What is the most minimalist strength training routine?
Updated: May 12
I once had a friend who gained 10kg of muscle by going to the gym for 1 hour per week. To achieve such peculiar results, one must go outside the box. His regimen looked like this:
2 sessions per week, 30 minutes each. Five exercises: chest press, shoulder press, seated row, lat pulldown, and leg press. Each exercise for just ONE SET, 8-12 reps, with 5 second eccentric and 5 second concentric. In other words, every rep would be 5 seconds up and 5 seconds down. Add to the equation a disciplined approach to calories. It took him a year, but he got there.
This is not the greatest routine I can fathom. It may work for building muscle, but it still leaves a lot of functional movement on the table. Though what I admire about it is the minimalism, the efficiency.
What is the most minimal and effective strength training routine? There may be more than one, but what are the general sign posts along this road?
The first sign post for any endeavour is starting with the why. Why strength training? Because it makes me feel strong, potent, resilient, savage. A go-getter. Why minimalism? Because my path is to develop and share yoga. Therefore I want to scale down my strength training and scale up my yoga. Minimalism helps us to leverage our time for what matters most.
What are the most important lifts? They would be the squat and the deadlift, in my opinion. They are highly functional. Whenever you pick up and object, it is a variation of the deadlift. It involves some degree of hip hinging and posterior chain activation, i.e. your hamstrings, glutes, and back. The squat is also an essential human movement. It helps you get on and off the ground. Historically it was a resting and shitting position, before the advent of chairs and toilets in our cushy culture. Squatting is one of the fundamental movements we evolved to do, like walking, running, and climbing. To do these movements is to be a fully activated human.
Developing the squat and deadlift has a lot of carry over. Many studies have shown that when you increase your squat, you increase other athletic capacities such as sprint speed and vertical jump. Martial arts instructor Ramsey Dewey says the squat and deadlift assist with keeping your neck, spine, and hips neutral amidst the throws of combat. Renowned sports scientist Pavel Tsatsouline says that strength is the mother of all qualities. Whether you want speed, endurance, or a better tennis swing, strength will feed into every physical act you do. Wink wink. And there is no purer expression of strength than the deadlift and the squat.
In addition to athletic performance, these movements seem high leverage to your physique and overall health. This is because they work the most muscles and the largest muscles simultaneously. The quads, hamstrings, and glutes are the three largest muscles in the body; all of which get targeted during the deadlift and squat. But these leg movements hit a lot more than just the legs. Every muscle gets activated during these lifts. This is not to say that every muscle contracts and extends in a full range of motion, but they do hold tension to support the lift. While the leg muscles will see the most growth, every muscle still has the potential for growth due to the supporting role of stabilisation.
Hitting the biggest muscles and the most muscles, how does this affect the physique? It sends a strong hormonal signal for every muscle to grow. It will help you build the largest total muscle mass system-wide. Having more lean muscle speeds up your metabolism, the ultimate defence against fat gain and type 2 diabetes.
This is not to say that large muscles are the be all and end all to health. Mobility and functional movement are equally important. If you can achieve all of them, you may be moving for a lifetime.
We now have a strong case to do our squats and deadlifts. Here comes the next question: Is it important to train our upper body? I believe yes, though not in the exact same way. It is certainly worthwhile to keep our joints in the upper body limber and strong. I just don’t see the need to overload them super-duper heavy, unless you are training sport specific. For a minimalist strength training routine, body weight will probably suffice. This would include chin ups, pull ups, tuck levers, push ups and dips. To focus on shoulders, try inverted push up variations. The benefits of body weight training are numerous. There is less likelihood of injury. You train your full-body functional awareness. And my favourite, you can take it anywhere with you, including out in the sunshine.
There is one more variable in the equation of strength training: rotation. Often overlooked in fitness programs, rotation is a pivotal movement in most sports. Yoga includes plenty of rotation, yet more in the realm of mobility than strength. On the other hand, kettlebells and cables are a great way to apply load to your rotational movements.
Applying this in real life, my regimen looks like this: Going to the gym 2 or 3 times per week, alternating between deadlift and squat. For upper body, doing calisthenics movements all throughout my day and week, in many small doses. Also doing bench press once or twice per week, because I like the way it feels. And as always, doing yoga for breakfast, lunch, and tea.
I wish you the best in carving out your own routine, so you meet your fitness and life goals alike. Namaste.