Getting strong with 20min of working out per week?!

I have recently read through a discussion on Mark Sisson’s site, where one guy (Chima) said:

If you are in the weight room more than 20 minutes a week then your routine is not as effective as it could be. Chances are, you will end up hurting yourself.

There was an interesting discussion after this (just search for “chima” on the page) and this got me thinking whether or not it is indeed true that 20min of strength training PER WEEK is enough or not – I certainly spend much more time than this. In fact – in 20 minutes I barely finish my 5×5 back squats. On the other hand, Chima’s statement seemed genuine, and it seemed to work for him.

Having though about this for a while I believe the key is in the following statement of Chima

It may only take 20 minutes but you are wobbling out of there barely able to change clothing after the workout

together with the fact that he has been lifting for a while now. My view is that as an intermediate-to-advanced lifter (in Rippetoes “Practical Programming” terminology) will actually be able to pack an enormous effort into a 20min training session (assuming no warm-up /cool-down that is) as he will have all the appropriate muscle recruitment patterns in place to go in with max effort.

Now it is well known that adaptation occurs depending on the weights used, and the volume. I would think that the volume you can pack into a 20min session is rather low – even a very fast and experienced lifter will most likely not be able to put in more than say 10 sets of PR-weight lifts in, even if they are short. However, if the lifter in question does not (yet) need an enormous volume to advance, he can certainly obtain a stimulus him that will push him forwards.

Again, following Rip’s book I would think however that this will at one point stop working: Rip clearly explains that for advanced lifters the stimulus that can be achieved in one session is not enough, and various periodisation techniques are needed to bring people further up the curve at that point. For a beginner lifter this would also not work (or if it works, it is not optimal): a beginner is not able to exhaust himself enough in a 20min session to achieve optimal advancement – Rip’s program for example is probably 1hour per session (including warm-up and cool down) for 3 days / week.

So my conclusion: for a lucky few that are advanced enough to be able to provide their body with enough stimulus in this one very short weekly session, and who are not in a phase yet where more complicated periodisation is needed, a 20min per week workout might indeed be enough. For the rest of use (and especially the majority of lifters who would be “beginners” under Rip’s classification) I am afraid that we still need to spend a bit longer in the gym to get where we want to get….

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