Due to our work schedule, family commitments, and other life obligations working out and getting in shape is often the first thing that gets cut from our priorities. We get into a mental trap and convince ourselves that if we can’t work out 3-5 times per week then it’s not worth going to the gym at all. But, is this true?
Can you get stronger lifting once a week? You can get stronger lifting once per week if the workout involves high-intensity, high-volume protocols that focus on total body, compounded exercises. With a single workout per week, you’ll need to prioritize only the most important exercises and continue to progress either sets, reps, or load from workout-to-workout.
If you can only workout once per week there is little room for mistake. There are specific protocols you need to follow in order to maximize your strength and progress in the gym. In this article, I’ll break down the science behind a low-frequency training program, and exactly what you need to follow to get results.
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Finding A Strength Training Program That Fits Your Own Individual Situation
It’s important to recognize the difference between “ideal training” and the “training that fits your own individual context”.
Ideal training is the type of training that professional athletes aim to follow.
They structure their entire life around the most optimal workout schedule, which includes all aspects of weight training, nutrition, and recovery.
This is vastly different than the type of training that fits your own individual context.
Because we’re not professional athletes, we don’t have the luxury to structure our entire lives around optimizing every single variable of our workout routine. This is totally okay because we’re also not expected to reach a level of peak fitness that requires us to win and earn a living on the basis of our physical abilities.
Therefore, when finding a strength training program, we need to look at our own individual context rather than comparing ourselves to professional athletes or those who simply have more time to dedicate to training.
If our individual context only allows us to train once per week, despite it being less than what’s ideal, it can still contribute to positive strength outcomes. As I’ll detail later in this article, there is scientific research that shows support for a low-frequency training program.
But before diving into the research, I want to discuss factors that you have to consider when only working out once per week.
4 Factors to Consider When Only Working Out Once Per Week
Here are 4 factors you need to consider on a low-frequency training program:
1. Your economy of training is lower
Your ‘economy of training’ refers to the number of available resources you have to spend in the gym.
Naturally, if you only have one hour once per week to work out there are far fewer resources than someone who can spend two hours three times per week in the gym.
As a result, the exercises you choose and the protocols you implement become increasingly more important. You have to be selective and only choose the things that you believe are going to get you the strongest given the resources you have.
Takeaway: you don’t have any room for ‘extra work’ that doesn’t move you closer to your goals.
2. Can’t do as many exercises per muscle group
Due to the economy of training, you can’t do as many exercises within a single workout. Therefore, you’re going to get fewer exercises per muscle group overall.
I’ll explain later why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this will cause you to prioritize only the most effective exercises for building strength.
For example, on a multi-day per week program, there are sometimes days specifically focused around ‘calves’, ‘abs’, or other isolation movements. On a one-day per week program, you simply don’t have the resources to waste on anything seen as ‘non-vital’.
Takeaway: you need to be selective on the exercises you choose, which may mean cutting some isolation movements.
3. You might hit a strength plateau sooner compared with people who have the capacity to train more
A strength plateau is where you fail to increase your lifting numbers beyond a specific level for an extended amount of time.
Everyone who works out long enough will experience a strength plateau. Some of the ways to break through a plateau are to increase either one or all of the following variables: frequency, volume, or intensity.
Frequency: The number of times per week you train a specific muscle group or exercise.
Volume: The overall amount of work you do across a specific exercise (measured by your total number of sets and reps).
Intensity: The amount of weight you lift (measured by a percentage of your rep max).
Because you’ll only be training one time per week, it will inhibit your ability to drastically increase your frequency, volume, or intensity, given your available resources. Later in this article, I’ll discuss how you can continue to train on a one-day training split and avoid hitting a strength plateau.
Takeaway: You can still train for a long time before hitting a strength plateau, but once you do, breaking through it may be difficult on a one-time per week program.
Related Article: Strength vs. Power: 5 Main Differences You Should Know
4. Every set counts because there is less room for ‘having a bad workout’
When you train one-time per week, you don’t have the luxury to take it ‘easy’ on a single set if you’re having a bad workout.
For example, let’s say you have two lifters.
Lifter #1 trains 12 sets of chest across two workouts per week.
Lifter #2 trains 6 sets of chest on one workout per week.
Let’s say lifter #1 is having a bad day in the gym. They can afford to take a few sets ‘easy’ because across the week they are getting 12 total sets of chest.
