Your gym partner says that a five-day split is, like, the best for muscle growth, bro. That pre-written template program you just picked up from your favorite influencer? It’s four hard days of hard training per week. Even practicing a strength sport can amount to what feels like a part-time job.
Hitting the weights multiple times per week is generally considered a foregone conclusion for making gains, whether you want mountains of muscle or a massive powerlifting total. What, then, are you supposed to do if you want to put on some mass but don’t have the hours or days to spare?
Can you make commendable gains by training bodybuilding once per week? As it turns out, you can — if you’re smart about it. Here’s how to squeeze every last drop of juice from one weekly bodybuilding workout.
How You Got Here
Even if you consider yourself a devoted player of the iron game, it’s perfectly common to run afoul of periods where you simply can’t make your regular lifting regime work with your schedule.
Professional physique athletes can hit the gym as often as needed, sure, but that isn’t a luxury afforded to everyone. Your career, personal life, or even a surprise injury can all impact your bodybuilding habits.
A Hectic Schedule
Balancing your workouts against life’s many demands is easier said than done. Never skipping leg day is pretty much bodybuilding law, sure, but if you can’t stand training at home and can’t make it to the gym, you’re out of luck.
Fortunately, displaced weekly schedules are often temporary. In the interim, you’ll need to shift your focus away from maximizing your gains via high-frequency training and towards finding the minimum effective dosage to keep making progress.
Injuries suck, end of story. However, one of the worst things you can do if you’ve tweaked, twisted, or sprained something is to stop training altogether. The best thing you can do is consult with a qualified medical professional to assist you in your rehabilitation.
That said, an injury can definitely throw you off balance if you’re used to hitting the gym hard several times per week, particularly if the damaged tissue plays an active role in many different exercises or planes of movement (such as your lower back).
As such, you may find yourself in a position where four bodybuilding workouts per week is too much to recover from, but you can comfortably handle one solid session.
Boredom or Burnout
It takes years and years of consistently-challenging workouts to build a truly commendable physique. Many physique athletes hit a proverbial wall from time to time and struggle to muster enough enthusiasm to train regularly.
Instead of forcing yourself through a period of burnout, in which you may end up spinning your wheels through many middling workouts, it might be wiser to cut your training down to the bare minimum. This will ensure you, at worst, maintain what you’ve built until you find your inner fire again.
The Once-Per-Week Bodybuilding Workout
Make no mistake; one workout per week isn’t exactly optimal for creating muscular hypertrophy. If you have the time or willpower to spare — particularly if you also have a few years of training under your belt — you’d be much better off with multiple specialized workouts.
But if one day is what you have, you’ll have to make the most of it. This workout will stimulate every muscle in your body from head to toe to some degree. If you keep the intensity high, it should be perfectly conducive to growth.
Full-body training isn’t exactly a bodybuilder’s bread and butter, but if you only have one day to hit the weights, it’ll have to do. The goal here is simple: Efficiency. You need to work with movements that stimulate a lot of muscle quickly, so you’ll have to get comfortable with compounds.
To prevent the workout from taking three or four full hours, you’ll also have to employ some high-intensity time-saving techniques like supersets to condense your overall workload.
- Deficit Trap Bar Deadlift: 4 x 6
- Snatch-Grip Romanian Deadlift: 2 x 8
- Low Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 6, 8, 12 as a reverse pyramid
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown: 4 x 8 with a drop set on the last set
- Dumbbell Pullover: 2 x 12
- Cable Pressdown + Cable Curl: 2 x 12 each, as a superset
- Standing Calf Raise + Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 2 x 15 each, as a superset
Keys to Success
Once-a-week bodybuilding training may not be the best prescription for muscle growth, but it will certainly do the trick. However, you don’t have as much wiggle room as someone who hits the iron four or five times a week.
Your workout needs to be focused, aggressive, and intense. It’s your only opportunity to grow for seven whole days, so you’ll have to work harder than usual.
Keep Your Intensity High
You have to train hard to make gains, but that doesn’t always mean taking every individual set to the point of muscular failure. A large volume of training spread out across several solid workouts can cross the “hypertrophic threshold,” but this isn’t a luxury you have access to if you can only hit the gym once a week.
To make up for losing out on additional “dosages” of training, your single bodybuilding workout will have to be intense — specifically, you’ll need to take most sets very close to muscular failure.
