Skip to content

How Often Do You Really Need To Work Out To Maintain Muscle Strength?

working out to maintain

It seems like I see a new workout plan or strategy every day that’ll supposedly help me achieve my fitness goals – drop weight, improve strength, bulk up, get ripped, etc, etc.

You name it, there’s a celebrity trainer there to help you achieve it.

But what if my goal is to simply maintain what I’ve already got?

Everyone’s always talking about making improvements and reaching that next milestone, but what if I just wanna stay right where I’m at?

Seems reasonable enough, but you don’t hear too many trainers talking about that.

And I’m gonna be honest, the older I get, the more I relish the idea of simply not getting weaker.

Well, if you’re like me and aren’t always looking to train for a new PR, I’ve got good news for ya – you can actually work out a lot less than you think and still maintain your strength.

If you like what you’re hearing, keep reading.

Working Out Is Exhausting

I know I reallllly shouldn’t admit this, you know, as a physical therapist and the owner of this website, but I get tired of working out.

I mean it never ends.

Truly, I appreciate all the benefits of lifting weights and exercising and I whole-heartedly agree that we should all be exercising for better health…

But sometimes I just don’t want to.

For me, the transformation from an eager to exercise, go-getter in the gym to a lethargic, “do I really have to workout today?” sloth usually starts happening around September.

This is when it starts cooling down outside, the pools close, and the sun seems to disappear for days at a time and this combination makes it a lot harder for me to stay motivated in the gym.

Which is unfortunate, because this is the same time all the great Oktoberfest beers hit the store aisles and all the fall treats and Halloween goodies start showing up.

This also happens to be my favorite time of year – my family loves Halloween and I can easily spend hours at a time on the couch watching classic horror movies.

This combination of my waining interest in working out with the abundance of booze and treats is a disaster for my waistline just waiting to happen.

So far, knock on wood, I’ve never let things get too out of control, although last year I did gain about 5 lb in the month of October alone…

I was able to drop that weight by Thanksgiving and then maintain through the end of the year thankfully, but I’m getting a little off topic here.

My point is, it’s hard to stay focused on lifting weights and working out throughout the entire year because it takes a lot of work and effort to exercise.

That’s kinda the point of exercise – if it was easy, it wouldn’t be effective.

Actors, celebrities, and other rich folks might have the time and resources to workout 2 hours a day, but the rest of us in the real world can struggle to find the time and energy to get 2 hours in each week.

So, for me, I see simply maintaining what I’ve got through the last quarter of each year to be a pretty large victory.

The question is then, how often do I need to workout to maintain my strength during this food and booze filled time of year?

And if I’m really being honest with myself, I’m really looking for the least amount of work I have to do…

maintain muscle strength

Strength Training To Maintain

I’ve had a funny/depressing conversation with my older brother a few times now where we basically complain about how everything seems to get more challenging as we age.

I know this isn’t exactly breaking news, but for 2 dudes in their forties experiencing this first hand for the first time it’s kinda annoying.

It’s harder to lose weight, it’s harder to find the energy to work out (although I still blame my kids for this), I’m so tight and stiff I have to warm up for 15 minutes before I even think about lifting weights… the list goes on.

Well, my brother and I have come to the conclusion that at this point in our lives, not gaining weight and not losing strength is a victory.

Maybe not a huge one, but a victory nonetheless.

Personally, I haven’t given up on the goal of improving overall strength and becoming more physically fit for the majority of the year, but for the last 3 months or so of the year, I kinda have.

Luckily, it’s a lot easier to maintain what you’ve already got then to actively improve strength and muscle size.

Most professionals will say you should lift weights at least 3x/week if you’re trying to get stronger, build muscle mass, lose weight, or some combination of the above.

But if you’re trying to maintain the strength you’ve already earned, you can likely get away with lifting weights only 1x/week.

Yup, that’s right – 1 weight lifting session per week.

That’s not bad, certainly not as intimidating as trying to maintain 3 workouts/week.

There’s even research to back this up and according to some research, these results are applicable to younger and older folks alike.

Although older individuals (60 years+) likely need more frequent weight training sessions than younger people to maintain muscle strength.

But this is still really good news.

Now if you’re only going to hit the gym 1x/week, you’re going to have to do it right in order to make sure you’re working all your major muscle groups.

You’ll also want to make sure you’re working out at an intensity that’s strenuous enough to still challenge said muscles.

If you’re truly trying to maintain the strength you’ve got, you’ll probably want to work each muscle group to nearly the state of failure.

If I was trying to work all the major muscle groups in a single weekly workout, I’d do something like this:

  • Warm up/stretch for 5- 10 minutes
  • Deadlift: 4 sets (10, 5, 3, 1)
  • Bench press: 3 sets (10, 8, 4)
  • Barbell squat: 3 sets (10, 8, 4)
  • Bent-over row: 3 sets (10, 8, 4)
  • Standing shoulder press: 3 sets (10, 8, 4)

Five exercises, nothing too crazy, but they’re all compound movements working several muscle groups simultaneously.

You could easily adjust your sets/reps to your liking, but I tend to stick in the 3-4 sets per exercise range – this is where I feel like I’m getting good volume without reaching the point of boredom.

With regards to the reps – I’d choose resistances where it’s hard to finish those last 2 reps because again, you want to make sure you’re working your muscles hard enough to get the job done.

After all, you’re only working out 1x/week here.

I’d also keep rest periods between sets to 1 minute max because keeping that heart rate up will help you get some of the cardiovascular benefits as well.

I would think the above workout could comfortably be done within an hour, with some leftover time for additional cardio.

Final Thoughts

It’s nice knowing that we can maintain our strength with one solid weight training workout per week, but I still try to aim for at least 2 workouts/week during my down periods.

It doesn’t always happen that way, but that’s still the goal.

That way I don’t have to hit every muscle group in a single workout.

If I’m doing a 2 day split, I’ll usually hit chest/back on day 1 and legs and shoulders on day 2 and try to sprinkle in a little core and cardio on both days.

FYI, according to research, most of us can go around 3 weeks without weight training before we start noticing a significant decrease in strength.

Highly trained athletes tend to hold on to their muscle strength/size better than less trained individuals, but the above timeline is fairly accurate for all of us.

So, if you miss a couple of weeks here or there, don’t beat yourself up too much – after all, life gets in the way sometimes.

And personally, I think it’s beneficial to ease back and take it easy on the working out sometimes, especially at the end of the year with so many fun holiday-related activities going on.

Our bodies need recovery periods from time to time, but our minds do too.

Plus, if you’re constantly forcing yourself to workout when you don’t want to, you run the risk of turning exercise into a chore.

Working out should be fun and enjoyable (at least a little anyway) and you should appreciate how you feel after doing it.

If you’re dragging yourself to the gym and counting the minutes until you get to leave, you’re missing out on a therapeutic experience where you get to unwind and unplug from all the other stresses of the day.

So again, take time off when you need it and don’t fret too much about losing all the gains you’ve worked so hard for.

Our muscles can handle about 3 weeks or so, give or take, without training before you start noticing real strength loss and you can maintain what you’ve got with a single workout per week.

Which, if you tend to get lazy around the end of the year like me, is great news.


Will's a licensed physical therapist (DPT) with over 15 years of experience treating patients from all backgrounds. He's been lifting weights and exercising in one form or another since middle school and has been working out in his own home gym for over a decade. When it comes to fitness equipment, there isn't much he hasn't tried. In his spare time, if he isn't writing or working out, he's likely playing basketball, watching movies, or hanging with his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *