Do less of this.
Get the same results.
Science says so.
Strength training is both surprisingly beneficial and efficient. Perhaps more surprising? That’s not even a controversial statement! While there will always be debate over the optimal formula for “gainz” for serious bodybuilders and powerlifters, for the rest of us there is minimal controversy: it’s clear that strength training is a much more efficient form of exercise than most people realize. For instance, to kick off the science, a 2018 study showed that training less than an hour produced similar functional results to training five times as much.1 That’s a “hyooge” deal.
And now it’s increasingly clear that cardio is also surprisingly efficient. Exercise in general, really! For example doing an intense mixed workout either once or twice per week produced no difference in results.2 Or another example: you do not have to walk even close to 10,000 steps/day for it to be worth your while: you get about double the health benefits from the first 5,000 steps than from the next 5,000.3 There’s a strong exercise them of efficiency in exercise science.
Training muscle also has more lasting benefits than most people realize — permanently improved muscle cells!45 Enhancements that stick around even if you stop training altogether.
This is vital knowledge for people who hate the gym but need to spend some time there for injury rehabilitation, or as a prescription for disease prevention, or the psychological benefits. It also matters to the legions of people who might be willing to develop a gym habit — and get all the health perks — if they felt confident that a single visit per week was adequate. This information will convince you of that, and could save you thousands of dollars and countless unnecessary hours at the gym over the next few years.
This knowledge is useless for people who like lifting weights and want to maximize their results. Those people do not need this article.
Warning! Please do not use this article as an excuse for not exercising. That’s not the point! Strength training is still a valuable form of exercise that requires an investment of your time and energy — less than you probably thought (which is pretty neat) but still an investment! Sorry, this information does not get you off the exercise hook. If you want that, please read 20 Reasons Why Going To The Gym Is A Huge Waste Of Time … actually just 20 short videos of hilarious exercise misfortunes like this one, my favourite:
I do understand why many people dislike the gym. That’s why this article is important: for many of us, the less time spent there the better.
Just tell me what to do!
Okay! Official guidelines for how much exercise we need6 are out of touch — small, intense doses of exercise are surprisingly effective7 and a lot better than nothing. So, to get the most bang for your exercise buck, make a daily habit of the “Scientific 7-Minute Workout.” It’s a well-rounded, efficient workout that requires only a chair and a few minutes of oomph: a dozen exercises, each performed for 30 seconds, with a brief break between each of them. The order matters, and so does the oomph (it’s brief, not easy). Read about it and then try it: there are also dozens of apps, websites, and videos to guide you (though an egg-timer and a picture of the exercises works fine).
The philosophical bodybuilder
One day I was in the gym and an impressively built middle-aged man was working his triceps on the bench next to me. He was “hyooge,” but his barbells were so big that they were almost tipping him off the bench. It was one of the most awesome displays of lifting power I’d ever seen up close, and when he finished his set I chuckled and said, “I hope I’ll be able to do that someday.” There was a comic absurdity to this, since what he was lifting was literally a good bit heavier than I am (I am hobbit-like at 5’4"). His reply was quiet and delivered with a sad grin:
“And someday I hope I won’t feel like I have to.”
Pretty deep for the gym.
And there’s real hope for that guy. Anyone at all serious about the gym will log a lot of hours there. Even dabblers will probably turn up at least twice per week to beat on the same muscle group, usually three times — any less and they think they aren’t even trying. The conventional wisdom and the popular behaviour is to abuse a muscle group at least twice per week, in sets of three.
But 20 years of research — and especially the last 10 — have shown that less is not (much) less and that many people can probably get surprisingly good results with fewer and shorter visits to the gym. (Miss Piggy was right: less is not more, not in this situation.8 But it’s not much less.) The same may well also be more generally true of many other aspects of exercise. For instance, you can also probably get away with much shorter workouts of all kinds.
Although training periodization is a big topic, this is not a complicated article. In fact, it is little more than a list of the persuasive scientific experiments that have shown that less frequent strength training is probably nearly as good as more. Nothing is carved in stone, but it’s a safe conclusion. Quite a few experts have critiqued this article, but none have really disputed it’s main point. So Read ‘em and … celebrate?
Less is not more. More is more!
A surprising reason that more is definitely not always better
Some people who go to the gym a lot may really be wasting their time — because genetics. The results of training muscle are extremely unpredictable because of individual differences in biology.9 Not everyone responds to training, just like drugs don’t work on everyone. For most people who don’t respond well to training, it’s going to be a matter of diminishing returns. For this non-trivial chunk of the population, the basic message of this article is going to be especially true. (A few people way out on the edge of the bell curve may literally not respond at all — they might as well not go — but I suspect that’s extremely rare.)
It’s even possible that there’s significant variation within the same person: that some muscles respond and others don’t!
The science of strength training volume, mainly frequency, from 1988–2007 (is remarkably consistent)
In 1988, Graves et al10 studied 50 men and women accustomed to strength training and tested them on 12 weeks of reduced training frequency, going from 2 or 3 days per week to 0, 1 or 2 days per week. Those reduced to zero lost strength as expected (about 70% over the 12 weeks), but for those who merely reduced their frequency? No loss at all.
Strength values for subjects who reduced training to 2 and 1 days/week were not significantly different … . These data suggest that muscular strength can be maintained for up to 12 weeks with reduced training frequency.