This will ensure that you leave the gym having accrued significant muscle damage. Enough to adapt to, rebound from, and grow back bigger and stronger.
Select “Safe” Exercises
Make no mistake, no exercise is inherently unsafe. Some exercises, usually by virtue of what equipment you work with, are just more convenient to perform with an extremely high intensity.
For instance, you might find it difficult to properly fatigue your quads during back squats because of degradation to your technique. The deficit trap bar deadlift, on the other hand, has a much simpler technique and loads your legs through a comparable range of motion.
This should make it easier to train hard with, which is crucial if you’re working under a time or logistical constraint. The same idea applies to dumbbells, which you can easily discard to exit the set, or machines, which lock your body into a fixed path of motion.
Cover Your Bases
Hand-in-hand with exercise selection is the mandate that you perform lifts that address a variety of different movement patterns. Most major muscle groups perform more than one anatomical function. For example, your lats both retract your scapula and extend your shoulder.
The straight-arm pulldown is a fantastic lat isolation movement that takes your shoulder and upper arm through a very large range of motion, but it doesn’t require that you retract and protract your shoulder blade.
This neglects one of the lat’s primary functions (and leaves your trapezius muscles out in the cold as well). So, to efficiently train your back, you’d probably be better off choosing a row variation that includes both actions instead.
Benefits of Training Bodybuilding Once Per Week
Even supposedly “suboptimal” training plans can have surprising upsides. There’s a silver lining to once-a-week training, even if you don’t stand to gain as much muscle as you otherwise would.
It Saves (a Lot) of Time
A diminished training schedule is often one of the concessions you have to make when your life gets a little hectic. You only have so many hours in the day, after all. Luckily, cutting your bodybuilding down to one weekly session should free up a tremendous amount of time for other activities or obligations.
If you were previously following a four-day split, and your workouts took up to 90 minutes, you stand to gain an extra five hours of gym time alone by training only once. And that’s without additional time spent commuting to and from the gym.
You Can Make Solid Gains
It may not be strictly optimal, but you might be surprised at how low you can go with your training volume and still create new muscle or add more strength. For instance, research suggests that just one single set of high-intensity resistance training can boost your strength. (1)
While more is (usually) more, this bodes well for your productivity in the gym. There’s also a marked and well-observed relationship between the amount of training you do and the muscle you stand to gain, but only up to a point. (2) As few as one to four weekly sets, per muscle group, may account for a majority of the overall muscle you put on.
It Forces You to Be Efficient
Trimming your training down also forces you to audit yourself in the weight room. As a bodybuilder, you may find yourself incrementally adding more and more exercises and sets over time as you discover new movements or protocols that you enjoy.
However, all that extra training may not be productive. Cutting your lifting down to only the bare essentials can serve as an effective reminder of what exercises or behaviors actually have a high return-on-investment.
Research backs this idea as well, with some papers illustrating that multiple redundant sets don’t provoke a better hypertrophic response than a single, high-quality set. (3)
(It’s worth noting that these findings don’t hold up for strength gain to the same extent. Additional doses of training do seem to produce better and better strength gains.)
Accommodates Other Sports
You may have decided to deprioritize your bodybuilding endeavors for reasons other than a busy schedule. Perhaps you simply want to make time to dabble in other forms of fitness.
Reducing your bodybuilding training down to a bare-essentials, once-per-week session frees up plenty of time to get into powerlifting, CrossFit, martial arts, or more traditional sports. It’ll also reduce your recovery demands, so you aren’t constantly walking around with sore muscles.
Minimizes Training Impact on Lifestyle
Bodybuilding, even as a personal pursuit (nevermind a career in physique sports), doesn’t start and stop at the doors of your gym. Your habits and actions outside of the weight room account for a large portion of your overall success.
The time you spend prepping meals, attending to your programming, or performing active recovery activities all cut into your general lifestyle. As you reduce the amount of time you spend training, you should be able to cut back on these auxiliary actions as well.
Great for Maintenance
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not pushing yourself towards progress at all times. In such cases, a low-frequency bodybuilding routine can help you hold onto the muscle you’ve built.
