Minimalist Training for Mass Gains: Best 3 Day Plan For 3 Times the Gains

You’ve been struggling to put on mass. I know. I’ve been there and I feel your pain.

All those 2 hour long gym sessions have been pointless. That’s how you feel.

You feel like you’ve wasted your time. Maybe you’ve made gains but not as much as you’ve wanted.

It’s understandable. You’ve followed all the advice that you can find and read.

Maybe it’s on YouTube, blogs, magazines. So we’re going to have to do something different.

Today I will show you a minimalist training approach :

  • How to gain mass using 3 exercises
  • Train only 3 days per week
  • Achieve 3 times the results

dmitry-klokov-crossfitChances are you’ve followed the advice to a tee: lift in the range of 8 to 10 reps.

Go for 4 or 5 sets per exercise.

Hit each muscle from every angle. I did the same.

I believed it for many years. Honestly, that was pretty much a waste of time.

Not all of it. But a good chunk.

If I could go back… which none of us can, I would have done things a lot differently a lot sooner.

So it’s time to stop the insanity.

Step #1: Follow the 80/20 Rule

gary-vaynerchuk-quotesHave you ever noticed that you go to the gym and you do 12 different exercises and your progress is basically the same as when you did 10 exercises?

I started noticing that probably 5 years into my training.

The more exercises I added, I would up gaining little or nothing at all in mass gains.

I thought the opposite would happen.

Do more. Gain more.

Here’s the deal:

That isn’t necessarily the case in muscle gains.

The reality is a handful of exercises are what give us the most gains.

Only a few exercises give us the most progress.

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule?

The rule basically says that 80 percent of all results come from 20 percent of the effort.

For example, in a company, 20 percent of the employees are responsible for most of the work that is done.

In nature, 80 percent of vegetation comes from 20 percent of the seeds that are out there.

Well, in the gym and when it comes to gaining muscle or burning fat, 20 percent of exercises are responsible for giving you 80 percent of your results.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re spending your time doing mostly exercises that don’t provide the most muscle gains and work the most muscle fibers then you’re missing out.

You’re keeping yourself from gaining the most muscle.

You’re cheating yourself from achieving the body you deserve and coming close to your muscle building potential.

How many times have you done bicep curls and triceps extensions on arm days and gained very little.

Yet you did pull ups and bench presses and your arms got thicker over time.

bicep cable curl

Maybe you did leg extensions and didn’t see results.

But when you focused on doing squats and deadlifts your entire lower body began to see improvements.

Bottom line is not every exercise will give you the most bang for your buck.

In fact, only a handful of exercises will work more muscle fibers than others.

Now I’m not saying that exercises like bicep curls, triceps extensions or leg extensions are worthless.

Not at all.

These exercises have a time and a place.

They work but if you’re trying to maximize your gains by keeping things as simple as possible then you’ll get the most from only a handful of exercises.

Step #2: Use the Best Minimalist Exercises

power-cleanI have nothing against bicep curls. Matter of fact, I love them.

Just like I love doing cable flys for my chest.

But the truth is all I ever got from these exercises was a “pump.”

You know how that goes.

Your muscle looks fuller soon after doing these exercise and a day or two later your body looks like you haven’t even done a push up. Hard work and little gain.

I’ve learned that the best thing to do is to keep things simple.

It works for me. It will work for you too.

If you want to work the most muscle fibers and muscle groups the best option is using compound movements.

  • Bench Press
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Shoulder Press
  • Chin ups
  • Pull Ups
  • Barbell Rows
  • Power Cleans

These are the best exercises you want to include in your workouts.

You’re wondering why you don’t see bicep curls and triceps extensions.

Well, those muscles are being developed as secondary muscles in when you do other compound movements.

Ever seen a guy with skinny arms who can bench press 315 pounds?

Nope.

Or someone with no triceps development shoulder pressing 185 pounds or 225 pounds?

I haven’t.

Skinny legs and squatting over 400 pounds and deadlifting over 300 pounds?

Not gonna happen.

That’s because those muscle groups are being activated with heavy compound lifting.

Your triceps, for example, will adapt to heavy bench pressing by putting on mass.

Your chest and arms benefit.

Chin ups, pull ups and barbell rows will help you build a stronger back and you’ll also gain biceps.

Step #3: Train Less Days!

A few years ago I was looking for a way to shorten my workouts.

There was a lot of information out there.

You know how it goes.

Workout 5 days per week.

Then another program would talk about doing high rep and slow tempo workouts.

The next program would push for low rep workouts using dumbbells.

I guess nothing much has changed over the years.

There’s conflicting information.

But I came across a couple of different training programs that made things simple.

It was a simple back to basics approach.

I first stumbled on Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength while looking for information on proper techniques for performing a squat and a power clean.

As I looked deeper into the Starting Strength training philosophy a few things stood out:

  • Focus your training on a handful of exercises
  • Spend less days in the gym
  • Stick with lower reps and sets
  • Get stronger

Pretty simple advice.

Quite the shift from doing daily workouts and 10 reps or more for each set.

So how does that look like in a minimalist training program?

  • Focus your workouts on a handful of compound movements
  • Train 3 non consecutive days every week
  • Do 5 reps per set
  • Track your progress on a notepad

You don’t need to stack your training with a bunch of exercises.

Just use the exercises that work best for gaining muscle.

Stick to those exercises three times a week for low reps, get stronger and you’ll be ahead of the game.

ATTENTION HARDGAINERS!

If you’re a hardgainer and struggle to put on mass then a minimalist approach to your training will work for you.

Most hardgainers can’t tolerate long workouts with a bunch of exercises.

All this does is beat your body up and keep you from making gains.

This is why a simple 3 day workout plan works, especially for a hardgainer.

Your training schedule will be split in a way that allows rest and days off in between while keeping your training session focused on the exercises that work.

For most of us hardgainers, aka naturally skinny guys, the focus should be on getting stronger.

Not by doing more but by keeping things as simple as possible.

To keep things as simple, track your training sessions.

Unless you’re recording all of your workouts on a notepad chances are you will struggle to make noticeable gains.

Grab a pen and a small notepad and track how much you’re lifting for each exercise every single week.

Write down how much you’re lifting each week.

The goal is to lift heavier over time.

Writing things down will keep you on track and keeps you from winging it everytime you enter the gym.

You’ll be able to see how much you are lifting in each exercise.

So if you write down on your notepad that you are now squatting at 225 pounds, then you’ll simply bump up next week’s squat to 230 pounds.

It’s that simple.

Step #4: Use A Barbell As Much As Possible

minimalist-workout


Although you can train with dumbbells, machines, bodyweight and kettle bells or any type of equipment.

The best way to gain mass is by using barbells.

Is it possible to gain muscle with other types of equipment?

Of course.

But there are advantages to using barbells:

  • You can add weight beyond most machines
  • You’ll definitely go heavier than using dumbbells
  • It’s easier to keep good form than other free-weights
  • It’s a minimalist approach to training… all you need is one barbell

For an excellent example of what minimalist barbell training looks like, simply check out Strong lifts:

As you can see, one barbell can make a training session effective, simple and perfect for gaining strength.

Step #5: Design Your Own Minimalist Workout

A minimalist workout is going to require a very basic approach.

You’ll be doing an Upper Body/Lower Body split every time you train.

All you’ll need are 3 exercises each training session.

In order to keep things as basic and as effective as possible we’ll be doing exercises from the following list:

  • Squats
  • Bench Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Chin Ups
  • Pull Ups
  • Deadlifts
  • Power Cleans

Each session will start with Squats followed by an upper body exercise, either bench press or shoulder press and finish off with a solid exercise that trains your back and arms.

The next step is to choose the right number of sets and reps for each exercise.

Again, we’ll be keeping it simple.simplicity keep it simple

There’s no need to do a load of sets or reps.

The best thing to do is to work with the right number of sets and reps that build strength and muscle.

The best number of sets is 3 working sets.

First start by doing 3 warm up sets before doing your 3 working sets.

It’s in these working sets that you’ll go heavy and hard.

It’s in these sets that you’ll be building strength and gain muscle over time.

Rather than increasing the weight with each set, what you want to do instead is keep the same weight in each of these 3 working sets.

In order to make consistent gains over time, you’ll be increasing the weight only under the following conditions:

  1. You can do each set with the same weight
  2. You can do each set with excellent form
  3. You can do 5 reps per set

Once you can do the exercise under these conditions then you’ll be increasing the weight at the next training session.

Which leads us to the next part.

Step #6: Use 5 reps per set

Again, we are focusing on building strength and gaining muscle.

With an increase in strength you’ll get an increase in muscle.

5 reps is the magic number when it comes to building muscle.

I’ve talked about this before in previous posts here and here 

But it basically comes down to the following:

  1. A rep range of 1 to 5 reps creates muscle fiber growth or myofibrillar hypertrophy
  2. A rep range of 6 to 8 reps creates a combination of muscle growth and a pump
  3. Rep ranges above 8 reps create mostly a pump effect in your muscles or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy

(Here’s a breakdown of the number of reps for maximum hypertrophy)

how-many-reps-for-mass

Your goal here is to create muscle fiber growth.

Once you are able to complete 5 reps for all 3 working sets, it’s time to bump up the weight.

If you’re wondering how much you should increase the weight you’ll likely hear a number being thrown out like 10 pounds. 20 pounds.

Or the worst number… whatever feels comfortable.

But check this study out…

According to a study by Kraemer, Adams, Cafarelli, Dudley, Dooly, et al. (2002), the weight can be increased anywhere between 2%-10% once you can lift the target number of reps.

If you want to play it safe, just increase the weight by 5 pounds when it’s time to do so.

And if you’re worried that you’re only doing 2 or 3 reps per set because the weight is too heavy.

Don’t worry.

As long as you’ve been building up each training session and slowly making gains in strength you’ll be fine.

You’ll find out that as your body gets stronger, you’ll be able to do a rep or two more with each set.

Eventually, you’ll be able to do 3 sets of 5 reps and you’ll be able to bump the weight up again.

Plus, you’ll be seeing gains in muscle.

Step #7: Train 3 Days Per Week

minimalist-barbell-workoutOk, so training just a few days a week may sound like it’s too good to be true.

Is it possible to put on muscle with just 3 days per week?

It’s a simple answer: YES!

A study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology determined that training 2 or 3 times per week was enough to cause gains in strength.

Carroll, Abernethy, Logan, Barber and McEniery (1998) found that among this sample of subjects (N=17), the 1RM or 1 rep max increased over the course of 6 weeks in the 3 days per week group and 9 weeks for the 2 days per week group.

As you can see, if training for 2 or 3 days per week is perfect for gaining strength then maybe it’s time to give a minimalist approach a try.

Now it’s time to create your minimalist workout program.

To keep things as simple as possible we’ll do the following:

  • Train every other day (Monday/Wednesday/Friday)
  • Train with 3 exercises each day
  • Do 3 sets per exercise
  • Do 5 reps per set
  • Rest 3 to 5 minutes between sets
minimalist-bodybuilding
Minimalist Bodybuilding Program
Week A

Monday

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Bench Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Chin Ups (3 sets of 5 reps)

Wednesday

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Shoulder Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Deadlift (3 sets of 5 reps)

Friday

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Bench Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Pull Ups (3 sets of 5 reps)

Week B

Monday

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Shoulder Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Chin Ups (3 sets of 5 reps)

Wednesday 

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Bench Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Power Clean (3 sets of 5 reps)

Friday 

Squats (3 sets of 5 reps)

Bench Press (3 sets of 5 reps)

Pull Ups (3 sets of 5 reps)

As you can see, you’ll be going back and forth between these two workouts.

You’ll start with Week A then you’ll use Week B workout the following week.

Simply alternate back forth so it looks like this:

Week A/Week B/ Week A/ Week B and so on.

Step #8: Get Some Rest

Ok, now that you have your workout laid out and you’ve hit it hard there’s one last thing.

Rest!

There’s a reason why training less days per week works.

You train hard, stimulate the muscle and then give your body time to grow.

Resting isn’t just about sleeping.

Resting is all about taking necessary days off.

In this case you’re going to take 1 to 2 days off in between.

You’ll also be sleeping in order to give the body time to recover.

Rest can’t be downplayed.

Train too much or too often and you’ll have some setbacks.

But if you train a few days a week and relax on the days you have off, well then you’ll see results come quickly.

Conclusion

5 x 5 workoutThere’s many ways to get bigger, stronger and more athletic.

Minimalist workouts are not the only way to reach your goal of gaining muscle mass.

However, getting the body you want and deserve should not be complicated.

But I have found that for skinny guys (like me)… a simple, 3 days per week, 3 exercise simplistic approach allows for faster gains in strength and in muscle.

You’ll save time in the gym and get results faster than what you’ve seen before.

To your fitness,

Sam- Look Like An Athlete

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References:

Carroll, T., Abernethy, P., Logan, P., Barber, M., & McEniery, M. (1998). Resistance training frequency: Strength and myosin heavy chain responses to two and three bouts per week. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 78(3), 270-275.

Kraemer, W., Adams, K., Cafarelli, E., Dudley, G., Dooly, C., et al. (2002). American college of sports medicine position stand. progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(2), 364.