Get Big with the Fewest Number of Exercises
What's the minimum number of exercises you can use and still gain size? What would those movements be?
My answer used to be four: bench, squat, deadlift, and row. A few years later I found out that you can actually build a fairly complete physique with three moves: a high pull, bench press, and squat or deadlift variation.
Can we do it with less than three? Pavel Tsatsouline used to recommend only two, the deadlift and floor press. But Pavel is more about relative strength: getting stronger without putting on much muscle mass. Heck, I believe you can build great all-around relative strength with only one exercise: the power clean and push press. (Okay, it's two lifts blended together, but you get the idea.) But maximum muscle mass? No way!
But after experimenting, I've come to the conclusion that you can get jacked using only two exercises. Don't get me wrong: you won't build a national level bodybuilding physique, but you can become thick, muscular, strong, and powerful looking from using the right two exercises.
Exercises That Don't Quite Cover It
Which exercises would I choose now? Well, the combination of both exercises should lead to a decent level of stimulation for pretty much all the muscles in your body. Understand that you can't maximize everything, but if you make the right choices you can get growth everywhere.
You'd want the exercise combination to give you that thick and powerful look. And to do so, it must respect the Carter principle: Traps are the new abs. You can't look powerful without thick traps.
So naturally, your mind might go to these combos:
- Military Press and Deadlift: It's a good combo for an old school physique, but it would neglect the chest, biceps, and quads (a proper deadlift hits the glutes and hams more than the quads).
- Bench Press and Squat: Not bad, but it does neglect the upper back. Having a thick upper back is the cornerstone of a jacked physique.
- Bench Press and Deadlift: It's fairly complete. That duo will give you a good chest, delts, triceps, upper back and posterior chain. But it still neglects the biceps and quads. Also, it's hard to really build a lot of mass with traditional deadlifts because emphasizing the eccentric (negative) isn't easy and deadlifts aren't suited for higher rep work.
The Best Two Lifts For Hypertrophy
I'd go with the bench press and Zercher squat (where you hold the bar in the crooks of your elbows). This combination will give you the best overall development with the least amount of invested time. Here's why:
- The Bench Press: It directly hits the pecs, delts, and triceps. And if you do it properly, you also involve the lats.
- The Zercher Squat: It hits the whole lower body just as well as a back squat or front squat. But on top of that, it's amazing for the traps, upper back, and biceps. You need these muscles to hold the bar properly. It's also one of the best exercises to build a solid core.
Even if you're not ready to pare down your training to two lifts, you should still consider doing these. If you're already doing them, are you doing them right and getting as much out of each as possible? Let's take a look.
The Zercher Squat
"Zercher" just means that the bar is held in the crooks of the elbows and the arms are flexed to prevent it from dropping. There are two main ways to hold a Zercher lift: connected and unconnected.
- The connected variation – Both hands are joined together, grabbing each other.
Since we still want to maintain an elbow width that's about shoulder width, the shoulders will be internally rotated to allow the hands to connect. This variation is considered stronger because it makes it easier to hold the bar solidly close to you and prevent the arms from opening up.
The upside is that if your arms or upper body are holding you back in regard to how much weight you can lift, it'll allow you to use more weight than with the unconnected version. I sometimes use the connected grip when going for a personal best and I feel the bar slipping.
The downside is the internally-rotated position at the shoulder, as well as the reduced load on the biceps. So it might make it less effective to build your upper body as well as put more stress on the shoulder joint. The connected variation also favors rounding up the upper back when squatting, which we don't want.
- The unconnected variation – The hands are apart and the forearms are ideally perpendicular to the ceiling which puts your shoulders in a neutral position.
The unconnected grip increases loading of the upper back and arms. The downside is that you might have to use less weight if your upper body is too weak to hold the load properly. In most cases I recommend the unconnected grip since it makes the movement a bit more complete.
What I like with the Zercher squat is that it helps long-limbed lifters to shift a lot of the load on the quads. The grip forces you to stay fairly upright and the position of the load (more forward) also seems to help keep an optimal position, much like in a front squat or goblet squat.
Use the same squatting style you normally use. If you squat with a wider stance, do the same thing with Zerchers. If you prefer a narrower stance, use it on the Zercher too. Some people break at the hips firsts, others at the knees. I recommend using the approach that you're more comfortable with.
Once you become comfortable with the Zercher position, you should be able to Zercher squat around the same weight as you front squat. It could be a bit more or less depending on upper body and core strength.
The Bench Press
The bench press is a staple so I don't need to explain it as much as the Zercher squat. However, one point to emphasize is that you should make the bench press a whole-body lift, not just a chest/triceps/delts lift. This is important for performance and safety, but with a minimalist program it takes a whole new level of importance: since we're only doing two lifts we must milk them for all that they're worth!
Here are the key points to turn the bench press into a whole body effort:
- Squeeze the bar as hard as possible. This makes everything more stable, gives you a better bar path, and create more shoulder stability via the irradiation principle. It'll also make the bar feel lighter.
- Squeeze the glutes and hamstrings hard. The glute squeeze is easy to understand. For the hamstrings, your feet must be firmly on the ground as you actively try to "pull the floor toward you." It's trying to do a leg curl against the floor. This will create a more stable foundation to push off from.
- Tight upper back. Try to bring both shoulder blades together. Imagine pinching a pencil between them. Keep that super tight. But more importantly, this tight upper back needs to be maintained throughout the whole lift.
- Engage the lats. To do this you will need to create what's called "spiral tension." Basically, while grabbing the bar as hard as possible, externally rotate at the shoulder joint while raising the chest. You'll feel your lats and teres contract. This must also be maintained throughout the whole lift.
The hard part of the exercise isn't actually lifting the barbell; it's maintaining whole-body tightness. That should be your main focus.
The Frequency Factor
Frequency is king. Hitting either a muscle or lift frequently, while still being able to recover, is one of the best tools for rapid progression.
For strength gains, a higher frequency is almost a necessity. That's why Olympic lifters train their lifts 4-6 days a week, sometimes several times a day, and why more and more powerlifters are training the competition lifts several times a week.
Applying strength to a barbell is a motor skill. You must recruit a lot of muscle fibers, make them fire at a fast rate, and make them work together. Then all the muscles involved must continue to work in a coordinated matter. Frequency, not quantity, is the most important factor in motor learning. By training a lift frequently you'll optimize technique and coordination (intramuscular and intermuscular). And by lifting in the 80% plus zone often, you'll become more efficient at recruiting the high threshold motor units as well as making them fire fast (producing more force).
A good real life example is when I took my snatch-grip high pull from 120kg to 180kg in 3 weeks by doing only high pulls (and some bench once a week to stay sane) 6 days a week.
Drugs and Protein Synthesis
While the importance of frequency is well established, its impact on muscle growth isn't. After all, pro bodybuilders are for the most part training each muscle once a week. Well, brace yourself for this shocker: pretty much all pro-bodybuilders use performance-enhancing drugs.
Drugs change the muscle-building equation. They artificially elevate protein synthesis 24/7 and also reduce protein breakdown by reducing the action of cortisol. Building muscle is all about having the highest possible protein synthesis with the lowest protein breakdown.
A natural lifter has to use the training session to trigger protein synthesis. He doesn't have the benefit of constantly increasing protein synthesis.
While I believe that a higher frequency of training will still be beneficial for the enhanced individual, it becomes pretty much mandatory for the natural lifter if he or she wants to maximize muscle growth.
Dr. Brad Schoenfeld has shown in his research that training a muscle more often leads to more hypertrophy. Twice a week is better than once, and strong evidence shows three times a week is more effective than twice. He even goes as far as saying that for advanced athletes, more than three might even work better!
Frequency keeps protein synthesis elevated for longer in each muscle. After a good training session, the involved muscles will show an elevated rate of protein synthesis (muscle-building) for 24-36 hours. If you only hit a muscle once a week, you aren't elevating protein synthesis for a long time, so you aren't spending a lot of time growing that muscle.
And no, you can't compensate the lack of frequency by an increase in volume if you're natural. Why? Because you can only build so much muscle. How much muscle you can build in response to one bout of exercise is highly dependant on your natural physiology, which is limited.
To increase the total amount of protein synthesis, you have no choice but to look to frequency, not volume. Especially if you're natural.
The Basic Minimalist Plan
This is as barebones as it can be: only do the Zercher squat and bench press, BUT do them 4 days a week. On each day use a different method:
Day 1 – Max Effort
Ramp up toward a 3, 2, or 1RM on both lifts. For the max effort lifts, we're using a 4 week block:
- Week 1: Ramp to 3RM
- Week 2: Ramp to 2RM
- Week 3: Ramp to 1RM
- Week 4: Deload with 4 sets of 1 with your 3RM
Day 2 – Eccentric Emphasis
Work on increasing the demands during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement. The weekly progression is:
- Week 1: 4 work sets of 4-6 reps using a 4010 tempo (4 seconds for eccentric/lowering, 0 seconds at the bottom, 1 second lifting, and 0 seconds at the top)
- Week 2: 4 work sets of 4-6 reps (same weight as week 1) using a 6010 tempo (6 second eccentric or lowering)
- Week 3: 4 work sets of 4-6 reps (same weight) using a 8010 tempo (8 second eccentric)
- Week 4: Deload with 3 work sets of 2-4 reps (same weight) using 10-0-1-0 tempo (10 second eccentric)
Day 3 – Isometric Emphasis
On this day add an isometric component (a pause) during the lift. Each week change the position or duration of the pause. Ideally, stay close to the same weight from week to week.
