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  • Writer's pictureMark Edwards

Maximize Your Gains: Building The Ultimate Minimalist Workout Routine for Strength and Fitness

Updated: Mar 17



Follow the K.I.S.S. Philosophy: Keep it Simple, Stupid


In today's fast-paced world, finding time to prioritize fitness can be a real challenge. But what if there was a way to achieve significant strength gains and improve overall fitness with just a fraction of the time typically spent at the gym? Enter minimalist workouts, the epitome of time efficiency and effectiveness in fitness.


With smart movements targeting multiple muscle groups, you’ll find that less can indeed be more. In this ultimate guide, I'll show you how to maximize your efforts to use time efficiently—expect to get in, get after it, and get on with your day in less than an hour.


For most of us, spending more than an hour in the gym is counterproductive. And if you're spending 2 hours or more in the gym six times a week? I'm not sure who has that kind of time.


So you don't need to spend two hours a day in the gym to get fit and healthy. I'll show you how.


Understanding Minimalist Strength Workouts


Minimalist strength workouts are designed to maximize results while minimizing time and equipment requirements. These workouts focus on compound movements that target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, allowing individuals to engage their entire body in a single session.


By efficiently incorporating exercises like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses - the "big lifts" - individuals can effectively work their major muscle groups in a minimal amount of time.

  • A minimalist training routine usually requires 45-60 minutes per session. This short time frame increases adherence to a training regimen. And let's face it: Adherence is probably the biggest obstacle to getting fit and staying fit. Without adherence, any training program is virtually useless. This is something that's become clear to me from coaching clients for their nutrition and physical training.

  • Key components of a minimalist training routine include compound movements for engaging multiple muscle groups, progressive overload for continuous improvement, and judicious use of supersets, giant sets, EMOM-style high-intensity workouts, and rest for muscle growth and injury prevention.






The Benefits of Minimalist Programming


The principles that form the basis of a minimalist training regimen revolve around precision over absolute training volume, focusing on performing fewer movements with exceptional proficiency. Applying the concept of minimal effective dose, this approach has some amazing benefits:


  • a 10-17 percent decrease in the risk of cardiovascular diseases (source)

  • a 10-17 percent decrease in the risk of cancers (source)

  • a 10-17 percent decrease in the risk of diabetes (source)

  • a 10-17 percent decrease in the risk of all-cause mortality (source) (source)


Minimalist workouts ensure short, efficient sessions – often under 45 minutes, but no longer than one hour - perfect for the typical "I'm too busy to exercise" type (yeah, I'm talking to YOU).


By focusing on building a regimen around core movements that provide the most benefits for time spent, we ensure muscle growth with the minimum effective dose. Maintaining and ultimately increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing body fat (or at least mitigating an increasing percentage of body fat) are critical as we age. Minimalist training is the way forward.


"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." - Steve Jobs


Time Efficient Training


One of the most significant advantages of minimalist workouts is their time efficiency. By targeting multiple muscle groups with compound movements, individuals can achieve a full-body workout in a fraction of the time it would take to work each isolated muscle group individually.


Even with the clock ticking away, your fitness doesn’t need to be sidelined.

Remember: Less is more.


This means you can shorten your overall workout duration while still achieving effective results. This includes warm-up sets and cool-down.


And think about it: anyone who's spent time in the gym knows that a large portion of that time is wasted, wandering around, jaw-boning, and other time-sucking, pointless activities. With a minimalist approach, your workouts are pre-planned for the week so you can get things done without wasting precious minutes.



Muscle Engagement


Minimalist workouts are designed to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously by incorporating compound movements. The body is challenged to work synergistically, resulting in improved overall strength and core stability, These movements require coordination and balance, further enhancing the effectiveness of the workout.


This approach is entirely contrary to the typical "Globo gym" full of expensive machines that each focus on a single muscle or joint.


Take the simple dumbbell press or barbell press for example. You're not just pushing that barbell overhead. The feet are solidly rooted to the ground while the body maintains core rigidity as you push that weight overhead. This one seemingly "simple" movement works the prime movers of the shoulders, the upper chest muscles, the triceps, and the muscles of the upper back. Those are just the obvious ones.


The possible strength gains are phenomenal. Add in a little high intensity during the workout, and the permutations are endless, just from one movement. Change up to dumbbells instead of a barbell and now you've got a movement that effectively works the shoulder stabilizers, providing a solid foundation to mitigate shoulder injuries.


Consistently doing overhead presses is also going to give you a good reason to do consistent mobility work on the shoulders, since attempting to perform a properly executed overhead press requires a good degree of mobility.


With a minimalist program, you can achieve more with less, simplifying your fitness routine while maximizing results.



Tire flipping

Adaptability


In fitness, as in many things, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. A minimalist workout is endlessly adaptable and modifiable. It can be tailored to individual fitness goals, age, ability, equipment availability, movement restrictions or limitations, and fitness levels by adjusting various elements:


  • range of motion

  • resistance

  • tempo

  • intensity

  • rep ranges

  • number of sets

  • frequency


Whether you’re a beginner starting with less weight and less complex movements, or an advanced individual increasing difficulty and intensity to match your capabilities, any minimalist workout can be adapted to your needs.


That's where a coach comes in handy. A good coach is indispensable in creating an effective program, monitoring form, and monitoring progress to make adjustments.



Minimal Equipment Requirements


Another advantage of minimalist training is its minimal equipment requirements. With just a few key pieces of equipment like barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells, individuals can perform an endless range of exercises that target multiple muscle groups.


You don't need a fully equipped gym. The equipment requirements make Minimalist training accessible to anyone.


You don't need all of these items, but if you have several of these different pieces of equipment, your workout possibilities are endless.


  • A quality barbell (whether it's a power-lifting bar or an Olympic bar. I prefer an Olympic bar. The best barbell is the one that you can afford and will use).

  • Bumper plates (if you have a barbell. Bumper plates are always a better choice. They'll save your floor, or in the case of training on concrete, the rubber protects both the concrete and the plates)

  • Several Kettlebells (steel or sand kettlebells - GoRuck makes some fantastic sand bells)

  • Dumbbells (you don't need a full set - 2 light, 2 medium, and 2 heavy dumbbells are optimal. Rubberized are preferable)

  • Sandbag

  • Training Bench (not an absolute necessity since floor presses are an acceptable substitute for bench presses)

  • Jump Rope

  • Pull-up bar or TRX Rig


If you don't have the resources for all of this equipment, an absolute minimal setup would be kettlebells, dumbbells, a jump rope, and a pull-up bar. Check out my post on creating a Minimalist Home Setup HERE.




Designing an Effective Minimalist Workout Routine


To design an effective minimalist workout routine, it's important to consider the principles of time efficiency, muscle group engagement, and equipment availability. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it needs to be stated.


By following these guidelines, an effective minimal workout routine can be created that maximizes results while minimizing time spent at the gym.




Compound Movements


We're not programming single-joint movements like cable curls and machine flyes. If you construct a program around movements like that, workouts take longer because more movements have to be included to hit all the necessary muscle groups.


So the foundation of a minimalist workout routine lies in compound exercises, targeting multiple muscle groups simultaneously. We're talking deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, barbell/dumbbell rows, and even some Olympic lifts depending on the skill level of the trainee.


By incorporating these compound exercises into your routine, you can effectively engage your major muscle groups in a single workout, have more fun, get in better shape, and feel like you really pushed yourself.


Supersets and Giant Sets


To further enhance the efficiency of your minimalist workout routine, supersets and giant sets are integral to the programming. Supersets involve performing two exercises back-to-back with little to no rest in between. This allows you to work different muscle groups consecutively, maximizing your workout time and increasing your heart rate.


Giant sets take this concept a step further by incorporating three or more exercises in rapid succession. Both supersets and giant sets are effective strategies for engaging multiple muscle groups, reducing your workout time, making the workout more fun, and increasing the intensity of your workout.


Depending on the time allocated and rest intervals, supersets and giant sets can be slower and steady, focusing on absolute strength, or they can move at a faster pace, going into HIIT territory.