If you compare this with lifter #2 who only trains once per week, because they only have 6 total sets of chest, there’s no option for them to ‘take it easy’ and make it up on another workout.
Therefore, when you go into the gym for the single workout of the week every set must count and there’s no room for error.
Takeaway: You must treat every set with the utmost importance.
Related Article: How Many Times Per Week Should You Max Out?
Two Studies: What Does The Science Say About Low-Frequency Training Programs
My goal now is to convince you that you shouldn’t just ‘skip’ the gym because you can only train once per week.
If all you have is one day per week to go to the gym, so long as you focus on the correct protocols, you can still see significant improvements in strength.
Here are two studies that show a single training session per week can have a meaningful impact on your strength and overall performance in the gym.
Study #1: Comparing 1-Day and 3-Day Per Week Training
McLester et al. (2000) set out to compare a 1-day vs. 3-day training routine.
One group of participants trained 3 days per week and the other group trained 1 day per week. Despite the difference in training frequency, volume was held constant between each group.
For example, one group trained 1 day per week doing 3 sets to failure (1-day split) and the other group trained 3 days per week doing 1 set to failure (3-day split). The volume under these two scenarios are the same.
This protocol was followed for 12-weeks and athlete’s 1 rep maxes were tested before and after.
The results were:
Upper-body strength increased 53% for the 1-day split group and 62% for the 3-day split group.
Lower-body strength increased 58% for the 1-day split group and 63% for the 3-day split group.
As you can see, both groups had progressed. Yes, the 3-day split had more favorable results, but the 1-day split still had significant strength outcomes.
If you were looking at this data as a high-performance strength coach, you would conclude that perhaps shorter, more frequent training sessions are advantageous for your athletes.
But remember, we are not professional athletes looking to maximize every small detail of our training program.
Key takeaway: Even a 1-day per week training split can lead to significant strength gains of up to 53% for the upper body and 58% for the lower body.
Study #2: Going From Training 2-Days to 1-Day Per Week
Graves et al. (1988) set out to understand whether reducing someone’s training frequency from working out either 2 or 3 days per week to 0, 1 or 2 days per week had any effect.
The results of this study are critical to understand for those who might have trained several times per week in the past but can now only train once per week.
As expected, those who went from regular training to zero training lost an average of 68% of their strength over a 12-week timeframe.
However, the strength of those who reduced their training frequency from 2 days to 1 day per week were not statistically different. This means that, for at least a 12-week timeframe, even training once per week can maintain your strength.
Takeaway: If all you have is 1 day per week to train, the consequence of not training is a 68% loss in strength, whereas the benefit is maintaining what you’ve already built.
Read our article on How To Structure Your Strength Training While Cutting.
5 Principles to Follow When Training 1X Per Week
Now that you know there is research concluding that training one day per week can have positive outcomes on strength, what are the specific factors we need to focus on while we’re in the gym?
Here are 5 principles to follow:
Principle #1: Focus on compounded movements
You need to focus on the exercises that will have the ‘biggest bang for your buck’.
These are compound movements that include multi-joint exercises that activate more than one muscle group at a time. For example: squats, bench press, deadlifts, bent-over barbell rows, overhead shoulder presses, lunges, pull-ups, etc.
Because your economy of training is limited, you should aim to recruit as much muscular per individual exercise as possible. This is why you would select squats, which target the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors, over an isolation movement like seated leg extension that only targets the quads.
Related Article: Low Impact Strength Training: 15 Exercises For Beginners
Principle #2: Focus on total body workouts
Given that you don’t have multiple days to ‘split up’ your training into different body parts, you need to select exercises for both your upper and lower body.
A typical multi-day training split would give you the flexibility to focus a whole workout on a specific muscle group. This is not possible on a one-day split, and so your exercise selection needs to include exercises that target the full body.
Principle #3: Focus on pushing close to your fatigue limit
Many of the studies that investigated lower-frequency training programs had the participants train close to their fatigue limit in order to see positive results.
This means performing a set with a given load to near failure or failure. Therefore, you should finish the set and feel like you only have 1 more rep left in the tank, if any. For example, if you were scheduled to do 3 sets of 5 reps, you should pick a load where when you finish the 5th rep you say to yourself “I probably could have done 1 more rep if I continued on, if any”.
This “training to failure” approach wouldn’t necessarily be advised on higher frequency programs because the recovery between workouts might suffer. However, on a lower frequency training program, you will likely have a full 7 days to recover in between workouts. So, you could train closer to failure and recover just fine by the next workout.
