Tag archive

progressive overload

Part 1: Training Essentialism: What Every Workout Needs

Doing less but better is what every workout needs for more efficient training and faster gains. As a trainer, I have the privilege to meet and get to know many successful clients.

Most of them hold high status jobs, make great money, and live the “American dream.” Unfortunately, most are consumed and overwhelmed by all pressures around them. They’re eager for success in all walks of life, willing to take on more and more opportunities. Every opportunity is a “yes” and performed with enthusiasm. Determination and passion are enviable traits, but always saying “yes” leaves you focusing on the trivial many, rather than the vital few.

Plain and simple, saying “yes” is akin to reading every fitness blog and magazine around and getting information overload. Having too much information clouds our vision of what important.  Applying every training style to your workouts over-complicates training and leaves you confused on how to train.Tweet: You can anything, but not everything. You must selective.

In this first of three posts I’m going to dive into what your exercise program needs. By eliminating the trivial bull-shit in your workout we’ll maximize your training. Every decision is either a hell yes, or an absolute no.

Defining Training Essentialism:

Before deciding what is essential to your training you must be clear on your goal. Focus on one thing at a time to accomplish your goal.  I want to “lose 10 lbs and add 50 pounds to my deadlift,” doesn’t work, you need just one. Look for the minimum effective dose, the 20% in your 80/20, or the few variables that lead to the most success.

Drop the bicep curls, get good at pull-ups.

Drop the hamstring curls and do deadlifts.

Train the body with total body workouts three times per week instead of missing 1-2 workouts per week with a 5-day body part split.

Understand the Fear of Missing Out

Flashback ten years ago I read every fitness magazine, book, and blog I could get my scrawny little fingers on. I ate every tip up—every tip, suggestion, and exercise was something I had to add immediately to my workouts. I gained a ton of knowledge, but not results. A common misconception is that if you can fit something in, you need to. Busyness is rewarded as more valuable over productivity or less. This concept is known as the fear of missing out and is relevant across all areas of life.

“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”- Lao Tzu

It wasn’t until I simplified training that I started seeing great results. Pointing your focus in one direction at a time yields superior results to focusing on 10 factors.

training essentialism, what every workout needs
Photocredit: picture: http://glennstovall.com/blog/2014/06/02/learning-to-say-no/

Focus on One Goal:

What is your through and true number one goal? This should be clear. In the examples below I have included the most common goals and vital components to reaching them.

Building Muscle: Progressive overload in big, multi-joint movements. Train with enough volume to build muscle and eat enough calories to support muscle growth.

Unleashing the Inner Athlete: Incorporating movement skills like acceleration, top-end speed, and agility mechanics. Build strength and power to express strength on the field. Relative strength is key.

Building Strength: Progressive overload in the major movement patterns. Minimize weak points in training to prevent injury and improve strength.

Lose Fat and Look Great Naked: Be in a caloric deficit to lose fat while training to maintain strength to preserve muscle mass.

What all Training programs need:

Every good training program has essential qualities that improve training, regardless of goal. Occlusion training, slide boards, tempo training and the hottest eastern European squat program are all great, but the human body hasn’t changed significantly over the last hundred years. The exercises, methods, and progressions that worked best years ago still work best today. Your training doesn’t need complicated methods, your training needs to create a stress above baseline for physiological adaptation. Focus on the quality ver quality in your workouts. Save for specific injury considerations all training routines should have the following:

 Progressive overload:

You must overload the systems current level of fitness to receive a training effect. Serious work must done. You should sweat, strain, and let out the occasional uncontrolled grunt.  Tweet: “ no strain, no gain.” Volume, intensity, increased range of motion, and shorter rest periods are all potential variables.

Improve your health and wellbeing:

If you’re getting hurt physically or mentally hurt from your training you’re training wrong. You need a baseline of conditioning and exercises that are pain free. Discomfort and strain is necessary with pain and injury kept minimal.

Workout Movement Patterns:

Compound basic movement patterns always have and always will be the driver of success in your workout program. The body moves as an integrated unit in sport and life; you’re training should reflect that.Instead of curls, leg extensions, and biceps curls do deadlifts, presses, sprints, and pulls.

The basic movements are the squat, carry, hinge, lunge, sprint, push, and pull. These movements require the body to stabilize, transfer, and product force acrossed many joints like movements in life. I include core work and conditioning work is essential in every routine. You have no reason to be out of shape or set yourself up for injury due to pathetic cores strength.

