You’re not twelve years old anymore. If you’re lucky, you get to have so-called fun once in awhile, but you don’t get to just chase it around like a child. You have bills and responsibilities and whatever else comes with being an adult. The no-fun life might suck, but no one cares — or at least I don’t care. In fact, I’m happy you don’t get to have much fun. I hate fun, apart from watching you have none. That’s actually really fucking fun.
Along these lines, I have some grown up advice for your training. Start training like an adult and quit worrying about whether or not it’s fun. I’m going to outline a program for you that you should be able to complete in 90 minutes a day, three days a week. That’s four-and-a-half hours total training time per week. Round up to five if you want.
For five lousy hours a week, you ought to be able to endure being tethered to a plow like a mule and told to work the fields. As a bonus, this program actually produces results, and in my book, results are a hell of a lot more fun than feel-good training. The quickest way to not see any progress is to try to train too many movements at once or to try to improve too many variables at once. Why is that? Well, many mistresses leave them all unsatisfied.
You’ve seen it, right? “I want to bench press 300 pounds. I also want to run a six-minute mile. Oh, and I also need to work on my tennis game, my skiing, and don’t forget handball!”
Notice I didn’t even pick particularly outlandish numbers for my examples. There are probably a fair number of people who actually can bench press 300 pounds and run a six-minute mile. Good for them. One, they probably have some natural athletic gifts. Two, they probably didn’t build both those attributes concurrently. They worked on one first, and then held it steady or at least tried to minimize drop-off while working on the other. They kept stepping both up over time like this until they had cleared both thresholds.
That sounds like a strategy to me, and a pretty damned good one. Let’s talk about your strategy. And since I’m a strength guy, we’ll pick strength, but you can apply these minimalist principles to any athletic attribute you want to focus on improving.
You’re going to pick six, nine, or twelve movements, and that’s it. Why multiples of three? Simple, you’re going to train three days per week, and I want you doing the same number of lifts each session.
You get to choose from the following six mandatory movements:
- Squat Variant
- Deadlift Variant (hinge variant if you prefer that nomenclature)
- Horizontal Press
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Press
- Vertical Pull
If you don’t know lifts that fall into each category, a simple Google search should help. My friend, Marshall Roy, owner of Rise Gym in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, made excellent videos recently where he demonstrates more squat and deadlift variants than I knew existed.
In addition to the six mandatory movements, you can choose three or six optional movements. Or, you don’t have to include any. The optional movements aren’t really movements at all. They’re mostly single-joint isolation lifts designed to work smaller muscle groups without beating you up. As a result, they’re listed by muscle group and not by movement plane as the above are. I’m not smart enough to solve that little inconsistency.
Here is your optional list:
- Posterior Chain
- Conditioning (or what Westside used to refer to, and maybe still does, as general physical preparedness)
Since it’s a rather abstract inclusion, I’ll list a few of my favorite conditioning options to at least get you started, though I’m sure someone with an imagination can think of many more. Some of my preferences include farmers walks, Prowler pushing, sled dragging, sandbag carries, Airdyne sprint intervals, tire flipping, kettlebell swings, and heavy bag work.
Now, I’ll organize all twelve movements into a weekly training template, in approximate descending order of importance. I’ll explain that last bit shortly. First, take a look at the template:
The idea with descending order of importance is that the lifts on the top row are the ones you absolutely must do. The second row includes lifts you really want to try your best to get in unless you’re really pressed for time.
The third and fourth rows are optional if time allows, and ranking one lift more important than another at this level is like splitting hairs. For example, I’d say getting in your conditioning work is actually more important than training your triceps, which you already hit with compound movements, but conditioning just fits better at the end of a workout (and also at the end of a week with two full recovery days). Thus, triceps made it to the third row while conditioning fell to the fourth.
I won’t go through all the rationale for organizing every aspect of the week the way I did, but I will point out a few preferences.
- Posterior chain gets trained on squat day rather than on deadlift day for a specific reason I’ve noticed personally and also with people I train. Knees can ache a little after squatting, especially older knees. A few sets of Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, or even leg curls can really help with this.
- Triceps and biceps are trained together because, well...better pump!
- Press is a wildcard. It’s an important lift, but it doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. Doing it after deadlifting all but eliminates standing variations unless your lower back is made of steel. So, I advise most people to press after squatting.
- I see two viable choices for training your grip without having the potential to negatively impact your deadlift. You can train it as far away from deadlifts as possible, or you can train it after them. If you have baseball mitt hands and a natural vice grip, skip it altogether.
- Lastly, you’ll notice just about any program I recommend works well both for general strength training and for powerlifting competition because, well… powerlifting!
Okay, so we’ve addressed the critical programming variable of which movements to train and the order in which to train them. We’ll no longer be running around willy-nilly training this, that, and the other. We have a few lifts to focus on and, dare I say, measurable gains in strength and muscle mass are looking much more possible.
All we need now is a method for adding weight to the bar to those critical top row lifts over time. For all the lifts in the other rows, just pick a set and rep scheme and plug away. Something like three sets of eight or four sets of six will work just fine for all those second, third, and fourth tier lifts.
Guess what? These progression methods are like snot at a daycare center; they’re everywhere! We don’t have to invent a damned thing.
