Minimum Training for Maximum Results: a Sample Workout Routine

Nia Shanks 330 Deadlift

Today I am going to share an article I originally wrote for my friend JC Deen’s website. I’ve tweaked a few things since that article debuted late last year, but the main concept is still there – showing you how you can spend the least amount of time in the gym without sacrificing results.

There is a devastating plague that’s infiltrated the world of women’s strength training, and I’m not just talking about the foolish “light weight and high rep” recommendations touted in fitness magazines and on the internet. No, what I’m referring to are the marathon workouts performed multiple days per week with the primary goal being to achieve as much fatigue as possible and leave the trainee writhing on the floor in sweat, exhaustion, and agony.

Marathon-train-till-you-drop-workouts are especially terrible for beginners. Women beginner strength trainees need to focus on a few basic exercises so they can learn movements/patterns quickly and build a base level of strength.

While some men are guilty of this as well, it’s primarily women who think if they don’t end a workout completely exhausted and drenched in sweat that they didn’t “do enough”. And if they can’t dedicate at least 60 solid minutes to training, they don’t see a point in training at all. As a result they perform session after session of circuits, conditioning work, and anything else that has them sweating, panting, and working themselves into a puddle of sweat.

I know a lot of women thrive on this type of training and can follow such routines long-term; they enjoy it and get results. That’s great and I encourage them to keep doing what works for them.

However, I have witnessed some women perform these marathon workouts only to quickly burnout and stop coming to the gym all together within a few weeks. For such individuals it’s not practical to perform such gruesome, long workouts on a consistent basis. And because they think that exhausting workouts are the best way to get results, they stop training all together assuming it’s hopeless to even try something different, and less fatiguing.

Ladies, it’s entirely possible to spend much less time in the gym and still reap the benefits you desire from your training program. Furthermore, it’s even possible to enjoy your training and leave the gym feeling energized and not wiped out.

This is Your Challenge

For some women, it’s going to be intimidating to do “so little work” each week. Undoubtedly some will look at the following program and scoff exclaiming, “There is no way I can get results from so little training!”

I’ve heard it all before, but I know these minimalist training routines work because it’s what my clients and I have used for years when we want to spend minimum time in the gym but still reap excellent results. And don’t worry, ladies, even if your main goal is looking better naked, such a simple (notice that I said simple and not easy) training program is just the ticket.

So if you’re ready to get great results, spend less time in the gym, get stronger, have more energy, and actually enjoy your training, then keep reading for a sample training program.

The Exercises

Note – acceptable exercise alternatives and training equipment are in parenthesis

  • Squat (or front squat or Goblet squat)
  • Deadlift (or trap bar deadlift or rack pulls)
  • Reverse lunge (may use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or weight vest)
  • Hip thrust (or back extension)
  • Standing barbell overhead press (only if you have healthy shoulders and proper thoracic mobility – may also use dumbbells or kettlebells. If you can’t properly perform, or tolerate, overhead pressing, substitute a horizontal push such as push-ups or dumbbell bench press)
  • Chin-ups (use bands for assistance if you can’t perform them with your bodyweight. I prefer, and recommend, you use a Jungle Gym or some other suspension trainer device because it’s much more shoulder and elbow friendly. If this isn’t an option, stick with a neutral grip).
  • Push-ups (or parallel bar dips or bench press if you can perform at least 10 perfect push-ups)
  • Inverted rows (I prefer these be performed on a Jungle Gym, but you may also use a barbell set in a power rack; may also do one arm dumbbell rows)
  • Farmer walks
  • Waiter carries (only if you have proper thoracic mobility; use a dumbbell or kettlebell)

Note – if bodyweight exercises such as inverted rows, push-ups, chin-ups, and parallel bar dips are too easy, add weight via weight plates, weight vest, chain belt with weight plates, chains, or bands.

That brief list of exercises is all you will use for this training program.

Welcome to the world of minimalist training – it works.

