You’ve worked hard to increase strength and lean body mass. You’re stronger and firmer than you were six months ago. Congratulations! You like the way you look and would like to spend a little less time working out but still maintain the strength and muscle mass you worked so hard to develop. How hard do you have to work to do that?
The good news is you’ve done the hardest part already. It’s more difficult to build strength and lean body mass than it is to maintain it. You don’t have to work out with weights three or four days a week to just to hold on to what you’ve already built. In fact, a study showed you can hang onto the lean body mass you gained strength training as infrequently as once a week.
Is Once a Week Strength Training Enough?
In this study, men participated in a progressive resistance training program three times weekly for twelve weeks. During their training sessions the men trained their knee extensors using a resistance that was 80% of their one-rep max. Researchers measured their muscle size and strength at the end of twelve weeks. Then the men switched over to “maintenance phase.”
Maintenance consisted of three sets of ten repetitions only one day per week. They did each set at 80% of their one-rep max. When they measured their muscle size and strength again, the men that resistance trained once weekly maintained the muscle strength and size they had developed during the strength and hypertrophy phase.
Other research also shows you can strength train as little as once per week without losing strength or mass. Some studies even show you can make GAINS in strength and mass training only once per week.
This is good news for a number of reasons. It means if you get burned out and need to take a break, you can still maintain your gains by strength training as little as once per week. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed you can make strength gains lifting once per week. In this study, strength training once per week was as effective for increasing strength as a twice a week workout. More isn’t necessarily better when it comes to building strength or maintaining it.
In some cases, strength training to build muscle may work best when you do it less frequently. You reduce the risk of overtraining and may feel more motivated on days that you do strength train. At the very least, you should wait at least 48 hours before working the same parts of your body again. Some trainers recommend doing a maintenance work out for a few weeks every four months for recovery.
Don’t Let Up on Intensity
Even when you’re not trying to develop more lean body mass or strength, once a week strength training may not be practical. That gives you a lot of muscles to work in a single session if you’re trying to maintain full-body strength. You may be able to do it by focusing on compound exercises but you might be better served by twice weekly strength training. At least it’s good to know that you can maintain strength and mass training only once a week. The key is to maintain intensity. Continue to lift at 80 to 85% of your one-rep max and stick with the same volume of training during each session as you did during your building phase. The difference is you’ll only be doing it once or twice a week. You’ll have a hard time maintaining your gains if you take it easy on the day or two you train.
Protein is Important for Muscle Maintenance Too
The last thing you want to do when you’re trying to maintain muscle is to drastically reduce your protein. If you’re doing less training overall, less strength and cardio, you may need to reduce your calorie consumption to compensate, but don’t do it at the expense of getting too little protein. Make sure you’re getting between 1.0 and 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
If you’re spending less time working out, focus on high-quality protein, healthy fats and fiber-rich carbs and don’t fall back into unhealthy eating habits. Keep close track of what you’re eating by keeping a food diary to make sure what you’re taking in isn’t more than you’re burning off. One reason people gain weight when they cut back on exercise is they continue to eat the same amount. You’re burning fewer calories so make the necessary adjustments.
The Bottom Line?
You don’t have to strength train as often if you’re just trying to maintain your gains. You can maintain muscle and strength training as little as once a week. What you don’t want to change is the intensity of your workout. In addition, make sure you’re making the appropriate dietary adjustments and aren’t skimping on protein.
Br J Sports Med. 2007 January; 41(1): 19-22.
J. Gerontol. A. Biol. Sc. Med. Sci. 2002 Apr; 57(4): B138-43.