The Minimalist Guide to Lifting

Brad Borland


Strength and Conditioning, Bodybuilding

There’s a plethora of information out there on how to train, and it seems half the internet is devoted to arguing over which programs are the best. The latest and newest program is just a click away, full of novel movements and intricate strategies. If Hoarders did an episode on the fitness industry, it wouldn’t be very difficult to gather enough material.


Fortunately, there’s been a bit of a backlash in society against needless clutter. The practice of throwing out the excess and leaving only what’s necessary has permeated into many aspects of our lives, from material possessions, to toxic friends, to digital clutter. While the trappings of modern life may appear vastly more sophisticated than those of years gone by, most facets of life have changed little over the years. What we need to live, what can help with work, and family values aren’t all that complicated. Discipline, organization, and understanding are all universal principles that have stood the test of time, no matter how many social media sites you can belong to.



Why should your training program be any different? Why would you clean out so many parts of your life but leave your training philosophy as cluttered as your grandmother’s attic?


Why You Should Be a Minimalist Lifter

If you’re just starting out, look at some of the lifting programs of the guys from the 50s and 60s. What do they have in common? They were simplistic in nature. They were void of complex systems requiring meticulous record-keeping and confusing sequences of execution. Yes, you could argue that this was before science got its hands into the exercise realm, but you can’t dispute the results these guys reaped.


If you’re the type who has lifted for a while, think back to your early days when increases in muscle, strength, or whatever your goals were came quickly. It was the basics that got your there. It was your efforts toward the necessities and little else that enabled you to focus on just a few principles without any fluff.


As we get more experienced in the iron game, we tend to want to complicate things. We think things must become more scientific, involved, and confusing to the layman for some reason. We want to put ourselves on some sort of pedestal to feel special and let others know we are far more advanced than they could handle.


The reality is that the opposite is more effective. Simplifying your training will free up your attention, so you can apply more effort toward pushing yourself to progress. Overcomplicated training leaves you constantly questioning your methods, and never settling on a path so you can go to work. The old principles of training are still as relevant today as they were decades ago. It’s up to you to believe again.



The Rules of Minimalist Lifting

These rules of minimalist training aren’t brain surgery. You’ve heard them before, but I feel it’s important to get a quick review. Are you still following these vital principles?



  • More compound, less isolation: This sounds like a broken record, but it needs to be stressed again and again. As so many lifters migrate to concentration curls and machines that meticulously isolate every muscle fiber, I feel the message of compound, multi-joint movement has gotten lost.
  • Progression is king: This principle is key when you want any change to occur. Utilize progressive overload with moderate weights and reps. It’s fine to go heavier or lighter some days, as long as you’re moving the needle forward.
  • Practice form and function: This is another simple but seldom-followed rule. Learn to correctly brace, contract, and move each areas of the body. For example, the deadlift has many things to consider other than just lifting the bar off the floor.


You Don’t Need a Million Dollars in Equipment

Here is a short (but complete) list of what you’ll need on this minimalist training program. It isn’t sexy, but you also won’t have to go out and buy the latest gadget to track every rep, step, and breath. Feel free to add your own minimalist pieces of equipment, but just keep it simple.



  • Barbell
  • Plates (iron or bumper)
  • Pull up bar
  • Adjustable bench
  • Squat or power rack
  • Parallel dip bars
  • Kettlebells (optional)


The Minimalist Lifting Program

Perform the following program three nonconsecutive days per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday). Feel free to perform cardio or other recreational activity on non-training days.


Pay attention to warm up periods, to include general warm up (walk, jog, jump rope) and specific warm-up sets for each area trained. Also, pay close attention to rest periods. This is one of the most abused aspects of training, but has a major impact on progression. Feel free to switch up exercises when you need to.


Stay on the program for at least four weeks, and preferably six. This will enable your body to adapt and see results. After 4-6 weeks, take a few days off from weight training, and then run the program again.


Day 1 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Flat bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Medium or wide-grip pull-up 2 x 5 4 x max reps 60
Barbell back squat 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell Romanian deadlift 1 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Floor crunch - 3 x 15


Lying leg raise - 3 x 15 30


Day 2 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Barbell deadlift 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 120
Standing barbell shoulder press 2 x 12 4 x 6-8 60
Parallel bar triceps dip 1 x 8 4 x max reps 60
Barbell curl 1 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Standing single-leg calf raise 1 x 12 4 x 8-12



Day 3 Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (seconds)
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell bent-over row 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Barbell front squat 2 x 12 4 x 8-12 60
Kettlebell reverse lunge - 4 x 8-12 60
Hanging leg raise - 3 x 15


3-way sit-up - 3 x 15 30
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