Push/Pull Balance


A key aspect of minimalist training is achieving a balance between push and pull movements. Push exercises, such as bench presses and shoulder presses, target the upper body muscles involved in pushing movements, while pull exercises, like rows and pull-ups, target the muscles involved in pulling movements, just as the name suggests.


By incorporating a balance of push and pull exercises into your routine, you can ensure that all major muscle groups are engaged and developed, and when done as supersets, significantly reduces the total time for a workout.


A critical aspect of push/pull balance is addressing strength imbalances. For instance, making sure that the prime movers of the legs aren't over-developed in favor of quads over hamstrings, or vice versa, protects against potential injuries.


This sort of imbalance can be seen in runners, for example. Since running involves a very limited range of motion, we often find that runners have poor hip strength and mobility, as well as weak hamstrings and over-dominant quads. This sets up runners for over-use injuries and muscle imbalance injuries.


Progressive Overload


To continue seeing progress and maximizing the effectiveness of your minimalist workout routine, it's important to incorporate progressive overload. This involves gradually increasing the intensity of each workout by either increasing the weight lifted, the number of repetitions performed, the number of sets completed, or tweaking the rep tempo.


This isn't just about using heavier dumbbells or adding more plates to a barbell. Any idiot can add more and more plates to a barbell.


Progressive overload is more complex. Programming this way involves some serious thought about where you're at, physically, the progress you've made or haven't made, and the place you want to end up.


Progressive overload ensures that your muscles are consistently challenged and stimulated for growth.


This approach helps prevent plateaus in muscle mass and strength, ultimately maximizing the results of the workout. To push past your limits, progressive overload is the way to go.





High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)


Adding a cardiovascular component to your minimalist workout routine is critical, and that's why I like to incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into my own programming and clients' programming. HIIT involves alternating periods of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest or lower-intensity exercise.


This type of training can be done with virtually any movement but is especially suited to bodyweight movements like sprints, jump squats, and air squats, or loaded movements like kettlebell swings and dumbbell push-presses. HIIT not only improves cardiovascular fitness but also enhances calorie burn and promotes fat loss.


Nearly any set of movements can be integrated into a HIIT workout just by decreasing the load.




Rest and Recovery


Balancing the need to challenge your limits during workouts with adequate rest is vital. Rest and recovery play a crucial role in promoting muscle growth and preventing overuse injuries in any training regimen. It’s only during this period of rest that your muscles repair themselves and grow stronger.


Rest periods are not just about taking a break; they’re also about enhancing recovery time. Resist the urge to train every day. Remember, rest is where the real growth happens.


With a minimalist routine, the risk of over-training is minimal. However, your rest days should focus on doing active recovery: mobility movements, stretching, etc. That way, growth and recovery are improved while lessening the risk of injury.




Goal Setting


Setting goals for your minimalist workout plan is critical. Without goals, you're just wasting your time. The same can be said about any diet plan to lose weight or increase muscle mass. The plan dictates the actions you need to take.


  • Choose your body composition and/or fitness goals (strength, hypertrophy, stamina, endurance, target weight, etc)

  • Goal setting plays a crucial role in minimalist training by providing direction, structure, and focus

  • Goal setting is crucial for motivation and fosters a sense of progress.


Choosing specific and attainable weekly and monthly milestones that you aim to reach in your fitness journey keeps you on track. Setting small, gradual, attainable goals for each week and month, leading up to a 6-month goal, is how we get to the destination while avoiding frustration.


Goals are an absolute necessity to give structure and meaning to your planning and vision. Walk into any big gym and you'll see, all around you, the result "training" without goals or purpose: people wandering from machine to machine without a clear idea of what they're doing and why. It's basically just mindless movement.


Glance over at the treadmill. You'll see gym patrons walking aimlessly while watching a TV screen or flipping through a magazine.


Don't go there.


Having clear and realistic goals is the first step to a successful minimalist training plan.



Frequency and Split


A key aspect of crafting your minimalist training plan lies in deciding your workout frequency and training split. This should be based on your overall goals and recovery needs. Using an upper-lower split when training four times per week is a common, traditional pattern.


And we're not going to do that.


