Minimalist Strength Training, or, How to Get Strong with a Handful of Exercises
There are plenty of reasons why someone may not be able to perform a large array of movements in their strength-training routine. Two of the most common reasons are “not enough money for equipment or a good gym membership” and “not enough time to spend all day lifting”. However, you don’t need a bunch of exercises to get jacked. A minimalist strength training routine, using only a few movements, will still get you strong.
Got enough money and/or enough time to spend? Then you have no need to keep reading. Carry on.
For the other folks who use time or resources as an excuse to not lift, keep reading. I’ll give you some ideas to make your own minimalist strength training routine. and work around your limitations.
Although neither scenario is ideal, you can definitely do a good job at increasing strength in either situation.
No Money, No Gym, No Problem
For the dirt-poor warriors who’ve got nothing but a barbell and some plates, simply perform the following:
- Sumo deadlifts or conventional deadlifts
- Overhead presses
- Abdominal roll-outs
- Bent-over rows
If you can find something to hang onto and don’t mind doing bodyweight exercises, also perform the following
Sumo deadlifts are great. They use more leg musculature than the conventional deadlift, which makes up for the fact that you can’t squat. Without a power-rack or squat stand, there’s no safe way to back squat. Think: how are you supposed to get that weight on and off your back? I’ll discuss in a second why the front squat won’t work either.
Still, some may find the conventional deadlift more comfortable on the the hip joints and knees. So, either variation of the deadlift will be fine.
The weight needed for an overhead press should be easily power cleaned into the bottom position. Especially if someone deadlifts a lot, the power clean will always outpace the press. Always.
Pushup variations – simple, use progressions to work up to a one-arm pushup. These include regular pushups, feet-elevated pushups, and knee-one-arm pushups. The one-arm pushup requires quite a bit of strength, so you WILL get stronger in the process simply out of necessity.
This program is great, because you’re working hip extension, knee extension, the core, horizontal and vertical pushing, and horizontal and vertical pulling. The entire body is being used here.
One final note – if you desperately NEED more strength and power in your legs, you can also include power cleans and front-rack lunges.
Power cleans are self-explanatory. Use the power of your hips to drive the barbell up onto your shoulders. In the same position that you catch the bar in the power clean, you can also perform lunges, which will further strengthen the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The weight will be heavy enough because you will be only using one leg at a time.
Why not front squats? Well, the front squat can easily outpace the power clean. That will make the front squat less efficient for strength stimulus. If a lifter has a power rack, front squats are fine, because they won’t be limited by the power clean. But in a scenario that calls for minimalist strength training, lunges are better.
If there’s any doubt regarding technique, feel free to visit the Starting Strength forums to have people critique a video of your form. Also, make sure to purchase a copy of Starting Strength, which will teach you 100% EXACTLY HOW TO PERFORM THESE MOVEMENTS.
Ain’t Nobody Got Time Fo’ Dat
For the dudes who work too much and don’t have time to do jack, I recommend something that is powerlifting-oriented and revolves around the Big 3 lifts. If you didn’t know, the Big 3 are the deadlift, squat, and bench press.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is perfect for this. The main lifts are the Big 3, plus the overhead press. Each lift receives three working-sets per week, and you add whatever accessory exercises that are needed. You can literally do each of those four lifts as their own workout. Now, 5/3/1 is an advanced program that allows for monthly gains in each lift, but Wendler also made a beginner’s routine. All of this can be found in his book.
If you don’t want to purchase the book, I always like basing a program off of a squat, deadlift, horizontal push and pull, and vertical push and pull. As you can see from earlier, that’s what I pretty much used for the “no-money” program. An example of a minimalist-version would look like this:
- Day one – squat and overhead press
- Day two – Bench press and pullups
- Day three – deadlifts and bent-over row
Perform a mobility circuit before each workout. Use one or two warm-up sets. Super-set the two lifts. Boom. Your workout will be done in no time.
Will These Programs Work?
I believe everyone should allocate as much time and resources for a full-routine, but life doesn’t always work that way.
You may not make the fastest progress or pack on muscle quickly with a minimalist strength training program. You will, however, stimulate your body to grow stronger. By doing this, you are already 100 steps ahead of the majority of people out there.
People don’t get weak and fat because they don’t lift 10 hours every week using expensive equipment. No, they get weak and fat because they stop lifting, period.
Now get off your ass and lift. You have should have been able to create a minimalist strength training routine by now. Stop your excuses, use it, and get stronger.