- Week 1: 4 work sets of 4-6 reps with a 3 second pause at mid-range during the eccentric
- Week 2: 4 work sets of pausing at mid-range for 15 seconds, then doing 4-6 regular reps
- Week 3: 4 work sets of doing 4-6 reps then finishing by holding the mid-range position as long as possible
- Week 4: 3 work sets of 2-4 reps with a 3 second pause at mid-range during the concentric (lifting phase of the lift)
Day 4 – Repetition Day
Here the goal is to complete as many reps as possible with a percentage of the week's max effort.
- Week 1: After a warm-up, do 3 preparation sets of 3 reps (60%, 65% and 70% of 3RM), then do one set of as many reps as possible with 75% of your 3RM.
- Week 2: Do 3 preparation sets of 3 reps (60%, 65% and 70% of 2RM), then do one set of as many reps as possible with 75% of your 2RM.
- Week 3: Do 3 preparation sets of 3 reps (60%, 65% and 70% of 1RM), then do one set of as many reps as possible with 75% of your 1RM.
- Week 4: Using the same weight as your max rep set of the previous week (75% of 1RM) do 3 sets of 60% of the reps. So if you did 10 reps for your all-out set, do 3 sets of 6.
- Monday: Day 1
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Day 2
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Day 3
- Saturday: Day 4
- Sunday: Off
Can I Add Other Exercises to the Program?
Yes, although the main benefit of this program is its minimalist nature, requiring a lot less training time. But you can use the base program as the foundation for a more typical plan.
Here's the thing though: frequency and volume are inversely proportional. If frequency is high, volume can't be high too. The best way to screw up this plan is to add too much assistance work or add exercises that place too much stress on the body.
As such, here are the three things you can add:
- Band exercises like the band pull-apart, band triceps pressdown, band leg curls, band curls, etc.
- Loaded carries or Prowler pushing, sled backward dragging, farmer's walk, or Zercher carries (see below).
- Low-stress bodyweight exercises without any added loading, like push-ups, dips, pull-ups, lunges, etc.
You can change things around pretty often but there's one rule to stick to: the "added stuff" should not last longer than 20 minutes. That will prevent any excess that would mess up the program.
Here's an example of what a week could look like:
Day 1 – Maximum Effort
|A||Zercher Squat||Work up to a 3RM|
|B||Bench Press||Work up to a 3RM|
|C||Supinated Chin-Up||Get to 50 total reps. Adjust rep number to your strength level. You should need 4-7 sets to get there.|
|D||Band Pull-Apart||Accumulate 100 total reps|
Day 2 – Eccentric Emphasis
|A||Zercher Squat||4 work sets of 4-6 reps using a 4010 tempo (4 second eccentric)|
|B||Bench Press||4 work sets of 4-6 reps using a 4010 tempo (4 second eccentric)|
|C||Dip or Push-Up||Depending on strength level. Accumulate 100 total reps|
|D||Band Triceps Pressdown||Accumulate 100 total reps|
Day 3 – Isometric Emphasis
|A||Zercher Squat||4 work sets of 4-6 reps with a 3 second pause at mid-range during the eccentric|
|B||Bench Press||4 work sets of 4-6 reps with a 3 second pause at mid-range during the eccentric|
|C||Prowler Push||3 work sets of 60 meters with moderate weight (walking speed, no running)|
|D||Farmer's Walk||3 work sets of 60 meters with moderate weight|
Day 4 – Repetition Day
|A||Zercher Squat||After a warm-up, do 3 preparation sets of 3 reps (60%, 65% and 70% of 3RM), then do one set of as many reps as possible with 75% of 3RM.|
|B||Bench Press||Do 3 preparation sets of 3 reps (60%, 65% and 70% of 3RM), then do one set of as many reps as possible with 75% of 3RM.|
|C1||Pronated Pull-Up||3 sets of as many reps as possible|
|C2||Band Curl||3 sets of 15-20 reps|
|D1||Dip or Push-Up||3 sets of max reps|
|D2||Band Triceps Pressdown||3 sets of 15-20 reps|
The assistance work shown is only an example. You can be pretty creative with it as long as you respect the 20-minute rule and use the three recommended types of exercises. Once in a while, throwing in an isolation exercise with weights is fine.
This is a solid workout for those wanting to get strong and build muscle with minimal time. It'll also make you look like a bad-ass in the gym. It's a good plan for people who do a lot of training outside the gym but still need to get stronger with minimal impact on their recovery, like MMA athletes.