Soccer practice. Looming work deadlines. Getting dinner on the table. Logging the miles for that half marathon. Making it all fit can feel impossible. And on top of it all, you know you need to keep your lean muscle mass so you can actually enjoy retirement and not be a burden on others. So naturally, you want to know: “How often should I strength train?”
To find the sweet spot for optimal training frequency, we need to consider a few things.
- Your near and long term goals.
- Your level of experience and progress so far.
- Your health and recovery situation.
- How optimal your training is (dose, intensity, etc).
What’s the least exercise you can get away with?
First, let’s define the criteria for a bare minimum of how often you should strength train. This is the least exercise you can get away with and still see a positive benefit over time. With respect to strength training, let’s say that any minimum we accept should at least significantly slow age-related muscle loss. If we are too weak to enjoy our pastimes, take care of a loved one, or even live independently, it’s safe to say our exercise has failed to improve our health-span. We need to find the amount of strength training that slows or prevents muscle loss. When we are in our 80’s and 90’s, we still want to be strong enough to rise from the floor, avoid (and survive) falls, and enjoy recreation activities.
Suffice it to say, doing a workout once or twice a month is probably better than nothing, but it will fail our criteria – we’ll still lose muscle mass drastically as we age, and eventually lose our functional independence. When conditions are perfect, a typical person can get away with just one high quality strength training session per week, provided they stay consistent with that and make up any missed sessions.
Minimalist training (once per week) requires optimal conditions.
Optimal Exercise Selection:
This “bare minimum” is affected by what tools you select to produce results. If you only have 1lb dumbbells, you may have to lift them multiple times a day, and for high reps, in order for them to have an impact on your muscle mass. Better equipment makes it easier to deeply stimulate and fatigue your muscles in less time.
And if you are a novice to exercise who struggles to train with adequate intensity on your own, you may need to some form of strength training daily to have an effect. But once you learn to really push deeply into the discomfort of productive exercise, you can create a much larger training effect in one workout than an unsupervised novice might create in several workouts. You can begin to get away with less and less total training, because each individual set of exercise is such an intense stressor on your body.
Unless you are extremely experienced with strength training, the best way to ensure intensity and exercise selection are on point is with expert supervision. Not only do we simply work harder when pushed by a coach, but it is easier to really apply yourself 100% when you have a trained expert monitoring your form to keep you safe.
Optimal body composition:
If you are already at your desired body composition, and are eating a diet with adequate protein and maintenance calories, keeping your figure on a minimalist routine is quite doable. But if you are working to regain lost muscle mass, training at least twice per week is probably optimal. We’ll regain lost muscle a bit faster, and build the mental and physical toughness needed for more intense training. Once we have regained a healthy amount of muscle, and gained the ability to tolerate high efforts, less frequent training becomes a viable option.
Similarly, if we are working hard to improve our health and lose excess body fat, we will have to be in a calorie deficit. Under these conditions, our body will more quickly break down an “unnecessary” muscle mass for fuel. To prevent this, we have to strength train a bit more often than the bare minimum to ensure we are constantly reminding our bodies just how essential every ounce of muscle is. Once we achieve our desired body composition, and can start eating a maintenance diet, we can more easily reduce frequency, knowing that once weekly training will be enough to preserve our muscle if it is done under optimal conditions.
Optimal activity levels:
Another factor is your general activity level. This means that in addition to your formal strength training, you do strenuous gardening, play sports, or engage in other forms of exercise. None of these activities is sufficient to prevent muscle loss, but when coupled with an optimal minimalist strength training program, they make for an ideal balance that will optimize your time spent outside the gym and allow you to stay functional and healthy throughout your life.
When minimalism won’t work.
A minimalist routine may be a bad fit if any of the following are true:
- You aren’t making progress, and you have a tough time training very intensely.
- You have low levels of muscle mass due to health issues or long seasons of sedentary living.
- You have chronic issues (arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, chronic pain) which require numerous isolation exercises, specialized exercise programing, or greater frequency.
- You are very sedentary outside your formal exercise due to work or life.
- You are working hard to lose weight, and need extra training to preserve muscle mass.
What is the most exercise you can tolerate?