In fact, the amount of training you require to maintain muscle is startlingly low, especially compared to what it might take you to bulk up as an experienced bodybuilder. Some research indicates that as low as one ninth of your “normal” training volume is sufficient to maintain muscle for months at a time. (4)
So, if you want to put your muscle-gain journey on hold, you really can dial things back to just a couple of hard sets per week and rest easy knowing that you’re losing little to nothing along the way.
Drawbacks of Training Bodybuilding Once Per Week
If one weekly training session were enough to build earth-shattering quads or carve out an Olympia-quality chest, you’d probably see such a protocol much more commonly. Unfortunately, there are plenty of drawbacks to low-frequency training that merit just as much consideration as the perks.
You Have to Paint Broadly
Limited training time also limits your attention to detail. Your singular workout shouldn’t take you five or six hours to complete (no matter how potent your favorite pre-workout is), so you’ll almost assuredly have to cut out some movements you enjoy.
In practical terms, this means relying more on large compound exercises that adequately tax several muscles, and less on targeted isolation movements. This constraint will likely prevent you from including all of your favorite exercises, particularly if they’re difficult to set up or require an extensive mobilization routine beforehand.
Furthermore, modern research almost conclusively asserts that training a given muscle or muscle group twice per week is superior for hypertrophy than hitting it only once. (5) Note, though, that once-a-week training is far from pointless.
Requires Long Workouts
If you only train once per week, that single session will necessarily take longer than you’re used to. You’ll simply need more time to perform both lower and upper-body exercises on the same day, particularly if you have specific warm-ups for those moves.
As a bodybuilder, you probably won’t be able to get away with a quick and dirty 45-minute session if you’re only training once a week. Be prepared for a long, potentially grueling workout.
Does Not Address Imbalances Directly
Clumping all of your body parts together into the same session may prevent you from addressing muscular imbalances or lagging elements of your physique.
Bodybuilders will commonly dedicate an entire day of training toward bringing up a lagging body part by performing multiple exercises for that muscle. Since you’re constrained by time, you’ll have to cut your losses in this area.
If you really want to grow a specific muscle more than others, the broad compound lifting found in a single weekly session may not be appropriate for your needs.
Limited Strength Gain Potential
If you’re an aspiring (or dedicated) bodybuilder, your muscular strength probably isn’t your main priority in the gym. After all, physique athletes aren’t asked about their bench press personal record on stage.
That said, getting stronger is an admirable goal that is often quite fulfilling to pursue. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to make significant strength gains by only training once a week, especially if you already have some gym experience.
Single-session, low-frequency training robs you of the opportunity to practice the skill of strength development on a regular basis. You can’t practice your squat setup or refine your deadlift cues if you’re only lifting once a week. As such, slow motor skill acquisition will likely interfere with your strength goals.
Training bodybuilding only once per week isn’t ideal, but it may be necessary from time to time. Fortunately, you can make solid progress with low-frequency training if you cultivate the right workout plan and are prepared to train hard.
- Low-frequency training often comes as a side effect of a busy lifestyle, active social circle, or demanding career.
- Research shows that you can make noteworthy progress in the gym on relatively low doses of training, as long as you keep your effort high.
- To gain or maintain muscle in one weekly session, you should rely on large compound exercises that you can safely perform with a high amount of intensity.
- Single-session bodybuilding limits your ability to address muscular imbalances, gain significant strength, or bring up lagging body parts.
One Workout to Rule Them All
English bodybuilder Dorian Yates won the Mr. Olympia competition for six consecutive years between 1992 and 1997. Yates helped usher in a new era of, at the time, unbelievable muscularity in bodybuilding.
He was also well known for his lean-and-mean, low-volume approach to muscle growth, often performing only one or two hard sets for each muscle during his workouts.
You may not be a six-time Sandow trophy winner, but there’s absolutely some merit to taking an equally frugal approach to your own bodybuilding training if you’re required to do so. Keep your intensity up, work hard on the right exercises, and the gains will keep rolling in.
1. Ralston, G. W., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. B., & Baker, J. S. (2017). The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 47(12), 2585–2601.
2. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082.
3. Rhea, M. R., Alvar, B. A., Ball, S. D., & Burkett, L. N. (2002). Three sets of weight training superior to 1 set with equal intensity for eliciting strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 16(4), 525–529.
4. Bickel, C. S., Cross, J. M., & Bamman, M. M. (2011). Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 43(7), 1177–1187.
5. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(11), 1689–1697.
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