How I Got Stronger & Healthier with Less: Minimalism in Training (A Primer)

I can never blame anyone for being confused about training, strength and conditioning, or just simply “working out.” It’s a maze of information, misinformation, well-meaning advice, sensationalism, sales pitches, and smoke screens. Like all things, it’s a spectrum, though. It’s why a personal mission of mine has been to really get to the core of what really constitutes effective training. I’ve gone back and looked at the earliest forms of modern physical culture, asked some of the best minds I know, and I’m beginning to see a trend: minimalism.

Minimalism in training is nothing new, nor a stone previously unturned. Mastery of your own body and the practice of calisthenics has probably existed as long as people have been interested in maintaining and maximizing their physical health. However, outside some niche circles, it’s seldom used or advocated much as modality all of it’s own; with trainers usually opting to use it as little more than a warm-up or throw-in.

What got me here?

Since I was around 12 years old, I’ve spent long hours in gyms and used everything from the Nautilus & Hammer Strength machines to traditional barbell power lifts, cable pulleys, and every trend to boom and bust in the 15 years since. While all of these different methods of training certainly had their benefits, there was something always glaringly lacking with each. It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting a benefit from them: I certainly had periods where I had gained muscle, lost weight, got stronger, or any other desirable results you'd hope to achieve. There was always something missing though; and never was it more obvious than on a day where I’d needed to do something in my every day life that I physically could not, despite absolutely killing it that morning on the bench.

It was also funny to me that at the time, that I could be so good at using barbells, machines, and equipment of all types, but still be so poor at bodyweight movements and things like pull ups. I knew something wasn’t right, even back then. I may not have known how to fix it at 16 years old, but I certainly knew something was off.

It wasn’t until recently, with the help of Steve Maxwell’s insight and many years of meditation on the matter, that I realized what was missing for me in those days. More importantly, it became very apparent that what I was doing was getting good at Hammer Strength Machines, cable wood choppers and barbell deadlifts. The same way you get good at a submission in jiu jitsu, a throw in judo, or a jump shot on the court, was the same thing I was doing with all these movements and equipment.

SKILL VS STRENGTH - WHICH ARE YOU TRAINING?

All workout modalities, training systems, and pieces of equipment are always in danger of is becoming a skill all in themselves. It ends up resembling recreation more than it does a health system. Now, there’s nothing inherently evil there, nor is it always “one or the other,” but being mindful of this is probably what will save you from plateaus and stagnation (in an upcoming blog, I may expand on this idea).

So what is the best way to make sure you don’t master your equipment and turn your workouts into a skill session? Ditch the equipment!

Minimalism

There aren’t many circumstances or sports in which a mastery of your body, your awareness of space, and a maximization of mobility aren’t applicable. By maximizing control, strength, and mobility of your body, you give yourself the best chance to excel in anything you do physically.

There’s also a tremendous benefit in minimalism in training, as many methods of bodyweight mastery are less destructive to connective tissue, joints, etc (with some exceptions of course). Ask any kettlebell veteran to tell you about their shoulders, and many will tell you they wish they gave up the KB Snatch years ago. 

Understanding how to utilize your limbs while maintaining complete stabilization of the core, having the ability to change your level & assuming a new position from that level change, and just being more nimble and strong: that translates to... everything.

How to Train Minimally

I've found through recent experiences, that the most effective way to re-build and rapidly improve everything we've discussed thus far could be broken down to these three points: 

1. Work on Your Mobility

The best advice I can give is to give yourself requisite mobility.

The most important distinction here is to understand the difference between mobility and flexibility:

Flexibility is merely the range of motion available to you. Mobility is your ability to move yourself through the range available to you. By extension, you can use a solid mobility practice to expand and strengthen yourself through new ranges of motion. 

If you’re a completely new to this and the concept of mobility, I suggest you check out my YouTube channel and any posts I’ve written on mobility via my Instagram, as these practices can be combined to make up a nice little mobility routine for you each day. I'll also plug my email list/newsletter, as I send out different mobility videos, tips and workouts frequently, and they're only available to the subscribers. 

2. Strength Training with Isometric Exercise

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

From there, I’d encourage you to look into isometrics. Steve Maxwell recently put out a tremendous collection of isometric exercises for the whole body in a concise, excellent video download. This would be a great starting resource.

If you've never been exposed to isometrics or static holds, it simply is the practice of assuming and holding positions until muscular failure or a predetermined time interval.  It's a great practice for those with compromised joints or other lingering injuries, especially those often attributed to "aging." The trauma is low, and results in a more economic shock to the body in the form of strength training. 

"Time under tension" is often most attributed in studies, anecdotes and gyms around the world as a great tool to build muscle (hypertrophy), and also is a way to train a solid baseline level of strength (or maintaining current levels). Learning where you're weak, especially in these positions, will tell you a lot about where you should work and focus your training, and also is a very low tech and minimalist form of strength training that can literally be done anywhere. 

3. Supplemental Strength Training (with the bare bones of "equipment")

Minimalism, particularly relying on solely bodyweight calisthenics with no equipment, leaves much to be desired in the vertical and horizontal pulling movements. For that, I would suggest acquiring a suspension device (like the TRX, or any homemade system). A good friend of mine, Scott Burr, recently wrote a great eBook on how to use perhaps the most efficient low-tech tool of all time. It's available via Amazon/Kindle.

While the suspension device may be the most portable, one of the most effective "pulling modalities" to build up to is the "pull up bar." I've never found a movement in the vertical pulling department that will teach you as much about your body, breathing, and strength as the old fashioned, pronated pull-up. 

The other beauty in the pull up, is that you don't even need a bar in the traditional sense. You need only something above your head that you're (SAFELY) able to make a grip on. In fact, as you progress and become proficient at the pull up, you may even want to add a little chaos of something a bit harder to grip.

Minimalism Training Philosophy in a Few Words...

It's only appropriate to end this "primer" as no frills as the training I'm musing on:

Make your body mobile and strong, with your body.