In principle, everyone should be able to spend a few hours in the gym every week. But what if you really can’t do that 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?
Yes, even if you have little time you can make serious gains. According to coach and author Greg Nuckols of Sronger by Science, an hour of training per week can be enough to achieve perhaps 70% of maximum muscle growth. According to him, the training must meet a number of conditions for this:
- you train with medium 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. To build muscle mass, you can suffice as a beginner with 3-6 sets per muscle group per week. Keep in mind that over time, due to adaptation, you will need more sets to keep growing.
** This is the relative exercise intensity, or the degree to which you train your sets to muscle failure, or the point where you can no longer do a decent rep. To get the maximum return from 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 until muscle failure). The number of RIR depends on the exercise you do: with squats and deadlifts you keep a few 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 that only requires 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
rows or pull-ups 3-4 sets, 0-1 RIR*
* first two sets 1 RIR, last set 0 RIR
INTENSITY AND PROGRESSION
Start with all exercises with a weight with which you can do about 15 repetitions. Increase the weight by 2-5 kg each week, 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.
HIGH INTENSITY TRAINING
The above example is actually a variation 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 frequency.
In a HIT program you train your whole body three or even ‘only’ twice a week – for example on Monday, possibly Wednesday and on Friday. So it’s a full body routine. By intensively training your body in two or three short training sessions, the body receives a maximum growth stimulus and sufficient time to recover, according to HIT.
What is the minimum effective volume to make a profit in the long term? A meta-analysis by Steele et al explored this question by looking at the training logs of approximately 15,000 HIT athletes over a period of almost seven years. All participants performed only one set per muscle group per week until muscle failure at a load of 4-6 RM at a super slow pace 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 illustrates nicely 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 continue growing, which mainly means more training volume (sets).
Contrary to popular belief, you can also build a lot of muscle mass with little training volume. It just slows down a bit and over time you end up on a ceiling, which means you have to add sets and possibly also increase your training frequency.
In the beginning, an hour of training per week can 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.
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.