Minimum viable workout routine

by RomeoStevens5 min read21st Jun 2012114 comments


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So you want the longevity benefits of regular exercise but you've hit some snags.  Every routine pretty much makes you miserable.  In addition, because of all the conflicting information out there, you aren't even sure if you're getting the full benefits.  This post is for you.  And don't worry about your current physical circumstances.  It works equally well for the overweight, the underweight, and women (no you will not turn into a gross she hulk the moment you touch a weight.  Those women take steroids and train hard for years)  

A sub-optimal plan you stick to is better than the perfect routine you abandon after the first week.  This routine is not perfect.  This routine is optimized for simplicity and low time/mental effort commitment while still getting excellent results.  It is strongly based on the routines from Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert, and some of the principles of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe both of which have much anecdotal evidence of effectiveness in the training logs of various forums.  If you're looking for published research to back up my claims I have some bad news for you, the literature on resistance training is basically worthless.  A 5 minute perusal of google scholar will show that atrocious methodology such as having "subjects act as their own control" are common, and accepted by the relevant journals.  And that's if you're lucky enough to find studies that aren't about diabetics, or elderly japanese women.  But I'm not going to spend excessive time trying to justify this routine, anyone can do it for a month and see that the results are significant. (I'm open to arguing about it in the comments however.)


A note about cardio:  

Cardiovascular capacity (V02 max) has shown a high degree of correlation to all cause mortality.  Why aren't I recommending cardio?  Because the only way to increase V02 max is with high intensity exercise.  Between high intensity weight lifting and high intensity cardio, high intensity weightlifting easily wins for a newbie.  A newbie, especially a significantly out of shape one, will not be capable of a level of cardio exertion that results in a significant adaptation.  This can result in a lot of effort with very little in the way of improvement.  This is soul-destroyingly frustrating.  They can however lift a weight a few times and this will result in an adaptation that allows them to lift more next time.  A few months of a weightlifting routine is going to put any person in a much better position to do longevity affecting cardio if that is their goal.  Cardio is also generally a terrible fat burner for the exact same reason.  

Edit: there seems to be some confusion about this.  The primary problem of exercise is not the optimality of results but instilling the habit of exercising. I believe that cardio is terrible for overcoming this habit forming stage.  

The point of the below program is to get you in the habit of exercising and give you immediate results.  Once you have achieved some basic measure of fitness (~3 month time frame) you can maintain, or use the fact that exercising is now much easier to move on to any program you want. 


The nitty gritty:  

You are going to do three exercises 2-3 times per week.  Each session will take ~45 minutes to an hour.  The exercises are

* 3x5 trap bar deadlift

* 3x5 incline bench press

* 3x5 bent over row  (possible substitution for cable rows see below)

What does 3x5 mean?  

3 sets of 5 reps each.  You will assume the correct form, go through the full range of motion for the exercise 5 times, then rest before repeating twice more.  

What weights do I use?  

You will start with the empty bar and add 5lbs every workout for the trap bar deadlift and 5lbs every other workout for the incline bench press and bent over row.  Many are tempted to increase weights faster than this.  You can do what you want but don't come crying when your progress stalls more quickly.  A slow progression that continues for a long time beats a fast increase followed by a time wasting plateau.  

Why these three exercises?  

This routine hits the most muscle mass possible in the smallest number of exercises.  All decent routines include hip extension exercises, pushing exercises, and pulling exercise.  This ensures that you don't create an imbalance that messes up your posture or limits you unnecessarily.  In addition, these exercises require very little in the way of technique coaching, which is really this routine's primary advantage over more popular programs such as starting strength.  It took me 8 months to learn to squat well, but I learned to trap bar deadlift in a single session.  Similarly with the incline press, it carries with it a much smaller chance of injury from poor form than either the bench press or overhead press that are the mainstays of many programs.  

I have no idea what these exercises are, how do I do them?

