How Much Strength Training Do You Really Need?

Greatist
by Greatist
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How Much Strength Training Do You Really Need?

We know it can be tough to go to the gym when there’s a full queue on Netflix, Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer, or really, anything better to do with your time. Or maybe you’re a runner whose workout schedule involves running, running, and more running. Then when you do hit the weights, your arms, back, and legs are so sore that you vow never to work out again (trust us, we’ve been there).

Whether your days are overtaken by running or you simply don’t have the time (or motivation) to get to the gym very often, you’ve probably wondered the same thing we were: Is it even worth it to strength train only one or two times a week?

Why You Should Lift (Bro)

We won’t be the first to tell you there are plenty of good reasons to hit the weight room—even if your goal isn’t to build arms like The Hulk. Strength training can improve physical performance, movement control, walking speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, and self-esteem. Plus, it can reduce blood pressure, enhance cardiovascular health, and decrease chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

Gaining strength also minimizes your chance of getting hurt. “You’ll increase bone density and strengthen the tendons and ligaments, so not only are you simply able to lift more weight, but you’re also building resistance to injury,” explains Michael Boyle, a strength and conditioning coach and functional training expert in Boston.

And while you may think cardio is key to losing weight, a study found that men who did 20 minutes of weight training each day saw a smaller increase in belly fat as men who spent the same amount of time doing cardio. In another study, 10 weeks of resistance training was shown to increase lean weight by 1.4 kg (about three pounds), increase resting metabolic rate by 7 percent, and reduce fat weight by 1.8 kg (about four pounds). So if you’re trying to slim down, it may be time to say so long to the treadmill—and hello to the weight rack.

One and Done?

Research also suggests that a once-weekly strength training frequency can be just as effective on improving muscle strength as a more rigorous schedule. This small study followed two groups of adults over 60—one group performing a set of strength training exercises to muscular fatigue once per week, and a second group that exercised twice per week—and found that substantial strength gains can be derived from less frequent activity.

Trainers agree there are definite benefits to workouts on a limited schedule. “I have clients who only strength train once or twice per week, and they still see some significant results in strength,” says Noam Tamir, a Greatist expert and founder of Tamir Systems Fitness. “Most of this can be attributed to neural adaptation, which means that your nervous system is adapting to added force, even if nothing is happening to muscle size.”

“Full-body functional strength training can be super effective once or twice a week,” agrees Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician and author of Running Strong. In fact, Metzl created a series of programs for runners training for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon distances that incorporate a strength workout just one day per week. And he’s experienced the benefits personally: As Metzl has incorporated one day of functional strength training—think bodyweight exercises—into his own marathon and Ironman training plans, he’s broken his personal best times.

To be fair, one or two days of lifting per week is probably not getting you anywhere near those Hulk-esque arms—but that’s OK. Strength training isn’t just about “bulking up,” Metzl explains. “Instead, it helps your muscles get stronger, improves your balance, and preserves your fast-twitch muscle fibers, allowing your muscles to contract faster.” Translation: This helps you drive the golf ball farther, hit an overhead harder, and see improvements in any sport performance.

Strength training also increases endurance, or lactate threshold—the amount of time it takes for your muscles fatigue, Metzl says. This means the amount of exercise you’d have to do to make your muscles so sore you can’t use them efficiently (i.e. that painful soreness after hitting the weights when you do so sporadically) increases the more you lift.

An added bonus for people training for endurance races such as marathons or triathlons: Even though their time is already limited, adding anaerobic (strength) training one or two times per week helps the body handle the repetitive stress of movements like running, cycling, or swimming, Tamir adds.

What if you’re not doing any sort of exercise outside the one or two trips to the gym? “For the average person, strength training once or twice a week is enough to break the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle,” says Rebecca Golian, a personal trainer and creator of the Obstacle Course Race Training Program at Chelsea Piers in New York City. “It’s enough to stimulate muscle growth, increase cardiovascular strength, and help improve endurance.”

