Many fitness enthusiasts have fallen victim to the vicious cycle of more reps, more weight, more intensity, more volume, and more hours at the gym to gain a desired outcome of strength or body composition. When is it too much? How much are you really getting out of your second training session of the day?
Often people have the best of intentions. They have goals to crush, or they came back to the gym after a long day at work and are letting off some steam. I am not here to debunk the reasons physical activity aids life from a mental standpoint; movement is magic to the brain. But rather I am writing to give weight to the stance that less is often more in terms of strength training frequency from an overall health perspective for the general population. Goals can still be actualizeed if you only have 45 minutes a day to dedicate to them.
The concept that “more is better” has been a shaky foundation from the start. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) held this position with misleading and irrelevant evidence. In 1999, Ralph Carpinelli strongly criticized the ACSM’s stance on strength training by saying, “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 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.” (Carpinelli, 1999) IMPOSSIBLE. And you wonder why people say they don’t have the time!
Would you believe me if I told you that you can get away with much shorter workouts—strength training, cardio, etc.—to reach body composition, strength, fitness and performance goals?
People can get great results from fewer and shorter visits to the gym. Check out a couple studies conducted over the years that show less training per week can still lead to strength gains.
In 2007, Burt compared “Strength differences between 2 groups of untrained women, who performed a single set of the leg press exercise once or twice per week.” There was no difference in their results. This indicated that performing a single set of leg press once or twice per week resulted in statistically similar strength gains in untrained women. (Burts, 2007)
Also in 2007, DiFrancisco-Donoghue tested 18 older adults in two groups for several weeks. 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 programs that are more time and cost efficient in producing health and fitness benefits for older adults.” (Donoghue, 2007)
Seeing a trend here?
In 1999, Taaffe conducted a study on strength training frequency in a few dozen adults that were healthy and in the age range of 65-79. The 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.” That doesn’t sound far off from what a younger person would do as well. These adults were grouped by training 1, 2, or 3 days per week. And 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.” (Taaffe, 1999)
If anything, we can put to rest the concept that training twice as often is twice as good. Or even three times being three times as good. The data has been consistent from a general strength perspective.
What about cardio? The great majority of people will never make the kind of time for the amount of aerobic exercise that is recommended by most published guidelines. So much to do, so little time. Classic, long duration aerobic exercise is known to reduce cardiovascular and metabolic disease. A study conducted in 2009 will give hope to those who do not have the ability to keep such a substantial time commitment. They found that only a few 30-second sprints on a stationary bike may be nearly as effective at preventing disease as much more time-intensive traditional cardio programs. The conclusion stated, “…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.” (Barbraj, 2009)
If you have body compositional goals such as weight loss, there are more effective ways of creating an energy deficit for weight loss than doing double days at the gym. You are better off prioritizing intentional programming, controlled food intake, sufficient water, stress management, sleep, and recovery. Sometimes weight loss induced by exercise can trigger compensatory mechanisms like a lower metabolic rate and increased appetite. A journal published in 2012 came to the conclusion that a similar body fat loss can be obtained with 30 vs. 60 min of daily aerobic exercise. A moderate dose of exercise induced a greater than expected negative energy balance. (Rosenkilde, 2012)
This information can be a life-saver for those who feel as if they just don’t have them time to even get started on their overall physical health. A little goes a long way! This can also provide some assurance for those who are eager to chase their goals and think doing a double day will provide double the benefit. More is not better!
Stay patient with your goals and capitalize on each training session. Train hard, rest intentionally and eat well. Optimizing your health may seem intimidating at first but it is actually a lot simpler than avid gym-goers make it seem. Don’t shy away from starting, one step in the right direction will go a long way.
So, you tell me, is more always better?
PS – See study source citations at the bottom of the page.
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Babraj, J. A., Vollaard, N. B., Keast, C., Guppy, F. M., Cottrell, G., & Timmons, J. A. (2009). Extremely short duration high intensity interval training substantially improves insulin action in young healthy males. BMC Endocrine Disorders, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6823-9-3
Burt, J., Wilson, R., & Willardson, J. M. (2007, April). A comparison of once versus twice per week training on leg press strength in women. PubMed.
Carpinelli, R. (1999, June). MORE IS BETTER: A QUESTIONABLE CONCEPT. Http://Www.Mikementzer.Com/Moreisbet.Html. http://www.mikementzer.com/moreisbet.html
DiFrancisco-Donoghue, J., Werner, W., Douris, P. C., & McKenna, R. F. (2006). Comparison of once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults * Commentary. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(1), 19–22. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2006.029330
Rosenkilde, M., Auerbach, P., Reichkendler, M. H., Ploug, T., Stallknecht, B. M., & Sjödin, A. (2012). Body fat loss and compensatory mechanisms in response to different doses of aerobic exercise—a randomized controlled trial in overweight sedentary males. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 303(6), R571–R579. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00141.2012
Taaffe, D. R., Duret, C., Wheeler, S., & Marcus, R. (1999). Once-Weekly Resistance Exercise Improves Muscle Strength and Neuromuscular Performance in Older Adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 47(10), 1208–1214. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.1999.tb05201.x