Training | POSTED January 31, 2024

Minimal Training: Less Work, Similar Results

We aren’t always able to devote as much time as we’d like to training. Sometimes we’re just too busy, sometimes we’re on holidays, and sometimes we’re just not motivated. Time can also be a major barrier that prevents people from starting exercise in the first place. A lot of newcomers are under the impression that they need to spend hours upon hours in the gym each week. This either puts them off even trying, or can lead to burnout after a few weeks. Fortunately, there’s a concept that we like to call minimal training that can help solve both of these problems.

Minimal training is the least amount of resistance exercise you can do whilst still making meaningful gains in health, strength, and muscle size. The amount of training required will differ depending on your goal, so we’ll talk about them one at a time.

How little training do you need?

To improve health, the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 2 resistance training sessions per week.1 Further evidence on the topic indicates that reductions in all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality are maximised with 60 minutes of resistance training per week.2

For strength, studies have shown that experienced lifters can get meaningfully stronger with 1-4 weekly sets per exercise.3 Given that training experience is generally associated with slower rates of strength gain, the minimum dose is likely even lower for beginners.

To build muscle, it seems as though a minimum of 4 weekly sets per muscle group is sufficient.4 These sets need to be high effort, either at or close to muscular failure. There is also some evidence to suggest that older adults (60+) require higher weekly training volume to maintain their gains.5

Putting this all together, we can see that it’s possible to make meaningful gains in health, strength and muscle size with relatively little time spent in the gym each week.

How to use minimal training

How you take advantage of minimal training will depend on your goals and the time you have available to spend in the gym.

One thing that we know about resistance training is that doing more weekly volume (sets and reps) generally leads to greater increases in strength and muscle. If you’ve got the time and want to maximise these outcomes, we’d recommend doing more than minimal training. The same goes for health. If you want to get the best results possible, we’d recommend doing as much training as you can reasonably manage.

The studies looking at minimal training only looked at outcomes over 6-12 weeks.6 It may be possible to continue making similar gains over a longer timespan, but we don’t yet have the evidence to support that. With that in mind, you may reach a point where you stop seeing results with minimal training. When that happens, we would recommend slowly adding more volume as necessary.

So then who would we actually recommend minimal training for? The first group would be those for whom time spent in the gym is a barrier to exercising at all. Even if it’s not optimal, the difference in outcomes between minimal training and no training is incredibly significant. The second group would be people who are temporarily unable to train as much as they normal would. This could be due to scheduling, stress, lack of motivation, or holidays. In these scenarios, we’d recommend doing minimal training as long as you need to, but to start returning to your regular training dose as soon as you can.

Minimal training doesn’t mean minimal results

As we’ve seen, it’s possible to continue making meaningful gains in strength, muscle, and health with a minimal amount of training. We recommend this approach for people who lack time or are put off by spending ages in the gym. However, this isn’t a permanent solution, and more training volume may be required after some time to continue seeing results.

If you’ve still got questions about minimal training, get in touch with us to see how one of our excellent personal trainers can help you out!

References

  1. World Health Organisation Physical Activity Guidelines ↩︎
  2. Resistance Training and Mortality Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis ↩︎
  3. The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis/; The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required for 1RM Strength in Powerlifters ↩︎
  4. No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review ↩︎
  5. Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults ↩︎
  6. The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis/; The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required for 1RM Strength in Powerlifters ↩︎