How little can we do?

In strength and conditioning we often have a “more is better” concept. A minimalist approach, on the other hand, has many advantages and can help make sure we are efficient with training time. Rather than doing more, we can also try to get more out of the work we’re doing.

There are three ways a minimalist approach might materialize itself:

  • Increase training density (session/week) while reducing volume per session (i.e. spread the work over more short sessions).
  • Increase training volume while reducing density (i.e. train longer, but less frequently).
  • Reduce density and volume (i.e. train shorter and less frequently).

Which approach is the best? The answer depends a lot on how much our training stimulus our body needs. Before we start trying to do more with less, we have to understand at what point doing less will stop us from making gains.

Potential benefits of less strength training

Before we dive into the science of how much training we need, it is helpful to look a bit more about what benefits doing less can provide.

More time for skills and speed

As many sports match play gets faster, the need to develop the ability to execute skills at high speeds becomes more important. Just go back less than a decade in the NRL and you’ll see big, round props who could only carry the ball. Watching the modern game, you won’t see these types of players anymore due to the constant rule changes reducing substitutions. They have been replaced with leaner players that are also able to play the ball. The same is true in rugby union and other codes. Speed is more important than ever.

Less residual fatigue

In my experience, when a team is very tired, the first thing that is cut from the training schedule is strength training. Why? Because it is not as important as the technical and tactical work performed on the field. That doesn’t mean it’s not important at all, it means that performing enough strength training to make progress saves energy to be used during other areas of training.

Less competing adaptations

Team sports are categorized as mixed sports. Meaning they require large contributions from all three energy systems as compared to many stopwatch sports. Not only this, but team sports generally require the development of other physical qualities to be successful. We know that maximal strength training adaptations oppose high-velocity adaptations. Perhaps spending less total training time in the maximal strength training zone will allow these high-velocity adaptations to flourish such as the shifting of muscle fiber type, RFD, or decreasing co-contractions during fast movements.

How long can we maintain maximal strength?

So, how long can we maintain our strength and how little can we do to increase it? The common reference when it comes to retaining strength a physical quality without training it is Vladimir Issurin’s Residual Training Effect. With this term he is trying to identify how long certain physiologic qualities can be maintained after we stop training them. With maximum strength, for example, he writes about maximal strength that the residual training effect is 30 days, plus or minus five days.

When looking at the research in training cessation, we see findings that are similar to Issurin’s guidelines. Firstly, a 14-day cessation of exercise in 4 powerlifters and 8 former Division I American Football players saw no significant change in squat or bench press 1RM. These would be considered strong individuals with average squat and bench press 1RMs of 190 and 135 kg respectively.

When training cessation is extended to 5 weeks, elite kayakers experienced significant decreases in bench press and prone bench pull 1RMs. Similar findings were observed in the general population where after 10 weeks of strength training, a 20-week cessation from training was implemented. They found subjects retained 60% of their strength gains from the 10-week strength-training period. When individuals don’t have a large strength base, it seems they can retain their strength for longer up to 26 days.

How little can we do to maintain maximal strength?

We can learn a lot from research on training cessation but, lockdowns and injuries aside, rarely do we see such long periods without training in elite sport. In the elite sporting world, athletes will very rarely take more than two weeks off of training altogether. So the question becomes how little can we strength train and retain strength? Research in tapering can provide some insights. However, it’s important to note that the results after a taper is heavily influenced by the exercise performed before the taper and what is done during the taper.

Research by Garcia-Pallares and colleagues, as well as my own research, used one strength training session a week for a period with elite athletes. Garcia-Pallares et al were able to retain strength values in the bench press and prone bench pull 1RM, while de Lacey et al, observed large improvements in force and jump performance.

This difference is likely due to the exercise performed before the taper where Garcia-Pallares taper occurred after a competition so training loads were much lower beforehand whereas de Lacey performed their taper during a high-volume pre-season.

Overall, it seems that as little as one session a week may be enough to maintain maximal strength. The next question becomes, how little can we do in one session to retain this strength?

It is generally thought that more is better. The rationale is the volume-dose relationship observed in hypertrophy (to a certain point) which is often also thought to exist in strength. However, it seems that there may be an optimal dose at least in recreationally trained individuals where 5-10 sets per muscle group per week elicits the greatest strength adaptations.

In fact, performing one set a week of an exercise could even enough to improve maximal strength by 12 kg on average in resistance-trained individuals. Both Garcia-Pallares and de Lacey used 3 sets per muscle group each week which was enough to retain strength. However, these were short time frames so perhaps alternating blocks of lower volume with shorter blocks of higher volume strength training would assure no losses in strength.

So what can we take from this? As little as one to 10 sets a week per muscle group or movement is enough to stimulate improvements in maximal strength.

Hypertrophy can also be a goal of more frequent trainings, but some research has shown that even more frequent interventions often has only a small effect. Once at the professional level, it seems that a focus on gaining size may not be the best use of time if they’ve had adequate training at the academy level. Perhaps only certain athletes that are lacking size should have dedicated gym sessions for hypertrophy while others can focus on other areas of sports performance if this has been identified as a weakness.

My Thoughts

All of the discussion above leads us to the conclusion that we can probably lift a little less without sacrificing much in the realm of strength. Do I think then that you should minimize the time athletes spend strength training all year round? Definitely not. Certain periods of the year may call for 2-4 sessions a week depending on the sport and athlete. However, I think a too great of an emphasis can be placed on strength training at the expense of other physical and sporting qualities.

Eddie Jones mentions a similar philosophy on GAINcast 204: “You train the player for the game and then see what they need from S&C, rather than S&C defining the targets.” Similarly, in my recent principles of preseason planning article, I mention “physical preparation comes as the secondary work to the sport.”

Many sports are moving towards a similar approach as sporting rules change to make the game faster requiring higher skill levels. After an initial preseason period of 2-4 strength training sessions a week, I believe we could cut that down to 1-2 sessions a week of traditional strength training involving much shorter sessions with less overall volume. Some of the work can be simply reduced, while other work can be shifted on the field. For example, Reactive strength can be developed with plyometrics either inside or outside of the gym while strength in contact can be further developed through combat or tackle tech drills in conjunction with basic strength training. 

This shift doesn’t mean you don’t care about strength, but that you want to develop strength while still having enough time to focus on increasingly complex demands of elite sport. In my opinion, rethinking the traditional gym session and how much is really enough is a key in getting solving the modern performance equation.