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How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise

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How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise

How much training does it really take to maintain muscle and strength? What types of workouts are most effective? Read on to find out!

 

We all know how much persistence and consistency it takes to get a great physique.

  • You have to hit the weights 3-5 times per week, every week, for at least 1-2 years.
  • You often have to also find time for a couple hours of cardio per week.
  • You have to watch what you eat, regulating intake to meet your goals of gaining or losing weight.

While some of us learn to enjoy the process, nobody ever said it was easy. It takes intense, regular work.

Now, how do things change once you’ve achieved the type of body you desire? Do you have to work just as hard to keep a good physique as you do to build one?

If that question doesn’t matter so much to you–if you’re like me and you just enjoy the fitness lifestyle–then maybe this one will catch your interest:

How can you maintain muscle and strength when you’re not able to follow your regular exercise routine?

Although some of us would love to be able to hit the gym 5 times per week without any unplanned breaks, year-in, year-out…life will inevitably throw us curve balls.

Staying in shape while traveling can be tricky. The holidays are notorious for messing with schedules (and diets). Family and work often take precedence over personal time.

Are you simply doomed to losing muscle and strength in such situations? Or is there an easy way to avert such problems?

Well, as you’ll see in this article, it’s much easier than most people think to maintain muscle and strength, and even continue to make gains.

Let’s get to it.

How Much Exercise it Takes to Maintain Muscle and Strength

I have good news for you:

It’s much easier to maintain a good physique and level of conditioning than it is to get there.

How easy, you ask?

Well, consider a study conducted by the University of Alberta with competitive rowers. After 10 weeks of weightlifting 3 times per week, 18 varsity female rowers were split into two groups. Both groups then did 6 weeks of maintenance resistance training, with one group training once per week, and the other twice per week.

The results? Both groups improved their strength in two exercises they performed each week, and maintained strength in the four others in their routine.

Yes, that’s right–according to that research, you can maintain your strength training just once per week. And that’s not the only study demonstrating this.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham conducted a study wherein subjects lifted weights 3 times per week (9 sets per workout) for 5 months, and then were assigned to one of three groups for the next eight months:

  1. No exercise at all.
  2. One weightlifting workout per week that consisted of 9 total sets.
  3. One weightlifting workout per week that consisted of 3 total sets.

Over the course of the following 8 months, group 1 lost muscle (of course), but both groups 2 and 3 were able to maintain most of the muscle they had gained in the first part of the study, and even increase their strength.

So, what we can learn from these studies is this:

You can not only maintain muscle and strength training only 1-2 times per week, you can actually make gains.

Sure, you won’t be able to make the same kinds of gains as you can training 3-5 times per week, but you can do better than most people think.

The key takeaway here is that weekly workout volume is at least as important, if not more important than, workout frequency.

So, here’s the point that will come as a great relief to many:

Regardless of what’s going on in your life, if you can sneak away from the hustle and bustle for a couple hours per week, you can minimally keep your hard-earned gains.

Now, how do you best go about the training? What type of workouts will deliver the best results when you’re only training 1-2 times per week?

The Perfect “Muscle Maintenance” Program

When you can only train once or twice per week, what you do is very important.

If you’re in decent shape and simply hopped on some machines and got a pump, you certainly won’t make gains, and will almost certainly lose muscle over time.

The bottom line is when you reduce workout frequency, you have to increase volume and, most importantly, intensity (the amount of weight you’re lifting).

You also want to focus on exercises that recruit the maximum amount of muscle, which are the big compound lifts like Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, and Military Press.

I could delve into some more advanced physiology here to further explain the relationship between frequency, volume, intensity, and exercise choice, but let’s save that theory for another post and get to the practical.

Here’s how to get the most out of training twice per week.

Training Twice Per Week

When you can only train twice per week, I recommend you use one day to train your push and pull muscles, and another day to focus on your legs, with a little additional push.

The following workouts take about an hour to complete. Rest 2-3 minutes in between each set, and take at least one day of rest in between each (two days of rest between each is ideal, I think).