The Program

Now that you know which exercises you’ll be using, let’s get to the sample training program. You’ll be performing three total body strength training sessions each week, on non-consecutive days. Something like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday works well for most people. I recommend you schedule your training days when you know you’re fresh and have the most energy.

For example, if Monday’s are crazy for you, don’t train on Monday’s! Set yourself up for success from the beginning.

Warning! This program may cause a drastic increase in Self Confidence!

Note – keep in mind that you may use the acceptable alternative exercises listed above, but only those alternatives.

Training Day 1

1) Deadlift – 4×6 (4 sets, 6 reps)

2a) Standing barbell or dumbbell overhead press – 3×6-8, 1×10

2b) Suspended/ring chin-ups – 3×6-8, 1×10-12

3) Farmer walks – 5 sets x 30-50 yards

)

Training Day 2

1a) Reverse lunge – 3×8, 1×12-15 each leg

1b) Suspended inverted row – 3×8, 1×10-12

2a) Hip thrust – 1×8, 2×10, 1×12-20

2b) Push-ups – 3×8, 1×10-12

3) Waiter carry – 4 sets each arm for 30-50 yards

)

Training Day 3

1) Squat – 2×6, 1×10, 1×15

2a) Parallel bar dips or dumbbell bench press – 3×6, 1×8-10

2b) 1 arm dumbbell row – 3×8, 1×10-12

3) KB swings – 4×15-20

4) Farmer walks – 3 sets x 60-80 yards or Jump rope intervals for 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest for a total of 6-10 minutes

5) Moonwalk – until you reach awesomeness-overload

)

Okay, so you don’t HAVE to moonwalk, but it’s fun and great for leveling up your awesomeness.

You Must Work HARD

If you’re going to do a minimum amount of work, you must put in a lot of effort. The program outlined above is very simple, but that does not mean it will be easy.

Challenge yourself and prepare to get a little uncomfortable under the bar. I’m in no way encouraging you to push so hard that your form deteriorates, but I am telling you to push hard. Leave a rep in the tank, but no more than two.

I have worked with numerous clients who claimed to “train hard” before I trained them, but they were really holding themselves back. They’d want to stop a set short because they had to strain a little and things got uncomfortable. It wasn’t uncommon for them to think a set was “over” when in reality they had at least three more perfect reps left in them.

Don’t stop the set because it’s getting tough – stop the set when you know you have one more perfect rep, or two, left in you.. If you end the set knowing you could do three or more reps while maintaining proper form, you aren’t training hard enough.

You Must Improve Your Performance

Improving your performance is the name of the game with this minimalist training program. If you’re not improving, then you aren’t challenging your body, and you won’t get the results you should.

Each week you must do one of three things:

1) Use more weight than last week (even if it’s just a single pound)

2) Perform more reps with the same weight (even if it’s just a single rep)

3) Use better form. It’s impossible to get better every week without fail, and some days you just won’t have the strength. In that case, really focus on making your form picture perfect.

In the case of the farmer walk and waiter carry, you can also walk longer distances or decrease your rest periods between sets.

Improved performance while maintaining proper form – that is what you will focus on throughout the duration of this training program.

What about Cardio?

There will be no crazy metabolic circuits, high intensity interval training, or anything like that in this training program.

Why? There’s nothing wrong with hill sprints or interval training, but I want you to apply 100 percent effort into the weight training sessions. I want you to be fresh and focused and improving your performance on the exercises listed above. That’s where the majority of your results will come from, and so that’s where I want you to focus your efforts and energy.

The only cardio that is acceptable on this program is brisk walking. You can do it first thing in the morning, after your training sessions, or any time you prefer. And please note that I said brisk walking and not jogging.

Keep the walks limited to 40 minutes, and no more. Personally I like to walk first thing in the morning most days of the week (good ole morning dogs walks), that way I get some activity every day, get fresh air and sunshine, and keep my pup healthy and active. Plus, the walks will aid recovery from the weight training sessions and allow you to acquire some extra movement; this is very valuable since most people spend the majority of their days sitting.