In 1990, Graves led another study,11 larger and more rigorous, focusing on lumbar strength in 112 adults, and testing a wider range of frequencies: everything from 3 workouts per week to one workout every other week. Every training frequency produced results, though somewhat less at the lowest frequency. But results were basically identical for training 1, 2 or 3 times per week!
These data indicate that a training frequency as low as 1X/week provides an effective training stimulus for the development of lumbar extension strength.
Which is actually an understatement, because the data showed that training even every 2 weeks still produced respectable results — an average 26% increase in strength when exercising one sixth as frequently as the 3X/week group who got a 40% gain.
In 1996, DeRenne12 put 21 teenaged athletes through 12 weeks of pre-season strength training at three times per week, and then continued for another 12 weeks at reduced frequencies. As with Graves et al above, stopping altogether resulted in lost strength, but even training once per week was sufficient to maintain strength.
… for pubescent male athletes, a 1-day-a-week maintenance program is sufficient to retain strength during the competitive season.
In 1999, Taaffe et al studied strength training frequency in a few dozen healthy older adults, aged 65 to 79 years13 — remember, strength training is not just for bodybuilders! Training consisted of “three sets of eight exercises targeting major muscle groups of the upper and lower body, at 80% of one-repetition maximum (1-RM) for eight repetitions,” which would be a pretty decent regimen for a young person as well. They were divided into groups training 1, 2, or 3 days per week. They all did well. They all got equally stronger.
A program of once or twice weekly resistance exercise achieves muscle strength gains similar to 3 days per week training in older adults.
In 2000, McLester et al studied experienced recreational weight trainers,14 showing that more frequent training produced more strength, but also that reduced training frequency was still surprisingly effective: it produced about 60% of the strength gains from training three times more often, while maintaining overall training volume, i.e. one long workout to three shorter ones.15
The findings suggest that a higher frequency of resistance training, even when volume is held constant, produces superior gains in 1RM. However, training only 1 day per week was an effective means of increasing strength, even in experienced recreational weight trainers.
So less was less here … but not a lot less, and that is pretty important. I imagine that a great many people would happily sacrifice some of their progress in exchange for reclaiming two trips to the gym each week.
In 2007, DiFrancisco-Donoghue et al tested 18 older adults in two groups for several weeks.16 Half of them trained twice per week, the other half once. Once again, they found no difference at all.
One set of exercises performed once weekly to muscle fatigue improved strength as well as twice a week in the older adult. Our results provide information that will assist in designing strength-training programmes that are more time and cost efficient in producing health and fitness benefits for older adults.
Also in 2007, Burt et al compared “strength differences between 2 groups of untrained women, who performed a single set of the leg press exercise once or twice per week.”17 There was no difference in their results.
These results indicate that performing a single set of the leg press once or twice per week results in statistically similar strength gains in untrained women.
Still in 2007, Candow et al tested short-term resistance training in 29 gym newbies.1819 These beginners trained either two or three times per week and … you can guess what’s coming now, right?
Both groups increased lean tissue mass (2.2%), squat strength (28%), and bench press strength (22-30%) with training (p < 0.05), with no other differences. These results suggest that the volume of resistance training may be more important than frequency in developing muscle mass and strength in men and women initiating a resistance training program.
And still in 2007 Wernbom et al analyzed data in many studies about the effect of frequency, intensity and volume of training.20 They found “insufficient evidence for the superiority of any mode and/or type of muscle action over other modes and types of training.” In other words, results were pretty good and roughly equal across the board, regardless of how regimen variables were tweaked — both lower and higher frequency, intensity and volume were effective.
All of this data is remarkably consistent. I simply could not find any research showing that twice as often is twice as good, let alone three times as often being three times as good. How strange for me — studying health care for injuries and pain problems, the research is never unanimous. For that matter, exercise research doesn’t generally seem to be unanimous either. This is most unusual!
Krieger on sets
Most of the evidence above is about training frequency — how often you go to the gym, how much time you allow for recovery between visits. Another factor is how much you do when you’re there: the question of sets. Do you do one set of leg presses? Two sets? (Red set, blue set?) Every set takes almost as long as the last. If you have to exercise everything three times, you’re going to be at the gym about three times as long. If you could get decent results from one set, it would be a big deal. And you can!
In 2009 and 2010, James Krieger published important reviews of the above studies and more. Specifically, he looked (very, very carefully) at the effect of the number of sets on both strength21 and muscle growth,22 both showing basically the same thing.
Krieger points out that “some authors have argued that a single set per exercise is all that is necessary for all populations and that further gains are not achieved by successive sets.” His conclusions show the truth is in the middle, as it so often is: more sets probably are better, but nowhere near proportionate to the time and effort required. “If time is a limiting factor, then single sets can produce hypertrophy, but improvements may not be optimal.” Time is indeed a factor — a huge factor — for most people. More is better, but less is fine… and that’s what matters for most non-bodybuilders.
Let’s skip ahead now a few years to the most definitive scientific reviews of this topic available. Which just keeps piling on.
State of the science as of 2016 … and the last word?
Krieger’s review was superceded in 2016 by Schoenfeld et al, the most credible review so far of the relationship between training volume and hypertrophy.23 This is good enough as a last word for my purposes on this topic for now, but of course it’s not really the last word. There’s never really a last word in science, and we should not put too much stock in its conclusions because the data just wasn’t consistent enough for a rigorous analysis — a fairly typical problem with these kinds of reviews.24 On the other hand, it’s not like the conclusions are obviously at odds with any other science either.
