I would never presume to tell someone those responses are inherently bad. It would be even stranger for me to imply they don’t often work in your favor. After all, planning is good. Research is good. Thinking can certainly be good. But, in the case of making strength gains, those goal-setting-responses will just bog you down over time. At some point or another, you have to just go for it.
To make fast and consistent progress, you need to strip away the fat, get down to basics, and hammer the living bajezus out of them! I talked about this before in my Rule of Three article, so it should sound familiar. What is different about this approach is that it is especially designed for over-thinkers, the “processors”, who just can’t get past themselves. If that is you, you need to take a chill-pill.
This is your chill-pill routine.
I’m going to give you four options for workouts that each consist of only two exercises. You can pick one and do it exclusively for a few weeks then switch, or you can alternate through them throughout the week. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is when you hit the gym, you do only these two exercise and you do them hard.
This workout is the most basic of them all, and if you could do nothing else, and you were simply looking for raw basic strength all over your body, it would serve you very well.
- Squat (front or back)
- Push Press
You can choose to do front or back squats depending on what you think you need the most work on (for most people that will be the front squat). The back squat is a great exercise, but it presents some problems for people lifting without a good coach – see my article about whether back squats are really necessary.
Either way, squat. Of all exercises it has the best cost/benefit ratio of gains to injury risk. You can lift heavier more often on the squat without worrying about hurting yourself than you can with any other lift in the gym.
The Push Press is the squat of the upper body. I really dislike strict pressing for most people. Some lifters can get away with it, but most will feel pain over time. That pain comes from the fact maximal impingement (ouchy-ness) occurs during the period when the bar is moving from the shoulder to about the middle of the face, or top of the head. The Push Press eliminates this part of the lift completely.
The other benefit of the push press over the strict press is you can use more weight. I don’t think I need to tell you that lifting more weight will get you stronger than lifting less weight.
Depending upon your definition, the Clean and Jerk is either one exercise or two. For the purposes of this article (and because there’s a frelling “and” in it!) I’m going to treat them each as separate lifts.
Doing so allows us to have a whole workout that is nothing but Cleans and Jerks. Talk about simple!
- Clean and …
Some days you can clean and jerk every rep. Other days you can do all your cleans first, then jerk off blocks or squat stands. Or you can jerk first, clean second. Be creative. As long as you lift heavy weights, you’ll make gains.
The clean is both a pull AND a squat. It is an amazing exercise in that way. The more efficient you get at your technique the more amazing the lift becomes. Once you are able to clean 80% or more of your best front squat you’re getting somewhere. (Unless, of course, you are just a really bad front squatter! But, that’s a different article.)
The Jerk requires massive stabilization of the upper body and arms. Many Olympic lifters have arms and shoulders that look like gymnasts or natural bodybuilders and yet they never do any upper body work other than holding heavy jerks over their head. It’s easy at first to think you NEED to bench to get a strong upper body. That is a lie. Learn to jerk weights near your best front squat, and your upper body will look awesome.
The third workout, like the first, pairs a heavy lower body exercise with the Push Press. You may wonder why I don’t change things up and have you bench press or do some other heavy pressing lift. The answer is the Push Press is better.
For the general athlete who is trying to go ultra minimal, the crossover benefits of the push press can’t be beat. In addition to its ability to add a ton of strength to your upper half, it requires powerful leg explosion and a coordinating of the entire body working in sequence. Anytime you can pick an exercise the utilizes both the upper and lower body muscles at the same time, you’re in good shape.
- Push Press
The Deadlift messes up the cost/benefit ratio a bit. I think you get a touch more in the strength gains department than you do in a squat, but the risk of injury, burnout, and central nervous system fatigue is WAY higher. For this reason, I think you need to be in the “intermediate” category before you start pushing the deadlift in your training.
Also, if you deadlift, you should stick mostly to variations like the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) or snatch/clean pulls over the conventional deadlift most of the time. (For the RDL, do reps in the 3 to 5 range rather than always pushing for singles.) Powerlifters will disagree, but their sport involves the full deadlift and is a one-rep max sport, so their situation doesn’t quite match up with most other athletes. (The same is true for we Olympic lifters. Some things carry over, some don’t.)
Finally, we go back to a squat workout, but I’ll have you pair it with the chin up this time.
- Chin Up
If the Push Press is the squat of the upper body, the chin up is the deadlift – but without all the negatives! That’s a huge win. I do think chins will tax you a bit more than a push press. (For some reason, fatiguing the lats really takes a toll on you.) But, the risk of injury is rather low if you are performing them well.
You can also load up a chin very heavy. The ability to add load is a serious consideration when picking your major working exercises. Don’t ever make a lift a major part of your arsenal if you can’t add a lot of weight to it safely.
Don’t worry if you can’t do a full chin up yet. In our modern world, there are numerous (cheap!) bands that can assist you. Seeing as how easy it is to find a way to do a chin up, you have little excuse.
As I said above, you have a lot of options about how to make a program out of these. (A workout does not a program make.) I could get complicated here, as the combinations and variations are endless. But, that would defeat the point!
Here are my three favorite varieties. Basic is the word:
- Pick one workout, do it two or three times a week. Go hard for three weeks, then take a week light. Repeat.
- Rotate through the workouts at each session. For instance, do workout A on Monday, workout B on Wednesday, and so on. Still only go hard for three weeks at a time, then take your back-off week. The order is irrelevant.
- Just like 1., except after the light week, you switch to a different workout.
For those of you who get bored easily (my CrossFit friends, I’m looking at you!) option two makes the most sense. For everyone else, I prefer one and three. Consistency breeds progress.
What about sets and reps, man?!
Keep those simple, too. If you only workout two or three times a week, then at each session go up to ONE heavy set of three reps. If you workout more often, then work up to only one heavy set of one rep. (This counts for everything except Romanian deadlifts.)
If you are someone who sees a large goal – with all the work required to reach it – and is frozen stiff by such a prospect, do yourself a favor and take the simple road. Pick one of the options I’ve laid out for you, stick to it, don’t do anything else until you’ve made some mega-gains. Strength and power training doesn’t have to be complicated.
Think of this as your chill-pill routine.