Thirteen Minutes of Weightlifting, Three Times a Week, Can Improve Muscle Strength and Endurance as Effectively as Working Out for 70 Minutes

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sports fitness research has repeatedly demonstrated the superiority of high intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises, and this applies not only to walking, sprinting, bicycling and swimming, but also to strength training workouts
  • Recent research shows doing a single set of weightlifting exercises three times a week for two months improves muscle strength and endurance as effectively as doing three or five sets
  • Men doing five sets, three times a week, built larger muscles than those doing a single set. But while they added more visual bulk, they weren’t actually stronger
  • If you’re only doing one set, you have to push yourself significantly harder during that set in order to lift to failure. While you could max out by using more weight, a better strategy is to simply slow down your movements. This is also known as SuperSlow weight training
  • Superslow weight training has proven very effective for women with osteoporosis, who are too frail to do regular strength training

By Dr. Mercola

In recent years, sports fitness research has repeatedly demonstrated the superiority of high intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises, and this applies not only to walking, sprinting, bicycling and swimming, but also to strength training workouts.

The key to turning a weightlifting session into a high-intensity exercise is to ramp up the intensity by slowing down your movements. The effectiveness and efficiency of HIIT was recently demonstrated in yet another study, which found you can reap results in just 13 minutes a day, three times a week, provided the intensity of your exertion is high enough.

Single Weight Training Set Can Provide as Much Benefit as Five Sets

The study,1,2,3 published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, concluded that:

“Marked increases in strength and endurance can be attained by resistance-trained individuals with just three, 13-minute weekly sessions over an eight-week period, and these gains are similar to that achieved with a substantially greater time commitment.”

Many weightlifting routines call for doing a certain number of sets — typically three to five — of any given exercise, with each set consisting of eight to 12 repetitions. The goal is to “lift to failure,” which means using enough weight that by the end of the set, you’re unable to complete another repetition. Needless to say, all of these repetitions take time, necessitating spending an hour or so in the gym.

However, as this and many other studies show, an effective workout does not have to be an enormous time drain. Here, 34 young, healthy men who had previously engaged in a regular resistance training routine were recruited and randomly assigned to a standard weight training routine performed at varying dosages.

  • Group No. 1 completed five sets of seven exercises at eight to 12 repetitions each, with 90 seconds of rest between sets. Time investment: 70 minutes
  • Group No. 2 completed three sets of each exercise (eight to 12 reps). Time investment: 40 minutes
  • Group No. 3 completed a single set of each exercise (eight to 12 reps). Time investment: 13 minutes

All participants completed their assigned workout routine three times a week for two months. Muscle measurements were taken before and at the completion of the study. As expected, at the end of the eight weeks, all participants had improved muscle strength and muscle endurance.

The surprising part was that these improvements were nearly identical between the three groups. The only difference between the groups was that those doing five sets had built larger muscles than those doing the single set. In other words, those doing a higher set count had added more visual bulk or mass, but they weren’t actually stronger.

Muscle Size Does Not Determine Strength and Endurance

As noted by Brad Schoenfeld, lead author and director of the human performance program at Lehman College, the results suggest “there is a separation between muscular strength and hypertrophy,” i.e., muscle enlargement. Put another way, the size of your muscles is not a direct indication of your actual strength.

Depending on your style of training, a person with smaller muscles may be just as strong as someone with larger muscles. But how is it that doing a single set can improve muscle strength and endurance as effectively as doing three or five sets?

As mentioned, a key strategy in weight training is to lift to failure, and if you’re only doing one set, you have to push yourself significantly harder during that set. So, unless you push yourself to the max, you’re probably not going to be able to replicate these results. While you could max out by using more weight, a better strategy is to simply slow down your movements. This is also known as SuperSlow weight training.

Boost Strength by 50 Percent in Two Months

The SuperSlow program was originally developed and popularized by Ken Hutchins in 1982, who worked as an equipment designer and educational writer at Nautilus. At that time, he was asked to supervise a Nautilus-sponsored osteoporosis study. The women in the study were so weak and frail, the researchers worried they might get injured lifting weights.4

The solution Hutchins came up with was a combination of low weight and slow, controlled movements, and the women ended up making surprisingly dramatic gains in strength. A decade later, YMCA fitness research director Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., decided to test the SuperSlow protocol.

He did two informal studies, one in 1993 and another in 1999. In each trial, 75 people were enrolled into a SuperSlow strength training program for eight and 10 weeks respectively. Their results were compared to groups of people doing a regular strength training routine. As reported by WebMD:5

“The people in Westcott's study did 12 to 13 exercises. The comparison group did 10 repetitions of each exercise, pulling the weight up and lowering it over a period of the usual two seconds in each direction. The other half did five repetitions, but lifted slowly, 10 seconds on the upstroke and four seconds on the way back down. (Hutchins and others recommend 10 seconds each way.)

That's 20 seconds of muscle contraction for each repetition instead of 4 seconds. Multiply that by five repetitions and 12 exercises, and you have a killer workout, Westcott says... Those doing SuperSlow in both groups experienced a greater than 50 percent gain in strength. In fact, the results were so difficult to believe that Westcott had them verified at Virginia Tech.”

Removing Momentum Turns Weight Lift Into a HIIT Exercise

Slowing down your movements removes the momentum, which forces your muscles to continuously work throughout the entire movement. They’re not allowed to rest at any point, which allows you to work to the point of muscle failure much faster. Despite being more intense, SuperSlow is far safer than regular forms of weight training, as the movements are so slow and controlled throughout. As explained by Dr. Doug McGuff, author of “Body by Science,” who owns a SuperSlow workout center in South Carolina:6

“With other exercises, to make them more challenging, you usually have to increase the force required — the weight level, whatever — which brings on aches and pains. This makes them more dangerous. With SuperSlow, you can make exercise much more challenging without increasing force."

