cycle, endlessly hoping that the training is burning calories which will lead to fat loss when instead it's doing the opposite. Sometimes you might see weight loss but it's hard to keep muscle because of the inability to recover fully. And if you have just been stale for a long time, think of it has you are just barely filling the bucket with not a drop over. So yeah, nothing is exceeding the limit to recover, but now you have NO room to adapt. Each week represents a return to baseline but nothing more - you're recovered with zero positive training gains.
Lastly, because this messes with so many people: cortisol when chronically elevated to lead to water retention. If you are holding water and feel like you're "fatter", what do you think most people would do? Train more! Because of course, exercise is the only way to burn calories! My Fitness Pal said so.
Before we start demonizing cortisol, just realize it is a perfectly normal response to what you are subjecting your body to. Since your ability to adapt is finite, you can't keep your foot on the gas pedal all the time and expect to see linear gains. It's like tanning more and more every week with no expectation of getting a sun burn. Eventually it will happen and somehow there are people who won't make the connection.
Why this works
Cutting back on training is kind of like the model of work that says "go home when the work is finished". We've all had 9-5 jobs where there is a lot of down time. Yes you are at work, getting paid but you aren't really doing anything. Some companies prefer you to come in, get all of your work finished and simply leave when it's done. If it takes 8 hours, OK. But if it takes only 5, that's cool too.
You aren't more productive at work just because you're THERE. And you aren't more productive at the gym just because you're THERE.
What a total waste of time to see a trainer watch a 50 year old client jog on the treadmill for 30 minutes followed by the world's wussiest (made up word, I know) arm workout. Back when I started lifting at World Gym there was this trainer Mark and he had this husband and wife he trained nearly every day. And I watched as he had them, on a weely basis, do elevated barbell deadlifts from makeshift plastic PVC racks. I think I saw them deadlift 85lbs about 100 different times. First of all, PVC can't hold jack shit so you know there's no way they can load up the weight and secondly, they never made progress. All that time, money and effort resulting in no improvement. All the while Mark made his money and told them how awesome they were.
I'd rather that Mark had them do some sort of weighted circuit training that taxed their strength, muscular endurance and cardiac output. Something that was so hard they wouldn't WANT to do it every day. Something that required them to take the next day off. That would be productive training. Instead Marks' training was like sitting at a desk for 12 hours when you have only 2 hours of work.
Remember, you are adapting (which means growing muscle, gaining power and strength, losing fat, improving cardiac output) in the time between training sessions. Training is a very stressful stimulus. It is a condensed time of stress that results in positive adaptations given the right rest afterwards. But no growth happens in the gym! Thinking that you are actually getting stronger or losing fat as you train is like thinking you are getting full while you cook. Nope. The rest between training sessions is when you improve. The eating of food after you cook is the time you are getting full. Not the other way around.
Why it matters
I write all this to say, as you get older, focus on quality over quantity. If you're an average Jane or Joe, you shouldn't be able to come into the gym every day if you are training really hard. And the time between sessions isn't just time spent on the couch either, many people think that is what's being advocated. Instead, your down time should include taking care of all your life responsibilities but also using that extra time to work on self improvement and development. Reading, learning, listen to podcasts, focusing on nutrition. It also means being active in other ways. Bike, walk, swim, hike, kayak...that stuff is not going to impact your training and will likely improve your recovery.
I tell clients all the time to walk more. Not because it burns loads of calories but because it is the antithesis to all the stressful BS in your life. It's time away from other people, work, driving, answering emails, looking at Instagram - and more time spend reconnecting with YOURSELF and time to think. Time to relax, recover, grow. Time to breathe and not be distracted. Lots of "gym gains" can come about from making more time for things like this. But if you are stuck on thinking it's just time spent in the gym that makes for improvement, you are missing the point. Most old-school bodybuilder from the 30s and 40s had incredible physiques (without steroids) from 3 days a week of lifting. They played sports, swam, biked and walked in their free time. Lifting all the time only became popular as steroids became more prevalent because they improve your recovery, hence taking advantage of that and training more. But you probably aren't juicing.
Quality and then quantity. It's not that hard to do but you need to be open to new ideas. Getting over the fear of getting fat if you don't step in the gym. Nutrition largely takes care of fat loss. It does all the heavy lifting so to speak. Training determines what happens with your muscles and cardiac and nervous systems, not so much your body fat. I'll leave you with this: two old school lifters with amazing physiques training without steroids, three times per week: