We increasingly see coaches promoting themselves as fitness minimalists, but what does fitness minimalism actually mean?
In this article I’m going to explore some thoughts about what it actually might be, and how to approach fitness minimalism yourself.
Right at the start, we need to define what we mean when we talk about fitness.
From that person you know who you’ve always thought was very fit, be they a regular gym-goer or triathlete or jujitsu player, to CrossFit’s claim that their games champion is “the fittest on earth”, our conception of fitness varies wildly.
Fitness is the Ability to Perform a Specific Task.
That’s the definition, no more and no less.
What this means, to use an extreme example, is that the winner of the Tour De France cycle race is very fit... for cycling. He is not, however at all fit for powerlifting.
Fitness is extremely specific to the task and even when it’s quite generalised, to be able to describe someone as “fit” demands that we know what they’re fit for.
The idea of general fitness might be better described as general conditioning, but for the rest of this article, I’m going to use the term fitness because that how it’s widely used, and “general conditioning” is just cumbersome as a term.
This leads us to the idea of fitness minimalism, how we might be able to define it as a concept and, as important, what it is not.
This is the first of the beliefs that people who believe in fitness minimalism appear to hold: that it’s about doing as little as possible and justifying it any way they can.
While, as you’ll see below, you should consider paring your training down to the minimum that will effectively give you most of the result you want, depending on what you want to be fit for, that minimum may still be a fairly significant chunk of time.
You don’t get fit to race iron distance triathlon with three 20-minute sessions per week. You don’t get fit to run a half-marathon by doing 200 kettlebell swings per day. And you don’t get fit to compete at jujitsu by doing a 5-minute set of Turkish Get Ups three times per week.
I once worked with a coach who described his own training as “smart” because he did the minimum and still delivered excellent race results. What he didn’t tell people after a while was that he was extremely gifted for endurance sports (VO2Max in the mid 70’s, long levers, very low body mass). The results he achieved on minimal training were indeed impressive but might well have been more the result of the genetic gifts his parents gave him, than how cleverly minimalist his training was.
The mistake many people make is comparing their results to someone else’s and assuming those results are because of the training programme as opposed to other factors, best termed luck.
For most things in the fitness realm, even just everyday life, there is a minimum amount of time you must invest to get the best result. Anything else is not fitness minimalism, it’s laziness.
The second approach that I believe not to be fitness minimalism is the pursuit of what have become known as “hacks”.
There is a burgeoning market in advice around supplementation and practices that are said to “hack your metabolism”, “10x your results” etc.
All you have to do is shell out a lot of money, often on a regular basis, for supplements with exotic names or the latest greatest piece of equipment.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of this stuff is expensive, often very expensive snake oil. It won’t make a blind bit of difference beyond perhaps the placebo effect; the snake oil salesmen rely heavily on that effect and the power of social proof, where you tell your friends how awesome Supplement X is.
I blame David Brailsford, British Cycling and the Sky Procycling team for their massive promotion of the concept of the “aggregation of marginal gains” for this phenomenon.
While it’s true that once you’ve done all the hard work you can, small tweaks can be the difference between winning a gold medal and settling for silver, this is only useful once you’ve done the work.
Most people don’t want to do the work but want the results. It doesn’t work like that.
Consistency is the Only Hack that Works Every Single Time
The Pareto Principle or the 80:20 Rule as it is often known is the assertion that 80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts. Tim Ferris has also referred to something similar as the “Minimum Effective Dose”.
The trick is in figuring out what those 20% of efforts are.
An example of this is a conversation I had about hypertrophy (building muscle) recently.
Studies show that you get most of your muscle growth from the first set of an exercise, as long as you do that exercise to concentric failure. On that basis, my correspondent claimed, there was no point doing a second and third set (or more).
He’s right, but only if you don’t have the time for sets two and three.
Let’s assume you get 80% of your gains from that first set. You’re still leaving a percentage of possible gains on the table. This is fine if you only have 20 minutes to train that day, but what if you have 40 minutes?
It’s possible that a second set will give you another 10% and a third, perhaps another 5. These are all round numbers with no science behind them, but you get the point.
In essence, you must decide how much is enough. And only you can make that decision for you. Do you want to get most of the result in less time? Or are you willing to invest a little more time to get even better results? You cannot have it both ways.
When discussing the “Minimum Effective Dose”, most people focus on the “minimum” aspect. There is another, equally important aspect to it, and that’s the “effective” part. You need both.
Simply doing less and getting less is not fitness minimalism.
Another way of looking at fitness minimalism, one I quite like, is the idea of being able to train with as little equipment as possible.
Pavel Tsatsouline refers to the kettlebell as the “gym in your hand” and it’s true that an appropriate size kettlebell and somewhere to do pull ups can deliver remarkable results.
Simply using your bodyweight and a set of gymnastic rings is another minimalist solution that is growing in popularity, not least with uncertain times related to lockdowns around the world. Jerry Texeira has a brilliant YouTube channel containing progressions for all sorts of bodyweight exercises, from beginner to advanced.
But even this may not be effective fitness minimalism for your goals.
To my mind, there are a few requirements for true fitness minimalism work for you.
This is a big issue.
We’ve all heard the one about guys (it is usually guys) who skip “leg day” and focus all their efforts on building the biggest chest they can.
Don’t be that person.
I always remember Dan John telling us that muscles in front were “show muscles”, while muscles on the back were “go muscles”. You don’t need to worry about the athlete who looks big as he walks towards you, it’s when they still look big as they walk away that you need to get concerned.
Suffice it to say, whatever your minimalist fitness programme, it should cover all the fundamental human movement patterns...
- Loaded Carries (I add these because they are extremely effective.)
This is where a lot of programmes fall down somewhat.
E.g., Without a little thought, kettlebell work often lacks any rowing component, which balances out the shoulder internal rotation from a lot of pressing and pull ups.
Pull ups alone aren’t a good balance exercise for presses because both involve the lats, and the lats are an internal rotator of the shoulder.
Also, most people don’t engage their rhomboids and mid/lower traps as they do pull ups anyway, so they’re very lat-dominant, contributing to an internally rotated shoulder posture, a precursor of chronic shoulder pain.
Cardiovascular conditioning is one area which the fitness minimalists seem to have a huge downer on.
Any justification they can come up with for not doing any type of traditional cardiovascular training is fair game.
- “I get out of breath from lifting weights and my heart rate goes up.”
- “I just do HIIT three times a week, that’s plenty.”
- “Doing cardiovascular training interferes with muscle gain.”
There is a far longer list than that. Almost every day on social media, I see some version of this nonsense.
With the biggest killers in our world being related to cardiac health, building a healthy cardiovascular system goes far beyond aesthetics, it’s positively life-lengthening.
In terms of the methodology, equipment etc. you use to gain cardiovascular conditioning, it’s important to remember that what you’re trying to do is improve your body’s ability to utilise oxygen and body fat for the production of ATP, your body’s energy fuel.
To do so, you must keep the exercise intensity low enough that your body can do so. If the intensity is too high, you shift to burning glucose, derived from your glycogen stores and create an internal environment where you do more damage to yourself from the metabolic by-products of glucose metabolism in an oxygen-poor environment.
This is not a bad thing to do on occasion. It is, however, why elite athletes do only a small part of their training as intervals, in other words at high intensities. Most of their training is remarkably easy (although if we ran at Kenenise Bekile’s easy pace, it wouldn’t feel easy to us).
We want to live our lives in a fat-burning, aerobic state. That’s how we thrive.
To be aerobically efficient as possible, we need large numbers of mitochondria. The number of these “powerhouses of our cells” increase when we do low intensity steady state exercise or what you might call rhythmic cardio like running rowing, cycling, swimming, brisk walking, XC skiing etc. They do not increase to anywhere near the same levels if all we do is thrash ourselves doing anaerobic (HIIT or lifting) training.
As an aside related to the increased heart rate from lifting argument, this is akin to the approach used by the writers of suspense novels to infer that reading their work was good for your fitness because it raised your heart rate (yes, this was a real story given real time on BBC Radio 4).
This is another area that many might leave out in the search for fitness minimalism if their definition was simply “spend as little time on fitness as possible.
It’s widely acknowledged that as we age, if we don’t use our muscle mass, we lose it and become frail. What’s less talked about is that we also lose mobility and the elasticity of our tissues as we age. But this can be attenuated by taking the time to work on improving (or at least not losing that mobility).
Worse, much that passes for strength building (or muscle mass building) does little if anything for mobility and in many cases actually degrades mobility significantly.
Sadly, the same is true for endurance exercise, most of which is performed in a limited range of movement, the voluminous repetition of which causes adaptive shortening of many muscles with associated loss of movement range.
A quality approach to fitness should always include a focus on mobility. This is as important, if not more so, when it comes to fitness minimalism.
Outside of elite sports programmes, consideration of movement in more than simply the frontal plane, static and on two feet is almost never addressed.
