The Absolute Minimum Amount You Can Weight Train and Still Get Results

| Fitness

When weight loss is your goal, your mind is probably focused on one thing when it comes to exercise: cardio. That's how you burn calories best, right? Or maybe you tried hitting the weights and couldn't move your arms and legs for three days, so you swear you'll never do that again.

But Greatist answers the question: Is it really worth it to strength train, even only one or two times a week?

Why You Should Lift

We won't be the first to tell you there are plenty of good reasons to hit the weight room—even if your goal isn't to build arms like The Hulk (and after seeing this guy, do you even want to?). Strength training can improve physical performance, movement control, walking speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, and self-esteem. Plus, it can reduce blood pressure, enhance cardiovascular health, and decrease chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

Gaining strength also minimizes your chance of getting hurt. “You’ll increase bone density and strengthen the tendons and ligaments, so not only are you simply able to lift more weight, but you’re also building resistance to injury,” explains Michael Boyle, a strength and conditioning coach and functional training expert in Boston.

And while you may think cardio is key to losing weight, a study found that men who did 20 minutes of weight training each day saw a smaller increase in belly fat as men who spent the same amount of time doing cardio. In another study, 10 weeks of resistance training was shown to increase lean weight by 1.4 kg (about three pounds), increase resting metabolic rate by 7 percent, and reduce fat weight by 1.8 kg (about four pounds). So if you're trying to slim down, it may be time to say so long to the treadmill—and hello to the weight rack.

woman doing a tricep workout with free weights

One and Done?

Research also suggests that a once-weekly strength training frequency can be just as effective on improving muscle strength as a more rigorous schedule. This small study followed two groups of adults over 60—one group performing a set of strength training exercises to muscular fatigue once per week, and a second group that exercised twice per week—and found that substantial strength gains can be derived from less frequent activity.

Trainers agree there are definite benefits to workouts on a limited schedule. “I have clients who only strength train once or twice per week, and they still see some significant results in strength,” says Noam Tamir, a Greatist expert and founder of Tamir Systems Fitness. “Most of this can be attributed to neural adaptation, which means that your nervous system is adapting to added force, even if nothing is happening to muscle size.”

“Full-body functional strength training can be super effective once or twice a week,” agrees Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician and author of Running Strong. In fact, Metzl created a series of programs for runners training for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon distances that incorporate a strength workout just one day per week. And he’s experienced the benefits personally: As Metzl has incorporated one day of functional strength training—think bodyweight exercises—into his own marathon and Ironman training plans, he’s broken his personal best times.

heavy weights

To be fair, one or two days of lifting per week is probably not getting you anywhere near those Hulk-esque arms—but that's OK. Strength training isn’t just about “bulking up,” Metzl explains. “Instead, it helps your muscles get stronger, improves your balance, and preserves your fast-twitch muscle fibers, allowing your muscles to contract faster.” Translation: This helps you drive the golf ball farther, hit an overhead harder, and see improvements in any sport performance.

Strength training also increases endurance, or lactate threshold—the amount of time it takes for your muscles fatigue, Metzl says. This means the amount of exercise you’d have to do to make your muscles so sore you can’t use them efficiently (i.e. that painful soreness after hitting the weights when you do so sporadically) increases the more you lift.

An added bonus for people training for endurance races such as marathons or triathlons: Even though their time is already limited, adding anaerobic (strength) training one or two times per week helps the body handle the repetitive stress of movements like running, cycling, or swimming, Tamir adds.

woman doing a push up with two free weights at the gym

What if you’re not doing any sort of exercise outside the one or two trips to the gym? “For the average person, strength training once or twice a week is enough to break the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle,” says Rebecca Golian, a personal trainer and creator of the Obstacle Course Race Training Program at Chelsea Piers in New York City. “It’s enough to stimulate muscle growth, increase cardiovascular strength, and help improve endurance.”

To read the verdict on what you should really be doing, check out the original story on Greatist here.

Ready to give weights a shot? Watch the Beginner's Guide to Strength Training with Real Mom Model Crystal below: