Recently, I experimented with the idea of doing a routine consisting of as few as only 2 movements. Can making progress with your training really be that simple?
Usually, the simplest solution is also the most elegant one. This is a truism that all successful people preach.
Want to become a good programmer? Produce simple and readable code. A good chef? Use a few quality ingredients and simple recipes. A good writer? Write clear sentences and tell a simple story.
That’s why I recently experimented with workouts with minimal complexity. Why would I do this and what are the benefits?
It gives me quick and effective workouts.
Take it from Captain Obvious: Doing only 2 exercises per workout saves time. If you choose compound exercises (movements that require large muscle groups), this can still be very effective for gaining strength and muscle and for fat loss.
It cuts away the clutter.
There is no place for isolation exercises in this kind of routine.
Compliance to programs with just 2 movements is much higher. You don’t have to remember a complicated list of exercises. You never have to engage in any decision making. You just go in, do your 2 moves and get out.
You’ll get very competent at the movements.
When you put all your training focus on just 2 exercises for 2-4 weeks, one thing is almost certain: You will become very good at these movements.
If you’re a beginner, taking the time to really practice a lift or a bodyweight move will pay off in the long term.
For example, if you’ve purchased your first kettlebell, it’s a good idea to spend ample time learning the swing and the turkish get-up. Once the skill is ingrained, you can switch back to a more “well-rounded” routine and incorporate that new move.
Limiting yourself to 2 movements for 2-4 weeks can do a lot of good for you. This is especially helpful if your life is hectic at the moment and you need something simple that “gets the job done”.
That doesn’t mean you should neglect mobility and skip your warm-up. Quite the contrary.
Because you only have to deal with 2 moves in your strength training, you can dedicate a lot of time and focus on working on the little things that you suck at.
Soft tissue work, mobility work and stretches often get neglected because everybody wants to jump into the fun stuff. This is the perfect time to readdress those issues.
So when I say Program Minimum of Two (PM2), I mean striving for mastery of 2 specific movements, while taking care of “everything else”. Stuff that is not direct strength work.
While you could do much worse than the programs I listed below, it’s not realistic that people will follow such a program indefinitely. Quite frankly, it can get boring.
However, I recommend trying a PM2 for one training period, so maybe 4 weeks. Try one of the following:
Swing + Turkish Get-up
This is taken from Pavel’s kettlebell program Simple and Sinister.
5 TGUs per side
If you can do all swings, one-handed, in 5 minutes, get a heavier KB. If you did 5 perfect TGUs in under 10 minutes, get a heavier KB.
As a warm-up, Pavel recommends 3 mobility drills which are similar to the ones I recommend in Loaded Yoga.
I like this program a lot. Although it consists of only 2 movements, it is “well rounded”. Meaning, you have a hinge movement (swing), a push (TGU), a pull (swing, if you engage lats correctly) and a squat (the lunge portion of the TGU).
Additionally, if you include prying goblet squats in your warm-up, you’ll maintain your squat and maybe even improve it by working on your mobility.
One-arm Push-up + Pistol Squat
Another idea I stole from Pavel from his book Naked Warrior, where he describes the Greasing the Groove (GTG) method: Spread your movement practice throughout the day without ever getting near fatigue.
Take any movement and do 6-10 sets a day with a 30% effort (if you can do 10 push-ups, do 3). So you set a timer for every 2 or 3 hours, or do it whenever you enter a certain room in your house/office.
But you don’t have to use GTG to focus on OAPUs and pistols.
Try a pyramid rep scheme:
1 OAPU left + 1 Pistol left
1 OAPU right + 1 Pistol right
2 OAPU left + 2 Pistol left
2 OAPU right + 2 Pistol right
5 OAPU right + 5 Pistol right
1 OAPU right + 1 Pistol right
I other words: Do both exercises back to back, on alternating sides and add 1 rep each round. Other than a quick moment of catching your breath, you should not need any rest.
Once you get the feeling that you won’t make it in the next round, decrease the reps by 1 until you’re down to 1 rep again.