Day 1: Push/Pull

Deadlift: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Day 2: Legs & Additional Push

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Squat: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Hack Squat (sled, not barbell) or Leg Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

This is a brutally simple and effective workout. With it, you should expect to make gains, not simply remain the same.

It trains every major and minor muscle group in your body, and the emphasis on the 4-6 rep range focuses on inducing myofibrillar growth, which is ultimately what creates the big, strong, dense muscle that we all want.

As with any program, the most important factor in terms of making gains is progressive overload. That is, you have to keep adding weight to the bar as time goes on.

To do this, simply add weight once you hit 6 reps in a set. Go up 10 lbs, whether by adding 5 lbs to each side of the barbell, or moving up 5 lbs on dumbbells.

Training Once Per Week

If you can only train once per week, don’t despair–you can not only maintain muscle, strength, and conditioning, but you too can make gains.

The following workout hits every major muscle group in the body, and takes about 1:15 to complete. Rest 2-3 minutes in between each set. It’s hard, but very effective.

Squat: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Deadlift: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Again, nothing fancy here–just heavy, compound lifting, hitting your entire body. Move up on your weights as described above.

So, if you’re short on time or just want to cruise for a bit and maintain your physique, I hope this article helps!

Do you have any other tips for maintaining muscle and strength? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

How to get lean and build serious muscle and strength, faster than you ever thought possible…

Depending on how you eat, train, and rest, building muscle and losing fat can be incredibly easy or incredibly hard. Unfortunately, most people make many different mistakes that leave them stuck in a rut. And that’s why I wrote Bigger Leaner Stronger for men, and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women: they lay out EVERYTHING you need to know about diet and training to build muscle and lose fat effectively… Black Friday Sale
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I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.

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56 Comments
  • Ben Hunt

    Great article. Gives those that use the excuse that they don’t want to live in the gym the rest of their lives ammo to defeat that psychological gauntlet.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Ben. I agree.

  • mike

    thanks for the article!!! You mentioned at ghe beginning a study “One study conducted by The University of Queensland showed that subjects that trained a muscle group twice per week made about 70% of the gains of those training three times per week.”
    at the moment im training with your 5day split, so that every musclegroup is trained one time per week. Would you recommend to train specific musclegroups, which you want to improve, more than one time per week?

    thanks a lot

    mike

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Mike!

      Good question.

      I’m going to talk more about frequency in my follow-up book to BLS, but it boils down to workout volume and intensity. The more reps you do in a workout, and the heavier those reps are, the less often you will be able to repeat the workout.

      Splits that have you train your entire body 2-3x per week DO work when they’re programmed correctly, but so do splits that have you training everything once per week. The big difference between the two is the latter workouts have you doing more in each workout.

      The last little tidbit is if you’re following BLS and want to improve a weak point, you can train it again. Train it per BLS, then wait 3-4 days and start your workout with a warm-up and 6 sets for the weak point, followed by your normal workout.

      Most people do this with chest. :)

      • Ben Hunt

        Thanks for that suggestion. I saw in another article you were doing that yourself. This explains how to do it.

        • Michael Matthews

          My pleasure. :)

      • JonGaxi

        When training a weak point for a second time in one week following BLS (heavy weights/4-6reps) does one use the same intensity/volume on both days?

        • Michael Matthews

          Good question! I prefer to go a little higher rep in my weak point training–6 to 8 or even 8 to 10.

  • Osher Barda

    Wow mike this once again is an amazing article so much knowledge!!! Lol no one that I know or heard of can put it like you do awesome! Ty!!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Osher!! :)

  • Matthieu Thompson

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  • Matt

    Mike, excellent info! No more having to fret over missed workouts due to schedule crunches (sorry, terrible pun).

    Do you recommend keeping the same weight on the bar for subsequent sets? Sometimes it can be difficult to achieve at least 4 reps on sets 2 and 3, especially when moving up in weight from the previous week.

    I think this is known as Reverse Pyramid Training, but your training protocol doesn’t specifically mention one way or the other about increasing/decreasing weight between the working sets. Any thoughts?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Matt! Haha yup, exactly.

      Yes, keep the weight the same unless you drop to 2-3 reps. Then you can drop weight to stay in the 4-6 range.