The Sweet Spot: Two-a-Weeks

Not all experts agree that strength training only once a week is sufficient, however. “Strength training twice per week is perfect, but once is a waste of time,” Boyle says. “Sure, you can potentially gain strength on one workout a week, but you would continually be sore. Twice a week is less of a shock to the system and allows the body to better adapt.“

Research also makes the case for two or three weekly resistance workouts rather than one. One study examined the effects of three different strength training frequencies on 1,725 previously sedentary men and women. The one-day-per-week trainees added 0.7 pounds of lean weight, whereas both the two-days-per-week and three-days-per-week exercisers added 3.1 pounds of lean weight. Another study comparing different strength training frequencies on torso rotation muscle strength had similar results.

The good news is that you don’t need to dedicate a lot of time to each session. Boyle, who also trained the Boston Red Sox team that won the 2013 World Series, lifts just 15 minutes, twice per week on average. He believes this is the minimum amount individuals can strength train and still see results. But Boyle doesn’t mess around: He squeezes in a variety of compound exercises that target different muscle groups (both upper and lower body) as a circuit, completing two sets of 10 reps of each exercise.

“And keep in mind the size principle: The higher the resistance, the more muscle recruitment,” Tamir says, meaning you shouldn’t be reaching for the three- or five-pounders if you can actually lift 10 or 12 pounds with good form.

A final bonus: Training hard twice per week gives your body adequate time to recover, Golian says. Many people tend to overtrain, which can delay your progress.

If you’re looking to bulk up or train for intense lifting competitions or obstacle course races, adding additional days of training can be helpful but are not always necessary, Golian adds. She has clients who train up to four times per week, but cautions that stress from additional training sessions can be harsh on your body, so it’s important to speak with a trainer and tailor a program that suits your individual goals.

Make the Most of a Limited Training Schedule

Boyle recommends doing a total-body workout that combines moves like push-ups, pull-ups, basic plank-type core work, and squats. This type of workout twice per week can build strength without dedicating hours to the gym, he says.

Metzl agrees, recommending a quick training circuit right when you wake up. (Check out our GWODs for some ideas!) He’s a fan of the burpee, as well as plyometric jump squats and arm walkouts to push-ups. “These moves ramp up your metabolic furnace for the day,” he says.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, Metzl recommends his Ironstrength Workout, which consists of seven sections, including plyometric jump squats, planks, push-ups, mountain climbers, burpees, deadlifts, and more. Have more time? Try our 30-minute, no-gym bodyweight workout.

Also important to keep in mind: “A proper warm-up is crucial before kicking off a high-resistance, high-intensity workout,” Tamir says, especially if you’re sedentary the rest of the week. Doing a lot of single-leg and single-arm exercises also helps keep the body balanced and minimizes injury, he adds, and you can alleviate any soreness with recovery techniques such as ice baths or Epsom salt baths.

Finally, proper nutrition is still king when it comes to getting the results you want, so you’ll have to pass up those daily doughnuts. “Eating healthy carbs post-workout will replenish your glycogen levels and help your muscles recover faster,” Tamir says. But more important is the window for consuming protein: To maximize protein synthesis, have 20 or more grams of protein within an hour of working out, he suggests.

The Takeaway

Doing something is better than doing nothing, Boyle says. Hitting the weight rack (or the mat for bodyweight exercises) once or twice a week may not give you a Schwarzenegger-esque body, but the small gains you do make might incentivize you to exercise those muscle areas more often. After all, sometimes feeling sore is just what you need to remind you what a good workout feels like and get back into the groove of three, four, or even five workouts per week.

About the Author

Greatist
Greatist

Greatist helps you find what’s good for you. Not like “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” More like “here are some choices you can realistically make, stick with, and feel really good about.” Because in the end, you don’t have to choose between being happy and being healthy; they’re really the same thing.

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44 responses to “How Much Strength Training Do You Really Need?”

  1. Monica Broussard says:

    Hi everyone I would love some advices on diet and exercises.

