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Resistance training: Minimum dose for better health

by P. Debraux | 10 January 2024

fitness, resistance training, weight, lifting, health, benefits, dose, minimal, sport, physical activity, science, research

In addition to the official recommendations for cardiovascular physical activity, two sessions a week of strength training are recommended. Strength training offers numerous health benefits, including improved muscle hypertrophy, strength and endurance. Positive associations exist between strength training and the reduction of cardiovascular risk factors, such as lower blood lipid levels, blood pressure and obesity, as well as reduced incidence of diseases such as diabetes, stroke, cancer, dementia and arthritis. Meta-analyses also suggest that strength training could reduce mortality rates and improve health outcomes related to these diseases with just 30 to 60 minutes a week.

Despite all its benefits, a significant proportion of the adult population fails to meet the minimum recommendations for strength training. Data from Canada, the United States, Australia and England indicate that only 10 to 29% of adults engage in the recommended minimum dose of muscle strengthening activities. Reasons for this lack of interest include lack of time, high intensity of effort, lack of pleasure and lack of perceived reward. In many physically inactive people, the response of neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin, for example) linked to exercise-induced euphoria is muted, which can influence an individual's motivation to continue training and the efforts required.

While most trainers and experienced exercisers are looking for optimal doses of training that will deliver maximum results, whether for hypertrophy or muscle strength, research is exploring minimalist approaches to weight training that may motivate more people to start training. By understanding and identifying the minimal doses of strength training needed to improve fitness, it is possible to develop strategies that may be more acceptable to inactive people or beginners, which could improve public health outcomes by increasing the proportion of the population adhering to official recommendations.

Training frequency

Research into the frequency of resistance training has evolved. In 1990, the American College of Sports Medicine recommended a set of 8-12 repetitions at moderate intensity, 2-3 times a week, for each muscle group. This recommendation suggested that 2-3 weekly sessions might be the minimum necessary for significant gains in strength and hypertrophy. However, more frequent sessions are often considered more beneficial, with the scientific literature suggesting that a higher number of sessions could lead to better muscle adaptations.

In fact, if training volume is taken into consideration, then most results will indicate that training frequency is not always correlated with greater gains. For example, research has shown that six days a week of training had no significant advantage over three days in terms of strength or hypertrophy gains. In 2021, a meta-analysis also indicated that there were no significant differences in strength development across training frequencies (1 to 9 times per week), in trained individuals, when training volume was constant.

The results further suggest that significant strength gains can be achieved with a single weekly strength training session, for both beginners and seasoned exercisers. Various studies indicate that reducing training frequency, even to a single session per week, still results in significant improvements in strength when volume is equalized. Indeed, one meta-analysis highlighted the fact that even a single set per session could lead to significant increases in strength in novices.

Frequency is simply a means of increasing training volume, which is directly correlated with muscle hypertrophy. It's easier to do 3 small sessions, than one big one. While scientific data supports the practice of several strength training sessions per week for optimal gains, particularly in trained individuals, the literature also indicates that starting with a single weekly session can lead to improvements in strength in physically inactive people. For those seeking minimal training frequency to achieve significant health benefits, these results are encouraging. All the more so as they may facilitate a gradual approach to more sessions, in order to obtain more beneficial results.

Training volume


It is generally recommended to perform 3 to 4 sets. This has become a ubiquitous guideline in resistance training literature and practice since the 50s. However, some studies show that there are variable responses to set volumes, with adaptations that may be specific to each muscle group. Some research has indicated that single sets can lead to significant increases in strength, particularly in untrained individuals.

Although most research suggests a superiority of multiple sets for the development of strength and hypertrophy, there is a threshold beyond which additional sets do not produce proportional gains, a phenomenon observed in older adults where more than three sets did not lead to significantly greater improvements. Meta-analyses have further refined this understanding, indicating that while untrained individuals may see significant improvements with around three sets, trained and athletic individuals may need around four to eight sets, respectively, to achieve greater strength and mass gains. However, it would seem preferable to spread these sets over several sessions.

Despite these findings, for those seeking a minimalist approach or who are less interested in maximum gains, a single set can still bring substantial benefits. During the course of a training program, beginners will find that a single set will suffice to achieve significant strength gains, particularly in the first few weeks or months of training. This approach could encourage exercise adherence, avoiding the risk of overtraining and the associated decline in results that can occur with higher exercise volumes.

In conclusion, although multiple sets are generally recommended for increasing muscle strength and hypertrophy, particularly in people moving from beginner to trained status, single-set training can be beneficial for beginners and may provide a pragmatic starting point for people new to strength training or with limited time and motivation to follow more sustained muscle-building programs.


The standard recommendation for strength training, particularly for beginners, generally involves performing 8 to 12 repetitions in a set. This range of repetitions has been widely recommended because of its association with muscular strength and hypertrophy adaptations. The end point of a set is often determined by the exerciser's inability to continue moving the load due to fatigue ("muscular failure"). Training to failure has been seen by many as an essential element in maximizing training adaptations.

However, there is evidence to suggest that training to repetition failure may not be necessary to achieve significant strength gains, particularly for untrained individuals. Performing fewer than the maximum number of repetitions possible can produce substantial improvements in strength and hypertrophy without the need to push to the limit of one's ability on every set.

In trained individuals, it has been shown that training protocols that incorporate muscle failure can potentially provide greater stress on muscles both mechanically and metabolically, which could be beneficial for gains in strength and hypertrophy. For example, systematic reviews and meta-analyses indicate that repetition to failure can be effective in eliciting greater adaptations in muscle strength and size (especially when the relative load is low). However, reaching this level of effort can lead to higher ratings of perceived effort, which may discourage the less motivated or beginners to strength training. What's more, some studies have shown that there are no additional benefits to training to failure compared with no-failure protocols in highly trained exercisers. Some exercisers showed greater improvements in strength and power by not training to failure. This indicates that individual responses to training to failure can be highly variable, depending on the athlete's training status and training context.

