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Free: How (Easy) To Maintain Muscle With Practically Zero Time
Sometimes our priorities take a huge shift or life throws us a wrench and we have to make some short-term sacrifices.
This is normal and to be expected, but we can still—with near minimal effort—maintain our relative fitness and muscle mass.
The reality is once you have it, it is extremely easy to keep, which places the emphasis on “having it” first. This is why spending a few years focusing heavily on your fitness can set the rest of your life up for success with your health and fitness.
The reality is we only need an hour or two a week to maintain our muscle mass if we’re going to have a bumpy couple months—potentially even a year with the foot off the gas as much.
I have experienced a couple periods in my life—lasting 3-5 months—where lifting simply wasn’t my priority, I was more focused on business and other endeavors. However, in this period I didn’t lose an ounce of muscle (and even made marginal strength gains).
Here is how I did it and other methods you can use if you find yourself in the same boat.
What It Takes
Muscle, unlike things like cardiovascular conditioning, is fairly simple to maintain without much work. Our bodies do NOT like losing muscle as long as we give it any reason at all to hold onto it.
Muscle growth is a process of adaptation to progressive stimulus, or progressive overload. Your body will add more muscle because it perceives that its survival is at stake and needs the muscle to overcome the stressor thrown at it.
To maintain muscle all we have to do is simply “remind” the body that it needs to hold onto this muscle—meaning we need to do just enough in the gym that we give the body a reason to maintain this mass.
On paper, in studies, it takes around 2 hard sets a week to maintain muscle mass. That is nearly laughable and would take approximately 5 minutes per muscle to maintain mass—this is practically nothing.
Here I’ll simply lay out a sort of “checklist” of the requirements and suggestions to maintain muscle, and don’t be surprised if during this period you actually make some progress. Mike Mentzer was famous for doing extremely low volume at extremely low frequencies.
As mentioned above, researchers have concluded between 2-5 sets a week per muscle is sufficient for maintaining muscle mass. I would even argue 1 hard set to failure is enough, but for the sake of practical application we will say 2.
The key on these 2 sets is they need to be hard sets, very close or to failure. This will trigger the body’s mechano sensors that there is still sufficient stimulus being applied to the body and we must maintain what we have.
I actually prefer to split the 2-5 set conclusion in half and shoot for 3 sets a week—this is a good happy medium and fits into my programing very well. Like I said, I was actually still seeing progress with this methodology.
Again, I could argue 1 session per week is enough to maintain, but again for the sake of practical application I would say 2 sessions a week.
How I was doing this was full-body, twice a week, following this program.
This is actually 3 sets per body part a week, split into 1 session of 2 sets the other session is 1 set.
How I would set this up is Monday and Thursday. We are giving ourselves 72 hours of rest between workouts which is how long muscle protein synthesis can be spiked after a workout.
This then puts us working out again on monday which is 3 full days of rest and gives us another stimulus in the gym. With how low the volume is, I believe this greatly helps in our quest to maintain muscle.
We are going to have more flexibility with diet, BUT we want to ensure 2 things:
We are getting enough protein (1 gram per pound of weight)
Eating close to maintenance calories
Diet is relatively simple because we do have what is know as “maintenance” caloric intake, also known as an energy balance.
We do not want to try to combine less work in the gym and a caloric deficit, we must refer to what was said in the beginning:
If we are to lower the stimulus + lower energy intake - our bodies will sacrifice muscle to provide this energy because it will see less priority in keeping muscle when its energy needs are not being met.
A very good metric to use here—which will work without getting too into the weeds—is to take body weight times 15 (BW x 15) and this will be our maintenance calories.
As for protein, protein is muscle sparing and signals to the body we are getting enough nutrients and we don’t need to sacrifice any muscle to meet energy demands.
Keep protein high, focus on the bulk of your meals being protein dominant and you’ll be fine.
Personally, I take a rough count (mentally) of my daily caloric intake and largely eat whatever I want, which is still healthy, whole foods but if I feel hungry I eat—not going to fret over a bowl of blueberries.
Putting It All Together
If our goal is maintenance then the reality is we only need an hour or two a week to maintain our muscle mass.
However, the main consideration here is that we already have it—if you’ve been lifting for 4 weeks, this likely isn’t for you and you need to make fitness more of a priority. With that said, life happens and even this small amount of work will help and keep you in the habit of hitting the gym.
As long as we give our bodies a reason to hold onto it, they will preserve muscle mass. Therefore, getting the sufficient amount of volume and frequency taken care of through the week will give us the maintenance we are aiming for.
2-5 sets a week per muscle is sufficient for maintaining muscle mass. These sets need to be hard sets—very close or to failure. I prefer to get at least 3 sets a week. You could probably get away with 1 session a week, but 2 sessions a week will yield you better results and leave nothing to chance.
With our diet, we want to ensure we are: getting enough protein (1 gram per pound of weight) AND eating close to maintenance calories. An easy way to calculate your maintenance is body weight times 15 (BW x 15).
*We do not want to try to combine less work in the gym and a caloric deficit. To preserve muscle, we need to eat at least at maintenance*
Remember, protein is muscle sparing and signals to the body we are getting enough nutrients - our body doesn’t need to sacrifice any muscle to meet energy demands.
Just keep protein high, focus on the bulk of your meals being protein dominant and you’ll be fine.
If we already “have it” and stay consistent with the above advice, we are guaranteed to stay in tune.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.