Let’s assume you’ve been training for quite a while and are satisfied with the strength you’ve gained. You like how your muscles look more defined when you wear a pair of shorts or a tank top. You’re stronger and more confident in your physical abilities and like the way you look. Now, you want to maintain the strength and size you’ve gained. How much can you cut back your training and still do that?
Congratulations! You’ve done the hard part. It’s harder to gain strength and muscle size than it is to maintain muscle strength. Still, you can’t sit on the couch and expect your muscles to stay the way they are. Just as muscles grow in response to progressive overload, they shrink in response to inactivity. Ever noticed how a limb looks smaller after being in a cast for 6 weeks? Just as muscles grow in magnitude in response to training, they can shrink in size and become weaker.
Interestingly, research shows strength gains are preserved longer when you stop training than muscle size. Despite a significant reduction in muscle size after 8 weeks of not lifting, according to one study, strength gains were preserved to some degree, likely due to the neurological component of strength gains. It’s not just muscle size that determines strength but how well your nervous system coordinates the firing of motor neurons that cause the muscle to contract.
Obviously, you don’t want to lose your gains, so how much can you lighten up on your routine without becoming weaker and smaller?
Maintain Muscle Strength and Lean Body Mass: How Much Do You Have to Train?
If you’d like to cut back on the amount of time you spend working out for a while, you’re in luck. A study carried out on older men found that training just once per week was enough to maintain strength and lean body mass. The men in this study trained three days a week, three sets per exercise, using a resistance of 80% of their one-rep max. After 12 weeks of progressive training, one group stopped training entirely while the other group continued training one day per week at the same intensity. When they measured muscle cross-sectional area using CT imaging, the men who trained once weekly maintained their strength and size gains while the guys who stopped training lost most of their gains.
Of course, this study involved elderly men and not younger people, but you would expect older people to have more problems retaining strength and muscle size than younger people due to lower levels of anabolic hormones. Fortunately, the same appears to hold true for people at the other end of the age spectrum, teenagers. In one study, 21 teenagers took part in 12 weeks of strength training, 3-times weekly. At the end of 12 weeks, they reduced the frequency of their training to one or two days a week. Despite cutting back training time, they were able to maintain their strength gains, even when they trained only once per week.
Yet another study involving soccer players showed a single weekly session of strength training allowed players to maintain the gains in strength, and improvements in jump and spring speeds they achieved during 10 weeks of training, BUT those who trained only once every 14 days lost leg strength and their sprint speeds slowed. So, a once-weekly strength -training session may be enough, but if you reduce your training to every two weeks, you’ll likely lose some of your hard-earned gains.
The minimum you can get by with for maintenance, according to research, is one training session weekly. Of course, training once a week doesn’t give you the latitude to have an “off” day where you don’t put everything you have into a session. When you reduce the frequency of your workouts, it becomes even more important to maintain intensity since you’re reducing total training volume. Training intensity is vital for maintenance of both strength and muscle size. Don’t lighten up on the resistance when you’re training less often.
Maintain Muscle Strength and Lean Body Mass: You May Not Need to Train as Hard as You Think
According to the research, you can resistance train as little as once per week and maintain the strength and lean mass you earned through training. The key is to maintain the same or even greater intensity to keep your muscles challenged. One caveat: Studies showing one session weekly is enough only followed participants for 12 weeks, a relatively short period of time. Would the participants have lost their gains training only once per week longer term? Unfortunately, studies haven’t looked at longer-term maintenance of strength and size gains. So, if you can train only once a week, do it, but if you have the time and motivation to train twice weekly, you’ll almost surely hang onto your gains longer term if you’re training with intensity.
Even if you don’t plan on cutting back on your training, you don’t have to train 3 or 4 times per week to make gains or to maintain them. In fact, overtraining can actually work against you by blunting the anabolic response that stimulates muscle growth. Train hard when you train, but don’t assume more is better, especially if you’re just trying to hold onto the gains you’ve already made.
If you take a long break from training and lose strength and muscle size, regaining strength is easier and faster the second time around, thanks for muscle memory. Yes, your muscles do have a type of memory. Once you’ve forged the neurological pathways from the brain to muscle that made you stronger in the first place, they stay intact and you can regain the strength you lost faster. Plus, new research shows when you overload your muscles through training, muscle fibers develop new nuclei. When you stop training, those nuclei stick around for at least 3 months, and probably longer, making strength and size regains easier when you begin training again.
The Bottom Line
Don’t beat yourself up if you have to cut back on training. You can hold onto your strength gains training only once per week if you do it with intensity.
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2009, 41(5 S1), S47-S47.
J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2002 Apr;57(4):B138-43.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 10. 1996.
Muscle for Life. “Muscle Memory” is Real and Here’s How It Works”
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