Minimalism Part 2: Exercise Selection

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

Being selective—doing less—is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.
Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Workweek

Email, voice mail, text messages, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, paper work, bills to pay, food to buy, kids to raise, responsibilities to fill, commitments to uphold…

It can all get a little overwhelming at times and we need to take steps to minimize the clutter and distraction in our lives. It’s one of the reasons my voice mail is perpetually full. I refuse to empty it. I don’t even know what’s on it. I simply can’t have another inbox in my life. So sometime last year I boycotted voice mail.

Like the Seinfeld episode when Jerry stopped hugging people. Or the one where he refused to have another race against that guy from high school.

“I choose not to listen to voicemail!”

I like to take a bit of a minimalist approach to my exercise selection as well and believe that most people could benefit from doing the same.

You’ve got enough to stress out and worry about. The last thing you need is to constantly be wondering what angle you should set the bench to or if you should hold the weights overhead or at your side during a split squat.

Personally, if I was a single guy who was actively in the game I’d much rather learn more ways to pick up girls than to pick up a bar. (Hint: Smile a lot, dance, joke around, have fun. DO NOT be the tough guy wannabe standing against the wall. That appeals to absolutely no one.)

A lot of people would make a lot more progress if they stopped over thinking, over analyzing and over planning.

A minimalist approach to exercise selection would do them a world of good. You do not need a thousand different exercises to make great progress. In fact, it’s actually difficult to make measurable progress when you use too many exercises and are constantly switching them. You’re essentially just spinning your wheels when you do that.

With that in mind let’s take what’s useful and eliminate what’s not. Let’s focus on one or two exercises for each muscle group and make steady consistent gains on them. Do that until you finally hit a plateau and then make small changes.

Consistency and minimalism are going to be the keys here. Do not over think or try 500 new exercises per week. Use the ones listed below and milk them dry until you can not do another rep or put another pound on the bar.

Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

For neck you need a neck harness. Don’t get caught up in trying to build one yourself or try mimicking one in some McGuyver type way. If you want to train neck buy a harness and do 2-3 sets of 20, twice a week.

Minimalism is also a good thing when it comes to training attire.

Traps respond best to heavy deadlifts and Olympic lifts. Deadlift once per week (or every 10-14 days if you are stronger and more advanced) and do cleans once per week. For deads it’s best to keep the volume low and work up to one top end set in the range of 3-8 reps. Cleans can be done for sets across with straight weight for 5-6 sets of 3-6 reps.

If you have a trap bar use it. If you don’t, consider buying one. That’s all we use at Renegade. The majority of people on the planet can not deadlift safely from the floor while maintaining a neutral spine. That right there is a bit too risky for my liking unless you plan to compete in powerlifting. I haven’t let athletes deadlift with a straight bar for at least ten years and nowadays I don’t anyone pull from the floor with a straight bar. In fact, most of them even use the high handles on the trap bar.

If you have a preexisting injury or condition that prevents you from deadlifting at all, DO NOT stress out about it. You’ll be fine. Since we are assuming a low back issue heavy barbell shrugs would probably be out. In this case I would do dumbbell shrugs and farmers walks. Shrug one day for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps and do farmers walks another for 3-5 sets of 30-60 seconds.

If you can’t do cleans because of wrist or elbow issues simply stick with dumbbell shrugs and farmers walks. When you can no longer progress on the dumbbell shrugs, start over, drop the weight back down by 30% or so and start doing them with a three second pause at the top.

Those exercises pretty much cover the upper back also. I would add in face pulls and scarecrows on the Jungle Gym XTas well if you need more direct work for that area, however.

For even more mid back thickness stick with 1 arm dumbbell rows and inverted rows on Jungle Gym XT straps, ropes, or rings also.

Like Vince Gironda said many moons ago, the lats can tolerate a lot of work. Chin ups and pull ups are the only exercises you need to worry about here. Don’t be afraid to work up to 100 total reps per week, either.

The problem is that most people are too weak to do chin ups and get nothing out of them. This is going to come as a shock, especially coming from me, but I still believe what I wrote 8-10 years ago about this subject when I had far fewer readers…

The lat pulldown is probably more effective than chins for 90% of people that do them. That’s because 90% of people do chins for low reps with shitty form. They basically do them for a five rep max… for multiple sets… all the time.