Interestingly, the authors promote a more-is-better conclusion, but there is a “significant” problem with that: the results that most dramatically support a more-is-better conclusion were not actually statistically significant, and this should not be brushed aside. The only results that were statistically significant show an obviously modest effect: more is better, but not by a great deal. Which is exactly consistent with the point of this article.
And this is undoubtedly why, when summarizing his results in a blog post, Dr. Schoenfeld writes:
Performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle produced an average hypertrophic gain of 5.4%. Not too shabby. So if you are time-pressed and not concerned about achieving the upper limits of your muscular potential, it should be heartening to know that you can build an impressive physique without spending a lot of time in the gym.
His major take-home message, however, is that “there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy” and “10+ sets produced almost twice the gains as performing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle.” I think this is a bit of a problem. Although it sounds impressive, that finding was not statistically significant (p = 0.076), and it should not be held up as more-is-much-better evidence in resistance training. Nor was it correct to assert that “the probability of an effect was nevertheless very high”: I’m afraid that just isn’t how P-values work. In fact, it’s common and notorious error.25
It’s a significant quibble.
I believe the only safe conclusion to draw from the data is the one based on the only statistically significant result: the highest volumes studied were “associated with a 3.9% greater average increase” than the lowest volumes. In other words, more is better, but this evidence does not indicate that it’s much better … or even proportionately better.
|Aerobic||Lower-intensity exercise fueled by oxygen-burning metabolism (lower intensity, e.g. jogging is aerobic).|
|Anaerobic||Exercise too intense to be fueled by aerobic metabolism (e.g. sprinting).|
|Reps||Repetitions of one exercise. “I did 12 deadlift reps.”|
|Sets||A group of reptitions. “I did three sets of deadlifts.”|
|Failure||Exhausting a muscle to the point where it cannot do another rep with good form.|
|Hypertrophy||Increase in size of muscle in response to training.|
|1RM||Abbreviation for “one rep max”: the maximum weight you can move in a single repetition. Often used as a baseline.|
|Controlled lengthening of a muscle, e.g. the biceps while lowering a dumbell.|
And that’s not all: it’s really not clear that more of anything is better
Reducing strength training frequency is only one knob you can fiddle with on the training dashboard. The less-is-not-less theme you see in the research above continues as you expand the search to other variables in strength training. In general, more-is-better is the official position of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) … but they haven’t supported that position well.
In 1999, Ralph Carpinelli strongly criticized the ACSM’s position on strength training, accusing them of supporting their more-is-better recommendations with misleading and irrelevant evidence.26 It was quite harsh and a bit entertaining, if you like geeking on this sort of thing.
Is this the best evidence the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association can produce to substantiate their more-is-better philosophy? The NSCA is disingenuous at best, editorially incompetent at worst. Shame on the editors. Shame on the NSCA. Shame on the ACSM.
Zing! That was quite a while ago, but nothing much has improved since then, according to Carpinelli. In 2009 the ACSM published a new Position Stand, and Ralph Carpinelli wrote a new and better critique.27 It’s generally dry reading by necessity — refuting official positions published by major professional organizations requires tedious, thorough academic analysis — but the Discussion and Conclusions sections are, again, quite entertaining. After presenting numerous examples of the ACSM’s incredibly sloppy citing, Carpinelli fairly concludes:
Because ACSM Position Stands are so bereft of any science and apparently not open to criticism, there is very little expectation that the ACSM or its Position Stands will gain any respect from those who carefully read the studies and evaluate all the evidence. Readers can decide on the validity of the ACSM’s claims and recommendations and whether those claims and recommendations belong in a Position Stand supported by science or perhaps in an Opinion Statement supported by opinions.
Zing again! Carpinelli also discloses the rather sordid details of the ACSM’s reaction to his criticisms.28
But it gets better. My favourite excerpt from the conclusion is this excellent observation:
The complex resistance training recommendations … are based on the unsubstantiated opinion that the obsessive manipulation and specific combinations of training variables such as loading (amount of resistance), the number of repetitions, number of sets, interset rest intervals, repetition duration, time under load, frequency of exercise, modality of exercise, order of exercise, and exercise selection (single or multiple joint) results in significantly different specific outcomes. Most resistance training studies do not support that opinion.
If people were to assume that the ACSM’s recommendations in the Position Stand have any validity, they can actually calculate how many hours are required in the gym to attain or maintain the essential components of muscular fitness. Trainees would be required to spend a minimum of 20 hours per week performing resistance exercise; that is, approximately five hours a day four times per week.
This is really astute stuff. I do enjoy a good logical inconsistency, and this is a classic case of “you know there’s something wrong when.” Clearly people achieve results at the gym without following such a hyperbolic regimen. Obviously there is something wrong with official recommendations that require hopelessly impractical dedication to follow.
This reminds me of the common example of nutritional serving recommendations: has anyone ever looked at what you are supposed to eat without thinking, “Who could possibly eat that many servings of anything? If I was supposed to eat ice cream laced with heroine, I’m not sure I could cram down that much of it!”
A famous Scottish study was inspired by the same thing …
More efficient cardio too?!
How much are you really getting out of that extra half hour on the StairMaster? Have you ever thought that conventional exercise regimens have a diminishing returns problem? That it seems to take an enormous amount of effort for relatively little additional benefit? How do you know how much is enough? “Lots” seems to be the idea everyone has: the more cardio, the better, as much as you can possibly cram into your week. Frankly, it’s a logistical nightmare.
