Yes, you can. Consistent exercise is actually way more valuable in building strength and muscle size than sporadic gym sessions that leave you feeling sore and uninspired (at best). There’s even a program called Easy Strength that’s built on this concept. Let’s talk about why this might be.
Going to the gym means…
Many many people think that going to the gym means always pushing yourself hard. As a result, for many people gym sessions also mean:
- Sore joints and tired muscles
- Skipped workouts (not helpful in making gains or long term progress; skipping can make it harder to go back)
- Feeling flat, like you can’t get through the workout (almost as unproductive as skipping it entirely)
Not shockingly, sessions that make you feel worse are not motivational. For lots of people, it’s enough to make them skip a few workouts. That very easily leads to skipping a few more workouts. Then you might as well start again next month. Then you forget. Then it’s been six months and now it’s hard to get back into the habit…
Try this instead
Training moderately and consistently might be better for long term strength and muscle gains for a couple of reasons. It’s easier to recover from less demanding training sessions, so you’ll be ready to train well again sooner.
When you lift weights, your muscles get tired. They bounce back quickly during the session; rest periods of three to five minutes between sets should see your muscles recover to your session starting point.
But heavy lifting – really pushing yourself to the limit – can mean enough overall fatigue to set you back for your next session. One study showed that after a short, intense weights session, the lifters only tested at a return to baseline level 33 hours after their initial session (read the study here) . You could assume then, that the more you push during a session, the longer it will take your body to be ready to go again. Lifting at a moderate intensity allows you to come back to it frequently.
It’s about more than rest and recovery
Consistent, frequent workouts also help your nervous system get better at recruiting your muscle fibers. As background: when you start doing a new exercise or a movement that you aren’t used to, the signals from your nervous system come through haphazardly to your muscle fibers (the individual muscle cells that contract).
The more frequently you complete the movement, the more smoothly these signals will start coming through. This makes the same weight feel easier, because more of your muscle is contracting at the same time to move that weight. It also makes the movement feel more coordinated and smooth. Long-term practice helps cement the nervous system signal pathways, resulting in what we commonly talk about as “muscle memory”.
For most people, working out consistently with moderate effort is the way to go. You’ll minimise the aches, pains, and fatigue of pushing hard every session, and still make a surprising amount of progress. This is absolutely a winning approach!