Imagine if every time you squatted you worked up to a 5RM and then did 3-5 more sets with that weight, forcing yourself to get five reps on each successive set no matter how ugly they got, going to failure and beyond.

What would happen? Obviously, you would go nowhere. Which is exactly what happens to everyone who does a 5RM every time they jump up on the chin up bar. By the last rep and the second, third and fourth sets they are swinging, climbing an invisible ladder, poking their chins forward, protracting their shoulders… it’s very ugly.

Now, I can’t in good conscience recommend a pulldown because, let’s face it, it’s not really a badass exercise, nor is it acceptable for people to NOT do chin ups. When you see a guy do 20 perfect chins you think, “That’s pretty sick.” When you see a guy do 20 perfect lat pulldowns you continue on your way to water fountain without giving it a second thought.

What I can recommend is that unless you can do 10 picture-perfect chin ups or pull ups you use bands to assist you. The bands will help you do the reps with proper technique and allow you to focus on using your lats and keeping your chest up and shoulders back throughout the set. They will actually teach you how to do chin ups properly.

They will also train you to be able to do higher reps. Breathing can be difficult when doing anything with the arms overhead. So no matter how strong you get at low rep chins you will never have the capacity to do a lot of reps if you don’t train with high reps. Bands allow you to get used to that and allow the lats build up some work capacity and tolerance for those kinds of sets.

The other reason to use bands on chin ups is because most muscle groups should be trained with a variety of rep ranges as I mentioned HERE. One day per week you can chin heavy for sets of 5-7 reps and another day you can crank out some band assisted sets of 8-15 reps.

Bottom line? Do chins and pull ups as your main lat exercises but do them band-assisted, on at least one workout per week, until you are strong enough to do sets of 10 crisp reps with impeccable technique.

You can order bands HERE. Get the small or medium single band package.

For shoulders you have barbell and dumbbell military presses. Do barbell presses once per week and work up to a top end set of 3-8 reps. Press dumbbells overhead 3-5 days later for 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps.

In case I haven’t made it obvious enough times by now, I hate the bench press. It’s far too risky for me to recommend to anyone other than powerlifters anymore. Dumbbells are a far better choice. And weighted, suspended pushups are even better.

If you’re dead set on pressing a bar do so at an incline. Optimally this would be done with a Swiss bar. If you don’t have one stick with the straight bar. Work up to a top end set of 3-8 reps. Do weighted, suspended pus hups or dumbbell presses 3-5 days later for 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps.

Everyone has heard by now that the greatest biceps exercise in the world is the barbell curl. My recommendationis- don’t do it. I’ve programmed barbell curls in the past but would never do so again. It’s too stressful on the wrists and can lead to elbow problems. Stick with dumbbells; supinated and hammer grip; standing and incline.

Beginners don’t need much in the way of direct bicep work. If you’re advanced and want to bring your arms up don’t be afraid to hit the bi’s with some volume. They can tolerate and recover from quite a bit. For most advanced lifters a biceps specialization phase would entail 5-10 sets of 8-12 reps twice per week. Start on the lower end of the volume scale and work your way up slowly, assessing your tolerance and recovery ability as you go.

For everyone else beyond the beginner level stick with a more moderate volume. Do 2-4 sets of 8-12, twice per week. One day you can do supinated curls, another day you can do hammer curls.

Triceps respond best to high loads. That would put the close grip bench press at the top of the list (again, preferably done with a Swiss Bar). I recommend doing it on the floor or off of 2-3 boards to minimize the shoulder stress. Instead of working up to a top end set do 3-5 sets across (using the same weight) of 6-10 reps. On another day do dips for 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps.

If you have shoulder issues that prevent you from doing dips or presses stick with an angled bar pushdown and a pullover/ triceps extension combo with dumbbells or an EZ bar. Do each exercise once per week on separate days, for 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps.

For abs planks are the best and safest exercise you can do, in my opinion. Start with a plank on the floor and work up to being able to hold it for a bare minimum of 60 seconds. After that gets easy, make them harder by putting your feet in Jungle Gym XT straps, putting your forearms on a Swiss Ball or by using only one arm or one leg.