Buck up: this research should make it much easier to stick to your New Year’s resolutions.
The theme of efficiency in exercise has continued and expanded with new cardio science. It started with an excellent little Scottish experiment from 2009,29 which gave us startlingly “good news”, showing that it may be possible to get really fantastic bang for your cardio exercise buck. They found that only a few 30-second sprints on a stationary bike — intense but quick and only twice per week — may be nearly as effective at preventing disease as much more time-intensive traditional (cardio) exercise programs. In their words:
… we demonstrate for the first time that only a few minutes of high intensity interval exercise performed over two weeks is required to substantially improve both insulin action and glucose homeostasis in sedentary young males. This is both a physiologically important observation and potentially useful as it highlights a preventative intervention that could logically be implemented as an early strategy to prevent age related development of cardiovascular disease.
If true, it should change lives. And the researchers were well aware of this: they were inspired to do the research by the grim reality that the great majority of people will never make the kind of time for aerobic exercise that is officially recommended in most published guidelines. The study is noteworthy because the encouraging benefits could be halved and still be at least noteworthy: a surprising amount of benefit, for a surprisingly brief workout. The point is not that this research proves that sprints can replace tedious cardio — although that is a possibility — but that slow cardio has a diminishing returns problem: every minute on the StairMaster or trail is bestowing less benefit than the last.
See also Tjønna,30 a 2013 study that concluded that “a single bout of aerobic interval training performed three times per week may be a time-efficient strategy … in previously inactive but otherwise healthy middle-aged individuals.”
Strength training is also helpful for weight loss (and general health)
Strength training is not just for bodybuilders. It has many health benefits — especially weight loss, and (related) it reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome (a set of biological dysfunctions which is strongly linked to poor fitness, obesity, aging … and pain too, by the way).31 Cruising into too-good-to-be-true territory? Not really, because it’s not crazy good: just a nice perk.
Muscle mass is metabolically expensive. It costs a few calories per hour. More of it will modestly increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR) — your base rate of calorie burn. Reduced muscle mass and BMR with aging is one reason people tend to get fatter over the years. Dieting usually fails because it’s hard to sustain adequate calorie restriction to make up for that sluggish BMR, creating the “losing battle” effect: sure, you can always lose 5 kilos if you’re disciplined for three months … but you gain it back just as fast.
A higher BMR can help tip things back in your favour. And you can get a higher BMR by building some more muscle. And the whole point of this article is that it’s surprisingly easy to do that (to build muscle). Both the workouts themselves burn calories (though they do), and the extra muscle: about 5 for every pound of muscle every day, without any additional effort. That number is probably a fair bit bigger for recovering muscle. Muscle recovery is more metabolically expensive. Therefore, the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn after working out.
There’s a common myth that every pound of muscle burns about 50–100 calories, which I carelessly repeated myself in early versions of this article.32 That number is much too high, and no one seems to be sure where it came from — just one of those things that gets passed around.
I’ll emphasize again: this is not a major factor. You would need a lot of muscle for it to make a major difference. Calorie restriction is still the trump factor in weight loss — the first thing you have to get right — but muscle mass is in the equation. Like compound interest, it adds up, and it’s a “free” bonus for doing something you should do for all kinds.
Strength training may even be great for aerobic fitness
What if it was just as good for your aerobic fitness to lift weights as to run? What if you could get an “aerobic” workout without doing aerobics? This unproved possibility is yet another reason to work with weights — even more bang for your buck, perhaps. If it’s even partially true, it builds that case that strength training is not just for bodybuilders.
A 2012 paper makes a detailed basic science case that relatively brief, intense doses of muscular training may actually be able to build cardiovascular fitness about as well as steady-state aerobic exercise (like, say, running).33 The idea is mostly supported by comparing what is known about physiological responses to these types of exercise (it’s not a report on the results of a controlled experiment directly comparing the two). It’s hardly a strong case.34
Actually, it’s quite a controversial idea that some exercise physiologists denigrate as a pet theory. Whose pet? Why, the authors of this paper! Steele and McGuff are particularly well-known for their association with a strength training method, high-intensity training (HIT). Their conclusion here, if true, would obviously be great news for HIT — because it suggests that HIT is good for general fitness, not just bodybuilding. So the risk of bias is high.
But biased opinions can be valid, and there’s nothing obviously wrong with this paper, except a little overconfidence in the conclusion. This is probably their boldest statement: “Identifying a particular modality of exercise as being ‘aerobic’ or ‘CV’ constitutes a misnomer. The extent that any modality of exercise produces CV fitness adaptations appears to be dependent primarily upon the intensity of the exercise.” That could be true, but perhaps a bit overconfident, there just isn’t much experimental data about this yet — they cite it, and acknowledge that it’s not much — and it does seem a little far-fetched that athletes who did only resistance training would stand a chance competing in an endurance event. But it is possible they would do better than we think. The biology does seem to support the claim, at least well enough to make it plausible and worth testing.
A few final bullet points of caution and perspective
- As already mentioned, please don’t use this article as an excuse to avoid the gym entirely. That’s not the point.
- This article is about strength training frequency only … not aerobic training frequency, or brisk walk frequency, or badminton frequency.
- Bodybuilders and gym nuts, please try to bear in mind that most people aren’t interested in optimization/maximization of results, but in a balance of effort and reward. We all know that you would exert 50% more effort to get a 5% greater reward, and good for you. But most people have exactly the opposite priorities: we would love to sacrifice 5% of our results if it meant we could spend (!) 50% less time at the gym.