Some people have really ambitious physical goals, or many issues they need to work on. These people don’t care about minimalism – they want to know how much exercise they can do. For them, I’ll define the criteria for a healthy maximum. For strength training, it’s the most exercise stress from which you can effectively recover AND see a benefit. At some upper limit, additional training simply stops causing benefits. You can’t get stronger and more muscular forever, just like you can’t get more tan forever. Eventually you hit your genetic potential.
Maximalist training (3+ times per week) ALSO requires ideal conditions.
Ironically, conditions also need to be ideal if we want to really push the envelope with more training. If you have a big ski trip coming up, or you are preparing for a triathlon, it can make sense to increase your training volume in order to build more strength and endurance. Or, if you have a condition like osteoporosis or a connective tissue disorder that makes very heavy training dangerous, it can make sense to increase your frequency to more than twice per week in order to aggressively produce needed changes in tissue strength. This should be done only with highly specific goals in mind, however.
All the benefits of exercise occur in between workouts, when you are recovering.. You’ll need to ensure your sleep quality is excellent, so your body actually has the time to repair your fatigued muscles. And, you’ll need to ensure your intake of protein, electrolytes (magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium) and vitamins are excellent. Stress levels also badly impact recovery, so if you are going through a tough time at work or in life, training hard more than twice per week is probably too much for your body.
Though you may be training more frequently, this is not a license to overdo it. Over-training can occur even when recovery is perfect. We need to treat intense exercise like a medicine, where there is a best dose to produce the changes we want, but more than that dose is likely to harm our health. Tendonitis and other overuse injuries can manifest if we aren’t careful, so we really want to ensure that we select the most joint-friendly exercises and carefully choose how much we do.
There are two ways to accomplish these optimal conditions. The first is to have a long career of productive exercise under your belt, where you are intimately familiar with your body’s response to exercise. The second, of course, is to out-source that experience to an expert who can manage this process for you, ensuring that you don’t develop overuse injuries or run yourself ragged as you work hard on a short-term goal.
When maximalism won’t work.
To recap, here are some conditions that can make maximalist training (as much as you can do) a bad idea:
- You struggle to get enough restful sleep, and usually need an alarm to wake up.
- You deal with lots of stress, with many demands at work or in your family life.
- You struggle to eat enough protein or other key nutrients.
- You are dealing with over-use injuries like tendonitis, or have plateaued in your progress despite extended higher frequency training.
Going beyond the limit of max benefit, additional training starts to cause problems. Once you find your sweet spot, doing more won’t just waste your time – it will cause overuse injuries like tendonitis, chronic fatigue, and place you at risk for acute injuries like sprains and strains. For most of us, that sweet spot is two good workouts per week. Strength training more or less often requires ideal conditions that aren’t always realistic.
Twice per week – the sweet spot for most people.
All this brings us to the sweet spot for most people, which is training twice per week. When you’re not exactly where you need to be, but life doesn’t allow for very aggressive training, this really is a great basis for building and maintaining full body strength.
Of course, this assumes you are employing a high-intensity or effort based paradigm in your training, where you aim to move slowly and deeply exhaust your muscles with each exercise you do. This is the approach we use at StrengthSpace, due to its time-efficiency and gentleness on joints. If you prefer an approach involving less effort and training intensity, more frequency can be tolerated if your schedule has room for more time in the gym. Just be careful not to overdo it on volume, or overuse injuries can rear their ugly head.
Practicing what I preach.
Now I genuinely enjoy strength training. That makes me weird, I know. But despite the fact that I like it, I also have 5 kids and a small business . Life stressors are real, and sleep quality is rarely perfect. Even though the idea of making fantastic progress training every other day is appealing, I am realistic about my recovery and let that dictate how often I should strength train. Thus, I limit myself to just two challenging workouts per week most of the time. During periods of very high stress, I further limit myself to just one session per week and use brief interval workouts on CAR.O.L. to maintain my stamina.
I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how often you should strength train There is no doubt that exercise has a “dose-response” relationship with results. More is better, up to a point. But recovery really needs to be perfect, and your schedule has to allow for it. On the low end, it really is amazing how little exercise is necessary to maintain a strong physique, if intensity is perfect. When things aren’t perfect, I recommend you default to twice weekly training. With proper coaching, this can still mean less than one hour per week of combined strength and interval training, especially when you have a tool like CAR.O.L. which allows for intense interval training in just a few minutes at the end of an intense supervised strength training workout.