Principle #4: Focus on short rest intervals
You should prioritize shorter rest intervals (60-90 seconds) so that you can maximize the total number of exercises and volume you can do within a single training session.
If you take rest intervals that are longer, you can easily double the amount of time you spend in the gym, which would limit the overall number of exercises you can do. If you’re struggling to condense your exercises within a single session, you can choose to superset your exercises to continue optimizing for shorter rest intervals.
Principle #5: Focus on progressively overloading either sets, reps or load
From week-to-week, you either need to do more reps with the same load, more weight for the same number of reps, or more sets for the same number of reps or load.
This is called ‘progressive overload’.
It doesn’t matter if you’re training 5 days per week or just once, any training program will need to incorporate elements of progressive overload.
In this way, you’ll be progressively overloading some aspect of the training program, where the stimulus during the current workout exceeds the stimulus of the former. This is why it’s important to either track your training using a workout log, or receive your workouts from an app like FitBod that automatically add progressive overload using your previous training data.
1-Day Training Split: Program Example Using Fitbod
Using the Fitbod app, you can set the preferences to maximize your 1-day training split.
You can set the training split to only target full body workouts that utilize compounded movements. In addition, you can indicate how much time you want to spend in the gym and organize your workouts into supersets and circuits to maximize your rest intervals.
For a one-day per week training split, set the following three preferences on the app:
Step 1: Select a Full Body Training Split
Step 2: Select Your Workout Duration
Step 3: Indicate a Preference For Supersets
Each week when you log your training, Fitbod will take your previous training data (i.e. how much volume and intensity you completed) and will automatically add progressions. This will ensure that even though you’re only training once per week, that the workouts are progressing along with your abilities.
Here is an example of a single training session using my personal preferences and prior training history on Fitbod:
Dumbell Bench Press (3 sets of 12 reps)
Seated Cable Row (3 sets of 10 reps)
Dumbbell Lunge (3 sets of 9 reps)
Dumbbell Skull Crusher (3 sets of 5 reps)
Barbell Curl (3 sets of 12 reps)
Upright Row (3 sets of 12 reps)
Leg Press (3 sets of 10 reps)
Lying Hamstring Curl (3 sets of 12 reps)
Bicycle Crunch (3 sets of 15 reps)
Back Extension (3 sets of 10 reps)
When Would Training Once Per Week Not Work?
There are two scenarios where training once per week would not work:
If you want to compete in a strength-based sport: If you aim to be a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, weightlifter, etc., then strength training once per week will not be sufficient to become competitive. Those activities require a high level of technical proficiency in certain exercises, which demands practicing the movements multiple times per week to acquire the necessary skills.
If you’ve hit a strength plateau: If you have reached a plateau in strength and have tried to increase volume and intensity within a one-day training split, but are still not seeing improvements, you may need to consider increasing your training split to two-days per week in order to continue progressing. A strength plateau would be characterized as not being able to do more weight for the same amount of reps for a minimum of 3-months. Week to week you might hit strength plateaus, which is normal, but a plateau lasting 3-months is a problem.
Practically speaking, I would train as much as you can given your available resources. If you can only workout once per week, then the research suggests that the benefits of a single training session per week compared with not training at all are significant. Throughout the year, your availability to train might go up or down, but making it a goal to train at least once per week will help you maintain your strength, and in a lot of cases, build upon it.
What to read next: Should you cut or bulk first if you are skinny fat?
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About The Author
Avi Silverberg has a Master’s of Science from the University of Victoria where he researched strength training and exercise science. As an athlete, he fell in love with powerlifting, where his highest achievement was competing at three World Bench Press Championships and winning a bronze medal in 2010. Since 2012, he has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting where he took the team from placing 30th in the World to top 3. In addition to writing for Fitbod, he writes about powerlifting technique and best practices on his own blog, powerliftingtechnique.com.
Graves, J., Pollock, M., Leggett, S., Braith, R., Carpenter, D., Bishop, L. 1988. Effect of Reduced Training Frequency on Muscular Strength. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 9(5): 316-319.
McLester, John., Guilliams, B. 2000. Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal Volume Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 14(3): 273-281.
Ralston, G., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F., Buchan, D., Baker, J. 2018. Weekly Training Frequency Effects on Strength Gain: A Meta Analysis. Sports Medicine Open,4(1): 36.