A Guide to Minimalist Strength Training

Many people seem to be under the impression that in order to build an appreciably strong and muscled physique, one needs to gruelingly train at the gym for hours, every day.

That isn’t actually true at all – it is entirely possible to get very strong and visibly muscular with simple programming that can honestly take as little as 30 minutes twice a week.

One of the reasons strength training is so great is that you can get fantastic night-and-day results in exchange for a comparatively modest investment of time and effort. If people realized how quick and simple effective strength training can be, many more would eagerly do it because the huge return on investment is just too good to turn down.

My goal in writing this article is to show you how you can build solidly decent strength and musculature with a bare effective minimum effort. Obviously “solidly decent” is subjective, and thus the actual bare effective minimum will also be dependent, but I will outline some *rough* strength standards that I think are comparable with the kind of “look” that most people are more or less after.

First: The Case For “Sufficient” Strength and Muscle

Strength is an integral component of health and fitness – there is no question that a certain baseline level of strength is required for optimal quality of life. Any person that starts to have trouble with basic tasks like going up the stairs or getting up out of a chair or throwing a full trash bag into the dumpster bin is going to be less happy.

Secondarily, strength – and thereby muscle, which obviously correlates with strength – is required for looking great naked. Most people who want to lose fat want to reveal something underneath that looks great, and strength training is the best way to accomplish that, bar none.

What is “Sufficient” Strength and Muscle?

Again, “sufficient” is going to be subjective, but I’m going to outline some *rough* milestones upon which, I think at least, a person will have enough muscle mass and strength to look good naked and to not be physically impeded in day to day living.

For Males:

  • Be able to bench press .85 x your body weight
  • Be able to squat 1.3 x your body weight
  • Be able to deadlift 1.6 x your body weight
  • Be able to do 6 unassisted pull ups

For Females:

  • Be able to bench press .65 x your body weight
  • Be able to squat 1 x your body weight
  • Be able to deadlift 1.3 x your body weight
  • Be able to do a single unassisted pull up

These figures are honestly pretty conservative – just about anyone can achieve them within 1-2 years with a decent training program done with reasonable consistency. Any additional strength/muscle – even though it might be desirable and fairly easily obtainable – probably won’t provide any practical use in day to day life.

How Many Exercises and Sets Do I Have to Do?

A lot less than you might think. Though there are seemingly an endless amount of exercises, training programs, and workout gizmos, strength training can be generally categorized into three main movements:

Pressing: Bench press, shoulder press, push ups, dips, etc.

Pulling: Rows, Pull ups, chin ups, deadlift, etc.

Pushing (legs): Squats, deadlift (again), leg press, lunges, etc.

The key to minimalism is to focus on “compound” multi-joint exercises that hit a bunch of different muscle groups at once. These compound lifts also happen to be the simplest exercises in that they mimic basic human movements such as picking something up off the ground, pushing something up overhead, etc.

Per a meta analysis published by Schoenfeld et al, author Brad Schoenfeld notes that strength can be appreciably increased with as little as five or maybe less sets per week, per body part.

Putting this together, a minimalist template that sufficiently hits the basics will generally look like this:

Day 1:
Push: 2-3 sets; ~5-10 reps each
Press: 2-3 sets; ~5-10 reps each
Pull: 2-3 sets; ~5-10 reps each

Day 2:
(same thing)

Here’s an example program of such that includes all of the main compound lifts:

Day 1:
Squats: 2 sets; 8 reps each
Bench Press: 2 sets; 8 reps each
Pull Ups: 2 sets; 8 reps each (can add hanging weight if you can do more)

Day 2:
Deadlift: 2 sets; 8 reps each
Incline Press: 2 sets; 8 reps each
Rows: 2 sets; 8 reps each (can add hanging weight if you can do more)

You can surmise that both of these workouts can easily be completed within 20 minutes, assuming you don’t have to wait for equipment, or you don’t doddle, etc. Even for those who’d want to add in warm ups and/or extra accessory work, there’s still plenty enough of a buffer to stay within the 60-90 minute per week time frame I’ve claimed is possible.

My Personal Results

Using “bare bones” programming roughly in line with the above, I’ve been able to bench well over my bodyweight for reps, squat close to double my bodyweight for reps, and deadlift more than double my bodyweight for reps. I’ve also been able to achieve musculature that is appreciably visible:

disclaimer: must be done in conjunction with an
on-point diet to get lean enough to see the muscle

Are my results there world class? Hardly – I doubt I’d even place in a local powerlifting meet. But, importantly to me, I’m perfectly satisfied with the way I look, and practically speaking my strength is more than sufficient. All in exchange for relatively little work, or thought for that matter.

Strength Training is Not Hard

Anyone with enough coordination to pick something up off the ground or push/pull an object across a table is capable of doing basic strength training, all the more so with the use of machines.

Strength training is honestly not very physically taxing either. When I think about the various sport workouts I had to do over the years, sprint repeats, long runs, intervals on the rowing machine, etc., lifting weights is nothing – you might get a little winded for like 30 seconds, maybe, if you’re doing a harder set, but that’s about it. The worst thing about lifting, in my opinion, is that it can be a little tedious sometimes, that’s it.

The Main Point

Strength training doesn’t have to be especially complicated or prohibitively effortful – it’s entirely possible to get (and maintain) substantial results with as little as 60 work per week. If people realized this, I think many more would do actually it, and be glad they did.