- Do you already have a gym habit? Convinced you have to keep going every Monday, Thursday and Saturday? Horrified by my heretical article? Well, untwist your knickers: you can do whatever you want. The article simply presents evidence that is strongly suggestive that you might want to consider trying a lower frequency. It might work out. I’m not saying I “know” what’s best for you — I’m saying “here’s some intriguing evidence.” I didn’t do the experiments, okay? I just reported the results!
- Oversimplification, anyone? Many science experiments involving strength use a dynamometer to measure strength. This gives a good objective result, but it is also a great example of how science often has to oversimplify and isolate, producing results that may be at odds with the “real” world. For instance, experiment results might be different if more complex exercise were tested, ones that require more motor learning than a leg extension or leg press. (Hat tip to Jordan for pointing this out — good point.)
- More variables, more! Another place where “it depends” is what you measure. “Strength” is not the only reason people strength train. They also train for muscle size (hypertrophy), for instance. How does training frequency affect hypertrophy? It is probably different! But of course there’s less science for each variation on the theme.
- And another potentially confusing variable: total training time. Two of the studies described here crammed the same total workout time into fewer visits. It’s not clear that replacing three short workouts with one über workout to rule them all one is either desirable or effective — it may actually work better to reduce both frequency and total training time. It’s really quite a different kind of experiment.
And, of course, the inevitable …
- Everyone is different! Genetic and medical factors can dramatically affect how we respond to training. (Possibly a lot. Neat reference for this.35) The diminishing returns effect is an average. There will be “freaks” in every group: people who get better or worse results from much more or less frequent training. I have already gotten email from these people, at both extremes. You may be a unique and special flower … but remember that the average is the thing that matters.
My own success with a “lazy” training schedule
The scientific evidence is the only thing we should pay attention to. But we are emotional and irrational beings by nature, and we love a good story. Nothing persuades like a personal anecdote. So here’s mine:
After only four months of a decidedly minimalistic gym schedule — exercising as infrequently as once every 14-21 days! — my strength significantly increased, roughly 75% across the board. My chest press (bench press) strength has actually doubled. Doubled strength is a satisfying accomplishment, I gotta say. The only thing about my technique that was unusual was that my 20-minute sessions were certainly intense! I did my exercises to full, quivering failure each time, thoroughly exhausting the muscles with continuous loading at the highest weight I could possibly keep in the air for two minutes. This is high intensity training (HIT), as taught by McGuff and Little.
I was not a beginner when I started, and this was not low-hanging fruit that I picked. I am sort of an athlete, and I was already quite active and non-weak when I started this new approach. I had been tinkering with weight training off and on for years. It felt really strange — and yet good! — to stay away from the gym for up to three weeks at a time. It seemed almost impossible that it could work.
And yet I have never seen an increase like this! Less really was more … for me.
One of the strongest criticisms of the original version of this article was that I was exaggerating, and in fact I changed the title from “less is more” to “less is not less” in the days after publication (and then eventually I half back-tracked to the play on words, “less is more than enough”). Critics were correct that the evidence doesn’t really support my original, more sensational title. And yet now, ironically, I appear to actually be an example of “less is more.” I suspect that I have an unusually slow recovery time, and that higher training frequency for me is particularly counter-productive.
Perhaps you will also find that less gym actually gets you more — or at least not less!
Rebuttals! Of course not everyone agrees that lower training frequency is better … but it depends on what you mean by “better”
No controversy? Impossible! This is exercise science! There is always controversy. Predictably, within hours of publishing this article, a number of people had already raised objections — nothing too fiery, but objections nevertheless.
However, most of the objections concern evidence that shows that higher frequencies are “better,” confusing the idea of “what’s most effective” with “what’s most cost effective.” Indeed, studies like McLester et al do indeed show that “more is more,” as Miss Piggy would put it. But how much more? Diminishing returns may not matter much to a bodybuilder, but they matter very much to … nearly everyone else. (And even some bodybuilders, like the philosophical fellow in the story at the top of the article.)
That’s the story here. The diminishing returns are the story, and that lower frequencies are still effective — even if they aren’t optimal. That perspective may not matter to a bodybuilder, but matters very much to the masses!
What about “the German study”?
Obviously there are probably other studies out there, and probably some that don’t fit the pattern I found. Like the German study.36 The one that agrees with Miss Piggy: more is more, and proportionately so.
This article is hardly a comprehensive meta-analysis and doesn’t claim to be. I did a “casual” PubMed search. I checked the four studies cited by McGuff and Little, and then I checked the next five relevant, recent studies that I found — and all five had results that were strongly consistent, and strongly suggestive that “less is not less.” It took me many hours to read, summarize and present those findings. I stopped there. That was good enough for me, for now. I didn’t imagine for a moment that I’d found everything there was to find.
Reader Sven pointed out the German study. At first glance, it does seem to spoil that lovely scientific consensus. But look a little more closely and the German data is not so much at odds with the themes of this article, namely that the data still confirms that lower training frequencies will get the job done.
Still, if I had found this in my initial search, I probably would not have claimed that there was a scientific consensus. It clearly shows that more frequent workouts produced better strength and growth. Muscle mass gains were about twice as good with twice as many workouts. And strength benefitted even more: one session per week produced only a 2.7% gain, while 3 times per week got a whopping 12.8% increase — triple the gym time, but quadruple the benefit!
