It takes motivation, focus and months of resistance training to build lean body mass and get stronger. Have you reached the point that you’re satisfied with your gains? Congratulations, you accomplished your goals. Needless to say, you don’t want to lose the gains you’ve made but there may be times you feel like lightening up a little. That’s understandable. You’ve put in a lot of work and are committed to continuing to work out but you’d like to spend a little less time doing it. How much resistance training do you need to maintain the gains you’ve earned?
Maintaining Muscle Mass and Strength
If your goal is to maintain strength gains, there’s good news. You can lighten up on your training and not become weaker. A study carried out at the University of Alberta looked at this issue. In this study, 18 female rowers weight trained 3 times weekly for 10 weeks. After the initial training period, they switched into maintenance mode. One group trained twice a week during maintenance while a second group trained once weekly. The good news? Both groups were able to maintain their strength gains. This suggests you can maintain strength training only once per week. That’s manageable for almost everyone!
Another study involving professional soccer players showed one strength training session per week during the in-season was enough to maintain muscle strength gains and jump and sprint performance. In contrast, a second group who only strength trained every other week experienced reductions in sprint performance and leg strength.
Still another study carried out at the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at the effect differing maintenance programs had on strength and hypertrophy in younger people (20-35 years) versus older folks. (60-75 years) Participants in both age groups did 16 weeks of resistance training 3 times weekly. During this time both age groups showed improvements in strength and an increase in muscle size. At this point, they switched over to maintenance for 32 weeks. During maintenance, one group did no exercise, a second group reduced their training by a third, training only once per week, while a final group reduced their training by a ninth, training once a week and reducing the number of exercises they did by two-thirds.
The results? At the end of the maintenance period, both young and old age participants who reduced their training by a third and a ninth maintained strength gains. What about muscle gains? The younger participants’ maintained muscle mass on both maintenance schedules and even gained muscle mass after cutting their training by a third and a ninth. On the other hand, older adults lost some of their mass gains when they reduced their training by a third and a ninth. This suggests you can maintain strength by training as little as once a week, regardless of age. If you’re young, you can maintain muscle mass and even make further gains in muscle size with once weekly training. If you’re older, you may need more frequent training to maintain the muscle you’ve gained.
What Does This Mean?
You can probably maintain gains in both muscle strength and mass by training only once a week, assuming you have youth on your side. On the other hand, if you’re older, you may need to train a little more frequently, twice a week, to maintain the muscle size you developed through training.
There are a few caveats. If you cut back the number of days you’re training, you still need to maintain intensity. Reducing total volume AND intensity will probably compromise some of the gains you’ve made. Research suggests intensity is ultimately more important than how often you train, at least up to a point. This doesn’t mean you can only lift once a month, even with intensity, and expect to maintain your gains, but training once or twice a week seems to be adequate for maintenance. One thing to remember is these studies were limited in duration. It’s less clear whether training once a week will maintain strength gains indefinitely.
Nutrition is Important Too
Nutrition is no less important than training for maintaining muscle mass. The International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) Nutrition Working Group has identified nutritional factors that play a role in loss of muscle mass due to aging. These factors would also likely impact muscle maintenance.
Not surprisingly, you need adequate protein to preserve lean body mass. In older people, 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is sufficient based on current research. Depending upon how often you plan on training, this amount or slightly more would be reasonable. The IOF also points out that eating enough alkaline fruits and vegetables and not over-consuming acidic foods like red meat helps maintain healthy bones AND muscles.
In terms of other nutrients, vitamin D is a consideration. Avoiding vitamin D deficiency is vital since low levels of vitamin D are linked with muscle weakness and fatigue. One study involving over 400 healthy men and women found a correlation between vitamin D level and muscle strength that spanned all age groups from the twenties to seventies.
The Bottom Line
It takes less training volume to maintain muscle strength and mass than it does to build it, although if you’re over the age of 60, you may need to train more than once a week to maintain muscle gains. Just because you’re training less often doesn’t mean you should let up on the intensity or neglect nutrition. You’ll still need to train hard when you do train, get enough protein, fruits, vegetables and vitamin D. So, if you need to lighten up for a few weeks or a few weeks by necessity or because you need a break, you probably won’t lose your gains as long as you continue to train at least once a week.
Muscle for Life. “How to Maintain Muscle and Strength with Minimal Exercise”
J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2653-60. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31822dcd96.
Science Daily. “Which nutritional factors help preserve muscle mass, strength and performance in seniors?” (January 2013)
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Jan;45(1):157-62. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826c9a78.
Scand J Med Sci Sports. Apr 2010; 20(2): 182-190.
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