What Is The Minimum-Effective Dose For Gaining Muscle?
When you’re young or have lots of time on your hands, it’s easy to carve out 5-10 hours a week to hit the gym. Getting all your lifts in when you train 5-6 days per week makes achieving your hypertrophy goals quite straight forward.
As you get older, a lack of time, growing family and busy work days make it difficult to find enough time to train. The question then shifts to how little time can you spend in the gym and still maximise your progress?
To answer this question, you need to know how much training volume you need to perform, per week, to trigger lean muscle gain.
What the studies show
The research is clear, higher training volumes (i.e. multiple sets) are superior to low-volume programs (i.e. one set) for stimulating muscle growth. So how many can you do as a minimum and is it universal or subjective?
A recent analysis examined the effects of low volume (less than 5 sets per week), moderate volume (5-9 sets per week), and high volume (10+ sets per week) on hypertrophy. They found performing at least 10 sets per week produced almost double the effect on muscle growth, compared to less than five. This makes sense. As discussed more volume often leads to more progress.
What was interesting though was that the lowest set group (less than 5) still produced progress albeit less.
This is great news for anyone struggling to carve out enough time between meetings, travel and/or kids to hit the gym as much as they would like.
Shortening sessions or reducing frequency can also have the “side-benefit” of making your training more focused and intense.
30 Minutes of intense training across a handful of exercises, 3-4 times per week could be just the thing you need to make effective progress! It also allows for more recovery time, another casualty of busier schedules.
There is a dose-response relationship between the number of sets you perform in a week and hypertrophy. The “sweet spot” between a minimalist approach and full-tilt bodybuilding program seems to be at least 10 sets per muscle group, per week. The desired rep range should be between 8-15 reps.
Not having enough hours in the day is a common complaint for clients in midlife. Rather than cutting out precious sleep, perhaps it’s time to try a more efficient training program.
Stick with compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, chin-ups and bench or military press to hit the most muscle groups possible and maximise muscular adaptations to training. The minimum-effective dose can still take you a long way in your training gains in midlife. The key should be to maintain consistency over as prolonged period of time.
If you are truly pushed for time, you need roughly 1/3 of the training volume per muscle group to MAINTAIN you muscle. Something to consider. Maintaining is better than losing.