      Reverse Pyramid is a bit different. I’ll be talking about this in more detail in my next book, but I don’t recommend periodization unless you have a solid foundation of muscle and strength. To put some numbers on that, until you’ve gained your first 30-35 pounds of muscle.

  • Mike

    I strength train 2-3 days a week. I feel and look better than I ever did training 5 days. Now if we could only follow our diets as flexible..haha:) great information Mike

    • Michael Matthews

      Awesome Mike, glad to hear it. Keep up the good work. And the key to proper dieting is creating and sticking to a proper meal plan…

  • Engin Burak Anil

    Exactly what I have been looking for since I cannot train 3-5 days a week these days. Now my question is how am I going to manage the food intake for training 1-2 days a week? I feel like in the 2 days after the workout I need more and not so much for the rest of the week. what do you think?

    • Michael Matthews

      Great, I’m glad you liked it!

      Personally I would eat 10% surplus on my training days and the day that follows them, and maintenance on my other days…

  • Jamie Young

    Hi Mike,
    I had gained 6lbs of muscle over 8 months by following your program. I work out hard but don’t have the appetite to eat as much as I should. I took the summer off and have lost all 8 lbs, a real bummer. I am getting ready to hit it again. I will be sure to file this info for later.
    Thanks,
    Jamie

    • Michael Matthews

      Arg I’m sorry to hear that. The good news is you’ll have muscle memory on your side–you’ll gain the 6 pounds back fairly quickly.

      Let’s go for more this time though–let’s get your food intake up.

      What I like to do is focus on eating a bunch of calorie-dense foods. Here are my favorites:

      Red meat

      Grains like brown rice and quinoa

      Oils like coconut oil and olive oil

      Avocado

      Whole-fat dairy

      Multi-grain pasta and bread

      Almonds and almond butter

      Bananas

      White and sweet potatoes

      What do you think?

      • Jamie Young

        I like all of that stuff and will write this list down. I need to re read BLS also, I know there is good info in there. Thanks!!

        • Michael Matthews

          Awesome, let me know how it goes!

  • RPG3

    Mike – Great stuff as always. Training frequency is always a question with me. These studies training a muscle group 3x a week (say M, W & F) must be new to weightlifting wouldn’t you think? No way could I work any muscle group 3x a week as per BLS without overtraining. I agree with you that one hard workout per muscle group per week will you from losing what you worked so hard for.
    Appreciate you keeping us all focused and motivated!
    Rick

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks!

      Yeah, they’re newbies, and the training isn’t very intense. Something to keep in mind when talking about splits like that.

      Keep up the good work!!

  • Toni

    Great valid points. Takes much more effort to initially get into shape than it does to maintain your fitness level.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Toni! Yup, that’s the truth.

  • Heather

    When would i do my cardio with the two workouts per week schedule? After the strength training sessions or on separate days?

    • Michael Matthews

      Either or would be fine. Separate would be best but you can do after if that’s not an option.

  • Artid

    Great post! Enjoyed the updates and scientific research. That’s the way every one should write about fitness and training!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! I agree!

  • Matt

    This seems like something I want to follow when I reach my goal weight. My only question is, BLS makes you hit the arms quick but hard, it also has some specialization like training upper chest, abs, calves, lats, side delta, etc etc. If you build your physique with those exercises and then switch to mainly deadliest, squats, bench, military press, and rows, would you lose some of the aspects of your physique that program helped you build, such as your arms, upper chest, abs…

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question. In my experience you’ll more or less maintain those smaller muscle groups, but you can also add some isolation work back in if it becomes an issue.

  • kengerald

    Hi Mike, i suppose the 2day heavy compound lifting would give your nervous system a better chance to recover as for 3-5 days of Heavy lifting every week, the reason i am asking would be that i have be doing heavy lifting for more than 1year did saw gains but never took a week off for my nervous system too recover and got very sick not doing so, would you recommend doing the 2day Heavy compound lifting week 1 and then the following 2 weeks you do moderate hypertrophy lifting(moderate weight) and then Volume lifting(light weight) and would you still make the same gains prior to only doing HCL every week? or how else can i give my nervous system time to recover?

