Written by Team Juggernaut
by Greg Nuckols and Dr. Mike Israetel
Lately, it seems as if social media is being flooded with a new trend: minimalism. What is minimalism, why is it gaining popularity, is it really the right way to train/diet, and if not, what is?
What is Minimalism?
In the world of training and diet, minimalism is defined as doing the least amount of work to get a certain result. We agree 100% with that definition, and think that it’s a very useful concept. However, this is often construed – wrongly – to mean (especially in powerlifting training) ONLY doing the big three lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift), or perhaps adding some basic assistance work to those, and above all, keeping the total training volumes and frequencies low.
Why the Popularity?
We’re not 100% certain why minimalism has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity but we think a big part of the reason is quite obvious: it’s easier. If training less can get you as good of results as training more, doesn’t training less sound like a much better option? After all, there are numerous other fun and productive things you can do with your time other than training, and if training more is NOT better, then why spend needless hours in the gym?
And of course these ideas are being discussed in the age of the internet. People are more apt to click on an article titled “Get stronger in just 20 minutes per day” than “work harder to get stronger.” The incentive is not on truth but on traffic. And unfortunately the truth often isn’t nearly as clickable.
So does minimalism really work? Do minimalists have it right after all? Can you do less work, not fret about the details, and still get the results of more tedious approaches? It often boils down to your goals.
If you want to generally get bigger and stronger while improving your body composition, then the popular minimalistic may be just what you need.
However, if you want to compete in strength sports or bodybuilding at the highest levels, and approach your genetic potential, a minimalistic approach will only get you but so far. Past that point, you will need to do more work – more total volume to keep strength and size gains coming once your body has fully adapted to the low stimulus of minimalist programs, and more exercise variety to address weaknesses that can develop over time.
Also, (and this is a crucial point) let it be known that we don’t think there’s any point in doing more than you need to do in order to reach your goals. Extra work for its own sake serves no purpose. However, the minimal work necessary to reach your goals depends largely on what you goals are. If you have lofty goals, your “minimalism” will be a heck of a lot more complicated than someone just looking to make some improvements and get in a little better shape. So what does “minimalism” look like if you want to approach your full potential?
From the perspective of training, if you want to be as good as you can be, the theory is quite simple: do as much as you can recover from/adapt to. Now, how much is that? Well, research tells us that it’s A LOT. Multiple reviews of the literature have confirmed that more work in the gym (more sets per session and per week) almost always lead to more muscle growth and strength improvement (1,2,3,4). Training hard enough to begin to bump up against your ability to recover and adapt actually turns out to be quite challenging, and especially for more advanced lifters turns into a LOT of work. Sets and sets and sets of (especially) the heavy basics. Is it enough to do 3×5 in the squat and go home? If you’re a novice and you want to get a bit stronger, almost certainly… if you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter and you’re trying to PR, almost certainly NOT.
If you feel like you can’t recover/adapt to your attempted training volume, the first move shouldn’t be to reduce your training volume… it’s to take a look at your recovery strategies. Are you sleeping enough, are you eating well, and are your supplements in order? If you’re stalling, the proper path moving forward is almost always more emphasis on recovery – not less work in the gym.
Pretending you’re doing all you can when you’re really not. That’s really what this article is about. We have no problem with a varied spectrum of personal choices, we only have a problem with contradictions. It’s absolutely A-Okay to say that powerlifting or fitness or bodybuilding is important to you, but not always (or even sometimes) priority number 1. It’s a hobby for almost all of us after all! So if you only want to train a few times a week for less than an hour per session, we’re not stopping you! Just realize that you’re making a trade-off. Training a couple times per week for an hour at a time is certainly enough to get bigger and stronger for most people. You can make it a long way with a minimum input of resources (the 80/20 rule absolutely applies here), but you will not be as good as you could possibly be.
People who want to reach their full potential, on the other hand, need to learn to embrace the oft-maligned 20% in the 80/20 rule. You WILL hit a point of diminishing returns, but smaller marginal returns are still returns. You may get 60% of your possible growth from a workout with your first set, another 20% from set 2, another 10% from set 3, 4% for set 4, and 2% for sets 5, 6, and 7.
Applying the 80/20 rule, you’d be good to go with just doing 2 sets – almost all the growth stimulus, with substantially less time spent in the gym.
If you want to be the best you can be, though, you need to embrace the meager returns on the last several sets. In this hypothetical scenario, for you, 7 sets would meet the definition of minimalism. No point in doing an 8th set, but also no point in skimping on 2% of the possible benefits if your goal is to maximize results.
The hard truth is that if you actually commit yourself FULLY to powerlifting, fitness, or bodybuilding success, you’re going to need to do more work, not less. You’re going to have to train… A LOT… hours and hours of highly fatiguing work per day, and on most days of the week. Not immediately, obviously, but just be aware that months or years down the road that’s where the pursuit of excellence will lead.
Telling people how committed to success you are AND simultaneously following a minimalist training plan seems like the best of both worlds. You get recognition and praise for commitment while avoiding the burden of more work and complexity. In reality, minimalist training won’t make you the best you can be, and after other lifters surpass you (those who are committed to the reality of difficulty that is strength and physique sport), you won’t have much of the bragging rights to commitment either.
If you want to be the best you can be, be prepared to train hard and often. If you want to be the best you can be, be prepared to pay the price. But please, don’t pretend that training 3x a week for an hour or less is making you the best. We wish it were so, but unfortunately, it just isn’t.
Dr. Israetel is the author of the brand new book “The Renaissance Diet.” Click the picture below to get your copy of this valuable resource, if you’re really serious about dispensing with the fads and gimmicks to take your strength and physique to the next level