If you are already beyond that level focus on the Power Wheel rollout and the hanging leg raise. Do three sets of each on two separate training days per week. Those are the only two ab exercises you’ll need for the next six months. Even though Dr. McGill isn’t a fan of the hanging leg raise I still like it and think it’s a pretty badass abdominal exercise, provided you have the strength to do it properly. Getting there will take six months so get started immediately by doing lying leg raises with bent knees. Work your way up to doing them with straight legs then progressing to the bar and going through a series of progressions there.

In 6-12 months you’ll be able to do perfect sets of straight hanging leg raises. Use a similar progression on the Power Wheel, working your way up to being able to doing it on your feet. Until you can do both of those advanced versions don’t worry about other ab exercises. You’re good for a year.

The lower back is covered by the deadlift. Unless you can’t deadlift. In that case you are going to do 45 degree back raises once or twice a week for 2-5 sets of 10-20 reps.

The legs respond very well to a wide array of rep ranges. To build the legs we all know that squats are king. But they are also very taxing on the body and draining on the CNS. High rep squats build muscle like a mofo but are too dangerous for most people and take forever to recover from. I recommend keeping the reps in the 5-10 range most of the time and working up to one or two top end sets.

After that get your higher rep/ volume work in with something like a kettlebell front squat or split squat.

For direct hamstring work you can’t beat the glute ham raise. If you can’t afford a glute ham bench get the floor model, Partner Glute Ham by Legend Fitness. I have it and love it. These can be trained twice per week for 2-5 sets of 6-12 reps.

If you can’t squat don’t worry too much about it. If those are the cards you’re dealt, accept it and do the best you can. You can get great results with single leg work, glute hams, sled work and heavy Prowler pushes.

Don’t get caught up in thinking you absolutely need to squat.

Training shouldn’t be stressful, it should be fun. The majority of people can’t squat properly and to be honest, more than half the people that do squat probably shouldn’t.

That covers individual muscle groups and body parts. What about speed, power and conditioning?

Add jumps to your workout once or twice per week before you train lower body. Stick with box jumps and hurdle jumps for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps.

Medicine ball throws can be done once a week for similar sets and reps.

For speed do short sprints with adequate rest.

For conditioning run hills or push the Prowler till the grim reaper comes calling. Pretty simple stuff.

For variety you could add in some kettlebell work. Swings one day, snatches the other. Just work them for ten minutes straight with as little rest as possible at the end of your workout. And jumping rope never goes out of style. Go as long as you can, as fast as you can til you need a break. Repeat for ten minutes.

Stretch often to be healthy and get out and run, jump and play as often as possible to maintain your athleticism.

To recap here is your minimalist approach to training:

  • Neck- Neck harness
  • Traps- Deads, cleans, shrugs, farmers walks
  • Upper back- Face pulls, scarecrows
  • Mid back/ Back thickness– 1 arm dumbbell rows, inverted rows
  • Shoulders- Dumbbell and barbell military presses
  • Chest- Dumbbell presses and suspended pushups
  • Biceps- Dumbbell curls; supinated and hammer grip
  • Triceps- Partial range close grip bench press and parallel bar dips
  • Abs- Planks until mastered, then Power Wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises
  • Lower back- 45 degree back raise
  • Quads- squats, kettlbell front squats, split squats
  • Hamstrings- glute ham raises
  • Power- Hurdle and box jumps, medicine ball throws
  • Speed- Short distance sprints
  • Conditioning- Prowler, kettlebell swings or snatches
  • Flexibility- Any kind of stretching, done as needed (which for most people is more than you do right now)
  • Athleticism- Play

For 3-6 months, focus on simply getting better at these exercises in the set and rep ranges advised above and don’t try to reinvent the wheel or change you program every week.

This is the stuff that works.

That’s it.

If even that’s too much to worry about do this three times per week:

Upper body push
Upper body pull
Lower body exercise like a squat or deadlift

Or if you’re going upper/lower:

Upper Body Day 1 & 2- 1 push and 1 pull for 5-6 sets of 5-10
Lower Body Day 1- 1 squatting variation for one top end set of 5-10, glute hams or back extensions for 2-5 sets of 8-20
Lower Body Day 2- 1 deadlift variation for one top end set of 5-10, single leg squat variation for 2-5 sets of 8-20

That’s all.