In summary, the number of repetitions required for optimal physiological adaptations in strength training is still a debated topic. Many studies suggest that performing repetitions to failure is crucial for maximizing adaptations. However, other research indicates that similar results can be achieved with fewer reps. What is certain is that a certain level of stress is necessary to achieve strength gains. For those new to training, significant improvements can be achieved with repetitions close to, but not necessarily at, failure.


When discussing intensity in strength training, it's important to distinguish between the effects of different intensities on different populations. A meta-analysis by Rhea et al. (2003) showed that an intensity of 60% of 1RM is effective in inducing strength gains in untrained individuals, while an intensity of around 80% of 1RM is more effective in trained individuals. Munoz-Martinez et al (2017) conducted a meta-analysis that revealed beneficial results at surprisingly low intensities, recommending 30-60% 1RM for significant 1RM improvements in bench press, with sessions lasting 22-60 minutes. However, the relatively low baseline fitness levels of the participants in the studies analysed could partly explain the success of lighter loads.

Various studies have explored the effects of load intensity on gains. They found that relatively heavy loads (greater than or equal to 80% of 1RM) produced greater gains in strength, while relatively light loads (around 30-50% of 1RM) produced gains in strength (albeit lower than those achieved with heavier loads), but above all hypertrophy gains similar to those achieved with heavy loads. The downside of lighter loads is that you have to train systematically to failure to achieve these gains.

In conclusion, while low-intensity weight training, below 50% of 1RM, can significantly improve strength and muscle hypertrophy in untrained individuals, higher intensity will generally be required for above-average strength gains.

Poly- vs. monoarticular exercises

Poly-articular exercises involve the action of several joints and muscle groups (such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, pull-ups), while mono-articular exercises involve the action of a single joint with the aim of isolating a specific muscle or muscle group (such as the biceps curl and leg extension).

Poly-articular exercises are generally claimed to be more effective than single-joint exercises in developing muscular strength and power. Poly-articular exercises save time and potentially deliver greater gains in strength and power. This hypothesis is supported by studies showing greater improvements in overall strength when poly-articular exercises are used. For beginners whose main aim is to improve their general health, poly-articular exercises are preferable, as they will work several muscle groups at once and are easily transferable to everyday physical actions.

Poly-articular exercises are therefore suitable not only for beginners or people with sedentary, inactive lifestyles, in order to achieve short, effective sessions, but also for all athletes under time pressure. However, this does not mean that single-joint exercises should be avoided. In many situations, it is necessary to strengthen a specific area without stressing certain parts of the body.


Strength training may not be suitable for everyone, due to its intensity, potential discomfort, or the need for specialized equipment and access to an equipped gym. Recent studies have shown that prolonged static stretching can also have beneficial effects on muscle strength and hypertrophy, thanks to the mechanical tension imposed on muscle fibres. This approach requires less intensity than strength training, but is less time-efficient. Stretch training requires minimal equipment and is fairly simple to integrate into daily activities. However, human studies on stretch-mediated hypertrophy have produced mixed results. Some studies have failed to show significant hypertrophy, perhaps due to stretching durations being too short, while others, such as the study by Simpson et al. (2017), have shown notable increases in muscle thickness. Warneke et al. (2022) showed substantial increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy following passive stretching. These studies used special stretching devices, which involved overload stretching, raising questions about their usefulness in everyday life.

Research into stretch-mediated hypertrophy is limited and focuses mainly on the plantar flexors. A wider field of research is needed to obtain more conclusive results. A meta-analysis found small to medium-sized increases in muscle strength and power with stretching, with greater gains in certain demographic groups, and a correlation between higher repetition counts and longer stretching durations and greater strength improvements.

Finally, while stretch training is not as time-efficient as strength training, it is a viable alternative for those who prefer lower-intensity exercise or have more time on their hands.


A significant proportion of the population is reluctant to engage in weight training and is not interested in achieving "maximal" strength gains. It is therefore important to find motivational strategies for those people who are unwilling or unable to start training, despite its many health benefits.

It's not clear whether minimalist strength training programs have any impact on overall health. However, 2 to 3 months of such a program can improve muscle strength in beginners or inactive people. Since a single set of 6-12 repetitions at 70-85% 1RM, 2-3 times a week for 8-12 weeks, can significantly increase strength in trained individuals. And this approach could motivate these individuals to pursue more intensive programs, leading to clinically significant health benefits.

People who are hesitant about strength training but are interested in a minimalist approach should start with a single weekly session for 8 to 12 weeks. This session should include at least one set of 6 to 15 repetitions at 30-80% of maximum strength, focusing on poly-articular movements. And of course, during this period, it's advisable to progress in volume and intensity.

For those looking for even less intense exercise, overloaded static stretching may be an alternative. While most research focuses on static stretching programs lasting 8 to 12 weeks, the effectiveness of these parameters for longer durations is unknown. After three months or more, it may be necessary to increase training stimuli with more frequent sessions, additional sets, higher intensities and varied exercise types, such as plyometrics or training in unstable environments.


  1. Behm DG, Granacher U, Warneke K, Aragao‑Santos JC, Da Silva‑Grigoletto ME and Konrad A. Minimalist Training: Is Lower Dosage or Intensity Resistance Training Effective to Improve Physical Fitness? A Narrative Review. Sports Med, 2023.

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