Strength Training Plan For Building Muscle When You Have No Time
What should you do if you barely have any time to train?
You definitely shouldn’t do nothing!
Something is A LOT better than nothing.
In fact, a minimal plan may actually be the best plan you could follow.
The following post is adapted from a thread I had on twitter that went viral.
Read on to see how you could get better results by training less. Much less.
My own training mirrored what I’m setting out here, and I saw my results get better.
Read this with an open mind:
How to save a hell of a lot of time in the gym and get BETTER results for building muscle (backed up by science)
Most people are doing too many workouts, too many exercises per workout and too many sets per exercise.
1. Number of exercises
All you actually need is to hit the major movement patterns that will work all of your muscle groups:
- A squat pattern.
- A hip hinge.
- Vertical push.
- Vertical pull.
- Horizontal push.
- Horizontal pull.
This will mean you are doing all compound exercises. You should also add some calf and ab work (but not much!)
Now what most people do, is do 3 or 4 different exercises for each of the above, all for multiple sets. Then they add isolation (single joint) exercises on top and don’t allow their bodies to recover for long enough between workouts.
Doing 3 or 4 (or more!) exercises for each muscle group is totally unnecessary.
Your body has no idea what exercise it is doing.
All you need to do is take a muscle group to failure. Once you reach failure, you have created the stimulus for adaptation. You don’t need to go to failure again and again, then change to a slightly different exercise and do it yet again!
You just need to go to failure once. “Failure” doesn’t mean sacrificing your form until you can’t complete another rep. It means going until you can’t complete another rep *with good form*.
Adding more work for a muscle group after you’ve already reached failure does not create a bigger stimulus for adaptation, it’s just adding more stress and muscle damage that your body has to recover from. A bit like how you don’t get a better tan the longer you stay in the sun.
Resources for producing an adaptation (building muscle) now have to go towards just recovering back to the baseline. If you have any resources left (if you recover and eat well enough) THEN you will produce an adaptation.
In other words, adding this extra work hinders your body from building muscle.
This study analysed lots of other studies and saw that researchers consistently found there was no difference in muscle size or strength gains based on 1 set vs. multiple sets.
So if you want to save time, cut the number of sets you’re doing and just work to failure for 1 set!
6 main movements for 1 set each plus some calves and abs is going to DRASTICALLY reduce your gym time.
“But what about working in different rep ranges, how do you do that with just 1 set?”
Again, it makes no difference.
This study found no difference in strength or size gains for resistance trained men, based on the load used, as long as they worked to failure.
Many other studies have found the same. This one by Brad Schoenfeld analysed 21 others and found that hypertrophy gains were similar across a huge range of rep ranges.
This means you can pick a light weight and go to failure with it (very slowly, more on this later) and that will get you the same results as a heavier weight to failure. Light weights are preferable because your form will be better and you’ll be able to focus on the target muscles better.
So, working for just one set to failure is going to save you a ton of time and will potentially get you better results. This one change alone is going to save you a ton of time.
You can stop doing bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, dumbbell press, etc. for 3-5 sets. Instead, just pick one and work to failure for one set!
Note: You should use lighter weights and MUCH slower reps. Slash your weights in half and slow your reps down to about 8-10 seconds per rep (4 seconds up, 4 seconds down). Only hold at the top if it’s a pulling exercise, otherwise don’t hold at the top or bottom. Remember, heavier or lighter weights make no difference for hypertrophy as long as you work to failure, so do your reps like this to really get the most out of them! (time under load). You’ll feel an incredible difference!
2. Number of workouts
You build muscle OUTSIDE the gym.
Inside the gym, you break your muscles down. This is actually a catabolic event which your body perceives as a negative thing.
That’s why it responds by building muscle so it will be better equipped to withstand that stress in future.
But building muscle takes time and it happens when you’re in an anabolic state (building) and hormones like growth hormone are elevated (which is conducive for building muscle).
Most people are doing too many workouts and it hampers their ability to fully recover and build muscle. While the body is still adapting muscles are being hit again and the body goes back into a catabolic (breaking down) state and hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are elevated. This is not conducive for building muscle.
Seriously, you need to prioritise recovery
It generally requires AT LEAST 48 hours for muscles to be recovered – and for many people this could actually be more.
The science supports that 3x full body workouts on non consecutive days is enough, possibly leaving 72 hours between workouts, like this:
- Day 1: Full body
- Day 2: Rest
- Day 3: Rest:
- Day 4: Full body (72 hours after last workout)
- Day 5: Rest
- Day 6: Rest
- Day 7: Full body (72 hours after last workout)
Note: this is not a 7 day cycle. Days 8 and 9 would be rest days with Day 10 being the next workout day. The cycle would come full circle on day 22, which would be 3 weeks after the start date.
Leaving one day off between workouts involving the same muscle groups is usually thought to be enough. For example, Working out full body on Monday, then again on Wednesday. In this case there is only 48 hours of recovery. There could be even less recovery time (e.g. 36 hours) if the first workout was in the evening/night and the next workout was in the morning.
This is likely to be too frequent for most people. Younger and more genetically gifted individuals can probably do well with it, but for the majority it would be suboptimal.
Most people are neglecting recovery
For example, this study tested trained men and considered them to be recovered if they could match or beat their max rep set on bench press with an 8 rep max load. They found that only 20% of people had fully recovered after 48 hours.
