Minimum viable workout routine

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: http://​​​​watch?v=HJSVR_63eKM

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.