There’s no need to kill yourself in the gym to make gains, argues PT Pennie Varvarides. Here’s the bare minimum amount of training you need to do to see strength gains.

It’s so easy to get bogged down trying to hit upon the perfect training plan that we end up losing consistency. But what if I said that you could maintain strength and fitness with one or two sessions a week (for a period of time, at least)?

Here’s how you can use minimum effective dose training to maintain your hard work, even when life gets in the way.  

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The minimum amount of training need to maintain fitness

A 2021 study published in the Journal Of Strength & Conditioning Research found that all it takes to maintain a decent level of fitness is two endurance/aerobic training sessions a week.

The paper found short-term endurance can be maintained for up to 15 weeks “as long as exercise volume and intensity are maintained”, and that training can actually be reduced by up to 66% without having a drastic impact on physical performance.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s not always possible to maintain a high training frequency for reasons often out of our control. But this research really proves that you can scale it back and maintain your strength and cardio fitness when necessary. 

The minimum amount of training need to maintain strength

When it comes to 1RM (one rep max) strength, the same Spiering paper showed you can reduce training frequency from two-to-three sessions a week to just one and still maintain strength for anywhere between eight and 32 weeks. That’s eight months of doing very little!

Meanwhile, another 2021 study from Frontiers In Sports And Active Living found that found top-end strength could not only be maintained but actually improved using a minimum effective training dose approach over a six-to-12 week period.

The researchers suggest the optimal low-volume microcycle might look something like this: 

  • 1-3 sets of 1-3 reps at 85-95% of your 1RM (RPE 8.5-9.5)
  • 2-3 back-off sets of 3-5 reps at 70-80% 1RM (RPE 6-8). 

It’s worth saying that these guidelines are geared towards people who have been training heavy powerlifting-style for a while, rather than beginners.

And it’s also important to flag that age is a huge factor in how well a person maintains muscle mass and strength over time. Younger participants (20-35 years old) were able to maintain size with as little as one strength training session a week, while those aged 60-75 needed two.

Saying that, researchers have even more recently found that women over 60 can drop training volume to just one set per muscle group a week and maintain strength over an eight-week period. This was after a 20-week stretch of training three times a week.

“I think the biggest benefit [to minimum-effective dose training] is just efficiency,” explains Greg Nuckols, head of content at Stronger by Science.

“A lot of people assume that if they had to put in a ton of work to build their strength, it’ll take the same amount of effort to maintain their strength… Knowing that you can maintain virtually all of the strength you’ve built, with very little time investment can help lifters bridge those gaps when they either don’t have the time or motivation to put in long hours in the gym.” 

What about maintaining long-term health?

Exercise is the best way to improve health without medicinal intervention. In fact, a 2021 paper in the Journal Of Sports Medicine went as far as saying: “Resistance training is the only non-pharmacological intervention known to consistently improve, and therefore offset age-related declines in skeletal muscle mass, strength and power”.

Maintaining strength and power over time are huge predictors to healthspan, and Jackson Fyfe, research fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University in Australia, sees minimum effective dose training as a good way to establish lifetime habits.

He tells Strong Women: “The benefits of exercise compound over time, so sticking with an exercise regime in the long-term will likely lead to the most benefits.” 

“Without regular exercise,” Fyfe continues, “adults aged 60 years and over lose approximately 4-5% of their peak muscle mass per decade, with levels of strength and power declining up to two and eight times faster, respectively.”

Despite the massive benefits to regular exercise, participation is low. I wonder how many more people would be active more often if we weren’t so obsessed with “getting it right” or doing the optimal workout regime. Because yeah, there is a way to maximise training potential that involves doing more work. But doing the least work possible is a hell of a lot easier than doing the most – and a hell of a lot more effective than doing nothing at all. 

“The most obvious downside,” Nuckols adds, “is that you either won’t be making any new progress, or you’ll make strength progress at a much slower rate than you otherwise could have.”

A potentially important downside “is that metabolic and health-related benefits of resistance training seem to be volume-dependent”.  

So, when you can do more, do. And when you can’t, stick to a minimum effective dose. Just don’t stop altogether. 

How to programme a reduced workload

If you’re struggling for time, start by picking a handful of things.

Nuckols recommends choosing exercises that train most major muscle groups and putting in up to three high effort sets with a moderate load.

For example, workout one could be bench press, squat and row; the other could be deadlift, shoulder press and pull downs.

For endurance/VO2 max, take a similar approach. Do some hard sprints a couple of times a week, either on foot or on a cardio machine of your choice. Intensity is really important for maintaining fitness capacity, so if you are only doing easy efforts, you’ll notice a drop off a bit quicker than you will lifting. 

For more training tips, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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