(This post originally appeared on Pat Flynn’s legendary ChroniclesOfStrength.com)
NOTE FROM PAT:
The following is a guest post by that scriptural varmint Aleks Salkin, or The Jew Hammer, as he’s known, a miscreant, it must be obvious, of the most rascally sorts. But because he writes a very plain and deeply beguiling English, and uses short sentences and the words of everyday, unlike so many of the rambling, incoherent streams of Germanic nonsense churned out by the nub of my pen, I suspect you will be hearing from him again soon, and welcome it as a refreshment each time you do.
PS – This is a significantly text heavy post with minimal visual accompaniments, causing it to look like The Constitution, and forcing that most onerous and beastly labor upon the cortex of having to read a fully formed paragraph or two. I put pictures on my site mostly to encourage the engagement of children, congressman, and college professors; a thought which hadn’t occurred to Mr. James Madison.
Fitness minimalism: what it is, what it isn’t (By Aleks Salkin)
It’s February now, and you know what that means: the New Year’s Resolution crowd has mostly given up and gone home, leaving the year-round devotees of sweaty equipment, bad pop music, and macho posturing in cutoff shirts and baggy basketball shorts in peace to do their thing. If you’re among those folks, listen up: as enticing as other people’s sweat and bad taste in generic music may be to you, immersing yourself in it for too long so that you can finish up your highly detailed and overblown program isn’t the best way to get results. More often than not, it will just lead to confusion and frustration faster than the results you’re after.
Fitness minimalism is a concept that has been gaining popularity over time not only because studs like Pavel Tsatsouline, Dan John, and Chronicles’ own Pat Flynn have been espousing it since you still thought minimalism referred to Phillip Glass’s music, but because – surprise surprise – it works! Like a charm, in fact! More and more people are starting to find out that the missing piece in their training for all these years hasn’t been a plastic doodad that you can buy on late-night TV, but the concept that you don’t need more in your program, you need less.
Now, you could take the above paragraph, strip your program down all willy nilly and say “All right, I’m a convert to minimalism! Now I’m gonna go forth and spread the word on every Internet forum I can!” Not so fast. I admire your enthusiasm, but let’s make sure we get on the same page before you take advantage of your anonymity online and start swearing at people you don’t even know for disagreeing with you.
First, let’s take a look at four things that minimalism IS.
1) Minimalism is minimal equipment
The only thing you need to stock your workout space with is yourself and the most essential of equipment to your goal. Let the latest gadgets clutter someone else’s workout area. Why only the most basic of equipment? The reason is simple: the more you have at your disposal, the more choices you have. The more choices you have, the more you’ll stray. The more you stray, the more you stay – at square one, to be specific. Think about it. If you are driving down a road and suddenly you come to 10 different forks in the road, with each road looking different and winding off into the distance, but only one leading to the destination you need, how many more opportunities do you have to make the wrong choice and end up in a place you didn’t want to be? Now, imagine that you’re driving down the same road and all but one path are blocked off – which one do you take? The only one available to you. Close off as many roads as possible and leave only the one that will most directly get you to your goal, whatever your goal may be. This will mean different things to different people, but to wit, here would be an example of some good equipment to keep on hand.
– A few kettlebells
– A pullup bar/rings
– A barbell and some weight plates
– Some floor space and room enough to raise your hand over your head.
Simple, effective. Still endless possibilities here, but a solid program to narrow your choices even further will come in handy. Simple equipment + solid plan = guaranteed results
2) Minimal exercises
I get it, exercise ADD is hard to defeat because doing boatloads of exercises is just fun! If your end goal is to have spun your proverbial wheels as much as possible while having gone essentially nowhere, then exercise ADD is perhaps the thing for you. You may also enjoy elevating your car off the floor, hopping in the driver’s seat and gunning it as hard as you can. You’ll rack up plenty of mileage on your car, but you won’t have actually gone anywhere. Meanwhile, the minimalist will love to tell you how they took the fewest and shortest roads possible to get to a few far away and exotic destinations, and they won’t care that they didn’t take the scenic route; they’ll have exciting stories not only about their recent destinations, but plans for their next one. They’ll also politely not ask you WTF your car is doing revving so high without going anywhere.
Frankly, the best success I’ve had in training is when doing 2-5 exercises maximum, and I’m willing to bet it’ll be the same story for you if you don’t already have said success stories. If you wanna go as minimalistic as possible, pick one push and one pull and have at it. Make them far reaching ones, too; Deadlift and military press, for example. The fewer the exercises, the better you get at them. The better you get, the more you can lift. The more you can lift, the more results you’ll see. If you have to break up a minimal amount of training time into 10 different exercises, you’ll have a hard time getting from “suck” to “good” at any of them. Which leads me to my next point…
3) Minimal time spent training
This is an important one, and one that people miss probably the most frequently. People either spend minimal time training and not enough impact within that time, or maximal time training and TOO much impact. It matters more how much you can recover than how much you can work. Anyone can work themselves into the ground every time they walk into the gym…they just can’t do that forever.
Shoot first for the minimal effective dose. Are you just starting to train? Twice a week for 20-30 minutes will elicit a change. It’s meat and potatoes we’re after, so don’t fill up on bread and salad; big-bang exercises only and done at an appropriate pace and stopped LONG before your form starts to take a trip southward. When the time’s up, you call it a day. The rest of the day you get to enjoy your life rather than lick your self-inflicted wounds. Those who call that sort of wound-licking the sign of a good session are the same people doctors and chiropractors like to call “Benefactors to my kids’ college funds.”