And yet the authors concluded that, “all groups showed significant gains in muscle mass with a tendency of better training results when doing two or three training sessions a week,” because they did. Even the once-a-weekers gained. Not a lot compared to the thrice-a-weekers, but some. Arguably enough for the average person. Would you say no to a 6.4% increase in muscle mass, achieved with a very reasonable investment? Many people would be delighted with that inexpensive result. What a bargain!
Even though this study does not confirm the “diminishing returns” problem, it does still confirm that you can make progress with a single visit to the gym each week — something many people just don’t believe. They assume that more is necessary for any gains. This German evidence debunks that, just like the evidence I’ve already cited, clearly showing that you’re going to get benefits even at low workout frequencies. Fast or slow, you’re going to get where you’re going.
In any case, it’s just one study. Perhaps they chose to study a strength training protocol that really does work much better at higher frequencies. There are so many variables! A main point of my article was to look for signs that McGuff and Little were cherry-picking the evidence to make a sensational point, and they do not seem to be. One study with different results does not change that, and cannot magically make all the other evidence go away.
(A single dissenting study doesn’t actually break scientific consensus anyway, since scientific consensus doesn’t require perfect unanimity, just a good strong majority.)
Training frequency and physical therapy
This information about training frequency contrasts starkly with the prevalent prescription habits of physiotherapists.
Physiotherapists are infamously prone to prescribing tediously unsustainable exercise regimens to their patients: many exercises to be performed frequently. I do not dispute that therapeutic exercise has an important role to play in rehabilitation (that’s a whole ‘nother topic). But there can be no doubt that there is a glaring conflict of interest for the many therapists who charge patients for supervised time in their office gymnasiums: their livelihood is directly affected by the training frequency that they recommend.
Patients routinely fail to stick to tedious physical therapy exercise prescriptions, and suffer much angst about it along the way. I spent many years in clinical practice watching patients struggle with such prescriptions. I even watched a perfect example of the problem unfold in my own house in the spring of 2010, when my wife was recovering from some (very) severe injuries while also fighting constant guilt that she wasn’t doing the exercises that we had paid handsomely to have prescribed. Even with a barrage of reassurances from me and her physiatrist that such exercise was probably not critical to her recovery, she still found it frustrating and anxiety-producing.
I’m sure I could have been much more reassuring if only I’d had the weight of all this training frequency evidence in hand then! Or for my entire career, for that matter.
Did you find this article useful? Interesting? Maybe notice how there’s not much content like this on the internet? That’s because it’s crazy hard to make it pay. Please support (very) independent science journalism with a donation. See the donation page for more information & options.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:
- Endurance Training for Pain & Rehab — Why endurance training might be a wise alternative to strength training (especially when healing from an injury)
- Strength Training for Pain & Injury Rehab — Why building muscle is easier, better, and more important than you thought, and its role in recovering from injuries and chronic pain
Some good strength training resources around the web (mostly for readers who are pretty serious about their strength training):
- The Strength Athlete —
- Strength and Conditioning Research (strengthandconditioningresearch.com). Detailed analysis of exercise science, biomechanics, and applied strength and conditioning.
- The Glute Guy (bretcontreras.com). Great writing and critical analysis of strength science… with a butt focus. 🍑
What’s new in this article?
Seven updates have been logged for this article since publication (2010). All PainScience.com updates are logged to show a long term commitment to quality, accuracy, and currency. more
When’s the last time you read a blog post and found a list of many changes made to that page since publication? Like good footnotes, this sets PainScience.com apart from other health websites and blogs. Although footnotes are more useful, the update logs are important. They are “fine print,” but more meaningful than most of the comments that most Internet pages waste pixels on.
I log any change to articles that might be of interest to a keen reader. Complete update logging of all noteworthy improvements to all articles started in 2016. Prior to that, I only logged major updates for the most popular and controversial articles.
See the What’s New? page for updates to all recent site updates.
Oct 24, 2021 — Science update. Added a citation to Sheng et al about the excellent fitness bang-for-buck delivered by walking, building on the point that there’s a theme of efficiency throughout exercise science.
2019 — Minor but nice addition of a good-news reference about the permanence of a key change in trained muscle.
2019 — Added article abstract. And I also actually removed some content from the article: legacy stuff I simply felt was no longer necessary to make the point effectively. So it’s a bit shorter and sweeter now.
2018 — New canonical citation for the thesis of the article, the best evidence to date that “less is not less”: Schoenfeld et al.
2017 — Science update based a nice bit of good news about weight lifting reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome (Bakker et al).
2016 — Cited Arruda et al, an important criticism of Schoenfeld et al. Thanks to Tobias S. for pointing it out.
2010 — Publication.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Aug. PubMed #30153194 ❐ Author Brad Schoenfeld summarized it like this: “Probably the biggest thing that’s gotten lost about our new study on [training] volume was the finding that training less than 45 mins a week produced the same strength and muscular endurance increases as training 5 times as much in resistance trained men. That’s kind of a big deal.” It really is a big deal, which is partly why New York Times health writer Gretchen Reynolds covered the story. There was fierce criticism from some readers, but mostly concerning bodybuilding (muscle growth); study co-author James Krieger (and prolific blogger) responded extensively. For most people’s purposes, these results are reliable and meaningful, and consistent with many other similar studies that I’ll be citing and discussing below.
