Are you a Training Minimalist that thinks any workout plan that is more than the bare basics is too complicated? Here is a rant against this approach. You have been warned!
I have absolutely no interest in bodybuilding nutrition, whatsoever. I still know more of it than most trainees out there, but it just doesn’t spark my curiosity, thus I have no desire to think on it and play around or experiment.
I am a Nutrition Minimalist – I eat in such a way that my gains don’t suffer, but at the same time, want to stay in my comfort zone, which saves me from detailed calorie logs, watching how much saturated fat am I taking in this time of day at this meal with these other macronutrients, and how much unsaturated, am I having this percentage of complex carbs in this meal that is this much away from my workout and that much away from my sleep, etc.
Yet, I greatly admire people who can make page-long discussions on things related to nutrition: simply all the knowledge and understanding of the processes involved that are required for such feats of intellect. And I also admit that my approach and attitude is inferior, as I could probably get a nice edge if I were watching my nutrition more closely. But I don’t, I’m too lazy to do it, and I don’t run from that fact nor brag about it.
My passion is training. I study all things that relate to it in great detail, and, consequentially, know a few things on it that the training majority misses or misinterprets. And, naturally, my type has our own mirror images, the Training Minimalists, who, for some reason, almost universally consider that their stripped, barren, basics-only approach somehow outshines and outperforms the detailed one that I endorse.
The reasons why I disagree with such attitude are obvious and blatantly biased, but I believe that I have a couple of objective arguments that tilt the scales in my favor. This rant-masked-in-an-article will attempt to convey them as simply as possible, focusing on important things in general training. All the section titles below (except the “Analogy” one) represent true statements that any natural trainee ought to follow, and which Training Minimalists have absorbed well, but have, in this quest for simplicity, taken them to extremes which, in the end, don’t work as good as they could, if a more sensible approach were taken. We’ll take a look at where are the limits to interpretation for each of those, and where do facts and detail come into play.
So, to make it clear, (most) minimalist routines work better than majority of garbage thrown around in the fitness community. I just resent the notion that they differ in effectiveness from more elaborate routines by measly 1-5%. But enough talking, let’s start playing with real life examples.
An Analogy To Begin With
When faced with a Training Minimalist, I usually hear complaints that my work is overly complicated. Fair enough. But, in my eyes, this resembles complaining that modern airplanes are overly complicated, and thus unnecessary, since any hot air balloon can essentially do exactly what they can – fly you from one place to another. But the question arises – how far, how fast, and how bumpy will the ride be? Don’t take these questions as mere tools of the analogy: they translate very directly into training world.
Here are a few examples, all of which will be discussed in more detail later in the text. How far – most minimalist routines stop yielding results after the so-called “beginner strength plateau” is reached. They try to compensate by further reducing frequency and volume, which partly constitutes a step in the right direction, but they often take it too far so that overall volume becomes too low for further progressing, and they can’t increase it because they want as few compound movements as possible, which, again, they can’t recover from.
They also miss out the individuality and specificity principles in the process. How fast – because of the aforementioned fallacies, besides a few others which we’ll mention, it usually takes for people who insist on bare-basic routines twice as long to reach advanced status and make any progress at that level. How bumpy will the ride be – I saw a minimalist routine recently that had bench press as its only pressing exercise, done for 10 sets in a workout. God save that man’s poor shoulders, because he obviously doesn’t give the slightest damn about them.
I could go on here, but it’s better if we start examining these problems in a more structured and detailed manner. So, onto good training principles taken to the extreme:
Compound Exercises Are The Staple Of Any Training
I needn’t explain this one, I hope. If you aren’t about moving weights on big compounds, you aren’t training properly and can’t hope to achieve your goals in muscle mass (if they’re above-average, of course), and Training Minimalists, luckily, know this well. The problem starts when they start viewing this simple principle as the be-all and end-all of weight training. In fact, it’s as fundamental as notion that you have to eat food in order to gain muscle. Because, simply, isolation-based (or isolation-filled) routines don’t work, at all. I’m not making this up, I’ve seen many times, on forums and in blog comments, statements like: “That routine is too complicated, just do compounds, and you’re covered.” In other words, do compounds, and you don’t have to think about anything else training-related. Right.
