How much training does it really take to maintain muscle and strength? What types of workouts are most effective? Read on to find out!


We all know how much persistence and consistency it takes to get a great physique.

While some of us learn to enjoy the process, nobody ever said it was easy. It takes intense, regular work.

Now, how do things change once you’ve achieved the type of body you desire? Do you have to work just as hard to keep a good physique as you do to build one?

If that question doesn’t matter so much to you–if you’re like me and you just enjoy the fitness lifestyle–then maybe this one will catch your interest:

How can you maintain muscle and strength when you’re not able to follow your regular exercise routine?

Although some of us would love to be able to hit the gym 5 times per week without any unplanned breaks, year-in, year-out…life will inevitably throw us curve balls.

Staying in shape while traveling can be tricky. The holidays are notorious for messing with schedules (and diets). Family and work often take precedence over personal time.

Are you simply doomed to losing muscle and strength in such situations? Or is there an easy way to avert such problems?

Well, as you’ll see in this article, it’s much easier than most people think to maintain muscle and strength, and even continue to make gains.

Let’s get to it.

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How Much Exercise it Takes to Maintain Muscle and Strength

I have good news for you:

It’s much easier to maintain a good physique and level of conditioning than it is to get there.

How easy, you ask?

Well, consider a study conducted by the University of Alberta with competitive rowers. After 10 weeks of weightlifting 3 times per week, 18 varsity female rowers were split into two groups. Both groups then did 6 weeks of maintenance resistance training, with one group training once per week, and the other twice per week.

The results? Both groups improved their strength in two exercises they performed each week, and maintained strength in the four others in their routine.

Yes, that’s right–according to that research, you can maintain your strength training just once per week. And that’s not the only study demonstrating this.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham conducted a study wherein subjects lifted weights 3 times per week (9 sets per workout) for 5 months, and then were assigned to one of three groups for the next eight months:

  1. No exercise at all.
  2. One weightlifting workout per week that consisted of 9 total sets.
  3. One weightlifting workout per week that consisted of 3 total sets.

Over the course of the following 8 months, group 1 lost muscle (of course), but both groups 2 and 3 were able to maintain most of the muscle they had gained in the first part of the study, and even increase their strength.

So, what we can learn from these studies is this:

You can not only maintain muscle and strength training only 1-2 times per week, you can actually make gains.

Sure, you won’t be able to make the same kinds of gains as you can training 3-5 times per week, but you can do better than most people think.

The key takeaway here is that weekly workout volume is at least as important, if not more important than, workout frequency.

So, here’s the point that will come as a great relief to many:

Regardless of what’s going on in your life, if you can sneak away from the hustle and bustle for a couple hours per week, you can minimally keep your hard-earned gains.

Now, how do you best go about the training? What type of workouts will deliver the best results when you’re only training 1-2 times per week?

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The Perfect “Muscle Maintenance” Program

how to maintain muscle when not working out

When you can only train once or twice per week, what you do is very important.

If you’re in decent shape and simply hopped on some machines and got a pump, you certainly won’t make gains, and will almost certainly lose muscle over time.

The bottom line is when you reduce workout frequency, you have to increase volume and, most importantly, intensity (the amount of weight you’re lifting).

You also want to focus on exercises that recruit the maximum amount of muscle, which are the big compound lifts like Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, and Military Press.

I could delve into some more advanced physiology here to further explain the relationship between frequency, volume, intensity, and exercise choice, but let’s save that theory for another post and get to the practical.

Here’s how to get the most out of training twice per week.

Training Twice Per Week

When you can only train twice per week, I recommend you use one day to train your push and pull muscles, and another day to focus on your legs, with a little additional push.

The following workouts take about an hour to complete. Rest 2-3 minutes in between each set, and take at least one day of rest in between each (two days of rest between each is ideal, I think).

Day 1: Push/Pull

Deadlift: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Day 2: Legs & Additional Push

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Squat: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Hack Squat (sled, not barbell) or Leg Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

This is a brutally simple and effective workout. With it, you should expect to make gains, not simply remain the same.

It trains every major and minor muscle group in your body, and the emphasis on the 4-6 rep range focuses on inducing myofibrillar growth, which is ultimately what creates the big, strong, dense muscle that we all want.

As with any program, the most important factor in terms of making gains is progressive overload. That is, you have to keep adding weight to the bar as time goes on.

To do this, simply add weight once you hit 6 reps in a set. Go up 10 lbs, whether by adding 5 lbs to each side of the barbell, or moving up 5 lbs on dumbbells.

Training Once Per Week

If you can only train once per week, don’t despair–you can not only maintain muscle, strength, and conditioning, but you too can make gains.

The following workout hits every major muscle group in the body, and takes about 1:15 to complete. Rest 2-3 minutes in between each set. It’s hard, but very effective.

Squat: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Deadlift: Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press: 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Again, nothing fancy here–just heavy, compound lifting, hitting your entire body. Move up on your weights as described above.

So, if you’re short on time or just want to cruise for a bit and maintain your physique, I hope this article helps!

Do you have any other tips for maintaining muscle and strength? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!