In the words of trainer of elite lifters, Marty Gallagher, all we need to do is “Google that shit up!” In fact, I’d tell you to Google “Marty Gallagher training,” but you’ll likely do even better using the name of one of the well-known lifters he worked with like Ed Coan or Kirk Karwoski in order to copy one of their training cycles.
A typical Gallagher training cycle is twelve weeks long and starts with relatively light weights around 65-70% of your one-rep max for sets of eight to ten repetitions. You add weight in small increments of maybe three percent each week, dropping reps every few weeks. Cycles end with weights very close to your old one-rep max for experienced lifters, or exceeding it for newer lifters. The final weeks see you handling 95-100% for singles and doubles.
I won’t bother reproducing an entire Gallagher/Coan cycle here. Trust me, I’m not short-changing you. They’re out there.
Probably the biggest downside I’ve found to this style of training is that you have to commit a full three months to it in order to reap the benefits, and a lot can happen in three months. You can catch a nasty flu bug. Your boss can send you on a lengthy business trip. The roof to your house might cave in and rearrange your priorities for a bit.
If your life sounds like this, refer to paragraph two all the way at the beginning of the article. Better yet, I’ll summarize so you don’t have to scroll: I don’t fucking care! It’s not that I’m heartless. It’s simply that life isn’t very often a good excuse for not making progress. Life will always be there. You have to fit your training in around the distractions.
I’m going to show you an awesome way of dealing with life. It’s called a mini-cycle! You know who the king of the mini-cycle is? If you don’t, you’re about to: his name is Jim Wendler. Get to Googling!
Ole boy Jim is like a crafty West Virginian — way craftier than yours truly. He actually figured out a way to make some money from this strength training nonsense. He wrote a wildly popular training manual and about 100 derivations of it called 5/3/1.
I can’t imagine I’m giving away Wendler’s program to anyone, but maybe I am. Sue me, Jim, but remember, you’re suing a turnip and you know what they say about turnips.
So the gist of 5/3/1 is that you work up to a top set of five reps the first week, add a little bit of weight the following week and work to a top set of three reps, add a little more weight the third week and work up to a single. Then, you take a deload week before starting the cycle over, using a little more weight than you did the first time through.
I’m leaving out a whole bunch of nuance in hopes Jim really doesn’t sue me, but that’s the gist of the 5/3/1 progression. The huge advantage to this style of training being, of course, that you only need to commit to a month of workouts to get through one round. Sure, the idea is that you be able to string three or four of these short cycles together in order to see some real gains. But, at least there’s the break built in every fourth week where you can fix that leaky roof if you really have to deal with life.
At the risk of confusing you, I’ll mention another advantage to the Wendler style of cycling. After railing about the lack of progress that generally results from trying to train too many different movements at once, I’ll contradict myself by pointing out that you can potentially change lift variations every four weeks on a 5/3/1 progression. Just don’t go crazy with the number of variations you choose to work. Three is about right, I think, for balancing variety and measuring progress.
Using the squat as an example, three excellent variations would be the power squat, the SS Yoke Bar squat, and the front squat. Going through a 5/3/1 cycle for each would give you three months of training (the same length as one Gallagher cycle) before repeating a movement. One potential advantage to changing movements like this is the ability to work on weak points. SS Yoke Bar squats, for example, teach you not to collapse in the hole.
Another advantage is that you may avoid overuse injuries that can sometimes occur as the result of repeating the same exact movement pattern over and over for weeks on end. Taking the SS Yoke bar squat again, it is perhaps just different enough from the power squat to reduce the likelihood of developing patellar tendonitis. It’s also similar enough to offer good strength carryover — the proverbial win-win.
Though I seem to have just stated a case for the Wendler cycle over the Gallagher cycle, I don’t care which progression method you use. Some will prefer the continuity of the Gallagher approach, while some will prefer never being more than a month removed from taking a heavy single. Personal preference is all it really comes down to in the end.
Either Gallagher’s twelve-week cycle or Wendler’s four-week cycle can be effective if you apply determined effort. They’re both just simple forms of linear progression, and most beginner and intermediate lifters are going to be far better off with a simple training program than with something complex. Hell, I suppose I’m advanced by most measures, and I never really evolved to anything more complicated. So just pick one you can stick to and get after it.
Is this sort of minimalist (I prefer the term "focused") training fun? I don’t know. I suppose it can be if you enjoy training with heavy weight and pushing your body to adapt. If you don’t enjoy those critical aspects of strength training, then it’s probably not going to be much fun. If that’s the case, maybe pure strength training isn’t for you and you’d be better off with something else.
Accomplishing goals I set for myself and for people I work with is rewarding. I don’t promise fun. I promise goal attainment through simple but thoughtful planning and focused execution. If you want a 400-pound raw bench press, 500-pound raw squat, or 600-pound raw deadlift, I just provided a solid blueprint to get there.
Chuck Miller has trained with weights and competed in strength sports for 25 years, totaling raw elite in two weight classes. His first book, Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon, is a comprehensive interview of Stuart McRobert, author of several strength training books and publisher of “HardGainer” magazine. Marty Gallagher, trainer of elite athletes and author of The Purposeful Primitive, wrote the foreword. For more information about Chuck or to contact him, please visit his website, CORE Strength Training.