SuperSlow will also improve your cardiovascular fitness. The idea that you need aerobic exercise like jogging to improve your aerobic capacity has actually been proven incorrect, because to access your cardiovascular system, you have to work your muscles.

So, as long as you’re doing mechanical muscle work, your aerobic capacity will improve right along with your muscle strength. Moreover, HIIT trains your metabolism to increase energy production by delivering substrate to your mitochondria as fast as possible, and it does so far more effectively and efficiently than traditional aerobic exercise.

Intensity and Duration Are Inversely Proportional

One of the foundational concepts of HIIT is that the intensity and amount of time spent working out are inversely proportional, meaning the greater the intensity, the less time you have to spend working out. As mentioned, this has been scientifically verified numerous times.

In one previous experiment7 a single minute of intense activity within a 10-minute exercise session was found to be as effective as working out for 45 minutes at a moderate pace! After doing three workout sessions per week for 12 weeks, the endurance group had exercised 27 hours, while the HIIT group had exercised six hours, a mere 36 minutes of which was done at high intensity. Yet both groups showed virtually identical fitness gains.

As a general suggestion, you only need to carve out about 20 minutes two to three times a week for your HIIT workouts. As suggested in the featured study, if you’re really pressed for time, you could cut that in half and still reap results.

Even as little as four minutes — provided you push as hard as you can the entire time — can provide benefits. A study8 investigating this theory found that men who ran at 90 percent of their maximum heart rate for four minutes, three times a week for 10 weeks, improved their endurance, blood pressure and blood sugar control to the same degree as those who did HIIT for 16 minutes.

The Nitric Oxide Dump — One of the Quickest HIIT Exercises Out There

Another exceptionally safe way to improve your muscle strength and general fitness is the nitric oxide dump — a revision and, I think, significant improvement of my Peak Fitness program. For these exercises, you don’t even need weights; you’re just using your own body weight and rapid movement. In all, the routine takes just three minutes, but should ideally be done three times a day, adding up to nine minutes a day.

For a full demonstration, see the video above. Start with three sets of 10 reps, and as you become more fit, you can increase it to 20 reps. Even though this exercise takes just three minutes, it will make you short of breath. (Be sure to only breathe through your nose, not your mouth. If you cannot do the exercise without opening your mouth, lower the intensity.) The four movements are as follows. Do each set in rapid succession, without resting in between:

  • 10 squats, raising your arms parallel to the floor as you squat and getting your butt back as far as possible, making sure your knees stay behind your toes
  • 10 perpendicular arm raises, stopping when your arms are the height of your shoulders
  • 10 jumping jack motions without the jumping; just moving your hands overhead and touching on the upper and lower portions
  • 10 overhead shoulder presses, making sure to keep your chest out and shoulder blades pinched together

This exercise will:

Trigger the release of nitric oxide, a gas with antioxidant properties that protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and lowering your blood pressure; stimulate your brain; kill bacteria and even defend against tumor cells.

Stimulate anabolic muscle building in addition to thinning your blood, making it less likely to clot and improving your immune function. Nitric oxide is a potent bronchodilator and vasodilator, so it helps significantly increases your lungs’ oxygen-absorbing capacity.

Give you more exercise benefits in a shorter time — You get most of the benefits from this exercise that you would get from most things you do in a gym in an hour. And, if you do it three times a day, that means you may be getting three to 10 times the metabolic benefit you’d get by going to the gym.

Stimulate mitochondrial function and health — Your skeletal muscle derives its energy from your mitochondria — the energy storehouse of your cells, responsible for the utilization of energy for all metabolic functions.

Mitochondrial decline is closely linked to reduced cardiorespiratory fitness, and decreased resting mitochondrial ATP production may be involved in the development of insulin resistance with aging. By forcing your mitochondria to work harder, exercises such as the nitric oxide dump will trigger your body to produce more mitochondria to keep up with the increased energy demand, and will promote mitochondrial function and health.

Strength Training Is Important for Health

The science is quite clear: Everyone needs strength training, and its importance only increases with age, as load-bearing exercises effectively counteract bone loss. The more sedentary you are, the weaker your bones get, and this can have lethal consequences in old age. Twenty percent of those who break a hip die in the first 12 months following the fracture. Maintaining good muscle tone is also important to safeguard your mobility. Resistance training also:

Improves your insulin sensitivity, thereby lowering your risk of most chronic diseases. In one study, a twice-weekly resistance training program improved insulin sensitivity and reduced abdominal fat in older men who had already developed Type 2 diabetes, without any dietary changes.9

Reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions (large waist circumference, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar) that raise your risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Research shows working out with weights for just under an hour per week can cut your risk of metabolic syndrome by 29 percent.10

Reduces perimenopausal symptoms in women, such as anxiety and depression, mood swings, irregular periods, weight gain and brain fog, in part by increasing production of testosterone.

While typically thought of as a male sex hormone that women don’t need or want too much of, testosterone is actually beneficial for women during this stage of life, as during perimenopause, natural testosterone production can drop by as much as 50 percent.11 While women should not take testosterone, improving your body’s natural production of this hormone is a safe way to address perimenopausal symptoms.

Lowers inflammation, a hallmark of most chronic disease, especially heart disease and cancer.

Improves cognitive function and reduces anxiety and depression, promoting greater well-being.