The Art of Training as Little as Possible – Solid Gains, Minimal Effort

| September 21, 2018 by Truth Seeker |

image source: https://pixabay.com/en/locomotive-diesel-russia-train-60539/
What if the train we are on does not lead to where we want to go?

HarryTheBicepsFlexKilla overheard two bros talking while packing his gym bag:

“When did you arrive, brah?”
“1 hour ago.”
“Pfff. Been here since 5 p.m.”

Harry looked at his watch – it was almost 8 in the evening. Maybe this is why JohnnyTheTrenInjector is so big? Maybe the secret to extraterrestrial gains is prolonged servitude in the barbell house?

Harry quickly got back home and spent the evening tailoring his new 4-5-hour routine.

While the dialogue above is fictitious, I’ve witnessed similar conversations in the locker room. I have met people doing two 90-minute workouts a day – one in the morning and one in the evening. I’ve also done my fair share of high-volume madness too. The experience led me to the following realization:

Training is an ungrateful activity that deserves far less time and attention than most men think.

A surprisingly low amount of work is needed to acquire the gains that you can have as a natural. It’s so little that most bros will call you a loser and a cheater for choosing this path.


If you just want to maintain your strength, you can get away with doing even less.

Why would anyone want to train less?

“Training is my life, bro. Why you so mad lazy, bro?”

If you want to train extra hard, you should probably do it because you enjoy it. It’s your calling in that particular time frame, but let’s not pretend that this burning desire will remain unchanged forever.

Every noob thinks that he will be lifting 40 years from now. That’s normal. Noobs lack wisdom and have never tasted the deepest layers of the drink. They are yet to wake up with a hangover that makes them question life.

Minimalism is a sane and rational approach to natural bodybuilding. Instead of rejecting the obvious, namely the fact that naturals can’t really grow much, you embrace the limitations and reduce your investment in the iron game to a more appropriate threshold.

Lifting more will not add slabs of meat to your body regardless of what the fairy tales on the Internet state. High-frequency schedules will increase the stored tension in the muscles and the overall proficiency of the system in performing certain exercises, but the mass and strength of the individual would not be far from the level that he or she would have reached with a less “expensive” approach.

Sub-maximal and/or infrequent training work so well that one cannot help but wonder – “If I am getting 90% or even more of the gains, why do I have to spend extra hours at the barbell house and share oxygen with morons talking about made up sexual conquests and shallow political ideas?

Another bonus of compact training is that it reduces the desire to quit. Once the lack of gains, the joint pain and the tired CNS form a trinity and start nagging you, the exit door will seem more attractive than ever.

I’ve thought of quitting on many occasions. Sometimes I would be in the gym trying to satisfy another workout spreadsheet and say to myself: “Why am I even doing this? Instead of being outside riding my bicycle or working on new projects, I am here doing some sort of medieval torture with a barbell on my back. What is the point of this?”

When you find yourself in a similar situation, the quickest remedy is to completely change the direction of your training or reduce the amount of work to the bare minimum. This move will decrease the fatigue accumulated in your bones, muscles, mind and heart while preventing the premature end of your career.

The Surprising Effectiveness of Less Work

In a previous article, I told you that motivation is the scam of the century. Well, hard work is the other one. People love to talk about work as if wage-slaving is some great biblical sacrifice. Of course, it’s not. It’s the result of clever programming.

Once upon a time, I read a quote on a forum saying that the more your work, the less money you are making. Ain’t that true? Think about the people in the factories covering 20-hour or longer shifts to make all the toys. Think about the miners spending 10 hours or more underground. Then think about the celebrities who make more money from an Instagram post than the mortals clear out in decades.

This is our reality because the “privileged group” can trigger more effective mechanisms for money generation.

On the other hand, the unfortunate cogs in the wheel don’t have access to schemes capable of catalyzing the ascension they are looking for regardless of effort input. Hence being demotivated to work hard or at all is an extremely logical outcome and state of being. If anything, being motivated to work is weird.

The exact same principle is observed in the gym. Men on steroids preach that the secret to growth is brutal, hardcore lifting, but most of them do not even train as heroically as they believe.

How are the workouts of the pros different from those of the average bro in the gym? They aren’t. It’s the same thing, essentially.

Just like on the economic battlefield, those who work the longest hours are the poorest or in this case the smallest.

The solution? Inject and/or work less.

How to Make Things Easier

The two major options are:

  1. Reduce the frequency to 1-2 days a week while keeping the difficulty of the workouts at level medium.
  2. Keep the frequency high but reduce the volume each workout substantially and manipulate the intensity appropriately to avoid overtraining.

Example A:

Day 1:

Squat – 1×5, 1×8
Bench press – 1×5, 1×8
Pull-ups – 5xF
Biceps work – 3×10

Day 2:

Deadlift – 1×5
Incline press – 1×5, 1×8
Dips – 5xF
Triceps work – 3×10

Unless you are lifting alien approved weights, the workouts above should be fairly short, and yet they will still provide most of the gains that you are ever going to make regardless of how hard you train.

Similar routines do not generate the quick boosts that come with high volume training, but their beauty lies in the optimized effort to gain ratio.

To the intoxicated brahs who do crazy stuff like Smolov, Layne Norton’s hypertrophy-strength hybrid routines, Sheiko…etc. this type of training will appear like the coward’s choice, but it’s a very reasonable decision if you realize that the modern sacrifice for muscle mass gives far less than it takes.

Example B

Day 1:

Squat – 1×5
Bench – 1×5
Pull-ups – 2xF

Day 2:

Squat – 1×5
Bench – 1×5

Day 3: Rest

Day 4:

Squat – 1×5
Bench – 1×5

Day 5:

Squat – 1×5
Bench – 1×5
Pull-ups – 2xF

The next program calls for a higher frequency (4 times a week) but will not get you near overtraining if the volume is low and the intensity grows gradually. When the weight gets heavy, the lifter goes back and starts climbing the mountain again. This type of training is very similar to Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to The People routine.

The benefit of this model is that the workouts are quick and far from draining. You leave before the others have even finished their first exercise. Will you lose strength? No. What about mass? Same.

As long as you are cycling your weights (adding plates, deloading, adding more plates) strength losses will not become an issue. However, as with every routine, there will be a point when stagnation will occur. Such is the nature of training. 

Maybe stagnation is not that bad?

The world hates stagnation. You are supposed to be concurring new peaks all the time. But what if this notion is wrong? What if you feel content with your current skills and don’t want to go any further? What if you are not willing to do the sacrifice required to reach the next step? What’s wrong with that? Nothing.

Let’s say that you can currently do 15 pull-ups with good form and maintain that number with a single session every seven days. You can’t quite progress to the next level (20 pull-ups), but you are not losing reps either. Why? Because you are not covering the requirements needed to advance further while doing enough to keep your current shape.

That’s stagnation or maintenance depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

Maintenance is a highly cost-efficient tool that allows you to keep your strength while focusing on something else.

A surprisingly small amount of work can maintain your current stats. As little as one work set a week can do the trick. Yes, one single set a week can preserve or even build up your strength depending on the programming.

Your Joints will Thank You 

Lifting has an incredibly low injury rate because it’s pre-planned. You are doing the same or similar exercises forever for a selected number of reps and sets. Unless someone decides to punch you in the balls during a deadlift, the chances of actually hurting yourself are low. Driving a car or riding a bicycle is many times more dangerous because there is an endless number of variables that change quickly.

Consequently, the primary reason for pain in the weight room is overtraining. The best cure for overuse is rest. You can massage your gluteus maximus with a foam roller all you want, but nothing works as well as letting an area recover.

Infrequent and/or easy training covers that too. Instead of destroying yourself and going home beaten and incapable of doing much else afterward, you are energized and ready to work. As a bonus, the strain on your joints is reduced substantially because their recovery ability is not surpassed.

The Obsession with Metrics

To explain this principle, I will revert to technology. I bought my first smartphone 2 years ago. When I opened the package, I was shocked by the clarity and brightness of the screen. Once I started using it, I felt like an idiot for waiting so long to get one.

Soon, “upgraditis” hit me, and I began looking for something better. I wanted to have a phone with a stronger battery, more RAM and a finger scanner. I found myself spending a lot of time on phone sites. I never bought a new device, however. I am still using the same smartphone and my old Nokia dumb-phone.