- Foley A, Hillier S, Barnard R. Effectiveness of once-weekly gym-based exercise programmes for older adults post discharge from day rehabilitation: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med. 2011 Sep;45(12):978–86. PubMed #20215488 ❐
Groups of study subjects in the later stages of recovery from various medical conditions did the same intense workout either once or twice per week. Another group did no exercise at all. Both exercise groups were clearly superior to none, but there was no difference between exercising once and twice weekly:
The overall finding of no significant differences between the two intervention groups for all outcomes measured gives support to the effectiveness of once-a-week exercise in maintaining outcomes at 3 months post rehabilitation. Further research is warranted given the once-a-week exercise intervention should cost less, had higher compliance and was nominated as the preferred exercise frequency by most of the participants.
- Sheng M, Yang J, Bao M, et al. The relationship between step count and all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events: A dose-response meta-analysis. J Sport Health Sci. 2021 Sep. PubMed #34547483 ❐ PainSci #52202 ❐
This is a review and meta-analysis of sixteen studies of the relationship between step count and the risks of dying from any cause, or developing cardiovascular disease. They found a very clear connection between more walking and reduced risks, but the dose-response was strongly “non-linear.” In other words, you do not have to walk even close to 10,000 steps/day for it to be worth your while. The benefits are “non-linear”: you get a lot of benefit up front, a huge reduction in health hazards by the time you’ve hit 5K steps… at least double what you get out of the next 5K. These results challenge the popular goal of 10,000 steps per day being “optimal” for health.
This is an inexact but correct-in-spirit rendering of the most important graph in Sheng et al.
For more on this study, see: Big health benefits from far fewer than 10k steps per day.
- Schwartz LM. Skeletal Muscles Do Not Undergo Apoptosis During Either Atrophy or Programmed Cell Death-Revisiting the Myonuclear Domain Hypothesis. Front Physiol. 2018;9:1887. PubMed #30740060 ❐ PainSci #52684 ❐
Why is it easier to get back in shape than it is to get into shape in the first place? Some adaptations to muscle training are temporary and vanish quickly if you don't keep working out. But others, like the addition of extra muscle nuclei, appear to be more or less permanent. Nuclei are added as you train so that they can build and manage more proteins in a plumper muscle cell. When you stop training, the cell slowly deflates — atrophies — but the nuclei helpfully remain, dormant, waiting until you are ready to exercise again. See Alex Hutchinon’s more detailed analysis of the study.
- Moberg M, Lindholm ME, Reitzner SM, et al. Exercise Induces Different Molecular Responses in Trained and Untrained Human Muscle. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Aug;52(8):1679–1690. PubMed #32079914 ❐
Muscles “remember“ strength: when you train, “key regulatory genes and proteins… are influenced by previous training history.” See also Schwartz.
- Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jul;43(7):1334–59. PubMed #21694556 ❐
We all should be doing more exercise than most of us will ever do, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. In these official exercise dosing recommendations, they suggest: about 30 minutes of daily walking, plus 20 minutes of running every other day, plus about an hour at the gym a couple times per week, and about an hour of stretching each week. These recommendations are out of touch with economic reality for huge numbers of people, and out of touch with the scientific reality that even a little bit of exercise is a great deal better than none.
- The workout was designed by exercise scientists Brett Klika and Chris Jordan, and published in ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal (see Klika et al). It was nicely explained and summarized by Gretchen Reynolds for the New York Times, which became the 6th most popular article the Times published in 2013. People love the idea of exercising efficiently!
- There actually is a case to be made that less might actually be more, with the right approach, for some people. But I’m not going to try to make that case here.
- Timmons JA. Variability in training-induced skeletal muscle adaptation. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Mar;110(3):846–53. PubMed #21030666 ❐ PainSci #53438 ❐
- Graves JE, Pollock ML, Leggett SH, et al. Effect of reduced training frequency on muscular strength. Int J Sports Med. 1988 Oct;9(5):316–9. PubMed #3246465 ❐
- Graves JE, Pollock ML, Foster D, et al. Effect of training frequency and specificity on isometric lumbar extension strength. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1990 Jun;15(6):504–9. PubMed #2144914 ❐
- DeRenne C. Effects of Training Frequency on Strength Maintenance in Pubescent Baseball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 10. 1996;10(1):8–14. PainSci #55016 ❐
- Taaffe DR, Duret C, Wheeler S, Marcus R. Once-weekly resistance exercise improves muscle strength and neuromuscular performance in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1999 Oct;47(10):1208–14. PubMed #10522954 ❐
- McLester JR, Bishop P, Guilliams ME. Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects. Journal of strength and conditioning research. 2000;14:273–281. PainSci #55022 ❐
- That’s an “equal volume” design — keep the overall volume of training the same, but vary the frequency — and it’s not ideal for making the point that a reduced gym investment delivers good value. Saving trips to the gym is not nothing, but tripling the length of the one workout is not exactly a time-saving dream come true. But it’s also not clear to me that tripling is safe, effective or necessary for producing results. Arguably, properly performed strength training workouts cannot be tripled in length — not without significant changes to methods. I certainly can’t triple my session durations! They are carefully planned to exhaust me within minutes. It would be impossible to extend or repeat that in one session without changing my methods. One big weekly workout may actually not work as well as a smaller weekly workout — this data doesn’t tell us that. But other data presented here does.
