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How Much Exercise Do You Need to Maintain Muscle and Strength Gains? (The Answer May Surprise You!)

Maintain Your Gains

It's happened. You've put in the time and the effort. You've made the sacrifices. You've worked through blisters, soreness, fatigue, and boredom. You did your cardio. You ate your protein. You drank your water. You took a lot of selfies. You ate so many veggies, you've started to turn green. You've sweated so much in the squat rack your gym had to call maintenance to clean it up. And now you look in the mirror and, miracle of all miracles, you like what you're seeing. No. You downright love it. There's a goddess before you! A strong, sexy WOMAN (or MAN!). But...what next? You love how you look and feel, but do you have to keep this breakneck workout pace for the rest of your life? What should your workouts look like now? How do you keep the level of strength and muscle you've gained? How do you maintain your #gainz?

Christmas Comes Early!

First off, congratulations are in order. Lean muscle mass is tough to put on, especially for most women. So, if you're at a place where you're happy with your strength and muscle size, way to go! Chances are you've been putting in 3-4 days of lifting a week to get the results you're enjoying now. And I've got some fabulous news for you: Research suggests that lifting around once a week can help you maintain your gains, and maybe even get some more! As long as you hit all the major muscle groups once a week with appropriate volume and the same exercise intensity, you can keep filling out those jeans you bought to accommodate your new booty!

What Do You Mean by Volume and Intensity?

Let's say you're performing seated shoulder presses 3 times a week. You use 15 lb. dumbbells and do 4 sets of 12 reps each on each day. You can probably maintain the muscle mass you have now by only doing shoulder presses once a week, instead of 3 times. (!!!) However, you need to continue to do appropriate volume (4 sets of 12, maybe a little more) with the same intensity (15 lb. dumbbells). If you drop to 8 lbs. and only do one set of 12, you probably won't maintain your current mass and strength.

Is This For Reals?

You don't have to take my word for it. In a 1993 study by The University of Alberta, Edmonton, rowers made considerable strength gains by lifting weights 3 times a week for 10 weeks. The rowers were then split into 2 groups and performed maintenance muscle and strength workouts for the next 6 weeks. One group lifted twice a week, while the other group lifted only once a week. Amazingly, both groups maintained strength, and even made some gains. But they both performed at equal levels! This suggests that lifting once a week will give you the same maintenance results as hitting it twice a week. And who doesn't want an extra free day?

What About Every Other Week?

Although it doesn't seem like much of a difference, research suggests that training less than once a week can result in muscle and strength loss. A 2011 study by Lillehammer University College, Norway had professional soccer players lift twice a week for a 10 week period before the soccer season started. Once the season was underway, half the players continued to lift once a week, while the other half lifted every other week. Although these were fit, extremely active athletes, the group who lifted once a week was able to maintain their muscle and speed gains, while the other group lost theirs.

A Caveat: How Old Are You?

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From the Organic Authority Files

The one fly in the ointment: Age seems to have an impact on how often you need to hit the gym if you want to keep packing your current guns. In a 2011 study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham two groups of participants lifted weights 3 times a week for 16 weeks. The first group was younger, ages 20-35, and the second group was older, ages 60-75. Of course, marked gains in muscle mass and strength were made by both groups. But when they switched into a 32 week-long maintenance mode, something interesting happened. They divided both the younger and older participants into 3 groups. The first group stopped training altogether. The second group reduced their strength training to one-third (around twice a week) of the amount they had been performing. And the third group reduced their strength training to one-ninth (around once a week) of the amount.

Unsurprisingly, the first group who didn't lift lost muscle mass and strength, regardless of age. But the younger participants in the second group actually continued to make gains while working out twice a week and maintained by hitting it once a week. Unfortunately, the older participants were only able to maintain their gains. And the participants who worked out twice a week were able to maintain better than those who only lifted once.

The Bottom Line

Of course, fitness isn't a one-size-fits-all. You have to do whatever works best for your body and lifestyle. But as long as your nutrition and cardio output stay the same, hitting all your major muscle groups once a week (but no less!) should help you maintain your beautiful muscle and strength gains. If you're finding that you're having a hard time keeping that hard earned muscle mass and you're 35 or older, you might want to up your strength workouts to twice a week.

And what will you do with your extra days?!? You could take your kids to the park, stretch out on the couch with trashy magazines, cook a delish meal, clean out that crammed closet, check out a Zumba class, or a treadmill class, or a HIIT class, or a aerial fabric class, or hit those glutes again, or just do one extra quick set of leg presses, or biceps, or...

Sorry, sorry! It's possible I might be slightly obsessed. Weights are so much fun! Happy lifting!

Follow Sarah on Facebook: This Fit Mom

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Strong Woman Photo via Shutterstock

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