You want to build muscle and get fit, so you know that you need to hit the gym and do some strength training. But as you plan out how you’ll meet your goals, you may be troubled by the eternal question: “How much strength training should I actually be doing?”
In truth, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma. It depends on many factors, including your aspirations and your current fitness level.
When it comes to strength training, it might be better to ask how you should be training, rather than how much.
In this article, we’ll discuss what the research has to say about the amount of strength training you should do per week to hit your fitness targets. You’ll also learn how to optimize those strength training sessions, to ensure you’re spending your time wisely!
Why you need strength training
If your goal is to grow bigger, stronger muscles, you should add strength training (also known as resistance training) to your workout routine.
Resistance training, which includes such activities as lifting weights or doing bodyweight workouts, is a challenging exercise that puts stress on your muscle fibers. These strenuous movements cause microscopic damage to your muscle tissues (sometimes called “microtears”).
When combined with the right diet and plenty of protein, your immune system responds to microscopic muscle damage by repairing those muscle fibers. As a result, they grow back thicker and stronger, ultimately leading to bigger and more capable muscles. This process is also referred to as “muscle hypertrophy.”
It’s not all about aesthetics or sheer strength, either: resistance training’s effects on your body composition are beneficial for many other facets of your health. For example, resistance training can help you improve your balance and posture.
Additionally, increasing or maintaining your lean muscle mass can also be good for your overall cardiometabolic health. The lean muscle mass that you gain from strength training can enhance your metabolism in many ways, which means that it may help reduce some of the most common risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
So, how much weight lifting is necessary to reap these rewards? At the end of the day, the amount of strength training you need depends on the kind of results you’re looking for.
How much strength training do you need to gain muscle?
The desire to increase your muscle mass is one of the most popular motivations for beginning strength training. But, to achieve the ideal outcome, how should you train?
A systematic review and meta-analysis focused on several studies that addressed this very topic. Through their analysis, they concluded that people should train their major muscle groups at least twice a week in order to maximize their muscle growth.
You may be wondering what these training sessions should look like. The guidelines can vary, based on who you’re talking to. For example, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing higher-volume multiple-set programs to maximize hypertrophy. In other words, they recommend that you should do multiple sets of a lifting exercise, with each set having multiple reps.
However, other researchers have found that low-load training can also result in similar gains if you reach failure (in other words, if you work out until the point when you physically cannot do another set).
In both cases, it seems that you can achieve promising results as long as the intensity of your workout is high, and you’re pushing your muscles to the point of stress.
Also, it’s important to note that your muscle gains may differ depending on the muscle groups you’re training. A 2022 systematic review evaluated the effects of moderate (12-20 weekly sets) and high (more than 20 weekly sets) training volume on young men with resistance training experience.
They found that there was no significant difference between the two approaches when it came to building the quadricep and bicep muscles — but there did seem to be a significant advantage to doing high-volume training for the triceps.
Finally, the number of training sessions you need can change depending on your current fitness level. Evidence suggests that untrained individuals (ie: people with no/limited weight-lifting experience) saw greater muscle hypertrophy when training than individuals with weight-training experience.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that people with weight-training experience can’t rapidly build muscle. The same study also found that trained participants were able to attain similar rates of muscle gain as untrained individuals simply by adding more training sessions to their routines.
How much strength training do you need to lose weight?
Resistance training definitely has a place in your weight loss plan. However, it’s important to note that you may want to focus on body recomposition rather than weight loss if you’re incorporating strength training into the mix.
Resistance training primarily leads to muscle gain (or the prevention of lean muscle mass loss). Because muscle is denser and heavier than fat tissue, this means that you may see a higher number on the scale even though your body composition is actually improving.
Additionally, losing fat depends primarily on your calorie intake. In order to lose fat, you should be in a caloric deficit — in other words, you should be eating fewer calories than your body burns in a day.
While strength training can certainly increase your caloric needs, it might not be enough on its own for weight loss. However, pairing your resistance training with the right diet can help you to decrease fat mass while preserving your lean muscle mass.
Case in point: The American College of Sports Medicine’s Position Stand recommends at least 200-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for long-term weight loss, but also states that resistance training doesn’t enhance weight loss; rather, it can increase fat-free mass. This is better for body recomposition rather than strict weight loss.
How much strength training do you need to maintain your general health?
Finally, strength training can go a long way in keeping you healthy as a whole. It’s especially effective if you pair it with cardiovascular workouts that keep your body moving and your heart working hard.
The American Heart Association recommends doing moderate- to high-intensity resistance or weight-training workouts at least two days per week, in addition to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
Other considerations for effective strength training
Make sure to factor in rest time
While heavy strength training can help you reach your fitness goals, it’s also important to schedule in days for resting. This allows your body the time it needs to properly recover from all of that hard work, which it needs for muscle growth. Scheduling a couple of days a week for rest can also help you avoid overtraining, which can increase your chances of burnout and even injury.
Don’t forget the importance of eating the right diet to make muscle gains
Exercise alone isn’t enough to make your body composition and health targets a reality. For best results, make sure that you’re eating the healthy and balanced meals that complement the work you’re doing in the gym.
The optimal diet for you depends on your goals. For example:
- If you want to gain muscle, you should prioritize eating plenty of lean protein and take in more calories than you burn.
- On the other hand, if you’re trying to lose weight, you should aim for a caloric deficit.
When combined with a proper diet, strength training can help you build muscle, gain strength, and improve your overall health. To optimize your success, perform strength training at least twice a week, making sure that your workouts are challenging and push your muscles to the max!