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Minimalist Training Routine For Muscle Mass

If I told you that it was not only possible for you to make great gains in strength and muscle mass by spending two hours a week in the gym you would probably think I am trying to sell you on the latest fad or gimmick, but in actual fact, that is all the growth stimulation you really need to become larger and stronger - provided it is set up properly and intense.

The vast majority of people who wouldn't believe this is possible have likely been led to believe that on has to be on one of those typical high volume, high frequency routines that we see in every issue of the most popular muscle magazine.

Table of Contents

What Is Minimalist Training?

No doubt you've all heard the axiom, "Less is More"? This is exactly what the idea behind minimalist training is all about - stripping away the cruft and spending the most effort and energy on whatever gives you the most benefits.

The so-called Pareto's Principle or "80/20" rule is another way of looking at it. The notion being that 20% of our efforts result in 80% of the beneficial results.

Minimalist training is your best "bang for the buck" with its focus on keeping things simple.

Keep it simple
Training Shouldn't be Complicated - Image Credit: iStock

What's Wrong With Most Training Routines?

Truth be told, most of us can tend to let "the perfect be the enemy of the good" and in an effort to look for the next best thing, we overcomplicate things, adding in too many exercises or complex set/rep schemes which drain our energy away from recovery and can negatively affect training motivation.

The truth is, that the lion's share of the bodybuilding routines found in most magazines and on the Internet would constitute overtraining for the average trainer with a fair metabolism.

Everything works for a while, but over time, the body can only handle so much before stagnating. Volume and frequency are two variables with an inverse relation: raising one, means lowering the other.

The volume and frequency are too much and there are typically too many single joint exercises in them as well. A drug free weight trainer (90%+ of those in any given gym at any time) cannot cope with the volume laid out in the average routine laid out by pro, non-naturally trained bodybuilders. (consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's split routine).

What his books and the magazines alike don't mention is that he (and most other professional bodybuilders like him) were or like many bodybuilders today, are on copious amounts of drugs at any given time. There is no way that even the average intermediate trainer can recover from this volume naturally.

The linked routine above is stereotypical of the same ones repeated ad nauseum in the main "muscle magazines": too much of everything, too often, too many needless isolation exercises.

Most people we see in any gym trying to pack on muscle also have "real lives". Daily work coupled with domestic responsibilities, recreational activities etc., all take their toll on the body's recovery abilities (and never mind the huge stress that economic issues causes for the average person). Most pro bodybuilders do little else other than eat, sleep and train.

Add drugs to the mix and it is easy to see how following their advice is a sure-fire way to halt your progress and train yourself into the ground.

Even some of the most knowledgeable trainers today spend most of their time working with athletes, and often recommend training regimens that are too much for the average trainer who's nervous system cannot fully recover from them.

The Essentials of a Productive Training Routine

Weight training to achieve optimal growth stimulation for the average trainer must be a) reasonably brief, b) intense, and if intense, c) not too frequent. If you are looking to gain muscle while at the same time priming your metabolism, you must focus on compound multi-joint exercises.

Overhead Press
Overhead Press - Image Credit: iStock

Strength training that uses these basic compound exercises is also key to burning body fat and providing the base for "functional strength" that spills over into any athletic activity you do on the side, whether its playing football on the weekends, martial arts, or when its your moving day.

Weight training using heavy compound exercises like squats and deadlifts entails that you need to exercise less frequently because when you increase strength and size, your recovery ability (neurological adaptation) does not increase at quite the same rate, so one needs to keep in mind that proper recovery entails resting the nervous system fully more than it does resting the soft tissues.

Is Training Twice a Week Enough?

What the Research Found

As it turns out, there is research that suggests that the difference between training with weights twice a week or three times a week is negligible. A recent study compared weight training twice a week with three times a week workouts in adults over age 60:

Chest press strength increased in both the 2 times/week and 3 times/week groups over the 8-week training period by 20.84% and 20.18%, respectively. Lower-body (leg press) strength also showed improvements in both groups: 22.34% in the 2 times/week group and 28.12% in the 3 times/week group. There was a slight, but nevertheless significant gain of lean body mass from pre- to post-training (2.4% and 1.9% for the 2 days and 3 days groups, respectively).

However, functional performance remained unchanged in the groups. We found that short-term resistance training 2 times/week or 3 times/week elicited comparable muscle strength and lean body mass adaptations in older adults.

Again, the maxim "less is more" applies to many things, and especially weight training. It is a myth that you need more than one exercise per "body part" to build a well balanced muscular, athletic physique if you are training heavy with enough intensity.

Focusing on progressing your strength on the basic exercises, using compound, multi-joint exercise movements with proper form is key to success.

That, coupled with the routine below - is all you need to grow and get stronger more than you ever thought possible. Consistency and intensity of effort, over time, will reap rewards for you that you've never thought possible. Its the slow and steady that wins the race. 

Proper Form on Back Squats
Back Squat Showing Proper Form - Image Credit: iStock

The Main Benefits of Minimalist Training

1) Great for beginners and average trainers looking to develop a muscular, athletic body.

I favor this type of training for beginners because they a) have better recovery ability since they are usually younger athletes, and b) keeping things simple will allow novice trainers to focus on the basics and learn proper form, basically because they have fewer functional movements to master.

