How To Take A Minimalist Approach To Fitness

How To Take A Minimalist Approach To Fitness

There is one key reason that I want you to know how to take a minimalist approach to fitness:


Most of us have a job, a commute, maybe kids, a family, commitments, friends, volunteer work...the list goes on an on.

Now if that does not describe you in any way, feel free to skip this one. If you have the time to spend a few hours in the gym or on the road or in the saddle every day, good on you.

But if you are in the former camp, like I am, then keep reading because this will make a difference if you've been struggling to try to cram it all in.

What Is Minimalism

There are lots of ways to define minimalism.

If you go tooling around the interwebs, you will find blogs and videos where people expound on the minimalist lifestyle in great length and detail, and oftentimes with a bit of overwrought romanticism.

 I'm not trying to turn you into a minimalism evangelist. For our purposes, minimalism can be simply defined as seeking the maximum output (results) for the minimum input (effort).

The idea behind minimalism is to strip away that which doesn't matter to really zero in on what does matter.

We can easily apply this to physical training by first looking at basic movement categories.

Types of Movement

There are really only 4 types of movements. Just about every exercise can be lumped into these four categories:

  • Upper Body Push
  • Upper Body Pull
  • Lower Body Push (knee dominant movement)
  • Lower Body Pull (hip dominant movement)

That's really it. Now perhaps you're thinking, "But what about abs?!"

It is possible that an argument can be made for core exercises to be of their own category, but as you'll see in a moment, by picking the right movements you will absolutely get your core involved.

So now that we understand types of movement, let's look closer at the planes of movement.

Planes of Movement

Within the four categories above, we can further break movements down by plane. This applies mostly to upper body movements. 

The planes of movement are:

  • Upper Body Vertical Push
  • Upper Body Vertical Pull
  • Upper Body Horizontal Push
  • Upper Body Horizontal Pull
  • Lower Body Push
  • Lower Body Pull

Hopefully, you can already start to see just how naturally these movements might start to converge together in a program.

Now that we have a basic idea of movements and planes of movement, let's look at some exercises in each category.

Basic Exercises by Movement Type and Plane

Now, before you start emailing me saying, "But you forgot about exercise X or Y!!" I get it.

This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list. I want to list a few of the biggest bang for your buck movements you can invest your time in. Don't major in the minors - stick to big compound movements and get technically proficient and strong in those.

Upper Body Vertical Push Exercises

Some exercises for the upper body vertical pushing plane are:

  • Military Press
  • Push Press
  • Klokov Press
  • Single Arm Kettlebell Press
  • Dips

Upper Body Vertical Pull Exercises

Some exercises for the upper body vertical puling plane are:

  • Pull Up
  • Chin Up
  • Commando Pull Up
  • Neutral Grip Pull Up
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Shrug

Upper Body Horizontal Push Exercises

Some exercises for the upper body horizontal pushing plane are:

  • Push Up
  • Bench Press
  • Dumbell Flyes
  • Floor Press

Upper Body Horizontal Pull Exercises

Some exercises for the upper body horizontal pulling plane are:

  • Barbell Rows
  • Ring Rows
  • Australian Push Ups
  • Chainsaws or Lawnmowers

Lower Body Pushing Exercises

Lower body pushing exercises are those that are knee dominant movements. Some exercises are:

  • Back Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Overhead Squat
  • Leg Press

Lower Body Pulling Exercises

Lower body pulling exercises are those that are hip dominant movements. Some exercises are:

  • Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Kettlebell Swing
  • Good Morning
  • Straight Leg Deadlift

Now let's put all these disparate parts together into a coherent system. Let's take a look at a real-world example to help.

Creating a Two-Day-Per-Week Program

A friend of mine in medical school asked me for some help. Obviously, he had limited time but he wanted to at least maintain his level of fitness.

But his big problem is he only had 2 days a week to train, and about 45 - 75 minutes per training session. That isn't much in the grand scheme of things.

He had Sundays and Thursdays to hit the gym. That was a bit of luck because of the spacing between days. 

The plan I put together for him was to hit full body workouts on both days, with some conditioning thrown in as he didn't really have time for additional cardio.

Here is what I put together for him:


  • Vertical Push
  • Vertical Pull
  • Lower Body Push

Warm Up

  • 5 minutes of Turkish Get Ups, alternating arms each rep.

*The total number of reps here don't really matter. This is a great warm up because it will raise the core temperature, stabilize the core, and hit some mobility.

  • 1a. Push Press - 4 sets, 6 - 10 reps. Choose the heaviest weight possible for the rep range, leaving 1 or two reps in the tank each set. Go heavier each set. After the last set, cut the weight in half and perform as many reps as possible.
  • 1b. Pull Ups - 4 sets, as many reps as possible, 1.5 reps. For the 1.5 reps, pull all the way up, lower half way down, pull back up, then lower all the way down. That's one rep.

Alternate between these two exercises as a superset. We choose the push press because it will help prepare the legs for the work coming up.

  • Goblet Squat Circuit, 5 rounds - Set two kettlebells about 30 - 40 feet apart. Perform 10 goblet squats. Do low stance hops all the way to the next kettlebell. Perform 10 more goblet squats. Rest 90 seconds and repeat.

That leg circuit is a killer. It's functional, difficult, and will jack your heart rate through the roof! 


Warm Up

  • 1 minute jump rope, 1 minute resting squat hold. Alternate for 10 minutes

The low squat hold is a basic resting position in most of the world. It's OUTSTANDING for hip, ankle, and low back mobility. When performing the squat after the jump rope, only nasal breathing is permitted.

  • 1a. Dumbell Bench Press, 4 sets, 6-10 reps. 
  • 1b. Barbell Row, 4 sets, 6-10 reps.

One minute in between each exercise, but no rest. Jump rope on the rest intervals.

  • 2a. Deficit, snatch grip deadlift. 5 sets, 5 reps. Go heavy here.
  • 2b. Kettlebell Swings. 5 sets, 20 reps.

2 minutes rest between each exercise.

As you can see, we can fashion a well-balanced and extremely challenging approach to fitness even on a limited schedule.

It is extremely important to note that in these situations where time is limited, your nutrition needs to be on point. You also need to make sure you optimize your sleep.

Now that you know the basics of how to take a minimalist approach to fitness, don't let a lack of time be an excuse.

Get in there, work your ass off, and you can still get into and maintain good conditioning.

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