How to Exercise Once Per Week and Make it Count

Via Peters

If you had it your way, you’d work out every day of the week. A good training split will often have you training anywhere from three to five days per week, sometimes more. On a push-pull-leg routine, you can often get away with training six days for every one rest day. When you get even more advanced, you might find yourself expanding your “training week” to eight to 10 days to accommodate recovery needs or wild scheduling. But what about when life takes you in the opposite direction? 

Sometimes you find yourself stuck without the option of training at the frequency you normally would. Maybe you’re traveling, or are recovering from surgery and need to ease back into it. You know that there’s a dose-response relationship between exercise and gains — meaning, your body will adapt in response to the challenges you put it through. (1)

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When you first start training, you’ll make progress faster out the gate. If you train multiple times a week, it will become accustomed to that and likely need more intensity to keep making progress. Sometimes, though, you’ll only have time to train once a week regardless of your experience level. If you’ve only got the time in your schedule to work out once a week, maintaining your gains might be easier than breaking new ground. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless to work out just once a week.

What the Science Says

While not ideal, training infrequently will not destroy all the gains you’ve ever made. You’ll probably want to boost your frequency back up once you’re able. But the nice thing about maintaining your progress is that it requires much less effort than breaking completely new ground.

Volume and Frequency for New Gains

Especially when you’re aiming to build muscle mass, you’re generally going to find that the more you lift, the better your results. In general, you increase hypertrophy when you add volume to your weekly workout total. (1) Volume isn’t necessarily related to frequency — AKA, how often you work out.

You can perform four sets of 10 reps for a total of 40 reps in a single session, or you can perform two sets of 20 reps in two separate sessions. Your volume therefore stays the same even if the frequency changes. But typically, it can be hard to cram a week’s worth of the volume you need for muscle growth into a single weekly session.

A person wearing a bright, light blue training outfit performs walking lunges with dumbbells.
Credit: ORION PRODUCTION / Shutterstock

Intensity is important for muscle growth, too. All things being equal, stimulating a muscle to grow is tightly linked to how close you take your sets to failure. (2) Cashing in on some intensification techniques like drop sets, reducing rest time, or supersets are a great way to help jam this intensity into a single workout and make as much progress as you can. (3)

If your volume and intensity are high, your workout frequency is relatively less important to your progress. Still, the more experienced you get in the weight room, the harder it is in general to make progress. For example, as little as one hard set per week of leg presses have been shown to increase strength in untrained athletes. (4) But as your newbie gains slow down, it’s harder to keep building more muscle and strength.

Volume and Frequency for Maintaining Gains

Your strength and muscles can grow with a low training volume per muscle group per week. But once you’re more experienced, low volumes are more likely to help you maintain gains instead of building new ones. (1

Still, even for an experienced powerlifter, lower training volume or frequency isn’t the end of their gains. As few as three to six working sets of one to five repetitions in any of the competitive lifts can help you maintain your strength training in a pinch. An alternative is working up to a heavy single per day with two to three back off sets at a high rating of perceived exertion. This may produce less progress, but is still a viable option. (5)

With that in mind, sometimes maintenance is progress. It will keep you in a good position for when normal training resumes. Training at one-third to as little as one-ninth of your regular training volume can help maintain your muscle mass — at the very least, it’ll help you delay loss of muscle gains. (6) While that small volume will not delay muscle loss forever, doing something clearly helps when faced with the alternative of doing nothing. The same appears true for strength maintenance. Training at very low volumes can help you maintain your strength even more effectively than it can help you retain muscle. (6

How You Got Here

Once you’ve got some miles under your boots in training years, you know you need regular deload weeks. But training once a week for weeks on end initially seems like an impossibility. How could you ever get to the gym less often than once a week? But travel, injury, or the dreaded responsibilities of life may pry you away from your happy place for longer than you’d like.

Travel

A common reason for having a training week (or even weeks) condensed is when you’re on a heavy travel schedule. It’s one thing to be visiting a new gym and having to modify your program a bit.

But sometimes, you’re in such a hurry that you can’t actually get to the gym until the hustle and bustle is done. When you’re juggling all your travel plans, training often gets put on the back burner for the people and locations you’re dedicating time, money, and energy to visit.

Injury

Not all injuries stop you from training completely. With the go-ahead from your doctor, you may well be able to modify exercises or safely work around your injury. You might also need more time between workouts for recovery. Pulling back to a safe-mode style of training where you tick all the boxes for maintenance can be an option until you’re operating at full capacity once again.

Life Responsibilities

Although there are times where it seems like the gym is our life, responsibilities creep up as the years roll by. Tackling non-negotiable chores (food won’t cook itself), taking care of your kids, pets, house maintenance, school, work, or any number of personal responsibilities at some point might find themselves eating into your recreation time. No matter how seriously you take your gains, life often just comes first.

Factors to Consider for a Once-Per-Week Workout

When you’re forced to condense a training schedule into one day per week, you’ll need to start prioritizing certain training factors. Regardless of how much you want to pack in, there will only be so much time you can dedicate to one workout, during which you’re always going to be racing the clock of fatigue. When you combine those two things, triaging your goals for the time being is something to seriously consider. 