They can focus on proper form on the bench press, dumbbell presses, various squats and deadlifts and so on. This is critical as these are the movements that are likely to cause injury down the road as one gets stronger if proper form isn't learned early on.

2) Great for older lifters as well who need more time in between sessions for recovery.

As we get older, things tend to catch up with us. Injuries we've accumulated since we were younger, our recovery isn't the same anymore, many are faced with joint health issues and so on.

Having a day or two off between training sessions is a great way to focus not only on recovery but also on doing rehab work such as mobility work, stretching, soft tissue work and so on, as well as doing some form of cardio that best fits your needs.

Some More Benefits 

  • Perfect for people with busy lives!
  • You will loose bodyfat, getting leaner you gain muscle
  • You will have more free time which will pay off in opportunity cost alone
  • You will notice improved energy levels
  • Being an upper-lower split, you will gain a more proportionate, athletic build
  • You will have more time on your off days to pursue other activities, like energy systems training/cardiovascular fitness, general conditioning, MMA, sports etc. (Imagine the shape you would be in doing MMA or other martial arts, boxing or similar 2-3 times a week and hitting the weights with this routine twice a week!)
Chin-Up Exercise
Chin-Ups - works back, biceps and core - Image Credit: iStockaption

Why An Upper-Lower Split?

For minimalist training I generally favor an upper lower split for several reasons. One, you are less likely to get overuse injuries, since all the movements which stress the same joints/connective tissues are generally hit on the same days.

For example, when training on the lower body day, you would normally be doing squats and deadlifts - which will stress the knees and lower back. 

On upper days, all the heavy pressing and will strain the anterior delts and triceps muscles, while the pulling exercises stress the back, biceps and forearm muscles.

Training them all on one day and then having an extended rest period will allow you to hit them harder the next time, because you will have maximized recovery in those areas.

Contrast that with the famous 5x5 routines which have you squatting and benching on one day, and the 48 hours later, you are deadlifting and overhead pressing. Every 48 hours you are stressing out the same soft tissues with heavy sessions.

When you have been training for some years, or are an older trainer starting out, it is highly advisable to use an upper-lower split for the above reasons. 

The 2 Day a Week Minimalist Routine

Lower - Mondays

Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
Step-Ups, Split Squats, or Lunges - 3 sets x 10 reps
Stiff-legged Deadlift - 3 sets x 8 reps (followed by 2x10 50% 1RM)
Calf Raises - 3 sets x 15 reps
Hanging Leg Raises - 3 sets x 10 reps

Upper - Thursdays

Medium Grip Bench Press - 3 sets x 5 reps (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
Overhead Press - 3 sets x 5 reps (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
One-Arm Dumbbell Rows - 3 sets x 15 reps
Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups - 3 sets x 1 Rep Short of Failure
Dumbbell Curls - 3 sets x 12 reps

The Parameters

  • The routine is to be done with a minimum of 2 days off in between sessions, on a one on, two off rotation.
  • 3 sets (so called "working sets") of 5 reps are to be done, not counting warm-up sets!
  • Where specified, there are 3 sets of 15 done with 50% of your one rep max. These "down sets" will facilitate hypertrophy
  • When it is possible to do a 7th rep on the last set, raise the weight
  • Strive to raise the weight regularly
  • Rest between sets should ideally be 2-3 minutes
  • Schedule a "deloading week" every 4th - 6th week, where the weight is dropped 20-25% on every exercise for that week
  • Throw in 2 days a week of energy systems training like skipping, sprinting, running stairs and work on flexibility. It might not be a bad idea to hit yoga 3x a week and then do 15-20 minutes of cardio after. 

What to Avoid

  • Adding exercises. Believe me, there is more than enough work here to build big arms!
  • Adding extra sets and reps. Ditto. There is more than enough work in this routine with the volume of sets, reps and exercises.
  • Not resting enough in between sessions. This routine will work best for most people done on a one on, two off rotation. 
Dips are arguably as good a chest exercise as bench press
Dips are arguably as good a chest exercise as bench press - Image Credit: iStock

Alternate Exercise Suggestions

It isn't 100% mandatory to keep doing the same exercises in the routine. Actually switching exercises around every 4-8 weeks is a good idea to prevent overuse injuries - provided one always prioritizes proper training form, tempo, and full range of movement.

Here are some suggestions for alternate exercises based on the criteria of them being 1) compound, multi-joint and 2) giving you the best overall benefits by hitting large muscle groups in one movement.

Lower Quad Dominant

  • Front Squat
  • Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Leg Press
  • Split Squat
  • Hack Squat

Lower Posterior Dominant

  • Rack Pull
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Single Leg Deadlift
  • Hip Thrust
  • Sumo Deadlift

Upper Pushing

  • Dumbbell Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Machine Press
  • Floor Press
  • Weighted Dip

Upper Pulling

  • T-Bar Row
  • Cable Row
  • Machine Row
  • Chest Supported Row
  • Machine Pulldown

I firmly believe that besides the excellent push pull legs routine, this routine is one of the most productive routines I have ever used.

It is also a perfect program for someone doing another activity on the side, be it cycling, climbing, MMA or whatever. If your life is crazy hectic busy, you could also simplify this sort of workout routine.