This does not mean you should stop doing extra-curricular activities that you enjoy such as hiking, rock climbing, or any other physical activity. In fact, I encourage you to be active in a fun way. I’m simply encouraging you to avoid traditional cardio exercise such as the elliptical machine, etc.

What Do You Do with the Extra Time?

If this program is much less work than you’re used to doing on a weekly basis, you’re probably wondering what you should do with the extra time you’ll have on your hands.

Anything!

Do something fun with your friends and family. Start a new hobby. Explore the world. Try some new recipes in the kitchen. There is more to living then spending every spare moment in the gym or working out. Take advantage of this opportunity and discover something new, or do something you once loved but haven’t done in a while.

You can also take this time to focus on other things that will help you achieve your body composition and performance goals such as nutrition, but that’s a completely different article all together (start with Beautiful Badass Nutrition Principles).

Are You up to the Challenge?

The program outlined in this article may appear to be “too easy”, but I challenge you to give it an honest shot for six weeks. Work hard, improve your performance, and see what happens. Because you are only training a few basic exercises, you should be able to focus entirely on those three training sessions each week and make consistent progress.

But make sure you follow the program completely as written. Don’t start throwing in things like crunches, curls, kick backs, and sprints and then ask me why the program didn’t work.

Never, ever underestimate the effectiveness of a Sane and Simple regimen.

Finally, this is an excellent quote from Dan John that sums things up quite nicely:

“I think many of us think this way: If it’s free or simple or easy to understand, it can’t be as good as something that’s expensive, complicated and difficult to figure out on your own”.

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  • “I freaking LOVE this info! I'm determined to be a Beautiful Badass!” -Tina V
  • Samvperez

    I’ve been reading a lot of the different articles that GGS post, and have been trying to focus on the basics and making sure that my form is right before progressing further. I run into a problem with this kind of workout though. My problem is that when I’m putting on the weight to do an exercise like deadlifts or squats, I put as much weight as I think I can handle and lift safely, without hurting myself since I have not been doing it long enough to really take on a lot of weight, but then when I ask myself if I could do another rep after finishing my last set (usually 4 sets per exercise and 10-15 reps), the answer is usually yes. The few times that I have tried to add weight and really reeeally push myslef, I end up not being able to hold that weight (my grip gives out for deadlifts, and I get nervous any time I feel any kind of strain on my back since I have a few friends with back injuries and do not want to risk that, so I pull back). 

    So my question is, how does a beginner really challenge themselves and put everything they have into these lifts when they have some of the strength to take on more weight, but have weaknesses in other parts of the body keeping them from taking on more? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/GordonWayneWatts Gordon Wayne Watts

       @ Sam V Perez: (re: “So my question is, how does a beginner really challenge themselves and
      put everything they have into these lifts when they have some of the
      strength to take on more weight, but have weaknesses in other parts of
      the body keeping them from taking on more?”) If your weak area is the grip, you can use straps, but if you’re deadlifting, another ‘good’ way to hold on to the weight better is to face one hand in (overhand) and the other hand out (underhand, like a chinup grip), and that way the bar will not roll, as you are resisting the torque of twist from both sides.

      Google “mixed grip deadlift” in Google or Yahoo! images if you don’t get it.

      Also, when I returned to lifting about 1 and a half years ago, after a 25-year layoff, I could barely lift 205 lbs, and I was fearful that it would harm me, but I quickly learned that my grip or my muscle strength (ability to lift) would give out before I injured myself -so long as I kept good form (straight lower back, warm up first, don’t jerk or yank, etc.). Now, my PR is 285-lbs from the floor, 350-lbs from a 4″ set of wood blocks, and 635-lbs from the rack (yes, I lifted over 600-lbs, but only for like an inch -don’t try this without proper coaching & supervision)
      here’s my old PR of 585-lbs from the rack & 32-lbs from the blocks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oseUEhVPSKE&feature=plcp

       –and yet,while I have gotten sore, I haven’t been injured: I listened to my body & did not lift if I felt an injury coming on.

      Lastly, beginners can lift twice per week hwavily, since you are not strong enough to tax or stress out your CNS (central nervous system), but when you get stronger, you should NOT lift “heavy” more than once per week, but a 2nd or 3rd “light” session is Ok, and, in fact, helpful to “active recovery.”

      Take a look at where Bret Contreras answered similar deadlift questions, in perhaps the best deadlift tutorial for beginners I’ve ever seen:

      http://BretContreras.com/2011/01/abc-ask-bret-contreras/

      Gordon Wayne Watts
      LAKELAND, Fla.

    • Nia Shanks

      Stopping a set knowing you can do another rep is a good thing. You don’t have to go all out on every set to have an effective and productive training session.

      Don’t put so much weight on the bar that is makes you nervous. Stay with a weight you can handle but challenges you and make small progressions each week: add a rep to each set or add a little weight.

      Also, if you’re a beginner, I strongly recommend keeping the reps lower (something like 5-8 works well) that way your smaller muscles don’t fatigue before the larger, stronger ones. This is especially important for exercises like deadlifts and squats.

  • http://prettyactive.blogspot.com/ WorkItOutYourself

    Great post, Nia !

  • Lesley

    I just wanted to thank you for posting this update.  I’ve been doing it for a few months now and it’s really working out for me.  As a full-time working mom of 2 kids, time is at a premium and I love the fact that I can fit this in on my lunch break with enough time left over to have a quick shower.  I’m looking forward to incorporating those changes to spice things up a little!

    • Nia Shanks

      Awesome! Glad you’re enjoying it!

      There aren’t a lot of changes, so feel free to switch out some of the exercises to change things up.

  • S82burn

    Love the moonwalk video, haha! Just a quick question. Most of the exercises list 2 0r 3 shorter sets and then 1 longer set at the end, does the weight stay the same throughout each set or should you drop a little to get that longer set in?

    • Nia Shanks

      Good question.

      When the reps are higher, you will need to drop down the weight. For example, if you squat 135 for 5 reps, and the next set calls for 10 reps, you’ll need to strip some weight off the bar.

      If you could use the same weight for the higher rep set, then you didn’t push the heavy set hard enough.

      Just adjust the weight as necessary to get the prescribed reps, and make sure you’re challenging yourself on each set.

  • Dembb32

    With the exercises you have listed as 1a 1b or 2a, 2b are you suppose to choose one or the other exercise to do that day?

    • Nia Shanks

      For exercises listed as 1a and 1b, or 2a and 2b, you should perform those in superset fashion.

      For example, perform a set of 1a, rest as long as needed, perform a set of 1b, rest as long as needed and repeat until you complete all sets.

  • John Gibbon

    I agree about decreased # of sets.  Most people hold something back when they know they have more to do. Get in, get out. Change doesn’t happen IN the gym, it happens in RESPONSE to the stimulus you’ve provided with the weight lifting.

  • Sarahjackson Le

    Thanks nia, i wasjust thinking today that i need a new training program :) How much rest do you recommend between sets?

    • Nia Shanks

      As long as you need to feel ready for the next set, but no more.

      There’s a difference between resting for 2 minutes and staying focused, and resting 10 minutes and chatting.  ;)

  • beeethanyj

    I wrote my own program over the winter when I was depressed and finding it hard to do balls to the wall kinda workouts. My program is very similar with a lot of those lifts with 3-5 set ranges and 5-10 rep ranges. It has served me well.  I was in and out of the gym (ok, home gym) in about 40 minutes.  I found it more motivating to know that I didn’t have a long workout ahead of me. And of course, once I got back into working out, my emotional health got a whole lot better. 

    • NiaShanks

      Glad things are working well for you!

