Minimalist Training

Busy? Still want to be strong and jacked? You can do it. You just need a time-efficient workout that'll give you the best bang for your buck. You need a minimalist training program.

Minimalism is a style or technique characterized by simplicity. And when applied to fitness, it involves minimal equipment, minimal space, and minimal time, yet trains the maximum number of muscles.

This makes compound movements an optimal choice compared to isolation movements given their ability to train multiple muscles across multiple joints with a single exercise. For instance, the deadlift targets the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, lats, forearms and traps; whereas the seated hamstring curl only targets a portion of the hamstrings.

Who's It For?

Yes, it's great for busy people who only have three days a week to train, but it'll also work for those who'd rather not be spending a ton of time hitting one muscle in a gazillion redundant ways. That's the opposite of minimalism. The truth is, anyone can benefit from this style of training.

Option One – 3 Exercises, 3 Days a Week

This first template is for those who only have enough time to get in three exercises per session and train three days per week. In this example, you can do Workout A on Monday and Friday. Then you'd do Workout B on Wednesday.

Then the next week, do Workout B on Monday and Friday, and Workout A on Wednesday. So rotate your workouts weekly. This will make the workout you do twice different every week.

Workout A Workout B
Knee-Dominant Lower Body Lift Hip-Dominant Lower Body Lift
Horizontal Push Horizontal Push
Horizontal Pull Horizontal Pull

The objective here is to train virtually every muscle in one session using only three exercises. The exercises are placed into four categories:

  • Knee-dominant exercises: Primarily work the knee extensors (quads). Think squats, lunges, step-ups, etc.
  • Hip-dominant exercises: Primarily work the hip extensors (hamstrings and glutes). Think deadlifts, hip thrusts, pull-throughs, etc.
  • Horizontal push exercises: Target the pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps.
  • Horizontal pull exercises: Target the lats, traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and biceps.

Horizontal push and pull movements describe exercises according to their movement pattern, in which the line of action is (for the most part) perpendicular to the torso. For example, a bench press is classified as a horizontal push exercise. A bent-over row is classified as a horizontal pull exercise.

Here's a list of common exercises according to their classification:

Knee Dominant Hip Dominant Horizontal Push Horizontal Pull
Back Squat Deadlift Bench Press Bent-Over Row
Front Squat Sumo Deadlift Incline Bench Press Seated Cable Row
Goblet Squat Romanian Deadlift Decline Bench Press Chest-Supported Row
Trap Bar Deadlift Hip Thrust Floor Press T-Bar Row
Split Squat Hip Extension Machine Chest Press Machine Row
Step-up Pull-Through Cable Chest Press Dumbbell One-Arm Row

To keep from wasting time in the gym, stick to strict tempos and rest periods. For knee or hip-dominant exercises, do 3 sets of 6-10 reps using a tempo of 2-0-1-0 (take 2 seconds to lower, 0 seconds to pause at the bottom, 1 second to lift, and 0 seconds to pause at the top). Rest no more than 2 minutes between sets.

For horizontal push or pull exercises, do three sets of 8-12 reps using a tempo of 2-0-1-0 and rest no more than a minute and a half.

  Knee OR Hip-Dominant Horizontal Push OR Pull
Sets 3 3
Reps 6-10 8-12
Rest 2 min. 90 sec.
Total Time * 414-450 sec. 342-378 sec.

* Total time spent (in seconds) for that exercise.

Using Workout A's format of a knee-dominant, horizontal push, and horizontal pull movement, select one exercise from each appropriate category. In the example below, I chose a front squat as the knee-dominant exercise, a bench press as the horizontal push exercise, and a bent-over row as the horizontal pull exercise.

Even if you use the most reps recommended you'll only spend about 20 minutes doing the entire workout (not including the warm-up).

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Front Squat 3 6-10 2 min.
B Bench Press 3 8-12 90 sec.
C Bent-Over Row 3 8-12 90 sec.
  • Total time spent: About 20:00 minutes or less.

Option Two – Full Body, 4 Exercises, 3-4 Days a Week

It's important to alternate between Workout A and Workout B at every session to ensure an equal balance between quads and hamstrings. If time permits, however, you can simply add a hip-dominant exercise to Workout A and make this your workout at every session. I'd recommend this format on nonconsecutive days.

Here's an example of what that would look like.

Workout A

  • Knee-Dominant Lift
  • Horizontal Push
  • Hip-Dominant Lift
  • Horizontal Pull
  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Front Squat 3 6-10 2 min.
B Bench Press 3 8-12 90 sec.
C Romanian Deadlift 3 6-10 2 min.
D Bent-Over Row 3 8-12 90 sec.
  • Total time spent: About 28:00 minutes.

Option Three – 2 Exercises, 3-4 Days a Week

If time is severely restricted and you can only get in two exercises, alternate between a knee-dominant or hip-dominant exercise and a horizontal push or horizontal pull exercise, at every session.

This is similar to the push-pull routine. You can use this format on consecutive or non-consecutive days. So if you can train four days a week, you could do Workout A on Monday and Thursday, and Workout B on Tuesday and Friday.

Here's an example of what it would look like:

  • Workout A
  • Knee-Dominant Lift
  • Horizontal Push

  • Workout B
  • Hip-Dominant Lift
  • Horizontal Pull

Workout A

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Goblet Squat 3 6-10 2 min.
B Dumbbell Floor Press 3 8-12 90 sec.
  • Total time spent: About 14 minutes or less (not including warm-up).

Workout B

  Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Dumbbell Deadlift 3 6-10 2 min.
B Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row 3 8-12 90 sec.
  • Total time spent: About 14 minutes or less (not including warm-up).

Give it a shot. This simple plan demonstrates how an intelligent pairing of exercises, coupled with the appropriate tempos and rest periods, can have a maximum effect in minimal time.

Related:  The Very Best 20-Minute Workouts

Related:  Maximal Mass, Minimal Time