    • Debbie Garabato says:

      I lost 55 pounds with my fitness pal app. I hired a trainer for 10 sessions to acclimate myself to the gym. I’m stronger at 56, than I have ever been! Good Luck!

      • Monica Broussard says:

        I’m so proud of you. Keep up the good work.

      • alyssia says:

        That’s awesome!! I’m only 22, one child whose now 3, I have given up so many times with losing weight but I’m determined to loose it and I’m back at point a on my fitness pal and just motivating myself to put my son in his stroller and go walking , joggin, doing circuit trainings by myself Monday through friday. Seeing your post and bout how much you’ve lost put a smile on my face and a “I can do it” attitude.

        • alx215 says:

          I’m using the app so I don’t have to pen/paper log my eating and I’m already seeing results, I’m cutting right now and I’m loving this app. You can absolutely do it! Don’t look for motivation, create it , live with a chip on you’re shoulder when it comes to fitness! Good luck! You are gonna do it..

        • Louise Masters DuBois says:

          You CAN do it!

    • alx215 says:

      The above advice is great, lifting weight or using machines at the gym for full body compound movements for 30-40 mins twice a week is all you need, along with diet. Compound means most muscles possible, squats, deadlifts , bench, row… No matter the weight you lift u r activating hundreds of muscles. Way better than running or elliptical. And these compound movements keep burning fat even when ur sleeping, unlike cardio. Also if u do them with minimal rest or distraction you get the cardio in too.

  2. GK85 says:

    Good article. I started lifting weights a year ago and would never go back to just cardio 3-4 times a week. My overall body composition has changed significantly over the last year. Altough i had already lost 30 kg in teh 3 years before that, my bodyfat stayed very high (around 30%) this last year doing strenghttraining 3-4 times a week, combined with “cardio” from cycling to work at a good speed has got me down another 10 kg, but also down 9% in bodyfat, where it took me 3 years of cardio to lose 10% of bodyfat. I wish i had discovered lifting programs much earlier when i started to lose weight.

    • gowarriors77 says:

      Good for you! I didn’t start lifting until I was 34, and it’s made all the difference in the world. I was a college swimmer and triathlete. Until I started strength training I definitely plateaued in all my activities, and I was prone to injury. At age 43 now, I’m in the best shape of my life. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Christin Seegers says:

      Kudos! Love reading a story like yours!
      As for your last sentence. I wished I had done the same thing also. Did gain my weight back from work. But now with being closer to home I can now work out three times a week and have already been doing everything this article said. The difference in my physique, I’ve lost weight and body fat while still maintaining my curves just from lean muscle. It’s much better than cardio alone with better results. Never again will I go back to just walking every single day.
      I still walk because I love it and to help maintain blood pressure, plus the easy walk is my way of a cool down after the strength training while wedging in another 200 calories before final shut down for the day. And followed by a chocolate peanut butter protein shake.

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    • Captain Jeff says:

      Muscle burn fat….nice job

  3. Scott Kent says:

    The great body builder Mike Mentzer also advocated training as few times as once a week, although twice was often recommended. His philosophy of High Intensity Training, or HIT, was predicated on intensity over volume. In fact, he stated that any workout of sufficient intensity could not continue for a prolonged time. Following an intense workout the most important thing is rest, because gains are made while the muscle rebuilds and grows during rest. I highly recommend looking up some of his books.

  4. Janet says:

    I have limited mobility due to a knee issue, having a replacement in September. I can use my pool and I do as much in there, I really need to loose some weight before my surgery but without cardio, it seems impossible. I guess I need to do some weight lifting.

    • Emily says:

      My grandmother has knee issues as well and can only exercise in the pool. She does a mixture of water aerobic moves and the use of water dumbbells (I believe they can be purchased at Walmart or on Amazon). Obviously the results are not as rapid as other methods may be, but it has helped her a lot in her weight loss journey! Best of luck!