    • Michael Matthews

      Your CNS can recover just fine from lifting 5-6x per week so long as your workouts aren’t too long/intense.

      For instance, my BLS program has you lifting heavy weights 5 x per week and deloading every 2 months and people rarely have to change anything due to overtraining.

  • John

    Thanks Mike! Great article! I have been looking for a maintenance schedule and i found this post to be most useful than any other articles. I like the simple,cogent and scientific way of your explanation.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks John!

  • Oliver Lopez

    Do u think this program would be good for a aspiring mma fighter? Priority in training is striking, wrestling, and jujitsu. So I want to focus my training on those skills.

    • Michael Matthews

      Possibly although I’m really not familiar with the training that MMA fighters do. That said, I don’t see how more explosive power will hurt…

      • Oliver Lopez

        Exactly. I’m looking to keep and possibly increase my strength, but not having to dedicate too much time to lifting, but more time to training the techniques of mma

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah that makes sense. I think 3 x per week heavy push pull legs would make sure. Focusing on compounds of course.

  • Pingback: How to Lose Body Fat and Not Muscle (Without Following a Ridiculous Diet or Grueling Exercise Routine) | Muscle For Life

  • http://www.thinkeatlift.com Radu

    Hey Mike,

    Why does a routine focused on only a few key compound exercises produce faster strength gains than a routine where you perform lots of exercises (compound movements included) for each muscle group?

    I’m interested in the science behind it and I’d really appreciate if you could give me a short answer and maybe link me to an article (or book) where I can read more about this.

    Thanks a lot! Keep killing it Mike!

    • Michael Matthews

      Good question. It really just boils down to total muscle fiber recruitment.

      The big, primary compound lifts like the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and so forth not only fully stimulate the muscles being trained but allow for heavy weights to be safely lifted. This means more progressive of more muscles, which means more gains…

      • http://www.thinkeatlift.com Radu

        Thanks!

        • Michael Matthews

          YW

  • Arthur H

    Thank you for your constant dedication to helping humanity achieve their very best. You are a true hero and inspiration to everyone.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks a ton Arthur. :) You rock.

  • Allen

    Will doing too much cardio, a la Crossfit, be a detriment to gains while you’re maintaining? I’d like to do some kind of sport or high-intensity training routine in the future, but I don’t want to risk losing all of my hard work.

  • kunal shrivastava

    Don’t forget nutrition is as important, if not more than strength training and cardio.don’t skip on your meal frequency and timing, as most people do when they’re off their exercise schedule. Maintain a protein intake of 1g /kg body weight through meats and whey protein shakes.this helps preserve muscle mass and invariably strength as the body doesn’t need to break down muscle to compensate for protein loss.have a high calorie shake like weight gainers immediately after waking up.this immediately stabilises your blood sugar and nitrogen levels to counteract muscle loss. Also if you have more muscle, creatine monohydrate keeps them hydrated and reasonably intact. Supplement/continue supplementation with whey protein and creatine monohydrate even if you’re not exercising for a while ! Focus on pushups and pullups if you don’t have time to hit the gym. These exercises target almost all muscle groups in your upper body.squats and cycling may be done for glutes/thighs.Pushups and squats can be done anywhere, try to make a setup for pullups for those times it’s impossible for you to hit the gym.variations of these 2 exercises alone can help maintain muscle, if done for just 15-20 minutes every other day, trust me.

  • Pat

    Hey Mike,
    Another GREAT article – a big focus for me currently in all areas of life is to be as time efficient as possible. Is it reasonable to consider using one of your workouts listed above while cutting, then return to the full BLS workout while bulking? From this article, this approach seems logical, unless you feel I would be risking too much muscle loss during cutting. Thanks!

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks! Yeah totally. This plus cardio can get the job done!

  • Renier

    Hi mike, just a quick question, can you make gainz training 3 times per week?(with this i mean reach you maximum potential and keep advancing at the gym for both advance and intermediate)

    • Michael Matthews

      Yeah you can make gains but you will do better with 4 or 5 x per week.

      • Renier

        Thanks for the reply!.

        • Michael Matthews

          YW!

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