The best way to approach this is to play some kind of recreational sport.
Sport is great because it’s played in a three-dimensional, chaotic environment, which addresses all of these issues.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of “experts” on training for older people positively advise against playing sport because of the injury risk. As most injuries occur during our daily living, as opposed to while we’re training or playing sport, are these folks honestly saying that we’ll be more robust as we age by doing less?
The same “use it or lose it” principle that applies to strength, cardio and mobility applies to our reflexes and our ability to move in multiple planes.
If you’re not going to play sport, this makes any approach to fitness programming more complex, because you will have to include exercises that address these areas too. If time is your only measure of that minimalism, it’s either going to be less minimalistic or you’re going to have to sacrifice something from other areas.
At this point, let’s have a look at these elements and ways that you could include them in your minimalist fitness programme.
Strength is something increasing numbers of people are realising they need for a high-quality life as they get older.
Of course, there are millions of words that have been written about how to build that strength most effectively. Viewed from a fitness minimalism perspective, spending hours in the gym, following a carefully periodised programme is neither desirable nor even practical unless you’re looking for the minimum to get the absolute maximum, which would then be a lot of training.
Here are some options.
From an equipment perspective, body weight training or calisthenics is fitness minimalism at its best, in my opinion.
You can train anywhere and with no equipment, or you can spend a small amount of money on a set of gymnastic rings that can be thrown over the branch of a convenient tree and add to your options.
Examples of exercises that address the key movement patterns...
Hinge: Box Jumps, Broad Jumps, One Leg Romanian Deadlift
Squat: Bodyweight Squat, Pistol Squat
Push: Press Ups/Push Ups, Handstand Push Ups, One Arm Push Ups
Pull: Pull Ups, Bodyweight Rows
Rotation/Anti Rotation: Side Planks
Kettlebells (or simply a single kettlebell) provides an easily transportable form of external resistance that takes up very little space in your home. Add somewhere to do pull ups and you have all you need to get great results.
What I particularly like about single kettlebell work is that you get to address rotation/anti rotation as part of other exercises. Add kettlebell complexes and you have a particularly time-efficient training methodology.
Examples of exercises that address the key movement patterns with just one kettlebell...
Hinge: Sumo Deadlift, Kettlebell Swings
Squat: Goblet Squat, Racked Squat, Overhead Squat
Push: One Arm Kettlebell Military Press
Pull: Renegade Rows
Rotation/Anti Rotation is built into all the single kettlebell exercises by default
If muscle mass is your prime goal and you’re aiming for fitness minimalism, then compound lifts are absolutely the way to go because you will be using the most amount of muscle mass in every lift.
In terms of equipment, you are going to need access to a gym or space at home for a barbell, power rack etc in order to do this. This means, it’s not really an option for space-oriented fitness minimalism and, if you don’t have the equipment at home, it’s only time-efficient in terms of less time spent in the gym because you have to factor in time getting there and back meaning you’re not saving time overall.
Examples of exercises that address the key movement patterns...
Squat: Low Bar Back Squat, Front Squat
Push: Bench Press, Standing Military Press
Pull: Bent Over Row, Pendlay Row, Pulldown variations, Row variations, Pull Ups
Rotation/Anti Rotation: Pallov Press
Cardiovascular conditioning is where most fitness minimalists believe they’re doing a great job because, as discussed above, they’re saving time by not doing specific cardiovascular training. This is a mistake because traditional rhythmic cardio (as I’ve taken to calling it) is important for a host of health reasons.
HIIT has become really fashionable in the quest for fitness minimalism. While intervals are hugely effective for building improved performance, they shouldn’t make up the bulk of your cardiovascular conditioning work.
A few myths surround HIIT training need to be put to bed.
First is the idea that you burn more calories during and after an HIIT session. This is actually true, although the real numbers are disappointing. The extra calorie burn amounts to between 7 and 14 kcal. You’re going to be waiting a long time to lose even a pound of bodyfat at that rate.
This assumes, of course, that you believe exercise to be the best way to lose fat, or that you can consciously control your body’s energy balance, which you simply can’t.
Second, HIIT training is not for everyone. This is despite what the gurus wish to tell us. As we age, and especially if we’ve not been consistent exercisers all our lives, we become more prone to injury.
I’m afraid those who manage to make this work long-term without getting hurt are outliers. The odds are against most of us being able to do so.
Also, in order to achieve the levels of exercise intensity used in most of the studies on real HIIT requires that you have a fairly high level of fitness before you even start. This is why elite athletes do very little interval training as a proportion of their work and have periods of “base building” in which they do no intervals at all.