  5. Aroop Kundu says:

    training once weekly is the most ineffective way for muscle gain…not that you wont gain muscle but at the slowest rate possible…for begginers a full body workout thrice weekly works best…heard about the nautilus program or Mark rippetoes starting strength??these are the most widely recommended workout schedules..

    training thrice weekly with an upper -lower split is the best for intermediates….training a body part twice weekly is the most optimum but two sessions dont do it

    • Eliot says:

      This great for someone who has already been training for a while. Problem with this kind of view is, it sounds like “why bother unless you do it full out?”, which can discourage many from even starting out. Not to mention, more recent studies show the difference between nothing and once a week is great, whereas the incremental less noticeable.

      • Aroop Kundu says:

        i agree with something is better than nothing approach..
        but if someone is trying to train optimally then hitting each body part twice a week has been shown to cause maximum anabolism

      • Shubho says:

        Once a week is only good for maintaining strength. If you want to get strong fast it’s inefficient… There’s a reason all good intermediate programs are more than one day a week! (5/3/1, Texas method, Madcow etc.)

  6. Alan Rubin says:

    I have a routine now where I do
    cardiovascular on Mondays and Thursdays, doing elliptical for 15 minutes, then a spin class for about an hour. Then on Tuesdays I do lower body weight training and on Fridays I do upper body weight training. I usually take Wednesday and the weekend to either rest or do other activities, such as tennis or roller blading. So far, so good. But I will admit, sometimes I am a little and may skip a day. If I am not feeling strong enough to get through the workouts. However, this article gave me some really good insights as to how much weight training I really need to do and maybe I am doing too much.

  7. Jeanette Q says:

    I am returning to weight lifting, something I did for years twice a week. I have found that with some time off, my body has changed and cardio alone is not enough. I’m close to 50, so I am confident that twice a week weight lifting again will improve my strength and overall condition.

  8. Jule Winkler Slicho says:

    What do you think about strength training with kettlebells?

    • Shubho says:

      It’s very hard to progress up in weight on them. You could use them as an accessory but barbell lifts trump any other lift because of the ease of progression (adding 5lbs at a time to the bar)

    • Special K says:

      They’re just a tool, like any other. They have their places, but the overall program is the key.

  9. Christin Seegers says:

    As a woman who lifts at work, I really can’t see myself lifting what I call “baby weights” for a workout. The minimum I use is 10 lbs and 15 lbs dumbbells at home. Never go below that. Can’t wait for the day when the 15 pounders will be too light for me and I’ll have to move up to the 20’s.

  10. SquawPeakHiker says:

    “One study examined the effects of three different strength training
    frequencies on 1,725 previously sedentary men and women. The
    one-day-per-week trainees added 0.7 pounds of lean weight, whereas both
    the two-days-per-week and three-days-per-week exercisers added 3.1
    pounds of lean weight.”

    Citation please. These cannot be one-week gains. How long was the study run for?

  11. Louise Masters DuBois says:

    I am 71 years old and I have been doing strength training for the past year and a half with a personal trainer three days a week. I also try and walk 6 days a week, usually at least a mile. I feel great, have much more strength and can do so many things so much easier. I love how I feel and look…I have a waist line again!! I have lost 25 pounds and went from a size 16 to a 6. I recommend it to everyone at any age. I dead lift 110 lbs and squat 65. That is my personal record (so far). As you can tell, I am proud of what I have accomplished and will continue for as long as possible.

    • thohan says:

      That’s really impressive, wow! I’ve been persuaded that weights are for everyone and this is a supporting anecdote for sure.

  12. Chico says:

    Lifting and Cadiz should be a lifetime fun job. Been doing it since 14 yrs old I’m 43 now. It helped me keep my sanity.

  13. thohan says:

    “Strength training isn’t just about “bulking up,” Metzl explains. “Instead, it helps your muscles get stronger,…”

    This is where I get confused. Provided you aren’t ‘roiding or doing something else that just introduces more water to the muscles, isn’t bulk essentially the same thing as stronger muscles? When your muscles get stronger, they get bulkier. It ain’t the gun show or anything, but doesn’t the one always accompany the other, and both are just a matter of degree?