4) Minimal complexity in programming
The more moving parts anything has, the more likely it is to get jammed up. Compare the M-16 to the AK-47 in the Vietnam war. The M-16 had loads of problems, but the AK-47 shot practically no matter what.
Your programming should be similar: Simple as hell, and with only one variable to manipulate at a time. Case in point: Add in another set of squats to your programming each week. Once you can’t reasonably add more, do the same amount of work in a little less time. Once you can no longer reduce the rest, go up in weight or switch to a new variation. Repeat until beast-like. Just don’t do it all at once or you’ll likely not be able to figure out what worked and what didn’t, assuming that there’s even an impressive change by program’s end. Why do three, four, or more things to move forward when you can do one with more certainty? Again, it may not be entertaining, but if its entertainment you’re after go see a movie.
What minimalism is not
Because of all the interest surrounding minimalism, many mistakenly apply a hack-away-at-literally-everything approach when trying to simplify their programming, believing that it will still help them get to their goals and that the only key is less of everything.
Not even close, in fact. In short, minimalism is about hacking away the unessential, and that requires both a keen eye and a sound mind. Failing that, at least a well-written program from an experienced trainer will do you some good.
Let’s now take a look at things that minimalism is NOT:
1) Minimal preparation
If you show up at the gym or your preferred place of workout-age without a plan to make that session another brick in the larger structure (i.e. your physical betterment), you’re missing the point. Showing up unprepared with no overarching plan and no end goal is an example of minimal preparation, not minimalist fitness. In this regard, minimalism follows the same rules as most reputable fitness schools of thought: Make a plan and stick to it. Strength is a skill, and you can’t out-perform a lack of practice.
2) Minimal effort
This seems to be the most confusing for people. To be a fitness minimalist, the idea is reducing WASTED effort, not exerting minimal effort. If you can bang out a set of powerful, explosive swings, crisp, smooth presses, and heavy, authoritative squats, that’s great! Why succumb to your ego and try to eke out a few more sloppy swings, bad-posture presses, and knee-knocking squats? What good do such reps do for you? And what good CAN’T quality reps do for you? To be a true fitness minimalist, you don’t give up the benefits of working hard; you give up the detriments of constantly pushing your limits for no real outcome other than to say you did it. True minimalism is about squeezing a lot out of a little, not desperately grasping at a little from a lot. If it helps, think about it like trying to pick up a chick from a bar. Are you gonna half-assedly talk to some women, use tired pick up lines, and basically make yourself look like an asshat because you’re just trying to talk to as many women as possible or are you gonna take some pride in yourself and your efforts and make them worthwhile? It ain’t a numbers game, folks – both require some skill, not a steady climb to higher numbers. And yes, I’m including exercise in this – stay focused!
3) Minimal attention to detail
This should really go without saying, but regardless of how few elements you may have in your plan, don’t let that fool you into believing that you have less to consider. Sure, you may not have 15 exercises to juggle, but 50 crappy swings will end up being nothing more than 50 crappy swings. Take that freed up brain energy and make it into a laser-sharp focus directly on whatever exercises you’re practicing. If all you’re doing is swings and presses, make sure that the energy you saved from everything you were able to cut out of your program goes into perfecting each and every rep.
4) Minimal focus
I’ll admit it – losing focus and wandering into other things is as easy for me as it is for anyone else. But if you make it your goal to squeeze as much as possible out of front squats, pullups, and dips only for the duration of, say, a 6 week program, don’t get bored in week 2 and decide to find out how many snatches you can manage in 5 minutes or how quickly you can run a mile or how many 400 meters you can run in half an hour. Stay on task and save those things for a later date and time when you can logically include it in a program to reach your next milestone, lest you stay right where you are.
There are plenty of other things I could say about minimalism and its myriad of applications, but that’d kinda defeat the point of getting a lot done with a little, wouldn’t it? 😉 If you have any questions about how to apply it to your goals, feel free to drop me a line on my Facebook page and we’ll talk. Also, soak up as many of Pat’s articles as you can. They’re free, and abound in solid, no bullshit advice. Do yourself a favor and bookmark this page: Chronicles of Strength is your home for minimalist fitness domination.
In closing, take heed of Pat’s wise words about what it means to become minimalist:
A few reminders about this page, and my philosophy.
1. Fitness minimalism is not about doing very LITTLE, it’s about doing the LEAST you need to do to get the job done (to hit your goals).
2. Minimalism is not about doing MORE exercise, it’s about doing BETTER exercise. [Don’t do in an hour what should only take thirty minutes. And don’t waste thirty minutes on something that can get done in fifteen]
3. Minimalism is the cross section between effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiency (doing things right).
4. In brief, minimalism uses the FEWEST possible components (time, effort, equipment, etc) to produce the MAXIMUM effect.
In other words, don’t jog. SPRINT!
– = +
Aleks Salkin is a Level 2 StrongFirst-certified kettlebell instructor (SFG II), StrongFirst-certified bodyweight Instructor (SFB), and an Original Strength Certified Coach. He grew up scrawny, unathletic, weak, and goofy until he was exposed to kettlebells and the teachings and methodology of Pavel in his early 20s. He is currently based out of Jerusalem, Israel and spends his time teaching clients both in person and online as well as spreading the word of StrongFirst and calisthenics. He regularly writes about strength and health both on his website and as a guest author on other websites. Find him online at alekssalkin.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alekssalkintraining