by Bret Contreras August 04, 2010
When I was in graduate school, I was a pretty busy guy. I was teaching high school mathematics during the day and attending grad school at night. I started reducing my training frequency, volume, and duration and noticed that it didn’t impact my strength levels too much. This caused me to experiment to see “how low I could go” in terms of training frequency, volume, and duration while maintaining my strength levels. Some of the readers may be old enough to remember the preachings of the late Ayn Rand-obsessed Mike Mentzer and his Heavy Duty Training (HDT) philosophy, or perhaps HIT Training espoused by Stuart McRobert who wrote the book Brawn.
At first I cut down to three thirty minute sessions per week. When I found that my strength levels didn’t suffer, I cut down to two twenty-five minute sessions per week and again found that my strength did not suffer. I then cut down to one thirty-minute session per week. It turned out that this was too low and caused me to lose strength. Finally, I switched to one thirty-minute session per five days and found that I could indeed hold onto my strength and size. I stuck with this methodology for around 4 months and saw no strength or hypertrophy decrements.
Gaining strength is very tough and requires hard work and determination. However, if you ever find yourself overwhelmed and are considering giving up on strength training for a period of time, before you quit please consider switching to a low-volume, low frequency, high-intensity routine. Although as humans our physiologies differ and our “ideal routine” may differ, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the maintenance-results you can achieve through this type of routine.
I should mention that this routine was very difficult for me to stick to due to the fact that I love to train! One of the many reasons why I work out is to reduce stress and feel productive. I prefer to train more frequently and I believe that if you’re trying to gain muscle or strength then you need to train more frequently than the HIT/HDT crowds suggest. However, as many know I enjoy “experimenting” in order to learn more about strength training (which requires that we get out of our comfort zones from time to time).
In case you’re wondering, here’s the routine I performed (it was around eight years ago):
warm-up (5 minutes)
full squat – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3
bench press – 45 x 5, 135 x 5, 225 x 3
strength training portion (around 25 minutes) – do one superset and then rest around 3 minutes before doing the next superset
A1: full squat – one set to failure with 275 lbs (around 10 reps)
A2: bench press – one set to failure with 245 lbs (around 8 reps)
B1: deadlift – one set to failure with 405 lbs (around 10 reps)
B2: chin up – one set to failure with 70 lbs (around 3 reps)
C1: military press – one set to failure with 175 lbs (around 6 reps)
C2: one arm row – one set to failure with 160 lbs (around 10 reps)
D1: barbell walking lunge – one set to failure with 225 lbs (around 16 steps)
D2: hanging leg raise – one set to failure with bodyweight (around 30 reps
* I hadn’t thought up barbell hip thrusts yet, otherwise I’d definitely have thrown those into the mix for increased end-range hip extension strength and glute gains. Knowing what I know now, I’d have paired hip thrusts with military press and walking lunges with one arm rows and ditched the hanging leg raises.
This routine was damn brutal! It would take several days to be able to muster up the energy and motivation to want to give it another go but I found that I could consistently repeat or beat the previous performance from month to month. In truth I probably gained in “high rep strength” but I bet that my “limit strength” or 1-RM on the various lifts decreased a little as I didn’t train super heavy while on this program. I wonder if my performance would have eventually peaked but I’ll probably never know because truthfully this program made me hate high reps for lower body lifts because trying to tie or beat your record on subsequent performances is brutal. So I’ll probably never go back to a focus on higher reps. The HIT crowd recommends alternating “cycles” and choosing new exercises or backing off and “starting over,” but I never went that route. Their route probably would have been more effective but again, I was experimenting and trying to control as many variables as possible.
The point of this blogpost is not to get you to switch over to HIT or HDT, it’s to make you realize that if you ever find yourself overworked or simply drained of working out 3-6 days per week, there’s a viable alternative that can allow you to maintain (or even improve upon) your performance while only training once every five days or so. Many people are accustomed to multiple sets and can’t “get a lot” out of one set. As your physiology and coordination adapts, you get really good at doing one set to failure on this type of program. *Disclaimer: Obviously beginners respond best to more volume and frequency as they are weak and uncoordinated/neurally inefficient and don’t get taxed as much from a metabolic, muscular, neural, endocrine, and immune system perspective.
So next time you feel overwhelmed and find yourself wanting to quit training, just remember that you can keep your hard earned gains by training very infrequently (albeit extremely intensively).
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