How To Maintain Strength With Less Effort

Regardless of what hurdles life throws your way, with these three simple steps you can still maintain your strength.

Perhaps you’ve got a big project at work, need to travel or look after the kids and can’t make your normal session time. But a packed schedule doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health.

Here’s why you shouldn’t just give up

At Plexus, many of our clients work 40+ hours a week whilst juggling family commitments. Every now and again life gets in the way of their training, but that’s okay. Often people assume they have to train three times a week and eat well to make the gym worthwhile, but this just isn’t the case. During especially busy periods of your life, you can adapt your training and nutrition to allow you to maintain your strength.

Step 1: Switch to maintenance

The maintenance phase refers to a period of training and nutrition designed to preserve strength, power and muscle mass. It’s great for periods when you can’t fit in as many sessions as usual, but it’s also used by athletes to improve performance [1].

Strength athletes will often cycle between intense muscle building and maintenance phases. This is because to gain strength you need to progressively overload your body. However, if you continually do this you accumulate fatigue and adapt to the high volume. The maintenance phase allows your body to resettle, refuel and prepare for another muscle-building phase. It can also reduce your risk of injury, as it gives your body time to fully recover, without going backwards in strength [2].

Remember, the goal of a maintenance phase is to retain muscle and body composition, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about slowed or stalled progress.

Step 2: Adjust your sessions

There are plenty of ways to get more out of your sessions without putting in more time. In fact, research shows that you can maintain and even slowly improve your strength with just two days of strength training a week [3]. At two 45-minute sessions a week that’s just 1.5 hours each week dedicated to prioritising your health.

With less time in the gym, what you do becomes very important. However, when you are training for maintenance, it’s not necessary to train as heavy. This means you can lower the weight and increase the reps. Keeping up with your training but at an easier weight allows you to still unlock all those incredible benefits from your workout such as easing anxiety and boosting your mood. This will leave you better equipped to deal with other stressors in your life [4].

Doing a lighter session in the gym will also mean less stress on your body and therefore less recovery time. This can be particularly useful if whatever is keeping you away from the gym is also keeping you up at night. If you’re wondering how much sleep you really need, read How Many Hours Of Sleep Should You Be Getting?

Another strategy for adapting your sessions is to use supersets. When you do a superset, you move quickly from training one exercise to another without resting. Ideally you will work two different areas of the body, for example by alternating between the dumbbell press and leg press. This allows you to maximise your time in the gym, without compromising recovery.

Even if you can’t get to the gym at your usual time, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on a workout. There are still plenty of beneficial exercises you can do at home to maintain your strength. For example, you could do push ups using the kitchen bench or a floor ab workout.  

Step 3: Improve your nutrition

When life gets busy, it can be easy to skip meals and opt for unhealthy takeaway. However, by planning or making a few better choices on the go, you can drastically improve your nutrition. This will help you perform at your best, both in and out of the gym.

To maintain your strength and body composition, you will need to consume the number of calories your body needs and the right balance of macronutrients [5]. When you don’t have time to monitor all your macronutrients, prioritise your protein needs. Protein is the most important macronutrient for maintaining your existing muscle. It also plays a vital role in maintaining the health of your bones, organs, skin, hair, nails and regulating many other functions [6].

Choosing more protein-rich foods doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Rather than cooking every day, you can instead cook in bulk. If you know you’ve got a busy week ahead, prepare and portion your meals on the weekend. This makes it easy for you to grab a healthy meal out of the fridge mid-week, reducing the temptation for takeaway.

However, if you do find yourself reaching for takeaway you can still make healthier choices. For example, at McDonalds you can opt for a grilled chicken wrap, or at Guzman and Gomez a burrito bowl. These are both good, high-protein options for when you’re on-the-go. You can also pick up or pack a protein shake for a high-protein snack, without the prep.

If I Iose strength, how long will it take to rebuild?

If despite your best efforts your hard-earned strength slips, don’t worry it will return. And will be easier to rebuild than it was initially. This is because strength training improves your central nervous system (CNS). This is the system which controls how the different muscles in your body work together. When you work out again after a period of rest your body still remembers the mechanics of a movement. This allows you to rebuild muscle more efficiently [7].

Remember, life is all about balance and you should never train at the expense of your health and wellbeing. When life gets busy, sometimes it is necessary to scale back your sessions, but this doesn’t mean all your hard-earned work needs to go to waste. By adjusting your sessions and nutrition, it’s possible to maintain both your strength and health. It’s normal to experience busy periods in your life, but what’s important is that you don’t give up on your health.

References:

[1] https://www.nifs.org/blog/the-importance-of-a-maintenance-phase-for-athlete-training

[2] https://www.t-nation.com/lean-built-eating/tip-the-forgotten-importance-of-maintenance-phases/

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27102172/

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/well/mind/anxiety-stress-weight-training-lifting-resistance.html

[5] https://plexuspt.com.au/blog/nutrition/nutrition-essentials-pt-2-how-to-lose-fat-and-build-muscle/

[6] https://plexuspt.com.au/blog/nutrition/nutrition-essentials-part-1-macronutrients-micronutrients/

[7] forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/12/01/if-you-stopped-exercising-today-heres-how-long-it-would-take-your-body-to-notice/?sh=3aa4330e14d3