This type of "split" is bodybuilding. Bodybuilding splits the body into upper body and lower body. Then it further divides it into leg day, arm day, chest day, and back day.


This is counter-productive if you want to shorten your workouts, get the minimum effective dose, AND train for not only aesthetics but function.


A minimalist program will focus on a different kind of "split", for want of a better term: push, pull, carry, hinge, rotate.


A full-body workout might include the single-leg deadlift (pull-hinge), dumbbell bench press (push), Good Mornings (hinge), kettlebell step-ups (hinge-push), and bent-over dumbbell rows (pull-hinge). Rep ranges can vary widely depending on your goals and ability.


Examples of "carry" and "rotate" are the Farmer's Carry, Waiter's Walk, and Half-Kneeling Chops.





Notice we don't see the leg press or calf raises. The Smith Machine is nowhere. Machine Flyes? Fuggeddaboudit.


We're focused on training efficiency and improving functional strength. Body part movements like the leg press and calf raises not only are not time efficient, but they are also not as effective at building muscle mass and core strength as movements that train multiple muscle groups and require the trainee to learn how to brace the core.


They have no place in a minimalist training regimen.


The leg press is a perfect example of a movement that eats up time and then necessitates other movements to make up for its shortcomings. It's an ego movement for guys who don't know how to squat but want to look like they're throwing lots of weight around.


In my opinion, the only legitimate use for the leg press is rehab. And the same goes for hamstring curls and knee extensions. These are rehab movements, not movements for seriously building muscle, health, function, and boosting metabolism.


Pro bodybuilding is the only exception to this, but we're discussing minimalist training here, not living in the gym for 4 to 5 hours per day.


I'll say it again: we're not training to be bodybuilders. We're utilizing our time in the most time-efficient, intense way to be minimalist warriors.


But What About frequency?


Multiple studies show that with effective programming, progress and gains can be made by training just twice a week. Once a week can be productive if you're an absolute beginner. But that single day is going to be pretty intense.


More is not necessarily better. Two to three times a week is the minimal effective dose.


A Sample Minimalist Workout Routine


To give you an idea of how a minimalist workout routine can be structured, here's a sample program that incorporates the principles discussed above:


Day 1: Full-Body Workout Super-Sets


A1) Squats (barbell, dumbbell, or Goblet) - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

A2) Pull-Ups - 3-4 sets of maximum reps

B1) Deadlifts - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

B2) Pushups -  3-4 sets of maximum reps

C) 10 Minute EMOM - 10-12 Front rack dumbbell walking lunges


Day 2: Push/Pull Workout


A1) Overhead Press - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

A2) Bent-Over Rows - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

B1) Dumbbell Glute-Bridge Floor Press - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

B2) Chin-Ups- 3-4 sets of maximum reps

B3) Tricep Dips - 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps


Day 3: HIIT


Perform high-intensity interval training exercises like sprints, jumping squats, or kettlebell swings for 20-30 minutes.  These can be done EMOM-style (Every Minute on the Minute), alternating between 30 seconds of maximum effort and 30 seconds of rest, or rounds for time (RFT).


A typical HIIT day might look like this:

A) 10 Minute EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute):

10-15 Kettlebell Swings

Rest 2-3 minutes

B) 10 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds as Possible):

10-15 Kettlebell Goblet Squats

Run 200 metres

C) Tabata Situps (20 Seconds Work, 10 Seconds Rest x 8 Rounds)


Want to learn more about a training regimen with more examples for building strength at middle age? https://www.minimalist-nutrition.com/post/workouts-for-men-over-50Check this out!


Frequently Asked Questions


What are the best minimalist bodyweight movements?


The best minimalist bodyweight exercises are the big daddies: push-ups, pull-ups, and squats. These movements are suitable for both men and women and can help build strength and improve overall fitness without any equipment at all. And for added stimulus, these movements can be adapted to the most basic of training equipment.


What is the minimum effective dose?


The minimum effective number of training days for building muscle can vary depending on factors such as age, training intensity, and individual goals, but as a baseline reference, 1-2 days per week, when done intensely with effective programming, can be enough to get strong and build muscle.