More on-topic, this tends to extent into rejections of any isolation work, whatsoever. I gave my view on this subject in this article series, and listed isolation exercises which I feel that should be done by almost any trainee, and which are rejected by the minimalist crowd because they’re non-compound and take away from the simplicity the strive for. (Notice that this story recurs in almost all discussions of this sort – real arguments are confronted by a principle that must be strictly adhered to. This kind of extremism is actually widespread in lifting community, e.g. the supposed necessity of eating multiple small, well-balanced meals that ends up being defended by all sorts of ludicrous statements, or the infamous group of HIT Jedis, who can’t think of any type of training that doesn’t include having 80% of your TUT done beyond failure.)
This story goes beyond these few isolations that I explained in the “Important Isolations” series, which I recommend doing for sake of balance and injury prevention. For in bodybuilding world, there’s another kind of balance that is very important: the so-called issue of “lagging bodyparts”, where some muscles could use additional work not because they lack of development that would disrupt joint stability and lead to injuries, but because it messes up one’s symmetry and aesthetic qualities of the physique. Here’s an example that I’ve seen numerous times – triceps lagging in chest-dominant pressers who focus on bench press alone (or devote an unproportional amount of time to it). Not that they lack triceps development at all, it’s just subpar compared to other parts of their body. This is most often a consequence of two things: poor M2M connection, and the fact that poor exercise utilization has lead to chest massively overpowering triceps and taking much of its work, even on exercises such as dips or CGBP. The solution – isolation work in hopeless cases, and a semi-isolation like California press for the rest.
The real issue with training minimalism (or any approach generally that seeks to base its operation on as few rules as possible) is its maladaptiveness. This first section gave an example of inferior physique results in intermediate trainees that result from kicking all isolation work altogether from a routine. Next stop: relying on a single exercise to get the job done and keep you injury-free.
Fewer Exercises Is Better Than A Lot Of Them
Doing a ton of exercises is unnecessary and takes away from training results by inserting too much overlap that impedes recovery. In other words, there’s no need for you to do flat, low-incline, and decline bench press in your routine. However, there is a limit under which you shouldn’t go. For example, I’d never go below doing 2 upper body pressing exercises in a routine – viable options are something like incline BP and parallel bar dips, or overhead press and decline DB press. Just observe the exercise choices and you’ll get a hint of what I’m aiming at. On the other side, the Minimalists usually have one press for entire training microcycle, and that’s almost universally flat BB BP.
This time, for the sake of variety, I won’t pull out the physique argument, although it’s valid in this case as well. The issue here is more serious, and deals not with training muscles, but movements and planes of motion. Strengthening just one exercise, with its unique movement and range of motion, is a recipe for joint weakness and muscle imbalances. This gets slightly worse if you’re using fairly unnatural exercises, such as the bench press, in which your scapulae are pinned against the bench and can’t (nor shouldn’t) move, unlike basic pushups, in which you can protract them at the top of the movement. On top of this, you need to consider the danger of overuse injuries, which are common with all the problems which are over-reliant on a single movement patter (such as GVT).
There are, of course, more subtle things that actually show the difference between blunt and detailed in a clearer way. You see, the Minimalists stay away from complicated exercise names. “The less the better,” they say, and use vague names such as “curl”, “bench press”, “row”, referring, most of the time, to most basic variations of these movements. Let’s overlook the fact that “curling” can hit a lot more than your biceps alone, and focus on more direct consequences this generalized exercise naming approach has on training.