Time

Your workout length won’t necessarily increase just because you can only train once per week. With that in mind, most workouts are framed around a one to two hour time frame. This allows you to pack as much into your workout as you can without fatiguing to the point of poor form and ineffectively low intensity. Even if you have enough work capacity to stretch beyond two hours, think about the time you’ll be able to consistently commit to the single workout.

Accumulating Fatigue

It’s always a race against fatigue when it comes to training. Each exercise is another grain of sand slipping through the hourglass, accumulating more and more fatigue on the other side. When you’re trying to crank out a full body workout to maintain everything in one shot, you have to think about how each exercise, set, repetition, and loading scheme will affect the next. And even if you can complete your workout efficiently, think about the impact of fatigue and potential soreness on the rest of your day and week.

Scope of Training

Pairing together time and fatigue considerations, maintaining everything all at once becomes less and less feasible. For the biggest return on investment, select the most important attributes to hit in your high intensity workout of the week. That will help most when you return to normally scheduled training. For example, maintaining strength and muscle at the expense of a bit of cardio might be your preference.

How to Build a Good Workout

Your once-per-week workout will likely look vastly different than your full split style of training. To accomplish as much as possible, you should start looking at things from the perspective of movement patterns, muscle groups, energy systems, mobility, and overall conditioning.

Movement Patterns

Movement patterns such as the squat, lunge, hinge, or pressing are fundamental to almost every training program. They are so good because they cover an enormous amount of territory in terms of building strength, muscle, and improving mobility — or even conditioning — when programmed correctly. Figuring out which of the major movement patterns you need to incorporate into your single workout to best maintain your progress overall will be an important decision.

Muscle Groups

Muscle groups are another important part of designing your workout. You’ll need to figure out how to get a good amount of work accomplished by all your major muscle groups across the entirety of your body — before your gas tank hits empty.

Utilizing a movement pattern or two and some strategic set and repetition manipulation should allow you to get a good amount of focus everywhere you need.

Energy Systems

Energy systems are an integral part of all areas of your training. In weight training, you’ll usually be focused on the more immediate energy systems — the ones that help you lift heavy right away — like the phosphagen or glycolytic systems. Unless you’re going to be cross training and involving some serious long-distance cardio, some heavy resistance training followed by higher repetition work should be enough to attack each of these energy systems and maintain your progress.

Mobility

Mobility is the amount of controlled range of motion you have throughout your body. Each limb should be able to safely move around its joint enough to keep you exercising and handling life without any obvious imbalances. Selecting exercises that target all your major muscles (and by extension, joints) with an emphasis on full range of motion should keep your mobility in tip-top shape.

Conditioning

Conditioning is the bane of oh-so-many people in the weight room. Although not everyone wants to be winning a 100-meter dash, maintaining your conditioning will go a long way in making sure you don’t see a dip in performance once you return to normal training. Finding a way to challenge your lungs during this one workout will help you seamlessly transition back into your regularly programmed sessions.

The Once-Per-Week Workout

If you’re in a rough spot and can only get to the gym once per week (ideally for only a short period of time), a well thought-out, intense workout should keep you maintained across the board until you can get back into the groove. Accounting for movement patterns, muscle groups, energy systems, mobility, and conditioning in one workout is tricky, but it can be done.

The Workout

It may not feel like your normal workouts because this session will split your attention in many more directions. But this full-body workout should tick all the boxes and keep you ready for action once you’re back in the gym on a regular basis.

Each exercise is compound in nature, hitting the major movement patterns, muscle groups, energy systems, and some brutal conditioning by way of supersets. Maintain clean technique with full range of motion to keep your mobility centered in all this hard work. There’s even a ton of core focus from the dumbbell exercises.

If you’re a more advanced lifter, deploy strategies like drop sets, tempo training, and paused reps to increase the intensity of your once-per-week journey. That way, you don’t have to worry about accessing an arsenal of extremely heavy weights. Instead, you can boost the intensity without increasing the load.

Do More With Less

At one point or another, we’ve all been forced to take a step back from the high-intensity, high-volume training lifestyle that is near and dear to our hearts. When this happens, it’s easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and take time off completely — but it doesn’t have to be the case. 

If life is demanding that you train less than normal, some working out is almost always better than nothing. Maintain your gains by exercising how and where you can, even if it’s only once per week. With a strong focus on the fundamentals, a strategically implemented program can bridge the gap between your near-crisis level of low training and getting back to the gym with regularity.

References

  1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082. 
  2. Baz-Valle, E., Fontes-Villalba, M., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2021). Total Number of Sets as a Training Volume Quantification Method for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(3), 870–878. 
  3. Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 51(10), 2079–2095. 
  4. Burt, J., Wilson, R., & Willardson, J. M. (2007). A comparison of once versus twice per week training on leg press strength in women. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 47(1), 13–17.
  5. Androulakis-Korakakis, P., Michalopoulos, N., Fisher, J. P., Keogh, J., Loenneke, J. P., Helms, E., Wolf, M., Nuckols, G., & Steele, J. (2021). The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required for 1RM Strength in Powerlifters. Frontiers in sports and active living, 3, 713655.
  6. Bickel, C. S., Cross, J. M., & Bamman, M. M. (2011). Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(7), 1177–1187. 

Featured Image: Akhenaton Images / Shutterstock

How to Exercise Once Per Week and Make it Count

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