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I'm not an athlete – I just want to be healthy and fit with decent muscular strength.

What's the minimum amount of strength training that will yield a measurable benefit?

For instance, sitting down once a month on one fitness machine for 5 minutes won't likely yield a benefit ... I'm assuming! On the other hand, training a couple of hours each day with multiple sets, repetitions, etc. on most of the different machines available probably would yield a benefit.

Optimizing for time, what would be a reasonable minimum in terms of number of times per week, # sets & reps, variety of machines, etc. where strength training will still yield a positive benefit, in terms of building balanced body muscle, and not just maintaining what (little) muscle I've got?

What findings support the design of a strength training schedule & frequency?

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One thing that wasn't mentioned in the answers yet: Training everyday for multiple hours will probably lead to overtraining very quickly, with no benefits whatsoever. Just wanted to add that. –  LarissaGodzilla Mar 31 at 8:11

4 Answers 4

Most of the good answers given have touched on the exercises (and repetitions) you need to build muscles and strength.

That being said, none of the answers have touched on these: body weight exercises .

  • Pull ups and chin ups: Do 20 of these daily and in one month, you should noticeably see bulges on your lateral muscles (the upper part of your V-shape).
  • Leg up: Do 20 of these daily and in a month, you should see a decrease in your waistline.
  • Standing crunches: Do 40 of these daily for 2 months and you should begin to feel your pelvic muscles (with a low body fat, you should begin to see the V-shape on your lower abs).
  • Planks: A 1 minute plank a day will strengthen your core and relieve your back pain.

Add these to the suggestions given above and you will notice your muscles bulge in a relatively short time.

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The amount for different people varies, but if you can afford to train each body part once a week, there is strong evidence to suggest that this is more than enough to see gains over an extended period of time, well into old age.

If you pick compound exercises you can further reduce the time needed by training multiple bodyparts at the same time.

Here is an example of a workout I've used for some years https://gist.github.com/iolloyd/9805781 and seen plenty of gains. This has helped me to train for 100 metres and to play professional level rugby at the same time and see strength gains throughout the season. I'm now almost 44 and still improving. After some injuries and layoffs I've effectively used an abbreviated workout to lift 165 kilograms in the deadlift for 5 reps and improving.

Caveat: I'm not young and considered a hard-gainer.

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Can you please elaborate the training schedule in the link, you have provided? –  Freakyuser Mar 31 at 9:18
    
The training schedule is one that doesn't take up more than an hour in a week and returns the best gains per effort invested. It's a trade off between time and results. –  Lloyd Moore Apr 1 at 10:20

According to Body By Science, you can develop strength and cellular aerobic exercise with a 15-20 minute workout every 7-10 days. In fact, this book argues that more frequent exercise may even be counterproductive. Mind you, these brief infrequent workouts are quite intense and are design to simultaneously exhaust all four muscle fibers and drain their glycogen reserves.

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If it helps, I do about 1 hour 3x per week. You might be able to get away with 1 hour 2x per week and still make some gains--albeit a bit more slowly. The key to being efficient with your time is to perform exercises that recruit as many muscles at the same time time as possible. That also means no machines. We're talking free weights here.

A beginner's weight training program will consist of 5 exercises, split between two workout plans, with only three exercises per session. Common rep schemes are either 5 sets of 5 reps or 3 sets of 5 reps.

The top four exercises you will see are:

  • Squats (the foundation of barbell strength training)
  • Overhead press
  • Bench press
  • Deadlifts

and the remaining exercise will likely be (depending on what program you start with) either:

  • Barbell rows
  • or Power cleans

The two beginners programs that seem to be really good are StrongLifts 5x5 (SL) and Starting Strength (SS). Medhi (the guy behind SL) has been going on a salesmanship spree lately, so you will have a lot to ignore, but the core program he has works and works well. His is a 5 sets/5 reps scheme. Rippetoe (the guy behind SS) is a pretty down to earth kind of guy with a dry sense of humor. His book is very good as far as teaching technique and what to look for as a beginner. SS is a 3 sets/5 reps scheme.

So, you should be very effective at building strength using:

  • Free weight full body compound exercises (such as what was mentioned above)
  • 3 days, about 1 hour per day--and a full day of rest in between (very important)
  • 3x5 minimum, 5x5 maximum load
  • Progressive loading (adding 5 lbs each session on all the exercises)

I personally did the SL route for the past 11 weeks, but will be switching to SS after week 12. The primary reasons are that 5x5 is getting a bit heavy now and I'll appreciate the lighter load, and power cleans are fun and want to incorporate them into my workout.

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If you ever read practical programing you'll understand that 5x5 or texas method is a more advanced program from mark rippetoe and moving to 3x5 program wouldnt do you any good. –  DFG4 Aug 17 '11 at 3:57
    
Texas method is an intermediate program (weekly gains), as per the reference you cited. 3x5 program is doing me loads of good at the moment. I'll be riding that one until I hit intermediate levels (i.e. I can't increase weight every session). –  Berin Loritsch Aug 17 '11 at 12:54

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