Less Time and More Frequency May Be Key to Strength Training

Workout frequency feature

You don’t need to be a fitness junkie to know that regular exercise is one of the most important ingredients in the recipe for a longer, healthier life. Physically, it is one of the easiest and most effective ways to manage your weight, strengthen your bones and muscles, and reduce your risk for many life-threatening diseases, including heart attacks and some cancers. Mentally, it may improve your cognitive skills, as well as reduce stress, and improve your overall mood. So why don’t more people do it?

As a trainer and fitness instructor, I hear all kinds of excuses and justifications for skipping the gym, but the one that is universal is, “I just don’t have the time.” Hey, I get it! We live in a world that glorifies “busy.” Between work, family, friends, and the daily responsibilities of life, we often put our own needs last, and our health pays the price. But taking care of your body should be at the top of your list of priorities, and you don’t have to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits.

Less Is More

Woman lifting barbell

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults get 150 minutes per week of moderately intense physical activity (think aerobic) combined with 2 days of strength training. But it doesn’t say anything about how to spend those minutes to get the best results. There’s a “go hard or go home” mentality surrounding exercise that not so subtly enforces the concept that “more” equates to “better.” If you don’t have at least an hour to spend in the gym a few times a week working up a sweat, then why bother? But a new study is flipping the narrative.

Researchers at Edith Cowen University in Perth, Australia, in collaboration with Japan’s Niigata University and Nishi Kyushu University, have found that it might not take as long as you think to reap the gym rewards. The study followed three groups of participants who performed “maximal eccentric bicep contractions” over four weeks using a specialized piece of equipment called an isokinetic dynamometer.

  • The first group performed six reps per day, five days per week.
  • The second group took more of a “weekend warrior” approach, performing 30 reps in one day only once a week.
  • The third group performed six reps once a week.

At the end of the four weeks, they concluded that:

  • Group three experienced no significant changes to muscle strength or thickness.
  • Group two experienced an increase in muscle thickness but not strength.
  • Group one experienced more than a 10% increase in muscle strength along with an increase in muscle thickness that was on par with group two.

The findings supported the idea that muscles respond to more frequent use for shorter periods as well or better than long periods of multiple reps. In other words, less is more!

Short and Sweet

The idea of less is more is not new, and it is the thinking behind the popular HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and metabolic workout methods. Both methods involve short bursts of intensity designed to rev up the heart rate and turn the body into a fat and calorie-burning machine long after the workout ends. It’s a “more bang for your buck” approach that appeals to people who are trying to squeeze in a workout during a hectic day. The same idea applies here: you use maximum effort to perform fewer reps for the most significant improvements to muscle mass and strength.

“People think they have to do a lengthy session of resistance training in the gym, but that’s not the case,” said ECU Exercise and Sports Science Professor Ken Nosaka, who was involved in the study.

“Just lowering a heavy dumbbell slowly once or six times a day is enough.”

And although the study required participants to max out their efforts, Professor Nosaka said that early findings suggest that similar results may be obtained with less effort.

Don’t Skip The Rest

Taking a day off with the dog

Before you go to the gym, grab the heaviest dumbbells you can find, and bust out six reps every day, it is important to note that the participants in the six reps/five days approach took two rest days each week. Rest days are a necessary part of a workout plan and shouldn’t be skimped on simply because you are shortening the amount of time spent in the gym. Skipping them could derail your efforts because muscles need time to repair in order to grow and develop. If you constantly fatigue them without giving them the time they need to recover, you risk injury and setback—not what you want!

No More Excuses

Woman doing crunches with dumbbells

Remember that the CDC guidelines are a recommendation for moderate to intense activity. That doesn’t mean that once you’ve hit 150 minutes that the rest of your week is spent lying on the couch binging Netflix. Intentionally moving your body should be part of your daily life. That can be a short, 15-minute walk around the block. It can be 5 minutes spent stretching. It can be playing outside with your children or grandchildren. The point is that something is always better than nothing when it comes to staying physically fit, strong, and healthy. Remember, everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. How you prioritize them is up to you.

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