These are my favorite exercises from each movement pattern:

Squat: Front squat

Hinge: deadlift/ any Olympic lift

Lunge: Bulgarian split squat

Carry: Single arm farmers walk

Press: (vertical) push press

(horizontal) Floor Press

Pull: (vertical) narrow grip chin-up

(horizontal) Dumbbell one-arm row

Core: paloff press

Conditioning: hill sprints

In all actuality you don’t need more than 2-5 exercises to get a great workout. Cover your bases with the basic movement patterns, improve with progressive overload, and reap huge rewards.

Workout Quality Over Quantity:

A stunning what happens when technique takes precedent over weights. Injuries fade, performance increases, and confidence sky-rockets.

Overload is still important and necessary for gains, but piling weights and volume on a faulty base of movement sets you up for injury.

Stay tight on your deadlift rather than losing lumbar position and snapping in half. Learn how to land on a jump without knee valgus (diving in) before performing dumbbell jump squats. Learn how to sprint efficiently before blowing a hamstring.

“It is quality rather than quantity that matters.” – Seneca

Workouts must fit your schedule:

A workout program that doesn’t fit your schedule is a program that won’t be done consistently. This, above all other factors is necessary to see results. Check out this post on a friend of mine who made a huge transformation. If you’re slammed with work this month and your schedule doesn’t allow for five workouts get one that has three workouts. Hitting workouts 75% of workouts while missing 25% is a huge problem. All well-designed workouts play off of one another– missing a piece throws off the balance of the program.

Be Enjoyable Most of the time:

You have enough obligations in life. Working out with a routine you hate isn’t one of them. Take time to enjoy yourself while you’re getting better. Save for the occasion set of high rep squats, training should be fun. If weights aren’t your thing that’s fine—incorporate bodyweight movements, get out and go hiking, and enjoy yourself. Being in shape isn’t about your one-rep max, it’s about being able to do what you enjoy and maintaining good health.

Wrap Up:

Do less, but do it better.

This isn’t a quick tip or strategy; rather, a mind-set to apply to all facets of life. In the gym you don’t need to “isolate” every muscle group and choose one-body part for every day of the week. You don’t need a thousand different tempos, a complex eastern European squat program, and forty exercises to make progress.Worry about every minute detail approach leads to over-analyzing, and sub-par results.


You need progressive overload on a few exercises.

You need to train consistently.

You need to train with focus and intensity.

The rest is fine and wonderful, but when all else fails, simplify.


Recommended Reading:


Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Photo credit:

McKeown, Greg. “The Essentialist.” Essentialism. New York: Crown Business, 2014. 6. Print.



Minimalist Muscle Building: Simple Training For Athletic Muscle

  • Doing Less is key to maximizing your efficiency and accomplishing more.
  • Focusing on too many exercises and methods prevents you from progressing.
  • The exercises that worked best decades ago still work best today. Stop making everything so damn complicated.


Life is busy, I get it. There are times when clients get busy, they can’t train as often , and training gets scaled back. The same happens with my training too. I glance at my program, look at the clock, and hack away at the unessential parts of the workout when strapped for time.

You should do the same.

To get your best results you need focus. The “fluff” in workouts clouds the view of what’s important and what gets great results.

“So now what? “

You need to cut the clutter and focus on the essentials. This is especially true with training. You don’t need to “isolate” every muscle group and designate one-body part for every day of the week. This cluttered approach leads to over-analyzing, and sub-par results for most everyone.

You have enough to worry about in your day-to-day life, why add training to the list?

You don’t need a thousand different tempos, a complex Eastern European Squat program, and forty exercises to make progress. You need simplicity. You need progressive overload on a few exercises?

Focus on the basic movement patterns, get stronger, and move better. Progressive overload is the key to developing your body, it can’t happen if you’re changing the stimulus every workout.

Quit majoring in the minors, it’s time to get to work.

Tweet: Progressive Overload is the key to building muscle. It won’t happen if you’re changing the stimulus every workout.


 Principles of Minimalist Muscle Building

Quality Over All:

It’s stunning what happens when reps and weight take a backseat to quality of movement. Injuries fade, performance increases, and confidence sky-rockets.

