How to Maintain Muscle and Strength With Minimal Time and Exercise

You have been training consistently for 6 plus months and have made some really great progress. 

The next thing you know life gets in the way, you just got engaged and have to plan a wedding, you just had a child and they are taking up all of your time, work is requiring more out of you than ever or you have to travel more for work, its the holidays and you have to travel to see family, you just got into a new relationship, you are a student and this upcoming semester is brutal, etc.

Basically, you are busy and being able to train 4 or more times per week for 60 plus minutes is just not doable at the moment. 

What most people do in this situation is go the route of not making it to the gym until they can “give it their all” or “when their time frees up”, they think to themselves “I feel like if I go to the gym it wouldn’t be worth it, so I’m going to wait until I can give 100%”. Next thing you know, a few months pass and two things happen:

  1. They lost most (if not all) of their progress. Muscle, strength, and technique they built up are lost. When they start back up they will spend their first couple of months or so regaining what they lost. 
  2. They are now out of the habit of going to the gym. Not only did they lose their progress, but now they will have to reintroduce the habit of getting to the gym regularly, and as we know once you are out of the habit of working out it becomes tough to get back in. 

 

If this person does end up getting back into the routine, what you will see happen a lot of the time is this person will try to pick up where they left off and then the next thing you know a few weeks in they are injured or unmotivated because they “aren’t able to do what they used to.” 

Nothing hurts progress more than extended times away from the gym. Whether it be for injury or any of the events listed above. 

People end up going through these endless cycles year after year because there is always going to be stuff that comes up. They spend part of the year on an upward trend, followed by a downward trend the rest of the year, and what happens over time is that this trend ends up just being neutral so no progress, basically they are “spinning their wheels” if you will.  

If this sounds like you, I have some good news. 

While it takes a lot of work to build your physique and strength, it takes much less to maintain, like way less than you are thinking. I think this is the mindset that holds people back. They think in order to keep what they have they have to work just as hard to maintain it. 

I’m taking this quote from Steve Hall (owner of Revive Stronger):

PROGRESS & MAINTENANCE OF PROGRESS = SUCCESS.

 

If we can get out of this all or nothing mindset when it comes to training we can bridge the gap and be in an upward trend of muscle and strength for some time of the year and then a neutral trend the rest of the year, but when you zoom out the trend is going upward over time for muscle and strength.

We must accept that there will be times when you go all in and then there will be times when you scale back just a bit and maintain your progress, but we never take extended times away from the gym. Extended times away from the gym is what kills progress more than anything. 

 

TRAINING

We now know that during busy times in your life it’s better to reduce how often/and how much you train and continue to stay on a routine instead of doing nothing. Not only for maintenance of strength and muscle but for other reasons such as: 

  • Keeping you in a routine 
  • Maintaining your technique (which is extremely important for when you do come back to reduce injury risk)
  • Spend less time regaining lost fitness when you do return
  • Training keeps you sane and feeling good

 

But exactly how low can you go?

Luckily there has been research in this topic that can give us a better idea of what we need to do during these times. 

A study by Bell et al. (1993) looked at competitive rowers to see how little they could train to maintain strength gains. After 10 weeks of weight training 3 times per week, the 18 subjects were then split into two groups. One group did 2 days of weight training for 6 weeks, and the other group did 1 day for 6 weeks. What they found is that both groups maintained strength on 4 exercises and actually gained strength in 2 of them! Showing that even as low as one day per week is good enough to maintain. 

Another study by Bickel et al. (2011) looked at what the minimum training dose would be for young (20-35 years) vs older (60-75). They broke the study into 2 phases:

Phase 1: 3 weight training days for 4 months. 9 sets per workout, for a total of 27 sets for the week. 

Phase 2: 8-month maintenance training where the subjects were divided into 3 groups:

  1. No training
  2. One weightlifting workout consisting of 9 sets
  3. One weightlifting workout consisting of 3 sets

Results: The no training group did lose muscle. However, both groups (3 and 9 sets per week) maintained most of their muscle and strength they built in the first phase in both the young and old. The young group actually built some muscle doing 9 sets per week. The study did also conclude that a higher weekly dose of training is required to maintain muscle in older adults. 

So we are seeing that even just 3 sets per week could be enough to maintain muscle and strength! 

In his research review, here are some recommendations from James Kreiger, based on what the current research says on maintenance of muscle mass and strength:

  • 2-3 times per week frequency seems to be best for maintenance, although some research says just 1 time per week is enough
  • You can train with 33-50% of high volume and maintain most gains (and possibly continue to gain) if effort remains high (i.e., most sets are to near failure)

 

Now that we know how much training we can get by with to maintain, let’s look at what a sample 2-day and 1-day maintenance training routine might look like.
2 Day Maintenance Training

Day 1 Day 2 
Deadlift: 4-7 Reps x 3 Sets Back Squat: 4-7 Reps x 3 Sets
Incline Bench Press:  5-8 Reps x 3 Sets Bench Press: 5-8 Reps x  3 Sets
Pull-up/Lat Pulldown: 6-10 Reps x 3 Sets Bent Over Row: 6-8 Reps x  3 Sets
Leg Press or Hack Squat: 8-10 Reps x  3 Sets Romanian Deadlift: 6-8 Reps x 2 Sets
Single Arm DB Row: 6-10 Reps x 3 Sets Dips: 6-10 Reps x 3 Sets

Estimated Time:   45-70 minutes per workout

1 Day Maintenance Training 

Back Squat: 5-7 Reps x 3-4 Sets
Deadlift: 5-7 Reps x 3 Sets
Bench Press: 6-8 Reps x 3-4 Sets
Bent Over Barbell Row: 6-8 Reps x 3-4 Sets
Strict Dip: 6-10 Reps x 3-4 Sets

Estimated Time: 50-75 minutes

Training Recommendations:

Since you are training with less volume, intensity must be fairly high throughout the workout. You cannot just come in and just ease through everything. This can be OK on occasion but at least 70% of the time training should be tough. Here are some guidelines:

  • 1-3 minutes rest between sets
  • Stay 1-3 reps from failure. Since its a low rep range, it will require some heavy weights potentially. 
  • Weights should go up slightly over time. If they don’t, are you really staying 1-3 reps from fail?
  • Make sure to do 1-2 warm-up sets. These are quick sets but focus on dialing in your technique in these warm-up sets. 

As you can see the goal of both workouts is a focus on compound exercises since they work multiple muscle groups. This is not the time for excess isolation work such as cables and machines. You save those for when you can dedicate more time in the gym. But with these workouts, we are keeping the foundation strong. 

CONCLUSION

Maintenance training can be an extremely useful tool (and probably the most underutilized tool) for when you go through busy times in your life, and everyone will go through these times at some point. Don’t use it as an excuse to not workout. 

 

References:

Bickel C, Cross J, Bamman M. (2011). Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jul;43(7):1177-87.

Bell G, Syrotuik D, Attwood K, Quinney H. (1993). Maintenance of strength gains while performing endurance training in oarswomen. Can J Appl Physiol. 1993 Mar;18(1):104-15.

Kreiger J. Research review: how low can you go? The impact of reduced training frequency on strength & size. Retrieved from: https://weightology.net/the-members-area/weight-training-research-reviews/how-low-can-you-go-the-impact-of-reduced-training-frequency-on-strength-size/

Matthews, Michael. How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise. https://legionathletics.com/maintain-muscle-and-strength/Hall, Steve. The magic of maintenance. https://revivestronger.com/the-magic-of-maintenance/

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