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
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 (and after seeing this guy, do you even want to?). 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. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Westcott WL. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2012, Dec.; 11(4):1537-8918.
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. Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long-term waist circumference change in men. Mekary RA, Grøntved A, Despres JP. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2014, Dec.;23(2):1930-739X. 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). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Westcott WL. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 2012, Dec.;11(4):1537-8918. 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. Comparison of once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults. J DiFrancisco-Donoghue, W Werner, and P C Douris. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2007 Jan; 41(1): 19–22. 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.
“I have clients who only strength train once or twice per week, and they still see some significant results in strength.”
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. Prescribing physical activity: applying the ACSM protocols for exercise type, intensity, and duration across 3 training frequencies. Westcott WL, Winett RA, Annesi JJ. The Physician and sportsmedicine, 2010, Feb.;37(2):0091-3847. 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. Isometric torso rotation strength: effect of training frequency on its development. DeMichele PL, Pollock ML, Graves JE. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 1997, Feb.;78(1):0003-9993.
Fifteen minutes, twice a week, is the minimum amount individuals can strength train and still see 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. 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.
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.