I see it all the time with new athletes: They come from workouts where all the coach focuses on is how hard everything is with no rhyme or reason.

Yes, overload is still important and necessary for gains. But it does little good piling a ton of weight or conditioning on a faulty system. This sets your body up for injury, not high performance.

“It is quality rather than quantity that matters.” – Seneca

This means staying tight on your deadlifts—busting blood vessels in your left eye and lumbar flexion under 400lbs sucks donkey nuts. Get your chest to the ground on push-ups, sticking your landing on your jumps, and keeping your knees out of valgus (diving in) on your squats.

minimalist muscle building, build athletic muscle, Minimalist Muscle Building
Photo Credit: http://davidlasnier.com/tag/performance-test

Pushing yourself to the limit is great. Pushing yourself to the limit with faulty mechanics sucks. Emphasis how well you’re executing the movement instead of how “much”. You’ll get better gains in less time, fewer injuries, and a longer training career—That’s more important than setting a PR every workout.

Basic Exercises are Best:

The body moves as an integrated unit in sport and life; you’re training should reflect that.

Not shiny one-exercise machines, they’re pieces of garbage in nearly all instances. Why? Machines lock the body into place during movement patterns, which removes real-world carry over and negates the role of stabilizing muscles. Although you use more resistance on machines the arms and legs are writing checks the body can’t cash.

Free Weights and movement require your body to work together in a coordinative pattern to perform a task– like real life.

The Only Equipment You Need:

You don’t need a shiny new weight room with every machine imaginable. You don’t need all of these, but a combination definitely won’t hurt.

  • Bodyweight

I found this “playground” on my way home from work a few weeks ago.

  • Barbells
  • Dumbbells
  • Suspension Trainer (TRX, Cross Core 180)
  • Space to Move
  • Bands

The basic movements are the squat, hinge, lunge, sprint, push, and pull because they work muscles at multiple joints simultaneously like movements in life and sport. Also, I core work and conditioning work is essential in every routine. You have no reason to be out of shape or set yourself up for injury with a weak core.

Squat: Front squat, goblet squat, zercher squat, back squat, pistol squat

Hinge: deadlift (all variations), good morning, kettlebell swings

Lunge: walking lunge, split squat, step back lunge, Bulgarian split squat

Sprint: Run fast on a hill, treadmill, and open surface. If you’re an athlete add in change of direction work

Carry: Farmers walks, single arm farmers walk, overhead carry

Press: bench press, push-up, overhead press, jerk, one arm presses

Pull: pull-up, bent-over row, seated row, one arm row

Core: planks, side planks, paloff presses, fire hydrants, glute bridges

Conditioning: Bodyweight circuits, sprints, swimming, intervals, complexes. Get out, get your heart rate up, and have a little fun. Anything recreational like hiking is extra.

Exercise Order for Building Athletic Muscle

To maximize your training with minimalist muscle building you must emphasize strength and performance. That means exercises that are neurologically demanding like cleans, sprints, and heavy lifts go first. Chasing the “pump” when you get to the gym is a surefire route to the town of Smallsville in ugly state of Imstillpissedatmypoorresults.

Use the following Exercise order:


Activity-specific warm-ups are designed to properly prepare the body for physical activity and sharpen mental focus for the activity at hand. Addressing common issues such as tissue density, tissue length, flexibility and mobility at the beginning of a training session reinforces the fact that movement quality and injury prevention are essential to achieving athletic and wellness goals. By concluding the warm-up with dynamic stretching and neuromuscular activation drills, clients gain the advantage of a routine that can help reduce injury risk, improve muscular tissue density and flexibility, activate proprioceptors and deep stabilizers, enhance movement quality, and improve performance through the creation of more efficient and powerful movement patterns (Shellock and Prentice, 1985). If you have time to sit on Twitter while training then you have time to warm-up properly.

2.) Movement Training

If you’re trying to improve performance with jumps and sprints then these take precedent—even over your heavy lifts. Sprint work is technical; grooving the wrong pattern under fatigued leads to injury and poor performance.

As a bonus, these will ramp your nervous system and prep your body for strength gains.

2) Explosive/Power Lifts: Olympic Lifts

Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches are technical. They need full focus without excessive fatigue to perform them safely and effectively. Olympic lifts are great for gains in power, strength, and muscle—if you know how to do them they’re the most efficient lifts available.