Similar experiences illustrate people’s obsession with metrics – we want the new stuff with the better specs, but do we actually need it? How will your life change when you go from a phone with 2GB RAM to one with 8GB?

The answers to those questions do not matter to the obsessed mind. We want more and more and more.

While giving freedom to this mania, we forget one thing – sometimes what we have is enough. Just because there’s an option for more, it does not mean that you will benefit from pursuing it.

Technology is a perfect example as people associate it with progress. What if I tell you that we have enough technology? Yes, there’s always room for improvement, and it will happen sooner or later, but we have plenty as of now.

The more important question is not how technologically advanced something is, but how much of it you are putting to a good use.

If we convert this principle to training, the core translates to this – how will your life change when you go from 15 pull-ups to 30? From a 400lbs deadlift to a 500lbs deadlift?

Yes, the higher numbers look cooler, but are they required to operate and look good? Absolutely not.

That’s a secret because they want us chasing made-up goals distracting us from deeper revelations.

Instead of obsessing with irrelevant metrics, people should focus on strategies and actions. Metrics are cool, but ultimately, they are instruments. What you build is more important than the tools you have.

Rippetoe and the power-fatsos slaving to strength say that “strength is the foundation of everything”, but they get lost in the journey and end up injured, fat and confused.

It’s not uncommon to hear or read the following quotes: “I won’t be strong until I deadlift 600lbs.”, “I am not a true powerlifter until my total is X”.

Similar requirements and technicalities reside only in one’s head. They exist because we support them with our insecurities and lack of wisdom.

Is this an excuse to suck?

It’s not an excuse, it’s a conscious strategy. Instead of making poor investments, you maintain what you already have with minimal effort. This method gives you respectable gains, more time, healthier joints, less stress…etc.

What is the alternative? Obsessing and begging? Qualifying to some fools who happen to be stronger and bigger than you for whatever reason? (e.g., steroids, genetics).

Calf development illustrates this point brilliantly. Here’s how things work – you either have big calves or you don’t. No amount of training changes that. You can go from average to better, but you can’t go from sub-zero to amazing no matter what. It’s decided. It’s predetermined.

I know how it feels. I have tiny calves because of my high insertions. I’ve done enough calf training to know that it’s all in vain. I’ve seen middle-aged women with calves that belong on an IFBB pro. One time I saw an anorexic woman walking around with big calves. Her whole body had disappeared, but her calves were still fairly muscular and striated due to the low body fat.

Honestly, sometimes training is pointless for the purpose of hypertrophy. Some get it, but many don’t and continue to jump like puppies around dudes who allegedly have the formula. Well, they don’t. Save your time and do something more interesting.

Who is the sucker, really?

The population in most gyms is identical. You always see the same type of people wherever you go. One of the many groups constitutes of what I call believers or dreamers. Those would be the unaware local bros who keep doing their “compound exercises” and eating Arnold’s breakfast while looking the same for years.

I’ve seen many of those specimens, but I will present to you one of the recent cases.

Last year, I found myself training in a gym with 2 middle-aged men. One of them was mildly impressive and may have been on TRT, but I really don’t know. The other man was average/do you even lift. He had some muscle, but nothing unobtainable.

Both of them were doing 2-hour sessions 5-6 days a week. Their routines consisted of multiple exercises done for many sets.

Meanwhile, I was doing ultra-minimal programs. Once I went to the gym, did 1×3 deadlift after a warm-up and left. The workout took less than 15 minutes. Those two looked at me like I am a loser, slacker, lazy boy. But the thing is – I’ve talked to reality. I knew that even if I lift the entire day, I would still end up looking the same in the long run because I am natural.

I spent over a year training at that place until it closed, and I had to find a new facility. The men from the lifting duo looked the same when I left. They were neither bigger nor smaller. Just the same.

So, I ask this? Who’s the sucker?

Somebody who invests 10 minutes a week to maintain a lift or somebody spending 2 hours draining his mind and body lifting weights that don’t have to be lifted?

Who’s the sucker? I think it’s pretty clear.

This is why I am a big believer in doing as little as possible.

How easy is it to actually lose muscle?