Here is an article for trap bar deadlift, which is so easy that there aren't really many tutorials online:  

The key is a neutral spine.  You take a big breath at the bottom, squeeze everything tight, and stand up pushing through your heels while maintaining the lumbar arch.  Note not to use the raised handles that many trap bars have which reduces the range of motion.

Incline is similarly straightforward:  

note that you DO want to touch your chest at the bottom, but do not bounce the bar off your chest.  The cue that works for most is to imagine touching your shirt but not your chest.

Bent over row can feel a little weird, but it's not too hard to learn:  

Note that after more real world testing bent over rows seem to cause the most issues of the three lifts.  As the potential for injury is slightly higher with poor form for this exercise than the others I would recommend seated cable rows for those who find they can not perform bent over rows correctly.  I'd additionally strongly recommend that if one is forced to make this substitution they should also do some chinups at the end of each workout.  The goal of this substitution should be as a temporary measure.  One should strive get back to doing bent over rows once physically able to.

Cable row form video here:

How do I warmup/cooldown?

the best warmup and cooldown is 5 minutes on the rowing machine:  

But you can also do an exercise bike or treadmill.  

After the first couple weeks you should also warmup with the empty bar before jumping to your 3x5 work weight on each exercise.  Add additional warmups as the weights get heavier.  


1x5 45lbs  

1x5 75bs  

3x5 105lbs  

don't worry excessively about this, it's hard to screw up.  The key is just to prepare yourself, remind yourself of proper form, and get blood flowing.  Don't skip warmups, you're increasing your chance of injury and ensuring that you won't get strong as fast.  

Can I do this once week?  or sporadically?  

You can but you won't see hardly any benefit other than maintenance of your current fitness level.  2 times a week is the bare minimum to disrupt homeostasis to any appreciable degree and 3 is better.  Make no mistake, even 2 times a week on this will get you miles ahead of most people fitness wise.  You should program it like AxxAxxx or AxAxAxx, where A is a workout session and x is a rest day.

Can I sub in X exercise?  

No, the bare minimum nature of this program leaves no room for changes.  Any change necessitates more complicated programming.  If you want to do that just do Starting Strength.  Likewise if you want to add stuff, like ab work.  It isn't necessary.  Edit: cable row substitution for bent row is permissible but only if one finds they absolutely can not maintain good form with barbell rows.  

I didn't complete all my reps this session, what do I do?  

Back off the weights by 10-20% and work your way back up.  Make sure you're eating and sleeping right.  If you keep hitting a wall over and over again it will be time for a more complex routine.  

My gym doesn't have a trap bar.  

Find a gym that does or do a different program.  There is no replacement for the trap bar.  One option that is non-obvious is buying a trap bar for your current gym.  You might be able to negotiate a free month of membership or something but even if that isn't the case the investment is worth it.

What sort of results can I expect?

Most people should expect to be trap bar deadlifting their body weight within 3 months.  This will have several effects.

Strenuous physical activity becomes drastically less taxing.  

Chance of injury during said activity reduced.

V02 max increased.

Bone density and joint health improvements.

Increase in lean body mass.

Improved insulin sensitivity.

Improved blood markers and pressure (increases HDL and lowers LDL)

Decreased chance of back problems.

Improved posture.

Mental benefits:  Most people find the quality of their sleep improved as well as an increase in general energy levels.


A note on nutrition:  

80% of body composition is diet.  This won't do much for your body composition if your diet is crappy.  Luckily nutrition is fairly easy, there are only 2 rules to follow:  

*Calories in calories out  

*Eat micronutrient dense foods  

if you follow these rules it's actually surprisingly difficult to mess up.  Most people also find that following the 2nd one makes following the 1st one much easier.  

That's about it, I will answer questions about anything I forgot.  I hope this gets some fence sitters exercising.  

“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

If anyone is going to do this recording your results and sharing them would be much appreciated.

As detailed as you want, but even qualitative results would be useful to have.


Habit building:

Speaking of recording your results, logging is helpful for forming habits.  Use this link to join the fitocracy LessWrong group.

Fitocracy is a social website for tracking your workouts.  Hat tip to jswan for reminding me.

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