Firstly, you loose the necessary specificity and individuality components of training – there are no exercises that are good and safe for everyone in the same amount, and this becomes more evident and important as a trainee clears his beginning training levels. I can name dozens of row variations, and have an application for each of them based on the individual, but also because different combinations of exercises (different exercise choices in routine designing) require different variations to be used. For example, let’s say a trainee is doing trap bar squatlifts as his main leg movement, and doesn’t do other types of deadlifts. This pulls along picking a rowing variation that is closer to perfect horizontal pulling as possible, in order to add more necessary emphasis on upper-to-middle back. Likewise, if a trainee has improving his overhead press as his main goal, I surely aren’t putting incline presses in there as well, and, most likely, I’d shy away from any other type of barbell pressing as well, and focus on DB work. And so on, and so on…
Second reason stems from the fact that subtle variations in exercise performance can yield different and/or better training results. E.g., doing triceps extension on decline bench leads to higher fiber recruitment in the triceps. Doing leg curls on a humpback bench reduces lower back involvement. Doing DB rows with an arc trajectory targets different part of the back than regular, up’n'down DB rows do. And I won’t even start talking about all the variations of squats and unilateral leg work you can do to correct quad imbalances and accommodate for differences in height, torso to limb length ratio, lower back vulnerability (or the lack of it), etc.
Low Volume Is Better Than High Volume
Mainstream bodybuilding routines are hypervolumized. They put in too many exercises for too many sets in (almost exclusively) higher rep range, all for the sake of “trashing the muscle properly.” Of course that this is a dumb recommendation, since neither does the muscle need to be trashed to grow (quite the contrary, chronic stimulus always beats acute stimulus), nor can a regular, natural trainee recover from that much volume. But, again, our Minimalist friends take this one too far as well, and rarely go beyond recommending 2 or 3 sets per exercise. And yes, it’s most often just number of sets, no mention of rep range or anything similar.
First of all, as I have said already, number of sets is a consequence of prescribed rep range, therefore it makes no sense to make it first, prioritized volume indicator (and even less to make it the only one, of course). Different rep ranges for different exercises call for different number of sets. Doing sumo deadlifts for triples in bodybuilding-oriented, submaximal routine calls for something like 10 sets to get adequate exercise volume. Front squats, done for sets of 5, call for 4 to 6 sets. Regular DB bench pressing for ten reps, three sets is fine. But then, lateral raises done for sets of 15? 2 sets at best.
Furthermore, less is not better – better is better. You can push past the beginner plateau by reducing volume, but it’s not the best solution. The proper way to do it is to restructure the workout, and, if necessary, define a periodization scheme that will alternate priority of movements during a cycle, and all of this is done without sacrificing volume at all, because, after all, you need some amount of volume to trigger hypertrophy (as I talked about here). This is the part where most discrepancies between oversimplified and more elaborate routines start occurring, since the former can’t provide their trainees with sufficient amount of work without jumping out of their abbreviated template.
Have More Rest Days Than Training Days
You need to recover from your training. Being natural means you need more time to recover. Having suboptimal lifestyle conditions (work, family, stress…) means even less time to recover properly. But again there is a limit. Most trainees can train at least three times a week, some four, if that is necessary at all. If you can’t handle it, you don’t resort to training three times in ten days, as the Minimalists suggest, for the simple reason that it messes up your training frequency. Training so seldom throws you into maintenance mode at best. Some people can retain strength levels by having 10 days between same sessions, but most can’t, and experience de-training.
Again, the cure for ensuring consistent strength (and thus size) gains after the rapid beginner phase isn’t in mindlessly reducing the frequency to bare minimums, but choosing priorities and scaling down the amount of impact generated by major compounds. Adopting a more intermediate frequency plan, such as an upper/lower split done 4 DAW, is an example of such a solution. You can no longer train your legs thrice a week, but can do it twice, and to divide those days between squatting and deadlifting. This major work is complemented by accessory (still compound) work, which ensures enough training stimulus. So again, no need to hide into training so rarely that you workouts coincide with changing of seasons (“Oh, look, winter is coming, time to do my half a set of deadlifts.”)
This was a rant, and not an article, and like all rants, it was highly personalized and biased. I admit it, and can’t escape it. I actually wrote all of this not so much to prove my point, since I neither blame Training Minimalists nor encourage them to adopt my approach to training (I know that I’d hit someone with a barbell if they suggested me to start weighing my apples ), but to have a collection of arguments to present when someone asks me why am I devoting so much time and effort to making training routines as elaborate and optimized as possible. But I also sincerely hope you learned something in the process. Stay well, train well!