Minimalist Training

I have been keeping my training journals since 1971. It is fun, and insightful, to go back and read my workouts where I Bench Press 65 pounds for 8 reps and then, it seems like just a few pages later, I am finally getting the mythical 200 pound barrier. I talked with an old girl friend of mine the other day, Pam, and she said that my 300 pound plus bench press “scared” all the other kids in the neighborhood. On paper, though, it isn’t very far from 65 to 400, but in gym hours, well, let’s just say that is a lot of hours squeezed into some tiny pencil marks.

I love the gym. I love moving weights. I browse used bookstores for old lifting magazines and old books. But, life has a way of deciding that the time I have in the gym is not going to be as open ended like those first few years when I trained up to three times a day.

Yet, an interesting thing leaps from the pages of my journal when I cut back to two or three days a week because of inconveniences like “children,” and life. I note time and again that I get stronger, bigger and healthier. “Healthier” to a lifter means that the elbows don’t hurt when you put on your shirt and you can get in and out of a car with a minimum of embarrassment.

Even if you don’t HAVE to train on a Minimalist Program, you should consider it several times a year. Let me rundown, quickly, a few good reasons:

First, when you decide to only train twice a week, you quickly realize that you will have to make tight exercise selections. You literally can’t take a five or six day a week program and just slice it into two days. When you go back to “normal training,” keep those exercise choices from the two day a week program as the meat of your usual training.

Second, you have to have a guiding principle. Basically, are you going to do two whole body workouts a week or split the body up somehow? I have an odd answer for you on this, but you have to really decide this before you come into the gym. If you can get what you need done in two days that will give you five days to recover (obviously) a week, but it also gives you a lot of extra time to dial in food preparation, shopping, supplements, and active recovery methods.

Third, and this is the obvious one: If you can make excellent progress training two days a week, what are you doing in the gym the rest of the time? If it is social, I understand that, but for real training, growth and recovery, aren’t you hurting your own goals with the extra work?

Can you make progress on Two Days a Week training? Absolutely, in fact, being “forced” to cut to two days a week transformed my athletic career. When my daughters were born, I worked a full time job, coached and taught English as a Second Language to keep ahead of all the new expenses. I honestly tried to continue my five day a week heavy training program, but the wheels came off.

My friend, the late Goran Swenson, gave me a little program that saved my career (and my marriage!). Very simply, it was this simple two day a week program:

Day One:
Power Clean
Bench Press

Day Two:
Front Squat

I asked him about reps and sets. He shrugged and told me that I should keep the reps high in the Bench Press and Front Squat (basically sets of eight and ten which I thought was insane) and just get some solid sets in on the two quick lifts, the Power Clean and the Snatch.

As I look back, I wonder why I didn’t do this my whole career. Swiftly, I made the best progress of my career and ended up throwing very far that season with the “least” work I have ever done.

Over time, I did make one small change and added the Bench Press to both days as I could easily recover from workout to workout. Years later, this program,from a simple design by John Price, turned out to be used as the “model” for several Olympians. Here you go:

Monday(Day One)
:Bench Press
135 for 10
225 for 10
315 for 10 (if you can)
More weight — 335 or so for 10 or as many

Thursday (Day Two)
Bench Press
135 for 10
225 for 10
315 for 10
365 for as many

I used this same program for years to get my bench up to my yearly goal of 405. It has been said that an elite thrower needs a 400 pound bench press, so I made that part of my yearly training regime.

My good friend, and one of the world’s most intelligent strength coaches, Pavel Tsatsouline told me recently about a two day a week Powerlifting program. Simply, this is it:
Day One
Bench Press

Day Two
Back Squat
Bench Press

Indeed, you can bench hard twice a week. Recently, I have taken a number of busy trainees under my wing and I have simply adapted Pavel’s approach with some classic information from weight training for a workable and challenging two day a week program.

The “Rules:”
1. The Bench Press is done both workouts and it will follow John Price’s model. Keep adding weight with big jumps for ten reps, then on the last (fourth) set get “as many” with a serious weight.
2. The Deadlift will follow the “Rule of Ten.” With a movement like the DL, even though I know some make progress with much higher reps, I prefer you keep the total reps “around ten.” So, a great base workout would be Five Sets of Two adding weight for each set (ten reps). Another workout, my personal favorite is 5-3-2, again increasing weight. Certainly, two sets of five and three sets of three work with this rule, too. Keep the load high, but the volume low on deadlifts.
3. For Back Squats, I would recommend one of two things: either mimic the Bench Press routine and do increasing sets of ten or do what I recommend for my trainees who want to gain lean body mass: do one high rep set. I discussed this in detail in my article, “Mass Made Simple.” You can really push high rep squats once a week for fairly long periods of time.
4. Finally, I added some traditional bodybuilding movements and a rep scheme inspired by the early work of Tom DeLorme to really allow this program to match practically anyone’s hypertrophy goals.

Now, let’s look at this in detail.

Day One

After a little warm up, the first lift will be the deadlift. There is no movement in the gym that is more total body than the deadlift and a max lift here can beat you up for weeks. If you are not good at deadlifts and have no issues with spine health, I would strongly suggest you make this a key movement in your training.