The muscle media and the megaphones will make you believe that every time you skip a workout, you lose pounds of muscle instantaneously. OCD controlled men embrace this notion and try to schedule their lives in a way serving the lifting deities.

The surprising truth is that you have to stop training for a long time (months) to start losing mass. And even then, the more important part of the equation will be your nutritional plan. If your diet is designed to preserve your current weight, your body composition will remain close to its current state even if you quit training for a long time.


P.S. You can find more training routines following this principle in Training Focus 2.

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25 comments

  1. Jonathan

    Hey, really great article there. After 6 years of consistent training my own weekly volume has also stabilized at about the level you’re suggesting (2 weekly upper days with 8-10 work sets each and 1 leg/abs/hiit day, each workout lasting about 40 minutes including warm up). I’m happy with the results given the time I spend working out.

    Just one clarification, what is the F in 5xF? To failure? If so, 5 sets of weighted dips/pull ups could be pretty draining.

  2. Inner_Voice

    Good read as usual. I quit going to the gym long time ago and instead set up a minimalist home gym with very basic equipment and minimal investments. One could also mention, that besides spending hours in the gym surrounded mainly with narcissistic douchebags, it also takes extra time to actually get there, park the car, change clothes and then shower and get the hell out of there. This took me almost as long as any workout.

  3. Nick

    I’ve found that as a natural (at the age of 52), increasing the quantity of weight training seems to bring more results. So today for instance I did a 2 hour shoulder and back workout, and did not feel in the slightest bit washed out at the end ! I’ve tried HIT in the past and shorter workouts, and am not saying I won’t try them again, but for the minute ‘quantity’ reigns! https://www.flickr.com/photos/30261128@N04/

    1. Rob

      Good for you and you look awesome! However, his point is that high quantity training is not as rewarding, in other words, it has diminishing returns. I too believe that training 5 times a week for 2 hours would make me look better, I was at my peak when I trained twice a day, however now I prefer to invest this time into other things in life. I too realized that doing full body on Mon/Thu keeps me healthy, strong, motivated and leaves more time for cardio. I don’t care that I cannot bench 120kg if I can bench 105kg. Being the best requires more sacrifice than long shifts in the gym and chicken breast with rice.

  4. Alex

    I loved this article. I’m stil young but over the years training became sort of unpleasant since I was always looking to improve. Ultimatelly I got injured and quit but not for long. Along the way I found that doing less and not feeling completely drained after a workout and not having soreness for days actually makes me look forward to the next session. Reducing volume and not pushing to failure on every set is as a matter of fact pleasant!

  5. Bill

    Hey natty, I have bought a couple of your books and long time reader. I am always trying to refine my workouts to the minimum whilst getting the most satisfaction and potential gains. Would you mind analysing my current routine?

    Day 1:
    Bench Press or Incline x 7
    Squats x 6
    Rows x 3
    Barbell or dumbbell curls x 4
    Total: 20 (45mins)

    Day 2:
    Chin-ups x 3
    Clean and press x 5
    Deadlift x 3
    Arnold dumbbell or lateral x 4
    Dip x 5
    Total: 20 sets (time 45 mins)

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Deadlift after chin-ups and clean& press seems weird unless it’s light/RDL. I would do it first if it was heavy and do clean & press another day.

  6. Konan

    So true tested IT on myself. I loved heavy lifting but my body started to fall apart at age of 20+ i was panicking, sure im going to lose everything. Right now im training 6x a week full body workout 1exercise per part. Light day medium day and heavier day. 15, 8, 4 reps 1 set. Never been healthier, plus some walks i’ve stopped running 15 kms bcs my body coudlnt handle the pressure. Diet? No i eat when im hungry just healthy, sweet tooth? Hell yea from time to time. There is no special way. Just genetics, will to do workout, a bit of discipline never understood how ppl are making such a big deal of IT. Its fucking simple u dont even need eqp. Only thing i have problem is stress cant sleep from it. I would say 10 pages how to live healthier, workout, eat its more then enough for all u need. Theres no secrets.

