Making the Most of Minimal Training

A few weeks ago, I wrote about figuring out how much training we need to do in order to continue to progress. That post was focused on the theoretical boundaries of load and volume because the reality is how much we need to do and see progress will be different for each of us. However, I think there can be value in seeing concrete examples, so today I want to share how I am working those boundaries during the month of September, a month that as a teacher, I can predict will be especially busy and challenging for me.

My training goals this month are to be proactive in my fatigue management while still hopefully at least maintaining, if not slowly improving, my strength and muscle mass. I want my lifting to still be fun because my motivation can flag when I’m tired. And I want my training to be flexible enough that it feels complete even when I can’t do as much as I prefer.

So, with those goals in mind, I programmed for myself 4 abbreviated, full-body lifting sessions each week. They are full-body because it means if the week goes sideways and I don’t fit them all in, I know I’m still hitting the major muscle groups and movement patterns. Each session can be completed in about 45 minutes including warm-ups, and there’s no rule that I can’t add more, if it’s feeling good and I have the time. However, my first priority is to complete the programmed session feeling that I’ve done each rep and set with commitment, focusing on strong mind-muscle connections and doing each set close to failure (aiming for an RPE of 8-9-ish) to make the most of the working sets. I’m not particularly strong, and I’ve been doing mostly middle and higher-rep work the last few months, so I don’t find it particularly fatiguing to do a few low rep, high RIR sets. However, this may not be true for you, so if you decide to give this program a go and your intentions are to manage fatigue, pay attention to your recovery and see how it feels for you. There’s no rule that says you can’t tweak it to work better for your physiology.

Finally, before I share my programming, I feel like I should reiterate that I’m not a personal trainer; I’m just a lifting nerd. This program does what I think a good program should do–it hits the major lifting patterns both bilaterally and unilaterally (ie. squats, two legs, and pistol squats, one leg), it has sufficient volume for me to maintain and possibly increase my strength (although this can vary from person to person and movement to movement), and it spreads out the work across a variety of loads and rep ranges, which seems to help me avoid problems like cranky joints. However, I’m sure there are better-educated people than myself who could look at this and make adjustments or improvements. On the other hand, since the best programming is individualized, maybe not? This works for me, so maybe that makes it good programming! No promises it’s good programming for you, too, but hey, if you’re looking to switch things up, run the experiment and see how it goes.

Finally a few notes: Each lift includes appropriate numbers of warm-up sets. I’m in my forties and have some cranky body parts, so that can be pretty extensive for me. A cumulative 10 minutes of warm-up sets isn’t uncommon. This is also why I do the unconventional thing of starting with higher rep work and slowly building to heavier lifts. Maybe it means I’m not maxing my heavy lifting, but my joints love me so much more when I do it this way!

Day One (Squat/Bench day)
A. Barbell back squat, 1×8-10, 1×5-7, 3×2-4

(1)B1. Barbell bench press, 1×8-10, 1×5-7, 3×2-4
B2. Single-arm cable row, 4×8-12

C. Lying leg raise, 2-3 xAMRAP (as many reps as possible)

Day Two (Deadlift/Overhead Press Day)
A1. Barbell squat (15RM), 2-3×8(2)
A2. Cable chop or twist (12RM)(3), 2-3×10

B. Deadlift or Sumo Deadlift, 1×8-10, 1×5-7, 3×2-4

C1. Barbell Overhead Press, 1×8-10, 1×5-7, 3×2-4
C2. Slow pistol squat to a bench, 3xAMRAP (each leg)

Day Three
A. DB Bench Press, 4×8-12

B1. Single Leg Hamstring Curl, 4×8-12
B2. Straight-arm Pulldown(4), 4×8-12

C. Back-to-back lateral raises and delt raises, 3xAM (15-20 RM)
Do a full set of lat raises and then immediately, without rest, do a full set of delt raises. Rest a minute or so and then repeat.

Day Four(5)
A. Single-arm dumbbell row, 4×5-8

B1. Single-arm pulldown, 4×8-12
B2. Single-leg glute bridge or hip thrust, 4xAM

C. Back-to-back biceps curls and cable triceps kickbacks or skullcrushers, 3xAM (12RM)

How does your programming change when life gets busier or more fatiguing? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

(1) This is a superset. Set up for both lifts. Rest minimally between the first and second exercise. Rest 1-2 minutes after the second exercise before starting the next superset. This is a time-saving strategy. If you’re in a busy gym and can’t superset the exercises, there’s no harm in not doing it other than a little additional rest time.

(2) I have learned from trial and error that I need more warm-up before deadlifts than doing several sets of light deadlifts. So, now I do 2-3 light sets of squats and a core exercise before I deadlift. The goal is just to warm-up my body and get ready to do the work of deadlifts, not to feel like I’m really lifting hard. So, the squats are at the 15-ish rep max (RM), but only done at 8 reps per set.

(3) RM=Rep Max, so a 12RM means at the weight I can lift 12 times with solid form

(4)I’m still trying to figure out how to safely set up for pull-ups in my garage gym, but if you can do them where you’re lifting, this would be a great place to put pull-ups into your week.

(5) This day is mostly upper body because I like to go on a run on the weekends. So, this workout is short and not especially fatiguing for when I decide to head out for a short run after a weekend lifting session.

4 thoughts on “Making the Most of Minimal Training

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