The bare minimum.
“Imagine, bicep curling one 25kg dumbbell ( 95 – 100% 1 rep max) once, once a day and in 10 weeks still come out with gains! That’s insane!”
How to increase our 1 rep max during lockdown
While we’re in lockdown, we know that our hard-earned hypertrophy is wasting away. Hypertrophy is the increase of muscle size, namely our type 2 fibres which are used for 1 rep max. So, by transitive property, if the strength of our 1 rep max is contingent on how big and effective our muscles are, then our strength will inherently go down too. Disuse atrophy is the term we use for the loss of skeletal muscle due to disuse. This is due to the maintenance of muscle mass being dependent on the balance of two processes: the rate of protein synthesis and protein degradation. Under atrophy conditions there is a shift in the balance of these two processes such that there is a net loss of muscle proteins. As a conservative figure, atrophy starts to occur in very minor forms at 14 days however continues to occur rather proportionally with time. As we lack the resistance training these days as gyms are closed, lets discuss the bare minimum of what we need to keep up our 1 rep max; hence minimise disuse atrophy. Please note that the rest of this article is not looking to just sustain muscle bulk. But we are looking for suboptimal or optimistically optimal increases in 1 rep max as that is the nature of most systematic review discussions.
One thing to note before diving into this topic is the concern of different contexts of resistance training. As a 1 repetition maximum pertains to the concept of maximal exertion where we’re only able to perform that specific life (deadlift, bench press or squat) once (often assuming that the 1 repetition will lead to failure). Other various forms of repetition training that lead to failure (i.e training at 60% or 70% of a 1 rep max load) may or may not increase your 1 rep max depending on the training approach utilised. That means training to momentary failure with both lighter and heavier loads can be effective in eliciting strength gains, but training with heavier loads without reaching momentary failure may too increase the same outcome. Both approaches are two ways to the same goal at variable rates of effectiveness.
So, what is the bare minimum? Research evidence has come to suggest that 1 rep max increase may be still be elicited as low as training once a week. However, the intensity and effort of that one session must be rather high. Previous meta-analysis data has indicated that training with high amounts of effort may increase both muscle hypertrophy and strength irrespective of load, as long as momentary failure is ascertained.
But what is an extreme example of this? Before we talked about the bare minimum in 1 week, heres an example of the bare minimum in a day. In Korakakis et al’s study, powerlifters were to perform one 95% 1 rep max lift once a day. Here 4 out of 5 participants were able to increase their 1 rep max across 10 weeks. Imagine, bicep curling one 25kg dumbbell once, once a day and in 10 weeks still come out with gains! That’s insane!
But lockdown means we rarely have the luxury to have access to this equipment. We’re probably at home doing our own workouts with the bare minimum. So again, what’s the bare minimum for us? Most systematic reviews suggest that performing a single set of 6–12 repetitions with loads ranging from 70–85% 1 rep max 2–3 times per week with high intensity of effort can produce increases in 1 rep max strength. This increase will be nothing close to what’s available within the gym. However, the importance of this statement is high intensity whether or not you reach volitional or momentary failure.
In the case that you only have body weight exercises to do, you can still achieve 1 rep max strength gains by increasing your reps to momentary failure. Instead of 6 – 12, you may be looking at 20 – 50 (or appropriate adjusted sets or reps to high intensity), however still working out 2 – 3 times per week.
Written by Joshua Shum Physiotherapist