Anyone can go hard and make great progress for six weeks. It's the long-term gains that are elusive. Why? The average person spends part of his year training and the other part procrastinating, thus losing his gains.
Many serious lifters spend the whole year trying to go full-throttle in the gym. They have parts of the year where they see decent progress but then get sidelined with burnout, illness, or injury. As a result, they're either retraining to make up ground, or they're detraining.
In the long run, they end up going nowhere. But this doesn't have to happen. There's a solution.
A recent narrative review published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research highlights a forgotten secret that can unlock the door to long-term gains: maintenance mode.
Researchers poured through scientific data with a simple question: what's the least amount of training one can do while maintaining physical performance? The answer: less than you think.
They found that younger lifters could maintain muscle strength and size with one workout a week – and doing only one hard set per exercise – for up to 32 weeks! The key to effective maintenance training is dropping volume and frequency while maintaining your training loads and effort level.
Armed with this knowledge, here are some practical ways you can use powerful training tool:
1. Loss-Free Recovery
Sometimes, work, life stress, and training can leave you feeling run down. A maintenance phase can help you get the rest and recovery you need without the fear of losing strength and muscle. Instead of having a year with gain and loss phases, you fill that year with "gain and maintain" phases and end up with a net gain.
2. Life Periodization
For decades, the field of athletic performance has used the power of maintenance mode. Athletes focus on maintenance during the season and then crank up their training in the off-season. As a non-athlete, you can use life periodization.
Look at your year and identify the crazy times or the times when you want to focus on pursuing non-training goals. Plan to shift your training into maintenance mode during these times. Then, plan to crank up your training during the not-so-crazy times.
3. Body Part Specialization
Unless you won the genetic lottery, there's a good chance you have at least one stubborn body part that lags behind the rest.
If you're like most lifters, you're making one of two mistakes when it comes to stubborn body parts. You may continue training every body part equally, and as a result, always struggle with it. Or you may try to add a bunch of extra work for that body part on top of its regular training, then burn out.
A better approach is to switch into maintenance mode for your stronger body parts. Then you can divert that time and energy to bringing up a lagging area. This is the perfect strategy for an advanced lifter with a busy life outside the gym.
4. Gains Phase Potentiation
As you get more advanced, gains don't come easily. However, you can effectively engineer a productive phase of training if you preface it with a maintenance phase.
A maintenance phase allows for physical and psychological restoration. Then, when you return to your regular, higher-volume training, you're fresh, hungry, and hyper-responsive to your regular style of training.
Research reports the averages, so you may need a bit more work than what's recommended in this research review. Some careful record-keeping of your training, strength levels, and measurements will let you know exactly what you need. However, here are a few hints:
The review recommends that older lifters (who are prone to faster muscle loss) may need to bump their training up to two times per week with 2-3 sets per exercise to maintain their strength and muscle mass.
It's likely that those who are more advanced will need a bit more work to maintain strength and size.
Those Who Gain Fat Easily
Many people gain fat when they back off on their training because they don't back off their eating.
If you periodize your training, you need to periodize your nutrition. If you drop your training frequency and volume, you must lower your calories (from carbs, fat, or both, depending on what works best for you) to match. This will take some trial and error, but your efforts will be worth it.
You can moderately increase your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) through a conscious effort to move more throughout the day, and this can help burn some extra calories without burning you out.
Those Who Lose Muscle Quickly
If you're naturally skinny, you'll lose muscle faster and more easily than someone who's naturally more muscular. You may need a bit more volume in a maintenance phase. Start with the recommendations for older lifters before trying lower volumes and frequencies.
Be brutally honest and ask, "Do I love the feeling of training hard more than my results?" If you do, that's fine.
However, if you're serious about long-term progress, you must get to the point where you do what you need to do instead of what you like to do. Slogans like "no days off" might make good hashtags, but they make terrible training philosophies.
- Spiering BA et al. Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose of Exercise Needed to Preserve Endurance and Strength Over Time. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 May 1;35(5):1449-1458. PubMed.