Even after 72 hours 63% of the subjects (trained men) were not recovered but the test had involved 12 sets to failure (4 sets on 3 different bench press exercises), strengthening the point about lots of sets being overkill and cutting into recovery time.
In this study, 40% of the participants were recovered after 48 hours and 80% after 72 hours.
Here’s another study finding similar. 40% of the subjects (trained men between 18-30) were recovered after 48 hours and 80% were recovered after 72 hours.
When the test was increased from 3 sets to 7 sets recovery time was increased to 96 hours – more data supporting the view that doing more sets is not helping you.
Older people should prioritise recovery even more:
The above study also tested older men (50-65) and even after 96 hours 70% of these men were not fully recovered.
If you’re older, recovery becomes even more important.
What if you want to work out more often?
If working out 2-3 times per week doesn’t appeal to you and you prefer doing more workouts then an upper/lower split is the way to go.
Here’s how that would look:
- Day 1: Upper body
- Day 2: Lower body (upper body rests)
- Day 3: Rest
- Day 4: Upper body (72 hours since last worked)
- Day 5: Lower body (72 hours since last worked)
- Day 6: Rest
- Day 7: Upper (or rest to make a 7 day cycle)
How to put it all together
So you need ONE exercise that fits into each of these categories:
- Vertical pull
- Vertical push
- Horizontal pull
- Horizontal push
- Hip hinge
- Calf raise
- An ab exercise
This will train pretty much everything.
Do 1 set of 1 exercise per muscle group to failure, every 72 hours.
However, consider that whichever push/pull you train second will suffer from being worked when muscles have already been fatigued by a set to failure.
For example, if your upper body day contains bench press and overhead press, whichever one comes second will suffer as the muscles involved are the same/similar. If you did overhead press after bench press, your shoulders would not be worked as effectively as your triceps would have already been fatigued from the bench press.
Here’s how to get round that:
- 1 set bench press
- 1 set shoulder isolation (e.g. Lateral raise)
- Train shoulders first x1 set (e.g. Overhead press)
- 1 set chest isolation (e.g. Dumbbell fly)
And the same kind of set up for your pulling exercises.
Adding isolation exercises is not needed for muscles worked already by compound exercises
If muscles have already been worked to failure by compound exercises, there is no benefit to adding isolation exercises for those muscles – for example, adding biceps curls after chinups or triceps extensions after overhead press.
If your goal is simply hypertrophy for aesthetic benefits and the health benefits associated with having more muscle, then this information is all relevant and you should absolutely apply it to get better results in less time.
However, if your goal is to move as much weight as possible in specific lifts (e.g. you’re a powerlifter), you need to train those lifts with a high load.
The approach I have explained here will absolutely increase your strength. But lifting maximal loads in specific lifts is a skill that needs practise if you want to be as good as possible at it.
“But so and so does 20 sets per muscle group per workout…”
I know people will be VERY adamant that they need 5 sets of 5 exercises 5 days a week or whatever… after all “that’s what Jay Cutler/Kai Greene/whoever did, and they’re beasts!”
Well SOME people are outliers, others are extreme outliers… People who are blessed with the best genetics are those who become pro bodybuilders.
In all the studies looking at recovery time, there were a couple of people who recovered much quicker, and a couple who took much longer. Pro bodybuilders are the extreme outliers who recover much, much quicker – and unless they compete in natural bodybuilding (which all the famous ones don’t) then chances are high that they’re using drugs to enhance performance and recovery. What they do has absolutely no relevance to normal people.
Also, just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s the BEST approach… I know you made progress with lots of sets, but how do you know 1 set wouldn’t have worked just as well, or better?
Most people have only ever done multiple exercises for multiple sets. They learned it from X person, who learned it from Y person, who copied Arnold Schwarzenegger’s routine or some other routine in a bodybuilding mag that was based on a pro bodybuilder’s routine.
Give 1 set to failure a try, then let me know how it feels.
You’ll need to go slow.
USE A LOT LESS WEIGHT THAN USUAL (Like 50% less). Remember that study I linked earlier saying that load makes no difference for hypertrophy gains!
Lift this lighter weight slowly. Lower it for at least 4 seconds and raise it for at least 4 seconds on every rep (don’t dismiss this).
I guarantee you’ll find that one set a lot harder than any of your usual sets.
My experience with training like this
When my son was born and my job was busy, I was determined not to give up on working out.
I only had time to do the absolute minimum training.
I thought this would be enough to simply just slow my losses…. What actually happened was my results got better!
At first I maintained my muscle while getting leaner than ever before. This took around 6 months:
And then I continued to gain muscle once I started eating more food.
My training routine didn’t change for a year. I was doing 3 or 4 workouts per week of 20 minutes each (using the upper/lower split).
This has totally transformed my approach to training.
I now don’t stress about missing workouts and I generally tend to work out for 60-80 minutes per week (instead of 4-5x that amount!)
This has given me far more time to spend with my family and focus on my business.
I’ve also had NO injuries since switching to training with light loads for 1 set.
I’ll never go back to spending 4+ hours per week training.
If you are short on time, give this a go.
You’ll be able to still fit in your training and make progress even when life gets insanely busy! (Parents, I’m looking at you).
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