- When it comes to muscle-building exercise, less is more, according to a trainer.
- There’s evidence you can make gains in one or two workouts a week with about 10 sets per muscle group.
- While more effort can sometimes mean more benefits, you can make progress without long hours in the gym.
You don’t need to spend hours in the gym to see results. You can build muscle in as few as one or two workouts a week, according to a conditioning expert and the latest exercise science.
By focusing on compound movements, efficient workout sets, and enough rest, you can max out your gains with minimal effort.
You can build muscle with less exercise than you think, experts say
Long or excessively frequent workouts may do more harm than good for gains, Mike Boyle, a strength and conditioning coach, told Insider.
“If anyone is lifting for more than an hour, they’re probably doing way more than they need to,” he said.
He recommends three sets of 10 reps each as an effective baseline workload. For overall muscle growth, opt for compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at once, such as squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and presses.
Repeating this formula twice a week on your target muscle groups is plenty, Boyle said.
Even in professional bodybuilding, “there are very few people who work each group more than twice a week,” he said. “Less probably equals more when it comes to strength and hypertrophy.”
Research also supports working smarter, not harder. Roughly 10 sets per muscle group per week could be considered the minimum for optimizing muscle growth, and athletes may benefit from less, said a position paper from the International Universities Strength and Conditioning Association published in August.
As little as one session a week may lead to results, the researchers wrote. They recommended no more than 10 sets per muscle group in a single workout; any more than that should be spread across days.
Evidence suggests, however, that a higher volume might be helpful for working on muscle imbalances or weaker areas.
Too much exercise can backfire
Research suggests that more time exercising doesn’t always lead to more gains.
Despite what celebrities or influencers might suggest, it’s not always effective to exercise muscle groups five times a week or with twice-a-day workouts.
You might even stall progress by overworking, since too much exercise deprives your muscles of the rest they need to grow, experts previously told Insider.
To build strength and muscle, increase your training intensity over time
The amount of exercise you need for gains also depends on your experience level. As you progress in fitness, you’ll need to continue challenging yourself to see improvement.
As a result, more experienced athletes may need to put in more work than gym newbies. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to longer hours — you can also add intensity by increasing the weight you lift, improving your form, or performing more-advanced versions of movements.
It can be helpful to aim for the minimal effective dose of exercise, since the more gradually you ramp up your intensity, the less overall work you’ll need to do to see results, Chris Duffin, a powerlifter, previously told Insider.
Be realistic about aesthetic goals, and celebrate strength gains
One important caveat in building muscle to create a sculpted physique is that how you look is related to factors beyond how much you work out or which exercises you do. Genetics, for instance, can make a difference in how people gain muscle.
“Some people respond to just about everything, and some people are going to have a hard time with just about everything,” Boyle said.
It can be discouraging and unhelpful to compare yourself to fitness influencers or celebrities, especially when you don’t know their circumstances, he said. Instead, focus on what you can control: getting progressively stronger and working toward the best version of yourself.