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Brawn - A Minimalist Training Routine

Of all that has ever been written on the topic of weight training, perhaps the most practical training programs for the the vast majority of the population are to be found in Stuart McRobert's book.

His two major works are "Brawn" and "Beyond Brawn", both of which are essential primers in the basics of weight training, detailing everything you need to know about gaining slabs of solid muscle using minimalist training routines.

His ideas focus on abbreviated training using basic compound exercises using a few sets per exercise to promote muscle growth!

The principles found in Brawn and Beyond Brawn are not a fad or gimmick and don't pretend to be an easy quick-fix "get ripped in 6 weeks".

Those who believe that the old maxim "less is more" holds true when it comes to weight training (as with many other things), will love the simplicity of the bare-bones minimalist routines laid out in his books as "frameworks".

The reasoning here, is that one seldom needs more than one exercise per bodypart and when using heavy compounds - squat, bench, rows, deadlifts, cleans, press etc.

Using these types of movements you actually get the most efficient workout by hitting several muscle groups with one exercise.

McRobert's approach aims at using the most productive movements, using them as the core or your workout routine. The typical routine of his uses 2-3 compounds per workout, along with some "accessory" movements, few overall work sets, and sufficient rest between sessions - fortified with proper rest, nutrition and lifestyle management.

The approach presented by McRobert is contrary to the conventional wisdom promoted by routines in the major muscle magazines on shelves today: the obligatory 6 day per week muscle building workout.

The training reality for the vast majority of the public is about as far as you can get from these sorts of workout routines.

Sadly, go into any gym and you can see the vast majority of trainers who never progress from year to year, all because they are to afraid to go against this conventional thinking of the "bodypart-a-day" 5-6-7 day a week routines.

They are slowly running their growth potential into the ground by following the advice of steroid or growth hormone enhanced, genetically gifted bodybuilders.

bodybuilder back pose
- Image Credit: iStock

Sure, there are those who might benefit from a high volume, high frequency routine for a limited period of time - everything works for a while. And these routines might initially look like they work for a beginner, for whom, everything works due to their disuse atrophy, but even this progress will be short lived as the body eventually adapts to the stress.

Too many trainers have succumbed to the "more is better" propaganda that typifies so much of our culture today.

"Brawn" and "Beyond Brawn" are the most honest books on the subject you will find. And don't take it from me, listen to what some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field have to say about McRoberts books:

"According to the information in the back, writing BEYOND BRAWN took almost five years of Stuart's life to complete. All I can say, as a general comment, is that the time invested certainly shows. At just under 500 pages [512 pages in the revised edition], BB may be the most comprehensive book on weight-training/bodybuilding for the genetically average individual EVER written. In fact, I'll qualify that statement and say, bar none, it's THE most comprehensive book I've ever read on the topic of bodybuilding, and I've read several hundred books.

BB is not filled with scientific explanations, information or lots of technical graphs and charts (there are a few) or many pictures (again, there are a few). For the most part, in fact, it's written in very non-technical language. With 22 total chapters [23 in the revised edition], no aspect of productive weight-training has been overlooked. As an example, when discussing training at home, Stuart makes the (entirely logical but usually overlooked) suggestion to make sure that you're lifting on a level surface. It's the little details like this that make BB such a great book.

BB is divided into three primary sections. Section 1 is entitled "Establishing a secure foundation" and discusses general information of value for those who are embarking upon the goal of adding muscle mass.

Section 2 is the real meat of the book and is entitled "How to train." At almost 200 pages, Stuart has left no topic uncovered with regards to safe and productive training. Topics include setting up a training cycle, exercise intensity, exercise selection and technique, intensity cycling, personalizing your program, overtraining, and others.

Section 3 is entitled "Special issues" and includes a discussion of a real-life cycle (chronicling Stuart's cycle which led to a 400 x 20-rep deadlifting performance), injuries and what to do about them, nutrition, and others.

As stated above, Stuart has truly left no topic uncovered in BB. More importantly, only topics of true importance to the average trainee are discussed in this book. Unlike most bodybuilding books, which are no more than simple fluff, BB actually accomplishes the goal of providing tons (and I do mean TONS) of useful, no-nonsense information for genetically average trainees who want to increase their strength and size.

Having talked about what BB is, let's talk about what BB is not. First and foremost, it's not an overly dogmatical tome which espouses a single way of training for everyone. BB presents numerous interpretations in terms of set and rep goals, length of a cycle, training intensity, and exercise selection.

The last topic deserves further comment. In Stuart's past writings, it's obvious that he was biased very heavily towards certain movements (namely the squat and deadlift) as the main mass-gaining exercises. This was especially true in BRAWN. I happen to agree with him, in general terms. However, after suffering various injuries, most of which were related to poor exercise form and overtraining in his youth, Stuart can no longer perform certain movements safely or without injury. Instead he had to find suitable replacements which were also safe, effective and productive.

Individuals who want to be handed a one-size-fits-all exercise prescription for strength and mass gains may be put-off by BB, because no such prescription is forthcoming. By the same token, individuals looking for "get big quick" promises will be let down by this book. While one chapter does discuss a strategy for maximal muscular gains in minimum time, the overall theme of the book is that "slow and steady" wins the race. Put differently, if you're not willing to put in the time AND hard work to reach your goals, this book may not be for you. However, if you want to know the best way to reach your goals of increased and strength and mass, BB is a book that trainees MUST have on their shelves.

I could probably keep writing about BB for pages and pages, doing a chapter by chapter review of it. But that would be overkill, I think. Ultimately, I guess the best thing I can say about it, repeating from above, is this: "BEYOND BRAWN is, without a doubt, THE most comprehensive book ever written on the topic of strength training and bodybuilding for the genetically average individual." And, again, keep in mind that that statement comes from a guy who's read several hundred books on the topic of strength training in the past ten years. So my endorsement does not come lightly."

Lyle McDonald - Bodyrecomposition

Stuart McRobert Brawn
Stuart McRobert Brawn

"BEYOND BRAWN is an encyclopedia of information, detail upon detail, of all of the subtopics related to weight training. It is not a powerlifting or weightlifting "book." This is the book that remains on the floor next to the bed or on the night table which can and should be looked at nightly. It should be brought into the gym and reviewed prior to training, as a reminder to do things correctly and well, and for motivation. This is a book that can serve as a reference for those who seek factual, useable, effective, practical and applicable training information that can make a difference in one's quest for muscular size and strength. It is information upon information about how to train properly and effectively if you believe in the concept of "basics first" training. I obviously liked it a lot and recommend it highly."

Dr. Ken E. Leistner

bodybuilder doing dumbbell curls
- Image Credit: iStock

 Brawn - An Abbreviated, Minimalist Training Routine

The base structure of the routine involves setting the priority exercises using compound movements.

The Core Compound Exercises

Bench Press
Seated Shoulder Press
Deadlift or Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Add in Accessory/Assistance Work

Rotator Cuff

Putting It Together:

Back or Front Squat 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench Press 3 sets x 5 reps
Weighted Chin-Ups - 3 sets x 8-10 reps
Standing Calf Raises - 2-3 sets x 10-12 reps
Planks - 2 sets x 60 second holds
Crunches - 2 sets x 15 reps
Neck plate raises and bridges

Seated Shoulder Press or Military Press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Deadlift or Romanian Deadlift or Leg Press - 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Weighted Dips - 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Barbell Curls - 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Rotator Cuff Work
Forearm/Grip Work

Note: add 2 days a week of cardio (skipping, sprints, running stairs etc), dynamic mobility, static stretching to this and you will be on your way becoming the total package!