Can you build muscle with minimal exercise?


Yes, it is possible to build muscle with minimal exercise by focusing on strength training 1-3 times per week. As I mentioned, you may not make the same gains as with more frequent training, but it's still very effective, depending on your goals.


The law of diminishing returns applies. And remember, the best workout is always the one that you can consistently do.


What about the Smith Machine? I've heard it's safer.


The Smith Machine. Let me count the ways that I hate thee. Smith Machine Seated overhead presses? Smith Machine Bench presses? Or God forbid, Smith Machine squats? Charles Poliquin put it pretty well when he pointed out that the human shoulder joint is not designed to move the arms in a perfectly straight line overhead. The Smith Machine is the perfect device to develop repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder. Our shoulders don't push in a fixed path. The shoulder joint naturally rotates, pushes, and pulls in a curved path.


Train your shoulders sensibly within their natural range of motion and they'll stay healthy.


As for squats, studies on the utility of the Smith machine for squatting are mixed, but the overall consensus suggests that using the Smith machine for squats can put dangerous shearing forces on the knee joint, depending on the angle of the machine and whether it's being used correctly.


Let's learn to squat properly. Body weight first, then kettlebells or dumbbells. and eventually barbells. By ensuring that proper form is learned using body weight and light kettlebells or dumbbells, the risk of injury is minimized while still allowing the trainee to train with some intensity.


Conclusion


Research indicates that even minimal resistance training, as little as once per week, can be effective for maintaining or even increasing muscle strength and size, particularly in older adults. However, the optimal training frequency may vary depending on individual circumstances and training goals.


At the end of the day, minimalist workouts offer a practical and time-efficient approach to building strength and improving overall fitness. By focusing on compound exercises, incorporating supersets or giant sets, achieving a push/pull balance, and incorporating progressive overload, individuals of any age can maximize their results in minimal time.


Combined with a good nutritional plan, skilled coaching, and a positive mindset, you can get in the best shape of your life, no matter how young or how old you are. I'm a prime example of this, as are people like Mark Sisson, Robert Kennedy Jr, and the man himself, Joe Rogan.


Whether you're a beginner or an experienced fitness enthusiast, minimalist workouts provide an effective strategy for achieving your fitness goals without sacrificing valuable time.


Disclaimer: All information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. No information provided is to be construed as medical advice. If you have medical issues, always consult your doctor.



Scientific References:


Bini, R., Lock, M., & Hommelhoff, G. (2020). Lower limb muscle and joint forces during front and back squats performed on a Smith machine. Isokinetics and Exercise Science, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.3233/ies-202168.


Biscarini, A., Benvenuti, P., Botti, F., Mastrandrea, F., & Zanuso, S. (2011). Modelling the joint torques and loadings during squatting at the Smith machine. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29, 457 - 469. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.534859.


Biscarini, A., Botti, F., & Pettorossi, V. (2013). Joint torques and joint reaction forces during squatting with a forward or backward inclined Smith machine.. Journal of applied biomechanics, 29 1, 85-97 . https://doi.org/10.1123/JAB.29.1.85.


Brigatto, F., Braz, T., Zanini, T., Germano, M., Aoki, M., Schoenfeld, B., Marchetti, P., & Lopes, C. (2019). Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Neuromuscular Performance and Muscle Morphology after Eight Weeks in Trained Men.. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002563.


DiFrancisco-Donoghue, J., Werner, W., & Douris, P. (2006). Comparison of once-weekly and twice-weekly strength training in older adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41, 19 - 22. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2006.029330.


Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P., & Binsted, G. (2009). A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 2588-2591. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181.


Seynnes, O., Boer, M., & Narici, M. (2007). Early skeletal muscle hypertrophy and architectural changes in response to high-intensity resistance training.. Journal of applied physiology, 102 1, 368-73 . https://doi.org/10.1152/JAPPLPHYSIOL.00789.2006.


Trappe, S., Williamson, D., & Godard, M. (2001). Maintenance of whole muscle strength and size following resistance training in older men.. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 57 4, B138-43 . https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200105001-00832.


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