- DiFrancisco-Donoghue J, Werner W, Douris PC. Comparison of once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults. Br J Sports Med. 2007 Jan;41(1):19–22. PubMed #17062657 ❐
- Burt J, Wilson R, Willardson JM. A comparison of once versus twice per week training on leg press strength in women. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2007 Mar;47(1):13–7. PubMed #17369792 ❐
- Candow DG, Burke DG. Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):204–7. PubMed #17313289 ❐
- This was another equal volume study — the same overall training time packed into fewer sessions — and again with the same limitation that it doesn’t tell us what would have happened if volume had also been reduced. Other data shows that lower frequencies and volume still produce or maintain strength.
- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225–64. PubMed #17326698 ❐
- Krieger JW. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise: a meta-regression. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1890–901. PubMed #19661829 ❐
- Krieger JW. Single versus multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150–9. PubMed #20300012 ❐
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2016 Jul:1–10. PubMed #27433992 ❐
- Arruda A, Souza D, Steele J, et al. Reliability of meta-analyses to evaluate resistance training programmes. J Sports Sci. 2016 Nov:1–3. PubMed #27809704 ❐
This short paper is a criticism of Schoenfeld et al, basically making the case that the data just wasn't homogenous enough for a good quality meta-analysis (a good apples-to-apples comparison). They raised specific concerns about a mixture of data about upper and lower body training, unknown variations in intensity, and the overlapping effects of different exercises. They think the study was “premature” and its results should be viewed “with caution.” Their conclusion is worth quoting in full:
In conclusion, considering the large number of variables involved in resistance training and the methodological inconsistencies in the current literature, it seems impossible to make comparisons of different studies or include different studies in the same analysis. For a meta-analysis to be valid, a large amount of data on homogeneous subgroups should accumulate for topics where there is strong consensus about which variables have theoretical importance, and this does not seem to be the case for resistance training studies. Because of this, the generalisation of meta-analyses should be viewed with caution until we have a large number of studies providing adequate control of variables. Rather than prematurely perform meta-analyses on differing resistance training variables, which are all hindered by the inherent limitations of meta-analyses (Shapiro, 1994) including low study numbers and study heterogeneity (Field, 2015), and serve only to reduce the complexity of resistance training variables to a single statistic, greater value can be obtained by designing and conducting studies of larger and homogenous samples that can adequately address the topics considered. Otherwise, we can be comparing oranges with apples or, worse, we can be assuming that oranges and apples are the same.
- See Statistical Significance Abuse, passage beginning “Above all, a good p-value is not a low chance that the results were a fluke or false alarm … .”
- MikeMentzer.com [Internet]. Carpinelli R. More Is Better: A Questionable Concept; 1999 Jun 22 [cited 12 Feb 19].
- Carpinelli R. Challenging the American College of Sports Medicine 2009 Position Stand on Resistance Training. Medicina Sportiva. 2009 Jun;13(2):1734–2260. PainSci #55238 ❐
- In 2002, Carpinelli was “removed from the review process after challenging many of the references” and his criticisms have been ignored ever since, despite the fact that they are clearly substantive.
- Babraj JA, Vollaard NB, Keast C, et al. Extremely short duration high intensity training substantially improves insulin action in young sedentary males. BMC Endocr Disord. 2009 Jan 28;9(1):3. PubMed #19175906 ❐ PainSci #56191 ❐
- Erik Tjønna AM. Low- and High-Volume of Intensive Endurance Training Significantly Improves Maximal Oxygen Uptake after 10-Weeks of Training in Healthy Men. PLoS One. 2013 May;8(5):e65382. PubMed #23734250 ❐ PainSci #54531 ❐
- Bakker EA, Lee DC, Sui X, et al. Association of Resistance Exercise, Independent of and Combined With Aerobic Exercise, With the Incidence of Metabolic Syndrome. Mayo Clin Proc. 2017 Aug;92(8):1214–1222. PubMed #28622914 ❐ PainSci #52977 ❐ “Participating in resistance exercise, even less than 1 hour per week, was associated with a lower risk of development of metabolic syndrome, independent of aerobic exercise. Health professionals should recommend that patients perform resistance exercise along with aerobic exercise to reduce metabolic syndrome.”
- This problem was pointed out to me by James Krieger, who has written about it. Here’s a more thorough article about it. I originally got the 50/day figure from Body By Science: “Muscle mass is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. You require between 50 and 100 calories a day just to keep a pound of it alive.” This is wrong by a long shot. The brain is vastly more metabolically expensive, for instance. This seems like a clear cut case of confirmation bias: McGuff & Little presented this unsubstantiated myth as fact in their book because it would be wonderful support for their big idea … if only it were true. And then I did the same thing! Arg.
- Steele J, Fisher J, McGuff D, Bruce-Low S, Smith D. Resistance Training to Momentary Muscular Failure Improves Cardiovascular Fitness in Humans: A Review of Acute Physiological Responses and Chronic Physiological Adaptations. Journal of Exercise Physiology. 2012 Jun;15(3). PainSci #54600 ❐
- Ideas based only on educated guessing about biology, however reasonable and plausible they may sound, have a nasty habit of falling apart when more directly tested. This is one of the strongest patterns in the history of medicine.
- Hubal MJ, Gordish-Dressman H, Thompson PD, et al. Variability in muscle size and strength gain after unilateral resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jun;37(6):964–972. PubMed #15947721 ❐
This 2005 paper presents good evidence that there may be genetic differences between people that account for a surprisingly wide range of responses to strength training.
- Wirth K, Atzor KR, Schmidtbleicher D. Changes in muscle mass depending on training frequency and level of experience. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Sportmedizin. 2007;56(6).