We all get busy from time to time. Many of us find ourselves getting swamped during various times throughout the year and we feel like we’re drowning. Normally, strength training serves to reduce stress and increase our sense of well-being, but during times of extreme business, it can do the opposite. When we are buried up to our noses with work and responsibilities, training 3-5 times per week for 60-120 minutes can feel overwhelming and add more stress to the plate. For optimal progress, we want to be in eustress and not distress, so it’s advisable to reduce training frequency and volume during these times.
But how low can we go to still keep our gains? Six years ago, I wrote a really good article on this exact topic. Rather than just link to the article, I’m going to copy and paste it as it’s a short article:
By Bret Contreras, August 4, 2010
When I was in graduate school, I was a pretty busy guy. I was teaching high school mathematics during the day and attending grad school at night. I started reducing my training frequency, volume, and duration and noticed that it didn’t impact my strength levels too much. This caused me to experiment to see “how low I could go” in terms of training frequency, volume, and duration while maintaining my strength levels.Some of the readers may be old enough to remember the preachings of the late Ayn Rand-obsessed Mike Mentzer and his Heavy Duty Training (HDT) philosophy, or perhaps HIT Training espoused by Stuart McRobert who wrote the book Brawn.
At first, I cut down to three thirty minute sessions per week. When I found that my strength levels didn’t suffer, I cut down to two twenty-five minute sessions per week and again found that my strength did not suffer. I then cut down to one thirty-minute session per week. It turned out that this was too low and caused me to lose strength. Finally, I switched to one thirty-minute session per five days and found that I could indeed hold onto my strength and size. I stuck with this methodology for around 4 months and saw no strength or hypertrophy decrements.
Gaining strength is very tough and requires hard work and determination. However, if you ever find yourself overwhelmed and are considering giving up on strength training for a period of time, before you quit please consider switching to a low-volume, low frequency, high-intensity routine. Although as humans our physiologies differ and our “ideal routine” may differ, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the maintenance-results you can achieve through this type of routine.
I should mention that this routine was very difficult for me to stick to due to the fact that I love to train! One of the many reasons why I work out is to reduce stress and feel productive. I prefer to train more frequently and I believe that if you’re trying to gain muscle or strength then you need to train more frequently than the HIT/HDT crowds suggest. However, as many know I enjoy “experimenting” in order to learn more about strength training (which requires that we get out of our comfort zones from time to time).
In case you’re wondering, here’s the routine I performed (it was around eight years ago):
warm-up (5 minutes)
full squat – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3
bench press – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3
strength training portion (around 25 minutes) – do one superset and then rest around 3 minutes before doing the next superset
A1: full squat – one set to failure with 275 lbs (around 10 reps)
A2: bench press – one set to failure with 245 lbs (around 8 reps)
B1: deadlift – one set to failure with 405 lbs (around 10 reps)
B2: chin up – one set to failure with 70 lbs (around 3 reps)
C1: military press – one set to failure with 175 lbs (around 6 reps)
C2: one arm row – one set to failure with 160 lbs (around 10 reps)
D1: barbell walking lunge – one set to failure with 225 lbs (around 16 steps)
D2: hanging leg raise – one set to failure with bodyweight (around 30 reps)
* I hadn’t thought up barbell hip thrusts yet, otherwise I’d definitely have thrown those into the mix for increased end-range hip extension strength and glute gains. Knowing what I know now, I’d have paired hip thrusts with military press and walking lunges with one arm rows and ditched the hanging leg raises.
This routine was damn brutal! It would take several days to be able to muster up the energy and motivation to want to give it another go, but I found that I could consistently repeat or beat the previous performance from month to month. In truth, I probably gained in “high rep strength” but I bet that my “limit strength” or 1-RM on the various lifts decreased a little as I didn’t train super heavy while on this program. I wonder if my performance would have eventually peaked but I’ll probably never know because to be honest, this program made me hate high reps for lower body lifts. Trying to tie or beat your record on subsequent performances is brutal for squats and deadlifts in particular. I recall squatting 225 lbs for 30 reps in an all-out 10-minute “breathing” set and walking lunging two 25-lb dumbbells for 180 steps in a 12-minute all-out set. So I’ll probably never go back to a focus on higher reps for squats and deads and lunges, but hip thrusts and back extensions aren’t so bad. The HIT crowd recommends alternating “cycles” and choosing new exercises or backing off and “starting over,” but I never went that route. Their route probably would have been more effective, but again, I was experimenting and trying to control as many variables as possible.
The point of this blogpost is not to get you to switch over to HIT or HDT, it’s to make you realize that if you ever find yourself overworked or simply drained of working out 3-6 days per week, there’s a viable alternative that can allow you to maintain (or even improve upon) your performance while only training once every five days or so. Many people are accustomed to multiple sets and can’t “get a lot” out of one set. As your physiology and coordination adapts, you get really good at doing one set to failure on this type of program. *Disclaimer: Obviously beginners respond best to more volume and frequency as they are weak and uncoordinated/neurally inefficient and don’t get taxed as much from a metabolic, muscular, neural, endocrine, and immune system perspective.
