When you’re young or have lots of time on your hands, it’s easy to carve out 5-10 hours a week to hit the gym. Getting all your lifts in when you train 5-6 days per week makes achieving your hypertrophy goals quite straight forward. However, as you get older or your time becomes more limited, or if you’re simply looking for the most efficient hypertrophy program possible, the real question is… “how little time can you spend in the gym and still maximize your gains?”
This is a tough question, but I’m all about efficiency, so let’s take a closer look at consensus from the hypertrophy experts on what the “minimalist” plan looks like.
The first question to answer is how much training volume do you need, per week, to trigger lean muscle gains? The research is clear, higher training volumes (i.e. multiple sets) are superior to low-volume programs (i.e. one set) for stimulating muscle growth. (1) The question now is, how few sets do you really need to perform?
A recent meta-analysis examined the effects of low volume (less than 5 sets per week), moderate volume (5-9 sets per week), and high volume (10+ sets per week) on hypertrophy. They found performing at least 10 sets per week produced almost double the effect on muscle growth, compared to less than five. (2) Even the minimalist approach of less than 5 sets still produced reasonable gains at 5.4%.
This is great news for anyone struggling to carve out enough time between meetings, travel and/or kids to hit the gym as much as they would like. Shortening sessions or reducing frequency can also have the “side-benefit” of making your training more focused and intense. If you find your mind wondering at the gym, or if you’re growing stale with your program, it might be time to try a more efficient program.
The Bottom Line: There is a dose-response relationship between the number of sets you perform in a week and hypertrophy. The “sweet spot” between a minimalist approach and full-tilt bodybuilding program seems to be at least 10 sets per muscle group, per week.
Not having enough hours in the day is a common complaint for clients. Rather than cutting out precious sleep, perhaps it’s time to try a more efficient training program. Stick with compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, chin-ups and bench or military press to hit the most muscle groups possible and maximize hormone output. Then, add in some accessory lifts (i.e. smaller body parts) as time allows. The desired rep range should be between 8-15 reps, and training to failure (i.e. “feeling the burn”) is a key component of a hypertrophy regime.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS