So, you want to get stronger. That’s a good thing. Strong muscles help you avoid many of the pitfalls of aging, like frailty, and it makes you more self-sufficient. Who doesn’t enjoy the thrill of moving a heavy piece of furniture without help?
You also might wonder how often you need to strength train to maximize your gains. Can you build significant muscle strength with once a week training or would four times a week lead to the greater strength gains? Exercise frequency is one of the training variables you can “tweak” to get better results or to bust out of a plateau.
Strength Training Frequency and Exercise Frequency
While you might think MORE strength training sessions are better, research doesn’t support this idea. In fact, research shows that you don’t even have to train three times a week like most people do to be strong. Let’s look at a few studies.
In one study dating back to 1988, researchers asked 50 trained men and women to reduce their strength-training frequency from 2 to 3 days a week to either two days, one day, or zero days a week over the course of the 12-week study. As expected, those who cut their training frequency to zero lost strength but the other two groups retained their strength gains. This suggests that training one or two days a week is enough to RETAIN strength, at least over a 12-week period. Retaining strength is one thing – but can you BUILD muscle strength training fewer times per week?
In a study involving 18 healthy, older adults, researchers asked one group to strength train twice a week while the other group trained only once weekly. Both groups performed exercises to the point of muscle fatigue. What’s encouraging is each group made strength gains and there was no difference between the two groups.
In another older population, adults who strength trained only once or twice weekly experienced improvements in strength but the gains were 73% less than those who trained three times weekly. So, in this study, training twice weekly lead to equivalent strength gains to training only once a week but strength gains were greater with three strength sessions a week.
What about young, healthy adults? In another study involving healthy, untrained women, one group did a single set of leg presses only one time per week while the second group did two sets weekly for a total of 8 weeks. All sets were done to failure. Despite the differences in training frequency, strength gains were similar in both groups. Pretty surprising considering how little either group trained.
In yet another study involving college students, those who trained once or twice weekly both gained strength but only about 73% of the strength of those who trained three times a week. Based on the research, training three times weekly is slightly more beneficial for building strength than training once or twice weekly. However, training once a week seems to be roughly as effective as training twice a week for strength gains. Keep in mind that these studies looked at strength development, not improvements in muscle size or body composition.
When considering the results of these studies, you also have to consider total weekly training volume (sets multiplied by the number of reps per week). If you only strength train once per week but do a high volume of training, strength gains should theoretically be greater than if you train once a week and do a lower total volume. Unfortunately, some of the studies looking at training frequency don’t adequately control for total weekly training volume.
Taking this variable into account, a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science compared high-frequency training (three times weekly) to low-frequency training (once per week) with regards to strength gains. In this case, the total number of reps and sets each participant did was the same despite differences in training frequency, so total training volume was similar.
After 8 weeks, both groups in the study made similar strength gains. What does this mean? Based on this study, you can theoretically strength train as little as once weekly and make similar strength gains as you would training three times weekly as long as you keep the training volume the same. It also suggests that total training volume may be more important than how frequently you train.
The Benefits of Less Frequent Training
So, if you CAN build strength by training less, should you strength train less often? It depends, of course, on you. Maybe you lack the time to work out more than once or twice a week. As the preponderance of research shows, you may be able to build more strength if you train three times a week versus once or twice a week but the difference isn’t huge. Plus, as one study showed, when you keep the total weekly training volume the same, the differences are negligible, based on at least one study.
One benefit of strength training only once or twice a week is you give your muscles plenty of recovery time – as well as your brain. You might discover your motivation skyrockets when you cut back how often you’re training. The downside is, to get equivalent strength gains, you’ll have to compensate for reduced training frequency by cramming more reps and sets into a single session. So, that once weekly training session will be a doozy.
The Bottom Line
Based on current research, you can make strength gains training only once a week, although to maximize strength gains three times weekly is slightly better. If you strength train only once weekly, make sure you’re doing a substantial volume – you can’t do a few sets and expect to build significant strength.
Is less frequent training right for you? It depends on your schedule and your goals. If your goal is to be your absolute strongest, training three times a week is most likely to get you there. On the other hand, if you’re willing to sacrifice a little strength for more time to do other things, including other forms of exercise, strength training once weekly may be enough.