Working out is both challenging and rewarding. The journey of physical improvement can be a long and difficult one, so let this article be your guide from the Insider:

  • When it comes to muscle-building exercise, less is more, according to a trainer. 
  • You can make gains in one or two workouts a week, with about 10 sets per muscle group, evidence suggests.
  • While more effort can sometimes lead to more benefits, you can make major progress without long hours in the gym. 

You don’t need to spent hours in the gym to see results. Muscle building can happen in as few as one or two workouts a week, according to a conditioning expert and the latest exercise science. By focusing on compound movements, efficient workout sets, and enough rest, you can max out your gains with minimum effort.  

You can build muscle with less exercise than you think, experts say

Long or excessively frequent workouts may do more harm than good for gains, strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle told Insider. 

“If anyone is lifting for more than an hour, they’re probably doing way more than they need to,” he said. 

He recommends three sets of 10 reps each as an effective baseline workload. For overall muscle growth, opt for compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at once, such as squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and presses. 

Repeating this formula twice a week on your target muscle groups is plenty, according to Boyle. 

“There are very few people who work each group more than twice a week [even in professional bodybuilding],” he said. “Less probably equals more when it comes to strength and hypertrophy.”

Research supports working smarter, not harder, too. Roughly 10 sets per muscle group per week is the minimum for optimizing muscle growth, and athletes may benefit from less, according to a position paper from the International Universities of Strength and Conditioning Association, published in August. 

As little as one session per week may lead to results, researchers wrote. They recommend no more than 10 sets per muscle group in a single workout, any more than that should be spread across multiple days. 

Evidence suggests higher volume might be helpful for working on muscle imbalances or weak areas, however.

Too much exercise can backfire

Research suggests that more time exercising doesn’t always lead to more gains. Despite what celebrities or influencers might suggest, it’s not always effective to hit muscle groups five times a week, or with twice-a-day workouts.  

You might even stall progress by overworking, since too much exercise deprives your muscles of the rest they need to grow, experts previously told Insider

To build strength and muscle, increase your training intensity over time

The amount of exercise you need for gains also depends on your experience level. As you progress in fitness, you’ll need to continue challenging yourself to see improvement.

As a result, more experienced athletes may need to put in more work than gym newbies. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate to longer hours — you can also add intensity by increasing the weight you lift, improving your form, or performing more advanced versions of movements. 

Again, it can be helpful to aim for the minimal effective dose of exercise, since the more gradually you ramp up your intensity, the less overall work you’ll need to do to see results, powerlifter Chris Duffin previously told Insider. 

Be realistic about aesthetic goals and celebrate strength gains, too

One important caveat in building muscle to create a sculpted physique is that how you look is related to factors beyond how much you work out or what exercises you do. Genetics, for instance, can make a difference in how people gain muscle.

“Some people respond to just about everything and some people are going to have a hard time with just about everything,” Boyle said. 

As a result, it can be discouraging and unhelpful to compare yourself to fitness influencers or celebrities, especially when you don’t know their circumstances, he said. Instead, focus on what you can control — getting progressively stronger and working towards the best version of yourself. 

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