Joined a gym? These 6 exercises, once a week, will make you stronger.
This 15-minute weight-training routine uses common gym equipment and will build strength at any age
Lifting weights once a week for about 15 minutes, using six basic moves, could be all the resistance exercise most of us need to build and maintain full-body strength, according to a big study of muscles, might and practical time management.
The study followed almost 15,000 men and women, aged from 18 to 80, for up to about seven years and found that performing once weekly a stripped-down weight-training routine, focused on machines available at almost any gym, increased people’s upper- and lower-body strength by as much as 60 percent, whatever their age or gender.
The results suggest that a surprisingly small amount of weight training can produce outsize strength gains for most of us, but they also raise questions about why, then, so few of us ever lift at all.
The benefits of weight training
Being strong is “obviously important” for health and long-term well-being, said James Steele, an exercise scientist at Solent University in Southampton, England, who led the new study.
Strong people tend to live longer, for one thing. A 2022 review of studies about resistance training found that men and women who undertake strength training, no matter how infrequently, were about 15 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who did not lift.
Resistance exercise also can reduce anxiety, aid in weight control, maintain and build muscle mass, improve thinking, control blood sugar, help prevent falls, and generally bulk up our metabolisms and moods, other studies show. These effects often equal those of endurance activities, such as walking or cycling, and in some respects, especially related to muscles and metabolic health, may exceed them.
But many of us rarely lift much more than a finger. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than a third of American adults say they regularly complete strength training at least two days a week, and the actual total is probably lower, because that number relies on people telling researchers about their exercise habits.
Knowing that people who rarely work out typically tell researchers they have too little time, Steele began wondering about how little resistance training might be enough for average exercisers. Some past studies had suggested relatively small amounts of weekly lifting increase strength. But most of those studies had been brief and on a small scale, and had involved men, typically young.
Fortuitously, Steele heard about a large cache of weight-training data available from a health club chain headquartered in Europe specializing in weight training for everyone. Its program consists exclusively of clients visiting once a week, performing six weight-training exercises under the supervision of a trainer, recording how much weight they lift, and going home.
The regimen did not vary from week to week or year to year, although the weights lifted would rise as people’s strength grew.
Now, Steele asked for and received anonymized data about 14,690 men and women, ranging from late teens to 80s in age, who belonged to the club and attended weekly for up to about seven years. (The health club chain, fit20 International, provided data but had no other input into the study’s analysis or conclusions, Steele said.)
6 weight exercises, just once a week
Each person’s weekly program was consistent and simple. They completed one set each of six common exercises, in order: the chest press, pulldown, leg press, abdominal flexion, back extension, and either hip adduction or abduction (alternating these hip exercises from week to week), using machines available in most gyms.
During each exercise, people lifted the weight for 10 seconds and then returned the weight to its starting position during an additional 10 seconds, making sure to breathe throughout.
They repeated each set on an individual machine until they reached what researcher call “momentary failure,” meaning “they felt as if they could not immediately complete another repetition with proper form,” Steele said.
Trainers tracked people’s lifts and added weight once someone could easily complete more than about six repetitions of an exercise.
The entire routine, with about 20 seconds between one machine and the next, required about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how many repetitions of each exercise someone managed, once a week.
A 15-minute weekly routine for more strength
This small time commitment resulted in substantial strength gains, Steele found, especially in the beginning. During the first year of lifting, most people’s strength grew by about 30 to 50 percent, based on the weights they could manage during each workout.
After that, almost everyone’s gains leveled off, with most adding perhaps an additional 10 or 20 percent, overall, to their muscular strength in subsequent years.
Wondering if this plateau might be avoided if people switched up and varied their weight workouts, Steele next checked an online database about competitive powerlifters, who presumably altered their training often. They, too, showed ample strength gains in the beginning and then a stark leveling off after a year or so.
These findings indicate there are limits to how strong we can become.
“Adaptation is likely finite,” said Jeremy Loenneke, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of Mississippi who studies muscles and strength and was not involved with this study. “Individuals can improve, but the amount they can improve will get smaller and smaller.”
At the same time, we probably can reach our full strength by working out just once a week, if we are consistent, the study suggests.
“I do think the single-set-to-failure training protocol — doing as many reps as possible with that load — would be adequate to induce changes in strength for the majority of the population,” Loenneke said.
We may, however, lose some potential benefits by aiming for the least possible lifting. The study did not look, for instance, at muscle mass, so we do not know if this routine would help us build or maintain bulk.
It’s also possible that some people (okay, some people like me) would become bored by the same precise workout performed every week for years.
“Maintaining motivation is important,” Loenneke said. “There might not be a physiologic reason why switching up a training program would help break a plateau, but perhaps there is a psychological one.”
Still, for those of us entering the new year with a firm resolve to get stronger, these six exercises, once a week, represent a scientifically valid place to start.
“It’s not the only route” to greater strength, Steele said. “But most people are going to get to where they should be” by following this simple, minimalist routine.
Do you have a fitness question? Email YourMove@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.
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