So next time you feel overwhelmed and find yourself wanting to quit training, just remember that you can keep your hard earned gains by training very infrequently (albeit extremely intensively).
So now you have a cool anecdote pertaining to strength and hypertrophy retention during times of reduced training frequency and volume. But is there any research to support this? You’re damn right there is. Check out this link to a 2011 PubMed abstract published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise – a highly reputable Sports Science journal:
Let me first commend the researchers on a badass study design. Having conducted studies myself, I can appreciate the amount of work that went into this study – they trained 70 subjects for 48 total weeks (almost an entire year!) and recorded numerous variables of interest throughout the entire study period. There are other studies too that examine detraining, but in this article I’m going to focus on this study simply because it’s the most comprehensive to date.
The researchers first took the 70 adult males (31 adults were age 60-75 and 39 adults were age 20-35) through a rigorous 16-week training regimen that had them performing the following workout 3 times per week:
- 3 sets of 8-12 reps of leg extensions with 90 sec rest in between sets
- 3 sets of 8-12 reps of leg presses with 90 sec rest in between sets
- 3 sets of 8-12 reps of squats with 90 sec rest in between sets
This equated to 27 sets per week. Sets were taken to or close to failure. Loads were increased consistently throughout the 4 months (progressive overload was utilized). During these 4 months,
- Younger adults increased type II vastus lateralis cross-sectional area by 37%, type I vastus lateralis cross-sectional area by 22%, increased thigh lean mass by 5.6%, and increased knee extension 1RM strength by 38%
- Older adults increased type II vastus lateralis cross-sectional area by 28%, type I vastus lateralis cross-sectional area by 14%, increased thigh lean mass by 4.2%, and increased knee extension 1RM strength by 36%.
Now, onto the cool part. After the 16 weeks of intense training, the researchers then split the subjects into 3 groups:
- A detraining group that did no training at all (0 total sets per week) for 32 weeks
- A 1/3 training group that did the same workout but only 1 day per week instead of 3 days per week (9 total sets per week) for 32 weeks
- A 1/9 training group that did just one set of leg extensions, leg presses, and squats 1 day per week (3 total sets per week) for 32 weeks
Here were the results:
- Younger detrained adults lost 5.8% thigh lean mass and lost 4.0% knee extension 1RM strength
- Older detrained adults lost 7.4% thigh lean mass and lost 10.1% knee extension 1RM strength
- Younger 1/3 trained adults lost .2% thigh lean mass and gained 9.0% knee extension 1RM strength
- Older 1/3 trained adults lost 2.7% thigh lean mass and gained 5.9% knee extension 1RM strength
- Younger 1/9 trained adults lost 1.5% thigh lean mass and gained 7.5% knee extension 1RM strength
- Older 1/9 trained adults lost 2.6% thigh lean mass and gained 5.8% knee extension 1RM strength
In addition, as you can see in the graph below, the younger 1/3 group gained vastus lateralis CSA (though thigh lean mass diminished slightly).
Conclusion and Practical Applications
So how low can you go and still retain strength and muscle gains? It depends on physical age, training age, volume, and whether the goal is to retain strength or hypertrophy (prevent atrophy).
If you’re a younger adult, you can likely keep most of your muscle mass gains by training one day per week with a full body routine consisting of around 3 sets of 5-7 exercises. You can build strength with this same amount of training and maintain strength with much less volume (probably 1 set of 5-7 exercises per week…but strength is specific so you’d need to be performing the lift you seek to maintain). Sets would need to be performed to or close to failure. Alternatively, if lesser effort was desired, sets could be taken far shy of failure if volume was doubled. For example, one could perform 3 sets of 8 reps with 300 lbs, with each set taken close to failure, or 6 sets of 4-5 reps with 300 lbs, with each set being several reps shy of failure.
If you’re an older adult, you’ll need slightly more volume to maintain muscle mass; perhaps 3 sets of 5-7 exercises ever 4-5 days. And you can maintain strength with lesser volume (probably 1-2 sets of 5-7 exercises per week…but strength is specific so you’d need to be performing the lift you seek to maintain). Sets would need to be performed to or close to failure. Alternatively, if lesser effort was desired, sets could be taken far shy of failure if volume was doubled. For example, one could perform 3 sets of 8 reps with 200 lbs, with each set taken close to failure, or 6 sets of 4-5 reps with 200 lbs, with each set being several reps shy of failure.
Whatever the case may be, just don’t quit training altogether. It is hard to build muscle and strength, but rather easy to maintain it. When life gets busy, or you go on an extended vacation, or you just desire a break from hardcore training, know that you can hit the gym once every 5-7 days with a full body routine and maintain your muscle mass and strength.