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A full day of meetings, a full stomach, or a full queue on Netflix… there are dozens of excuses we use to skip a workout. It’s tough to make time to hit the iron these days.
Or maybe you can make the time to work out, but you’re a runner whose fitness regimen involves running, running… and more running. Then, when you do lift weights, your arms, back, and legs are so sore the next day that you vow never to work out again. Trust us, we’ve been there.
If any of these scenarios sound like you, you’ve probably wondered the same thing as many time-pressed fitness buffs: Is it even worth it to strength train only once or twice per week?
We’ll be the first to tell you that 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?).
Whether you’re trying to run faster, hike a small mountain with a hot date, or dance for hours at the club later, strength training might just be the answer.
Lifting weights is known to build muscle and tone your physique, sure, but it can also increase your aerobic capacity — that is, getting blood, oxygen, and nutrients to flow to your muscles more efficiently.
Along that same vein, strength training also increases endurance, also called “lactate threshold.” This is the amount of time it takes for your muscles to fatigue, says Jordan Metzl, MD, a sports medicine physician and author of Running Strong.
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.
While you may think cardio is key to losing weight, research found that men who did 20 minutes of weight training each day saw the smallest increase in belly fat, compared to men who spent the same amount of time doing cardio.
In another study, 10 weeks of resistance training increased lean weight by an average of 3 pounds (as in, building muscle), improved resting metabolic rate by 7 percent (that’s a higher metabolism), and reduced fat weight by 4 pounds.
There are mental benefits to lifting heavy things as well. In a 2014 study, researchers found that strength training improved self-esteem in adolescent males after just 3 months. In follow-up assessments, the good vibes were sustained after 6 months and the 1-year mark.
If you’re feeling all kinds of anxious these days, strength training may help with that too. A 2017 study showed that those struggling with anxiety disorders like PTSD and OCD could experience fewer symptoms, especially if they had a lower fitness level at the start.
So, if you’re trying to slim down and Zen up, it may be time to say so long to the treadmill — and hello to the weight rack.
You may be surprised to hear this, but some research shows no significant statistical difference in strength gains when comparing once-weekly lifting programs to routines that involve multiple sessions per week.
If you’re pressed for time, good news. 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, 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,” says Tamir.
Metzl agrees. “Full-body functional strength training can be super effective once or twice a week.” In fact, he created a series of programs for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon runners that incorporates a strength workout just one day per week.
He has experienced the benefits of going all-out once a week personally. By including just one day of functional strength training in his own marathon and Ironman training plans (think bodyweight exercises), he’s broken his personal best times.
Not all experts agree that strength training only once a week is sufficient. “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.”
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 serve harder, and see improvements in all sorts of athletic performance.
For people training for marathons or triathlons, adding anaerobic (strength) training two times per week helps the body handle the repetitive stress of movements like running, cycling, or swimming, Tamir adds.
“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. “It’s enough to stimulate muscle growth, increase cardiovascular strength, and help improve endurance.”
An added bonus: Training hard twice per week gives your body adequate time to recover, Golian says. Many people — especially those new to lifting — 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 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. It’s important to speak with a trainer and create a program that suits your individual goals.
Talk to any gym junkie and training three times per week is usually considered a bare minimum, but is this really the case?
After all, a 2016 study found that there was virtually no difference in gains between those who worked out once per week compared to those who worked out three times per week.
A 2018 meta-analysis checked out 22 studies and found similar results. Again, people who hit the gym three times per week didn’t necessarily gain more than those who went less.
In both cases, frequency didn’t matter. But here’s what did: volume.
Volume, in this case, refers to how many reps and sets you complete in a session, and how many muscle groups you target. By these studies, you may actually be able to get the same benefits by hitting the gym less, provided that you work your butt off and cover the same ground as multiple sessions in just one go.
This may not be realistic for everyone, though. I mean, most of us want to be able to walk normally and lift our coffee mugs tomorrow, right?
Perhaps that’s why three times per week is the talk of the town. The benefit of spacing out your workouts is obvious; it allows you to split up your routine by muscle group (at least lower body and upper body), rather than working from head-to-toe all at once.
In the end, how often you work out entirely depends on your body and schedule. To get started on building a full-body fitness plan that works for you, check out our article here.
Boyle, who also trained the Boston Red Sox team that won the 2013 MLB 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 he also doesn’t mess around.
Do compound exercises
Boyle 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. Scrolling through Instagram is definitely not part of this workout plan.
Boyle also 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 requiring you to set up a bed at your local gym.
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.
Lift more weight
“Keep in mind the size principle: The higher the resistance, the more muscle recruitment,” says Tamir. Meaning, you shouldn’t be reaching for the 3- or 5-pounders if you can actually lift 10 or 12 pounds with good form. The more weight you can lift safely, the more gains you’ll see.
Warm up and recover properly
Also, this is 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. 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. Depending on your fitness goals, you may have to pass up the doughnuts — at least most of the time. “Eating healthy carbs post-workout will replenish your glycogen levels and help your muscles recover faster,” Tamir says.
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. Hitting the weight rack or the mat once per week may not give you a Schwarzenegger-esque body, but the gains you do make might spark some inspiration to exercise those muscles a little harder or more often.
No matter what your gym schedule is, focus on volume instead of frequency. Get the most of out every workout by warming-up properly, doing compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups (we see you, plank), and lifting enough weight to safely give you a challenge.
Round out your gym session with some cool-down stretches, a foam roller, or an ice bath. Then, head to the kitchen to consume protein within a one-hour window of your workout.
A final note: Always, always, always give your body enough time to recover. The aim is to find that sweet spot of building strength but avoiding burn out and injury. If you take away nothing else, remember that you build muscle while you’re restin’ — not while you’re sweatin’.
Hilary Lebow is a writer, certified yoga instructor, certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and certified nutrition coach. When she’s not working, she can be found in nature with her two dogs or planning her next travel adventure.