Two reps in the deadlift. Add Weight
Two reps in the deadlift. Add Weight
Two reps in the deadlift. Add Weight
Two reps in the deadlift. Add Weight
Two reps in the deadlift.

If you just keep tossing on 45s, that workout taps out at 495 for two which is solid work for anybody, anywhere.

Bench Press
Feel free to follow my sets and reps and load, but this little idea of benching for tens seems to work for most people.

Upper Body Extra Work
We have been splitting the body up in an interesting way in this program. Each day is “whole body” with the big movements, but we do some extra work each day, too, but focus on half of the body. It gives you a chance to train specific muscle groups, yet gives plenty of time to recover. The rep scheme is very simple:

Ten reps with 50% of the Ten Rep Maximum
Five Reps with 70-75% of the Ten Rep Maximum
Ten Reps with the Ten Rep Maximum

On that last set, strive for as many. My years in the weight room have taught me that with ten rep max lifts the numbers get a little cloudy, a little fuzzy. One week, you handle that weight for twelve reps, the next week, you might struggle with eight. Don’t worry about it as the Deadlift and Bench work really can impact these numbers. And, don’t push that set of five, just get the reps and save it for the last set.

Lat Pull Downs (Pullups, if you can do ten with weight)
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps

Military Press
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps

Barbell Bicep Curl
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps

Triceps Press (Any Variation)
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps

Sidebends (Left and Right)
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps
(Within reason on this one)

Day Two
Back squats
Either do three to five sets of ten repetitions adding weight each set with only the last set being even close to maximum, or try the ideas I outlined in Mass Made Simple with the easy warm up sets and the one set of thirty.

Bench Press
Three sets of ten with the weight increasing each set and a final heavy set of “as many.” Be sure to have a good spotter. This has always been the set that indicates to me that I am making progress in my program.

Lower Body Extra Work

Leg Curl Machine
50% 10RM for Ten Reps
70-75% 10RM for Five Reps
100% 10RM for Ten Reps

Straight Leg or Romanian Deadlift
Just do three sets of ten with a reasonable weight

Calf Raises
Just do three sets of twenty with a reasonable weight

One easy set of twenty

So, what do you do on those five days off? Well, I suggest you shop well, cook your meals, eat your veggies, live life and take care of business. What has always amazed me about training twice a week is how good my joints feel and how much energy I seem to have to do all the other important things in life.

Minimalist Programs are underappreciated by the “No Guts, No Glory” t-shirt crowd, but I don’t know of a better way to focus all of my energy into my training. Try it.

  • jamej

    I love this sort of training. But, I just love to train. Stopping after a little when I’m feeling good is almost as hard as controling my diet. This year I’m going to do less with a simple program more often. But, I will reserve my once a month not very smart break all the rules workout.
    Thanks for another great article.

  • Rob

    Dan, it’s very interesting to hear about your experience with different training methods over the years, and it proves the truism that hard work and consistency are more important than particular set or rep schemes. I have been stalling around the 190-200lb mark for the bench press for a few months now while sticking to 5s, so it sounds like I could do with trying a few time-tested ideas like these to mix up my training.

  • Keith

    Hey Dan, great article. Better be careful or “they” will accuse you of being a HIT guy and an Aurthur Jones disciple. :) Just a question. How much rest would you recommend between sets?

  • Tony

    Great Article Dan, can’t wait to try it out this winter.

    If by chance you can get an extra day a week in, what would you suggest? Sprint and agility work?

  • Richard

    Excellent Article Dan, I think this is a beautiful program, I tried it a week ago and i’m already seeing results. I really love the deadlifts as it makes my other lifts increase.

  • Sergio


    How would you approach this with female athletes who won’t really make a big jump for 10 reps?

  • Vesa Finland

    Bench, curl and deadlift. I really like Harold Ansorges 20 rep breathing deads. Starting with modest weight and no belt/shoes, soon you’re pulling 300lbs for reps.

  • Jason

    So, I just started using this workout, but I am short for time, so I can’t fit the entire workouts in. I was wondering how you feel about the tweaks I made to the program for time’s sake. I switched the pull downs and biceps curls out for Yates rows. Then I took out hyperextensions and leg curls on day 2 and replaced them w/ GHR’s

  • Federico Aldam

    beginner question: should I look for my 1rm, 5rm or whatever the first day I go to a gym with the basic lifts in order to know where to start?
    I mean, lets say I have never lifted weight in my life (true in part) and want to start a program, should I go and deadlift, overhead press, squat, clean and jerk (I can do this, not the snatch due to shoulder issues; used to play rugby and they taught us oly lifts) etc and take it from there?

  • Ray Zhang

    Hi Dan, found your article from googling ‘training twice a week’. I’ve been training for 6 years consecutively now and always found it very hard to recover to joint pain and various niggles. Doing 1 day on and 3 days off has improved all my lifts and overall happiness! 10 total reps for deadlifts has been particularly useful and I’m now heading towards 2.5xBW.

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