  • Kerry K

    Hey Nia,
    Great post, love your Beautiful Badass book and have gotten great strength gains! I have one question, could you possibly explain more on how to set up the suspension trainer chin ups, or possibly post a video? I’m just not sure how to do them properly. For instance, do you rotate your arms thru the movement or keep it neutral? Also, when I have tried these before, it kinda becomes a much more close grip then when I use the bar bc of the handles being close together, is that normal? Thanks for your help! Can’t wait for the new program!

    • NiaShanks

      I’ll have a post up in the next week or show demonstrating these.

      It helps if your suspension trainer has two separate pieces instead of being a single unit.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=636491028 Tempest Sharp

    i can’t wait for a new challenge, i just love you. i really really enjoyed watching you and Marianne together. She’s so cute, and so awesome. 

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  • Jennck10

    Hi Nia,

    I’ve finally caught the heavy lifting bug and love your site, along with all the GGS ladies! I am planning to utilize the three day training plan you listed here, but have a question about the squat. In the last two years I have run one half marathon, two fulls and done a bunch of spinning and mountain biking, all throughout I’ve suffered some serious shins plints,  ITBS and recently piriformis issues. I don’t feel super comfortable doing back squats, but have been doing front squats and goblet squats regularly for a while. Do you suggest I utilize one of those variations or suck it up and start back squats? I have been doing a ton of bridges, hip thrusts, fire hydrants and clam shells to strengthen my glute medius and lots of hip flexor stretching/foam rolling (all over my legs!) and still feel a ton of tightness and soreness after really tough workouts. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! 
    Jenn

    • Nia Shanks

      Sorry for taking so long. I just now saw your comment.

      No, do NOT do any exercise that causes you pain or discomfort. If you can front squat without any issues, than stick with that. No need risking an unnecessary injury.

      You could also try going for a walk on days after you train; that usually helps loosen me up and speed recovery.

  • http://www.facebook.com/raja.modi.35 Raja Modi

    hy nia i’m really excited to do these training ,but should i have to do every other day , for every training ,or ,how’s it work?

    • Nia Shanks

      3 days per week on non-consecutive days. Something like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday works well. Or Tue, Thur, Sat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/raja.modi.35 Raja Modi

    thank u nia i have also started keifer’s CBL , can i do that with that training?

    • Nia Shanks

      Yes, of course. You can use any nutrition program.

  • http://twitter.com/atolls olivia chee

    Hi Nia, 

    Thank you so much for putting up this programme! It DOES look simple but I’m sure its hard work. :) 

    I’m a huge fan of heavy compound lifts and crossfit-style metcon workouts. I did them about 3x/week for about 2 months or so until college assignments started streaming in. Currently very bloated due to exam stress and poor diet but am looking for a workout that will address all my health issues post-exams. 

    If I wanted to get back to working out approx 4x / week (2 strenght + 2 conditioning) like I was earlier on in the year, for how many weeks should I follow this programme? 

    Reason for the CF-style metcons is that I’m training for Tough Mudder come August 2013. Will need to throw some running into my programme at some point and was wondering how that I could fit that into the programme you’ve posted up. 

    Any advice?

    • Nia Shanks

      I don’t usually design metabolic conditioning workouts – not my specialty. This program is 3 days per week, so I would follow it as written for about 4-8 weeks, or until you stop making progress.

      Keep in mind this is a sample strength training program, so if you have other goals like the Tough Mudder, you’ll have to adjust things to fit your needs. Maybe only lift 2 days per week and do more specific training 2 other days.

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  • mik

    hi, i love your site. i want to build strength but i also want to continue losing weight. ive lost 37lbs so far and ive gone from one push ups to 10. i am unable to perform pull ups. i want to be stronger. i also love running. i lift weights and do many body weight exercises, but i’d also like to be a long distance runner. i find that my time is usually spent more in the gym. anyway, i want to try your program, but i fear being a weaker runner at the end of 6 weeks. any suggestions?