  14. Hengky Tandyo says:

    Absolutely agree. But in one sentence: …”So, if you’re trying to slim down, maybe time to say so long to the treadmill—and hello to the weight rack”.

    So long to the treadmill… Does your sentence suggest that we JUST need strength training regardless of cardio? AFAIK, we DO need both, no?

    • Special K says:

      You don’t *need* both strength training and cardio, no. In fact, with the right combination of methods, you can get all the fat loss and body composition improvement and a decent amount of the VO2Max improvements with just strength training and MRT. If you have time for both, both is definitely better, but if you had to choose one, it should always be strength training. You don’t *NEED* both to see significant improvements in body composition and overall fitness.

  15. Maria says:

    So true. I’m an 18 year old overweight girl and I incorporate some strength training with my cardiovascular workout, and obviously I don’t have hot tonned arms, I do feel that the strength is increasing and I’m less prone to quick fatigue already! Hoping I can lose weight sustainably.

  16. Emma Richter says:

    I agree. Doing weight training 2-3 times a week is perfect for your body. It gives substantial time to recover, but also forms good habits, while allowing you to generally make progress. Doing both cardio and strength training is important for optimal health and fitness.

  17. Shubho says:

    Strength without much size is possible to a certain point. For males, they can quickly reach around a 315 pound squat without bulking up too much. After that though, when the neural adaptations slow down, hyper trophy is needed to continue getting stronger…,

  18. Nice article! I only workout for maintaining my body. Strength training I need to try. While doing I’ll keep these things in my mind! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  19. Dharmish says:

    Good article although the 1 hour protein window is false and has no evidence to back it up. There’s no rush to have your post workout meal as protein synthesis will stop occuring after 24-48 hours after your workout and there’s no pressure to eat only healthy carbs as, as long as your getting a balance of nutrients then that’s ideal.

  20. Margie Laskie says:

    I lift twice a week, upper body one sesson, lower body on the other session. i’ve thought about breaking it down to three sessions. what are people’s thoughts on this? how do you break up your weight sessions? i’m not looking for big muscles, just definition as i lose weight. also, i don’t understand lifting “once a week”. do people do every muscle group in one session? i know everyone’s different, but i’m still learning and would like different people’s opinions/experiences.

    • Tom says:

      I used to do all muscle groups in one session. Changed gyms and routines. I do a four-day routine: day1-Upper back & arms; day 2-Legs; day 3-core & shoulders; day 4-rest (actuallly do some abductor & adductor work). I do a 5 minute recumbent bike (1.5 miles) and quad, hamstring, and back stretching each day. I’m 75 years old and feel good. I definitely prefer this routine to the all muscle group routine.

  21. NoreeninNY says:

    This article was great until you got the part about burpess, squats, push ups! I am an out of shape 61yr old with nagging back & hip problems. I used to be active with walking, swimming, working out to Hip Hop Abs and others. I’ve “pulled” my back out 3 times since January and each time, 2 weeks min to ‘heal’. Now am doing back stretches but ready to kick it up. How about easy exercises to ease into the more difficult ones!

  22. Eddie Trương-Cao says:

    The Ironstrength workout looks like it should take 30+ minutes. Since you preface it with “If you have 15 minutes to spare…” what is the recommended adaptation to fit the Ironstrength workout into 15 minutes?

  23. CLeo says:

    Weights are awesome! I started lifting weights 2.5 years ago 2-3X per week. I have gained ~10lbs of muscle and lost ~9% body fat. Though the weight on the scale is only down maybe 5lbs (horray for being more dense). Super cool. Overall, I feel strong, happy, healthy and sometimes bad@ss when I deadlift 230lbs, clean jerk 121lb, snatch 93lb and leg press 455lb. Did I mention I am 4’11”? 😀

    I also agree lifting more than 1X per week is beneficial. Every summer for 7 weeks I have to cut down to 1X per week due to my work schedule (another day is spent sprinting/bleachers), and it leaves me sore for 2-3 days, which doesn’t usually happen when I consistently lift 2-3X per week. Good article.

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