Most people simply cannot reach these levels, and they usually misunderstand what “hard” or “high intensity” really means. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they do 30-second sprints. If you’re not an elite 400m runner, I’m afraid you’re not sprinting if you run for 30 seconds. In fact, most people are no longer flat-out (in intensity) after about 6 seconds!
Time efficiency is another much touted myth. If you’re to do HIIT properly, you need to warm up and cool down properly. By the time you’ve done this, your 10-minute HIIT session has stretched to as much as 30 minutes. People who head out and exercise as hard as they can with no warmup risk musculoskeletal injury and even heart attacks!
Having said all of that (can you tell I’m not a fan?), there is a place for interval training in any fitness minimalist programme. That place is as an occasional challenge to your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
If all you ever do is long slow stuff, you’ll get good at doing long slow stuff. So, the wise exerciser adds a bit of challenge every now and then. To give you an idea of how little interval training you need, my 15:50 5km personal best was run off a winter of long slow running and just three short track interval sessions. Your body responds very quickly to interval training, but the return-on-investment declines rapidly too.
Despite all the negative press from fitness minimalists who don’t understand the difference between being out of breath with a raised heart rate and real cardiovascular conditioning, LISS really is your best cardiovascular training.
The good news is that, unless you plan to race one, there is no need to train like a marathon runner. A daily 30-minute walk (or three 10-minute walks across the day) and three steady 30-minute runs (my preference), rows, bike rides or swims per week are more than enough to maintain a good level of cardiovascular health.
If you want more results in this area, do a bit more, but it’s not really necessary if you prefer more lifting time and maintaining your health is your main goal for your CV training.
Mobility is ignored by most of us, most of the time. Until we get hurt because our mobility sucked.
The good news is that once you’ve identified your mobility challenges, they’re easy to work on around the other training that you do.
Most people have mobility issues related to the hips, with the main players being...
- Quadratus Lumborum
- Gluteus Maximus and Medius
Or the shoulders, with the main offenders being...
- Thoracic Spine Mobility
- The Pectoralis muscle group (tight or overactive)
- Trapezius/Rhomboids (weak or overstretched)
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Rotator Cuff
I really like the following two approaches to maintaining mobility without having to scope out huge amounts of time to focus on them.
In this approach, you do mobility work in the recovery time between working sets in the gym. This is when most people scroll social media on their phones or stare blankly into space.
Why not use this time for something productive, like attending to your mobility?
You could either address something that has nothing to do with the training you’re doing (e.g., shoulders when you’re training legs) or you could use my favoured approach, where you address mobility in antagonistic movement groups or movement groups that might limit your performance of the exercise at hand.
A good example of this is doing the couch stretch in the rest intervals when you’re deadlifting. Tight hip flexors inhibit your deadlift, so getting some extra mobility in that area often means that on set 2 or 3, there’s a noticeable difference in technique performance.
This is a true fitness minimalism approach because it focuses the use of your time in the best way possible. Let’s face it, scrolling social media isn’t going to improve your exercise performance.
Mobility snacking is the second way I like to approach this and it’s simply sprinkling your day with small amounts of mobility work.
For example, you could have a stretch cord at your desk and do the scapular mobility series a few times across the day. This also serves as a reminder to take breaks for your posture and eyes, especially if you’re constantly working on a computer.
- Drop into a deep squat when out for a family walk and everyone stops for a rest.
- Couch stretch in front of the television.
- Thoracic extension using a foam roller when you get in from work.
The options are endless, simple to implement, and your body will thank you.
As you’ll have read, I’m not against fitness minimalism. In fact, I’m all for it as long as it’s the minimum required to get the result you want, as opposed to just the minimum someone thinks they can get away with.
I’m not a fan of catchy marketing terms, I’m a fan of what works.
If you want to train for a powerlifting meet, you need to do the work required to get to a powerlifting meet in good shape. That will be different to what you need for a jujitsu competition and different again if you wish to run a marathon.
Both the focus of training and the minimum amount of training you need in order to be effective are different for all of these and for anything else you may wish to train for. Even the demands of my life and your life are different and require the training of certain elements and a certain volume of work.
Fitness minimalism isn’t simple doing as little as possible; it’s doing the minimum required to get the result and cutting out the fluff.
It’s not a bunch of dubious hacks; it’s consistently doing the required work.
It’s not simply about using no equipment; it’s about using what equipment you have access to as best you possibly can.
With those in mind, we should probably all strive to be fitness minimalists.