    • Nia Shanks

      Just try the program as is and see what happens. Ya never know until you try.

  • Chantelle S

    I love this!! I have over the years tried different workouts; running 2-3 times a week, step classes, zumba (one class and that was ridiculous) and I always just go back to the basic exercises that I know work for me, and everyone else if they give it a try.  I really feel like I have done something productive if I lift heavy things and do the basic movements that people seem to think don’t do much for them.  I think the problem is getting the word out that just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not working, it is working, but everyone wants to push it to see how ‘gadgety’ they can make a workout (fads make money for a short time).  And we all know that gadgets don’t work.  I’ll stick to basic exercises and bootcamp, as it is fun to mix it up every once in a while!

    • Nia Shanks

      Thanks for sharing.  :)

  • Lchiarizzio

    Hey Nia, if I had to do upper.lower splits due to the days I can train with weights do you have any suggested routines to follow or should I just breakup the exercises above into the lowers and uppers?  I also have your SHero program as well to reference for exercises.  Thanks.

  • Lauriesallis

    I’m up for it…this will be my new challenge!
    Stay tuned for progress!!
    I’m stoked btw…THANK YOU!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=718482046 Angela Cozier

    This is a fantastic post, I’ve been doing a lot of cardio
    workout and gotten to my ideal weight. I have completed a kettle bell program
    and it was great. so I’m going to see if I can do this training at home. My
    question to you Nina is what weight should I be using? I have a few free
    weights at home so need to know if I have to go shopping LOL

     

  • Emmie

    What are recommended rest periods for these lifting days?

    • Alba

      Thanks for a wonderful post Nia!
      I’d like to try this out, but I can’t do a single chin up and most likely not many Suspended Inverted row either, so what should I do?
      Should I try negatives?

  • http://functionalintegratedtraining.com/ Jared

    Nia,

    Great post, it is something I work everyday to instill in my women that not everything has to be a “circuit.” We do deads,  front squats, weighted split squats, and weighted single leg RDLs amongst bodyweight upper body movements. And we get great results and feedback! I still give them their circuits at the end for metabolic training, but it’s the core lifts that are really making them into the fit, lean women they desire to be. Keep posting and keep training so women (and men) can see what we all should know by now…K.I.S.S. 

  • Auntytrout81

    Am giving this a real crack. The only prob is the squats as we dont have a squat rack and the Smith machine doesnt work for me, it really plays my back up, where was barbell squats dont, I think its the position it puts you in. SO I have problems putting weight on the bar and lifting it over head and onto shoulders

  • Olivia

    I’ve been doing this program for the past 4 weeks and if I were to describe it in one word that word would be”efficient”. The program is short but very powerful, you are out of the gym in less then 40 minutes and you train your body like crazy. The excises are complex and require lots muscles and give you lots of strength. I’ll recommend it to everyone out there who want to have maximum results with minimum training. Thanks a lot Nia!

  • Sunshine3714

    So no workouts on the days inbetween?

  • Meg

    Hey Nia,
    I’m looking to do this program for a few weeks just to simplify things – I’m definitely not a beginner but I’ve had a busy couple of months and haven’t been training as often as I should. So my question – does your rep/set scheme include work-up sets? For example, if I’m deadlifting say, 200 for reps, would the 4×6 scheme mean that I’m doing 4 sets of 6 reps at 200, so it would take me additional sets to work up to that amount? Or would I be doing  something like 135×6, 155×6, 175×6, 200×6 and ending it there? 

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  • Becky

    Hi Nia,
    I love the suggestions and want to start implementing. I currently have a torn Labrum in my left shoulder so overhead anything is out as are pullups and pushups. I worry of course that my arms are going to turn to mush, any suggestions?

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  • http://twitter.com/Castrated_Bean Castrated Bean

    I love it! Finally another girl feels the way that I do! I feel so empowered in the gym lifting heavy! I love it that people think I can’t because they think I’m too tiny. Move out of the way & let this girl lift! ;lol;

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