  7. MB

    @Truth Seeker:
    Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) it happens that I envy the more muscular ones and even feel intimidated by them. And it happened – only a few times – that I met women with muscles that would make many men jealous. (yes there are women with amazing looking muscles and big biceps). I hope this doesn’t sound wrong. I don’t want to look down on others or so, but it can make me feel very uncomfortable. I comfort myself with the fact that I have other great talents, but the envy and intimidated feeling to go away completely. How can I get rid of this feeling? Or what would you advice me?

  8. E

    If you’re training naturally, people cannot accept just how little and how infrequently you need to train to achieve your genetic potential for size and strength and maintain it. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have basically been doing the same workout once a week for the past 20 years.

    I do the trap bar deadlift, the bench press, the pull down, and calf raises. That covers the whole body and very often I might also do a set of shrugs after the deadlift and possibly a set of curls along with some grip work, but that’s it. And perhaps for three or four months every year if I’m feeling burnt out on the deadlift and the bench press I might substitute in the hip belt Squat and the military press. But that’s pretty much it for variety.

    Everything is also simply done for one or two sets of the rep range of my choosing. Whereas I might go to failure on the pull down and the curl more often than not I’ll go to within 1 rep of failure in the deadlift and the bench press.

    It is no exaggeration to say that 99.9% of everything written on the internet as it relates to sets, reps, volume, frequency, and expectations of what to expect, as a relates to a drug-free trainee is absolute bullshit.

    Just pick a couple of lifts to work the whole body, maybe one or two exercises that you just happen to like, work as hard as you can on those exercises for one or two sets for the rep range of your choosing and do so once every 5 to 7 days for a couple of years and with that simple approach to weight training you’ll achieve whatever potential you have. You really don’t need to know much of anything else.

  9. Lee

    E

    Absolute truth. Even Arthur Jones was wrong with frequency being every other day and requiring 12 exercises of his Nautilus machines. A couple of exercises 1-2 X a week is all you need and you do NOT need to go to failure or beyond.

  10. Dan

    I used to lift weights for 2 hours a week. Past year I’ve only lifted 20 minutes a week max. I cut my calories and am down to 12% body fat. People think I’m single digits, but I’m probably 12. Never felt better.

      1. Daniel

        Rafael, on Monday I do 3 sets of Lat Pulldowns to failure for 15-20 reps per set. Then I do 3 sets of handle bar pushups to failure. Then I do 3 sets of concentration curls to failure. I rest 1 minute between all sets. On Friday I do 3 sets of Chest supported rows 15-20 reps per set to failure. I then do 3 sets of chest press to failure for 15-20 reps. I then do 3 sets of concentration curls to failure for 15-20 reps per set. You would be absolutely amazed at how good you look with DIET alone. If you are 10-12% body fat with even a tiny bit of muscle you look freaking amazing with your shirt off.

  11. Dan

    I used to lift weights for 2 hours a week. Past year I’ve only lifted 20 minutes a week max. I cut my calories and am down to 12% body fat. People think I’m single digits, but I’m probably 12. Never felt better. I look way better than I did when I trained 2 hours a week.

  12. Frank

    I’m 54 years old and had been trying to get in at least four intense 90 minute workouts every week. Having the kids all summer made this impossible but I found a twice a week circuit training (sort of cross-fit like) class at the same time as the kids’ swimming lessons. I signed up thinking it might be a nice change of pace and would maintain my (rather minimal) gains until I could get back to my four day a week schedule. Surprisingly two hours of circuit training seems to be producing more and better results than six hours of traditional weight training. I’ve lost weight and feel more athletic and flexible.

  13. Pierre Farine

    Hi Bro,
    The best article so far i been doing the same 2 workouts a week of 20 minutes funny thing i have gain muscle and lost body fat less is better.

  14. Fatman

    Brooks Kubik wrote about infrequent but intense, minimalist training routines 20+ years ago. He was in turn inspired by the writings of “Dr” Ken Leistner. Abbreviated training works great for strength, and pretty well for size.

  15. Robert

    This article is brilliant. I’m 39 now & look back at how I used to train as a kid & I had no idea. For the last 6 or 7 years I’ve kept my workouts to the basics, always the same routine (each body part) and made steady increases in strength. My body has always been slim & lean but my fitness combined with my boxing has always kept me fit. You really do not need to spend hours & hours in the gym if you’re a natural.

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