In principle, everyone should be able to spend a few hours in the gym every week. But what if you really can’t or if you just don’t want to? Can you also build muscle if you only train for one hour a week, for example? And how do you get the maximum return from that hour?
THE MINIMUM TRAINING VOLUME
Yes, even if you have little time you can make serious gains. According to a scientific review by, among others, muscle growth expert Brad Schoenfield four (!) sets per muscle group per week are enough to grow.
Steele et al. investigated this issue by looking at the training logs of approximately 15,000 exercisers over a period of nearly seven years. All participants did just one set per muscle group per week to muscle failure at 4-6 RM loads with a super-slow tempo on the Nautilus Machine. That one set a week until muscle failure turned out to be enough to make new gains for up to one to two years. After that, most people reached a plateau. Because the nervous system is much more flexible than muscle tissue (higher plasticity), the increase in muscle size probably stopped much earlier.
This study nicely illustrates how beginners can still make decent progress at really low volumes if they train hard enough. However, more advanced strength athletes need a greater stimulus to keep growing, which means more training volume (sets).
A few sets per muscle group per week can therefore be sufficient for muscle growth. According to Greg Nuckols, the training must meet a number of conditions for this:
- you train with moderately high weights, in the range of 6-15 repetitions;
- you only do compound exercises;
- you train each muscle group 1-2 times a week;
- you do 2-3 sets per exercise;
- you do 3-6 sets per muscle group per week*;
- you train with great effort**.
* This is the training volume. As a beginner, you can already do 3-6 sets per muscle group per week to build muscle mass. Keep in mind that over time, through adaptation, you will need more sets to keep growing.
** This is the relative training intensity, or the extent to which you train your sets to muscle failure, or the point at which you can no longer do a decent rep. To get the most out of a small volume, train your sets as close to muscle failure as possible. In practice, that is 1-2 Rep In Reserve (RIR) – you leave one or two reps in the tank – or 0 RIR (you train completely to muscle failure). The number of RIR depends on the exercise you are doing: with squats and deadlifts you keep some reps in the tank, while with rows and presses you can go all the way. With the bench press or with a spotter.
Below is an example of a training program for which you only need one hour per week. You train twice a week for about half an hour.
squat: 3 sets, 1 RIR
overhead press: 3 sets, 0-1 RIR*
rows or pull-ups 3-4 sets, 0-1 RIR*
deadlift: 3 sets, 1 RIR
bench press: 3 sets, 0-1 RIR*
rows or pull-ups 3-4 sets, 0-1 RIR*
* first two sets 1 RIR, last set 0 RIR
INTENSITY AND PROGRESSION
For all exercises, start with a weight that you can do about 15 reps with. Each week, increase the weight by 2-5 kg, trying to maintain as many reps as possible. Once you can’t do more than 5 reps, start over with a weight that can handle 15 reps. This is a higher weight than when you started the previous cycle: you have made progress. For this it is important that you keep a training log.
The example above is actually a variant of High Intensity Training (HIT, not to be confused with HIIT). With this method you train at a high intensity (almost or completely to muscle failure) and a low volume.
In a HIT program you train your whole body three or even ‘only’ twice a week – for example on Monday, possibly Wednesday and Friday. So it’s a full body routine . By training your body intensively in two or three short training sessions, the body receives a maximum growth stimulus and sufficient time to recover.
Contrary to what many people think, you can also build muscle mass with little training volume. It just goes a bit slower and over time you end up at a ceiling, which means you have to add sets and possibly increase your training frequency.
In the beginning, one hour of training per week may be enough to achieve perhaps 70% of the maximum muscle growth. To do this you have to train hard, which means until (near) muscle failure (0-1 RIR).
There are also other ways to save time with your training, such as rest-pause set, drop sets, the 3/7 method, super sets and paired sets. We discuss these training methods in this article.
Last updated 20 December 2022.