If you went from 1 to 5 reps, that’s 25 reps in total!
Start conservatively, with one round. Then try to add reps and rounds during your PM2 period. Start with a regression of which you can safely perform 8-10 consecutive reps.
One-arm Bottom-up Press + Swing
Max states in a recent article that his 2 favorite kettlebell moves are the bottom-up press (BUP) and the one-arm swing.
He makes a quite convincing argument that these are 2 of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises.
Both are highly effective in building your athleticism (lat and glute emphasis, core stabilization and anti-rotational work). The BUP has the added advantage of being a self-limiting exercise (i.e. if you do it wrong, you won’t press it up).
I especially like the half kneeling version of the BUP. The hips are nicely locked into place and you get an additional stretch in your hip flexor. This in turn prepares you for a more powerful hip-snap during the swing. Win-win.
On to the program: Quite simply, do them back to back, left and right. Keep the swing reps the same, but decrease the BUP reps by 1 each round.
10 Swings left
3 BUPs left
10 Swings right
3 BUPs right
10 Swings left
2 BUPs left
10 Swings right
2 BUPs right
10 Swings left
1 BUPs left
10 Swings right
1 BUPs right
In order to progress, add a round if you feel up to it (so you start with 4 BUPs).
Double Kettlebell Clean & Press + Front Squat
Okay, I cheated a bit with this combination. It sounds like 3 exercises. But the clean & press is usually referred to as one complex movement.
1 rep of a clean & press means: Clean the kettlebell once, then press it overhead.
Use 2 kettlebells of the same size for both movements. A pair of 24kg for men and 16kg for women should be challenging enough (beginners pick a smaller size).
I like to do these in a complex:
1 Clean & Press
3 Front Squats
Repeat this for 15 minutes. As a goal, try to avoid putting the KBs down for the entire time.
Do this 4 weeks, every other day at first and when you’ve adapted to the workload, every day.
It’s okay to do a push press (using leg drive and momentum to press overhead) once fatigue sets in. Rest when form breaks down or stop the workout if necessary!
During your PM2 period, you don’t always have to pump through this workout. If you need rest from the intensity, just practice the movements. Pick lighter KBs and focus on super clean form. Emphasize core engagement and proper body alignment.
Sprints + Pull-ups
One of my favorite park workouts. Just do a set of pull-ups (do as man clean reps as possible), followed by a sprint (hill sprints or beach sprints are best). Whatever distance you sprinted (40-60 meters is enough), walk back. That’s your rest. Now repeat.
Legs, arms, upper back will be fried. Your lungs will take a hit, too. 3 weeks of this and you will certainly look better naked.
How to Use These Templates
You can certainly come up with your own combinations. What I don’t want to see is people doing a “program minimum” of machine presses and curls (a popular routine which you can see performed in most commercial gyms).
However, if you do choose one of the programs above, follow the rules. You can certainly add in a few mobility drills here and there and thoroughly warm-up. That’s the beauty of PM2: There is a lot of space for “all the other things” that you usually neglect.
Other than that, keep it to only 2 movements. 4 weeks of being “imbalanced” won’t kill you. In fact, nothing ever is perfectly balanced.
That’s what people get wrong about work-life balance. You’ll never achieve a balance. Some periods of the year will be hectic and you will be consumed by your work. At other times, you can chill out, relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
The same is true for training. Sometimes you put your focus on fat loss, attaining a certain skill, improving work capacity, etc.
The not-so-secret secret: You cannot accomplish it all at once. You need dedicated focus and strategically attack one goal at a time.
Heck, you could even rotate through the programs above every 4 weeks. You’ll probably make more progress than most gym rats.
And don’t get smart and combine 2 programs or add another thing because you think it is “very important”. It won’t kill ya, but it defeats the purpose of this whole minimalist approach: Focus.
I talked about this before. If you choose a program, then do it and follow it through to the end. Don’t come back here and claim that it didn’t work if you never did it.
Pick one PM2 from above and try it for 2-4 weeks. Let me know how it worked out for you.