If you’re an Olympic or professional athlete who wants to be the best in the world, it seems there is no such thing as too much exercise. Case in point: wrestler Dan Gable.
The 1972 Olympic champion, Gable had a 182-1 combined prep and college record and is considered one of the top 100 Olympians of all time. But what captured the attention of millions and inspired countless young athletes was an article in Sports Illustrated that described Gable’s brutal training regimen that consumed 40 hours a week. At the same time, Bulgarian weightlifting coach Ivan Abadjiev was changing the game by having his soon-to-become world and Olympic champions training at high intensity 5 times a day, six days a week.
On the other end of the spectrum, a common question asked by mere mortals is, “What is the minimal dose of exercise necessary to have a training effect?” Consider that those asking this question are not necessarily lazy, but often life gets in the way with work and family commitments that consume much of our free time.
In Iron Game sports such as weightlifting, it’s been shown that the amount of training necessary to improve or maintain strength increases (to a point) as an individual becomes stronger. Weightlifting sports scientists have done extensive studies on this topic, and have established guidelines about how much training is necessary for progress. Two technical books about the sport of weightlifting that discuss the topic of training volume are Weightlifting Programming: A Winning Coach’s Guide by Bob Takano and Tamas Feher’s Olympic Weightlifting by Tamas Feher. For powerlifting, Louie Simmons has written extensively on this subject; a good place to start would be the Westside Barbell Book of Methods by Louie Simmons.
In athletic training, the additional stress caused by sports practice and competition compromises how much time and effort can be devoted to strength training. As such, the goal of many athletes is to maintain the strength levels they developed in the off-season, especially during the weeks of the most important competitions.
One of the pioneering research studies on the subject of detraining was published in 1988 and involved 26 women and 24 men who had been training on a regular basis 2-3 times a week. Those subjects who stopped lifting completely lost about 68 percent of their strength after three months; those who trained 1-2 times a week were able to maintain their strength for the duration of the study. The same maintenance training effect has been found to also apply to aerobic conditioning.
A study involving 13 subjects who had been performing aerobic activities 40 minutes a day for six days a week found that these individuals could maintain their conditioning for 15 weeks even with a significant reduction in training volume. Noted the researchers, “We conclude that it is possible to maintain almost all of the performance increases with up to a two-thirds reduction of training duration.”
One of the key conclusions we can gain from research is that there is a case of diminishing returns in strength training. In a study published in 1990 involving 72 men and 42 women that looked at lumbar extension strength, researchers found that training this muscle action once a week was enough to produce strength improvements by an average of 26 percent over 12 percent. The group that trained 3x a week, however, produced an increase of 40 percent. So yes, more is often better, but perhaps not by much?
One cardiovascular fitness authority who addressed the question of optimal training volume is Dr. Kenneth Cooper, founder of The Cooper Institute, a non-profit educational and research organization that opened in 1970. Cooper has authored 18 books that have been translated into 41 languages and have sold a total of 30 million copies. Said Cooper, "If you are running more than 15 miles per week, you are running for something other than fitness."
As for what the US government has to say on the subject, the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends 150 moderate-intensity minutes of exercise a week (or 75-minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise). A paper published in 2015 looked at this recommendation by studying the death records of 661,000 adults (median age of 62) over 14.2 years. The researchers found that those who exercised 150 minutes a week had a 31 percent less risk of dying prematurely that those who did no exercise. Those who did less that 150 minutes – that is, they at least did something – had a 20 percent less risk. For optimal health, those who exercised 450 minutes a week had a 39 percent less risk.
The bottom line is that if you have been training on a regular basis, you can take extended breaks from training and maintain your conditioning with minimal time commitment. It’s also true that for improving the length of your life, a little exercise is better than no exercise and there appears to be a “sweet spot” for achieving maximum benefits.