Variety vs. Simplicity
“You don’t need 6 exercises per body part.
Want muscular legs, squat.
Want a wide back, pull-ups.
Want a muscular chest, bench press.
Want big shoulders, overhead press.”
— Twitter Guru #717741
Does this minimalist approach to training work? Can you stick with one compound exercise per session and make gains? What factor does variety play in our training and who is the message of simplicity best aimed at?
HOW MANY EXERCISES DO YOU NEED?
The data suggest that it enough to train each muscle group roughly 3-12 sets per week to stimulate muscle growth. (By each muscle group, we mean chest, back, quads, hamstrings, biceps, triceps, shoulders etc.)
If you do the math, this leaves us with a range of 1 - 4 exercises per session. Since most programs target each muscle group at least twice per week, this brings the weekly exercise total to 2-8 exercises per muscle group per week (if you aren’t repeating movements twice a week).
The claim that you do not need 6 exercises per muscle group falls neatly into this range.
So far the original claim checks out.
ONE EXERCISE PER SESSION
Can you stick with one exercise per session and still have an effective workout? TECHNICALLY yes, but this needs to be explored deeper before this could be recommended as a smart approach to your training.
As we’ve gone over, the data suggest as long as your getting in quality sets in the 3-12 set per week range, you can stimulate muscle growth. Personally I am skeptical of the lower range here and think that range is only effective at the very highest levels of bodybuilding. This basically implies that if you did one exercise inside that set range per week, you could claim that “all you need for X is Y”.
Compound movements are at the core of what makes this style of training possible. Can you exclusively train squats, a compound exercise, on leg day inside of the 3-12 set range and have that be sufficient? Yes, because you’re recruiting the entirety of your leg muscle. Alternatively, if your one exercise per week were to be leg extensions, only the quads (and tibia if you wanted to be a nerd about it) would be targeted — which why it is not suggested in minimalist training.
To give the devil it’s due, the overall message seems to be that your training likely has a lot of unnecessary fluff. This is a fair criticism of a lot of training and it also happens to be very personal. There are so many factors that determine if your training has unnecessary variety or simplicity that it’s worth digging further into.
CRITICISMS OF MINIMALIST TRAINING
“Isn’t this basically powerlifting?“
That largely depends on the rep range and the goal of your training. Some powerlifters may lift minimalistically, but many also train outside the big three to round out their training. This is especially true of the ones who look really good and not like they live on a diet of exclusively McDonalds.
There is also the issue of fatigue. If you’re expecting to get good results training legs exclusively with squats, for example, prepare to deal with a lot of fatigue. Squats have very high fatigue cost, albeit with very high muscle stimulus. Have you ever tried to squat twice, or three times a week, pushing yourself to the limit? Not only will you need plenty of time to recover, the risk of injury skyrockets with the kind of axial fatigue that comes with training squats all the time.
Another issue training with minimalism presents is boredom. Getting tired of doing the same lifts week to week can get boring and leave your training uninspired. You may leave the gym feeling like you left a lot on the table and it’s just unnecessary.
Lastly, this way of training really leaves a lot of gaps in your training. No training arms, traps, rear-delts, calves, abs, or hamstrings?
IS MINIMALISM GOOD FOR NEWBIES?
Teaching a newbie to squat, pull-up, bench press, and overhead press sounds pretty smart from the standpoint that these are classic lifts that aren’t ever going away. They may as well learn them early, right?
Two major concerns for newer lifters should be
Getting enough practice performing the lifts
Training effectively for their current skill-level
If we relegate newbies to the four lifts we’ve discussed, they would for SURE get the kind of practice needed to improve more quickly. Conversely, if we gave a beginner a fresh series of exercises every time they entered the gym, (while they would get plenty of exposure to new exercises) they wouldn’t have the repetitive practice necessary to excel in any one of them. Newbies need repetition. The only question is, are four compound movements too few?
As long as the beginner is repeating the same lifts week to week (meaning Monday is the same week after week etc.) then they will get sufficient practice across a 12 week program and can handle MUCH more than one lifter per session. An average day I’d recommend look something like this…
Upper Body - CHEST FOCUS
Machine Chest Press 3x12
Bench Press 3x12
Machine Lateral Raise 4x15
Leg Extension 3x15
Rope Tricep Extension 3x12
Dumbbell Curl 3x12
Machine Crunches 3x12
In this example we train chest twice, shoulders once, quads once, triceps once, biceps once, and finally abs once. This is perfectly within the realm of possibility for any newbie lifter looking to learn and make effective gains.
EFFECTIVE TRAINING FOR CURRENT SKILL-LEVEL
Beginners need to do what works FOR THEM and would have a much better time making gains where stabilization was minimized. Compound lifts, as we’ve discussed, don’t require the lifter to stabilize the weight as they lift it. While you may be targeting your chest doing bench press, your stabilizers (arms and shoulders) may be taking on the brunt of the work - making your chest workout less effective that a machine that takes all stabilization out of the question. Additionally, a lot can be learned using machine movements, with more ease, in those early years that are incredibly valuable such as mind-muscle connection, tempo, etc.
Notice however, that I didn’t exclude the bench press in my example Upper Body day? Exposure to big compound lifts is also important for a well rounded beginner program as well — practice doing the more challenging lifts while still training effective using machine work as well.
THE BENEFITS OF VARIETY
So what are the benefits of training with more variety? An important factor in determining the benefit of variety is skill-level. As we’ve discussed, if you’re a newer lifter, a healthy level of variety and repetition are likely the best approach. This addresses the two problems, that we discussed, new lifters need to account for for optimal training across the short and long term.
Alternatively, for advanced lifters who no longer require “practice” and can build their training around what’s they PREFER. If they prefer to squat exclusively for ten sets per session, they’re probably well equipped to handle it much better than a beginner or intermediate level lifter. It is also true that advanced lifters get more “bang for their buck” from their training than beginners or intermediates. This is due to their highly developed mind-muscle connection, technique, and ability to tap more readily into intensity — these are learned qualities that take a lot of time to master.
With all of this in mind, the minimalist approach to training may lend itself better for those with more experience.
It really should go without saying that a lot to be learned from performing as many movements as possible across the many years of your training. Each new lift presents a fresh approach to training may be your new favorite movement.
All-in-all, variety across the long term is important for longevity. Simplicity, within reason, is important to go DEEP into a series of movements. Does that mean one exercise per session is the way to go? Although you could do it, I do not recommend that approach to training.
Does minimalist training work? It could.
If I were to recommend training one exercise per session, I would leave it to more advanced lifters — newer lifters are better off with more variety. I find that the inevitably of fatigue, boredom, injury, and blind spots in your training make this approach to training sub-optimal in practice but nice on paper which, all things considered, is the essence of the Twitter Guru.
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