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Minimalist Training Routine

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.

The truth is, that the lion's share of those routines would constitute overtraining for the average trainer with a fair metabolism.

Sure, it's likely true that 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 are on 3-4 drugs at any given time and didn't have full-time jobs. There is no way that even the average intermediate trainer can recover from this volume.

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.

Weight training to achieve optimal growth stimulation for the average trainer must be a) reasonably brief, b) intense, and c) infrequent. If you are looking to gain muscle while at the same time priming your metabolism, you must focus on compound multi-joint exercises.

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.

The maxim "less is more" applies to many things, especially weight training. It is a myth that you need more than one exercise per "body part" if you are training heavy with enough intensity.

A large part of our efforts are wasted with added sets of unnecessary exercises. "Pareto's Principle", also called the 80–20 rule, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the benefits come from 20% of the efforts.

Focusing on progressing your strength on the basic exercises, using compound movements with proper form, eating a slight surplus of calories and protein while limiting empty calories and garbage like refined/processed foods, finding time to rest properly, getting enough sleep, being consistent and most importantly believing in yourself to become the best possible you.

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. 

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 doing the lower body day, its squats and deadlifts which will stress the knees and lower back.

On upper days, all the heavy bench pressing and overhead press will strain the anterior delts and triceps tendons, respectively. Hitting 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. See what I mean? Every 48 hours you are nailing the shit out of your triceps tendons, shoulders, knees, and lower back.

I favor this type of training for beginners because they a) have better recovery ability since they are usually younger athletes, and b) beginners will typically not be strong enough to be moving serious enough weight to start tearing things.

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 Power and Bulking Routine:

Lower - Mondays
Squat - 3x5 (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
Step-Ups, Split Squats, or Lunges - 3x10
Stiff-legged Deadlift - 3x8 (followed by 2x10 50% 1RM)
Calf Raises 3x15
Hanging Leg Raises (pikes) 3x10

Upper - Thursdays
Close to Medium Grip Bench Press - 3x5 (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
Overhead Press 3x5 (followed by 3x15 with 50% 1RM)
Kroc Rows (elbow out) 3x15
Pullups or Chinups 3xFailure
DB Curls 3x12


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
  • 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 here with 3x5 on all the exercises.
  • Not resting enough in between sessions. This routine will work best for most people done on a one on, two off rotation. Especially for old guys like me! 

The Benefits:

  • You can expect increase in your basal metabolic rate
  • 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, GPP, 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!

I firmly believe that besides the excellent push pull legs routine, this routine, is the most productive one 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.