3) Compound Strength: Squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls

If you don’t do the Olympic lifts then bump these movements right after your movement session or warm-up. Pick a couple major movement patterns and perform three to six sets of one to six reps. These should be heavy and difficult, but not past failure. If you’re form breaks down then you’re too heavy.

4) Compound Moderate Rep Work

Pick one or two movements and perform two to four sets of eight to fifteen reps. These should be moderately difficult, not to failure.

5) Free Time

Training should still be fun and a form of stress relief—not a job and complicated manor. For that reason once or twice per week I recommend setting a timer for 10 minutes and have fun. During this time I’ll do some direct arm work, farmer walks, isometrics, extra ab work, or whatever else I want. Pick exercises you like, keep the tempo up, and work hard.

6) Conditioning

Regardless of your goal you should perform some conditioning. Twice per week perform sub-maximal sprints, boxing, bodyweight circuits, push sleds, or complexes. High intensity intervals a few times per week will improve your work capacity and keep body fat low. Take other times to go for a walk, hike, swim, or something recreational and low intensity. There’s no excuse for not being in shape.

Training Frequency for Building Athletic Muscle

 If you crave maximal results in minimal time total body workouts are best. You’ll stimulate muscles more often. As a result your body learn movement patterns, stimulate more muscle growth, and make gains faster. Not only that, you’ll train the body as it’s meant to function—as a coordinated machine.

Three total body-training sessions with two conditioning sessions per week is plenty.

As a bonus I’ll add random 5-10 minute workouts of push-ups, pull-ups, squats, band pull-aparts, and core work. This is more for sanity-sake when I’m writing a long post, but it adds up.

Training Considerations:

Athletes: If you’re a competitive athlete this isn’t a program for you. You’ll need more specialization and movement included early in the session with a coach, like me.

Injured, Limited Individuals: If you’re limited due to illness, training injury, or other ailments then you need specialization to treat the issue at hand.

Minimalist Muscle Building Routine

Throughout the week every “movement” should be accounted for. This program uses a 3x/week training split with every movement variation covered. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are your big days with miscellaneous and mini-workouts taking place on other days as desired.


Warm Up

Sprints 6×10, 30 second rest

1a.(Hinge/lower body) Clean Or Deadlift 5×3

1b. (core)Plank 5×30 seconds Rest 30 seconds then repeat

2a.(Vertical Push) Push Press 4×4

2b. (Vertical Pull) Chin Up 4×4

Fun Time: Farmers walks, biceps curls, dips etc. <10 minutes


Run stairs 15 mins


Warm Up

Jump Squat 2×5

Medicine Ball Back Toss 2×5

1a.(Push, horizontal) Barbell Floor Press 4×6

1b. (core)side Plank 4×30 seconds Rest 30 seconds then repeat

2a. lunge/lower body) DB Split Squat 3×8-10

2b. (Horizontal Pull) Db Single Arm Row 3×8-10

2c. (Lower) Bench supported Hip Thrust 3×4-5/leg

Fun Time: Farmers walks, biceps curls, dips etc. <10 minutes


Bodyweight Work, 5-10 minutes and a walk


Warm Up

Broad Jump 2×3

1a.(Squat/Lower) Back Squat 4×8-10

1b. Farmer 4×30 seconds Rest 60 seconds then repeat

2a.(horizontal pull) Incline single arm Bench Press 3×12

2b. (Horizontal Pull) TRX inverted Row 3×8-10

2c. (lower) single leg squat to bench 3x/5side

Fun Time: Farmers walks, biceps curls, dips etc. <10 minutes

Saturday/Sunday: One day conditioning/sprint work 15-20 minutes and one day completely off.

Or, create your own with this total body template:

1a. Lower Body (lunge, hinge, squat, clean, or snatch)

1b. Upper Body Push (horizontal or Vertical)

1b. Upper Body Pull (Horizontal or vertical)

Include core work during active rest and a weighted carry at least once per week.

That’s it—minimalist muscle building is simple yet effective.


Wrap Up

The Bottom line is your training must align with your goals and abilities. If won’t hit the gym fives times per week why do a workout that requires it?

Simplify, get stronger, and make huge gains. 

There are times of greater training intensity and greater focus, but they don’t need to be all the time. You’ll reap huge benefits from a simpler approach to training, and mastering the essential.


Join the Discussion on Facebook:



Go to Top