Minimum Viable Fitness Guide Part 3: Highly Effective Workouts for Busy People

Philosophy

99% of people are doing too much. Do the minimum with highly effective workouts.

Part 3: Minimum Viable Training

While there will be several routines that you can choose from, depending on your level of expertise, they won't be available until closer to launch date so that I can get a better sense of everyone's skill level. In this guide, I will instead explain the basis behind any MVF routines.


The most important thing you can do between now and the start of class is learn the correct form on barbell squats, barbell deadlifts, and dumbbell bench presses.


If you are in Manhattan, Julie, Kasra, or myself will gladly schedule time to take any of you to the gym as our guest and show you.


MVF--Strength training, not cardio


The entirety of MVF revolves around strength training, not cardio. That means lifting (relatively) heavy weights.

I am insistent, in fact, that you do not do any form of cardio to start out.

Here's why: while cardio may be great for heart health, general health, etc., it has horrible return on time.

One study showed that a it took an average of 35 hours of cardio to lose 1 lb of fat. Further support can be found in a meta-analysis, a "study of studies" examining the relationship between cardio and weight loss. The researchers conclude "Our results show that isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy in these [overweight and obese populations]."

In many people, especially the beginner, cardio will exacerbate hunger (beyond the amount of calories that you burn) and increase the pain of dieting.

But shouldn't I still be doing cardio for overall health?

Recall that I said that in learning to love fitness and become intrinsically motivated, you will undergo what I call the "rewiring of the brain." Part of that rewiring is realizing that while some activities seem "healthy" (I don't think anyone would ever call cardio unhealthy) that does not automatically mean they should be part of your regimen.

More important than whether or not an activity is healthy is how it fits into the big picture. What impact does that activity have on your limited resources of time, money, and willpower? How does the activity affect your overall fitness feedback loop?

Cardio, for example, may take time away from activities like sleep (if you do it in the morning before work) or strength training if you have little time to exercise. It's not uncommon for cardio to cause a level of hunger that makes you want to consume more calories than you burned. These are all detrimental, and surprisingly common, examples of cardio negatively impacting fitness motivation.

There is also a very important psychological benefit from shifting your energies towards weight training and away from cardio.

After a weekend of bad eating or indulging in a Thanksgiving meal, pounding on the treadmill's pavement is often "payment" for your actions; exercise is an acute caloric expenditure.

This creates a certain mentality around exercise--people think of it as paying off a credit card bill.

Strength training, however, gets you to think of exercise in a different light.

Strength training builds muscle, which increases your ability to burn calories both through a higher resting metabolism and the ability to lift heavier weights. Add the fact that you'll be simultaneously plain ol' looking better naked, and suddenly exercise serves a very different purpose.

Rather than "paying off a credit card bill," exercise now becomes slowly paying for a house. You are building an asset, not punishing yourself for an expense.

You can see how this has tremendous psychological benefit. It doesn't end there.

Most of you will probably have a day where you derail from your diet and eat everything, including the kitchen sink. Old you would have wanted to pay your dues on the treadmill. But from a physiological perspective, strength training does something very different.

If you are training using MVF methods (i.e. lifting relatively heavy things), that overconsumption of calories actually helps build additional muscle, thereby further increasing your ability to burn calories.

You might feel stronger and more energized at the gym in the following days. Most importantly, you'll mentally beat yourself up less for indulging in food.

In other words, strength training dampens the negative impact of screwing up on your diet from a physiological perspective. All of these things contribute to the rewiring of your brain that will get you to love exercise.

The shift from cardio to strength will teach you an important lesson, for cardio is representative of many things in fitness.

What might be healthy in isolation may be unhealthy in the grand scheme of things. Is something like cardio truly healthy in the scheme of your own fitness if it decreases your adherence and prevents an important mental shift around exercise?

Therefore, judging something's "healthiness" cannot be done in isolation. It is different from person to person. It depends on your physiology, psychology, environment, and lifestyle. The converse is true as well: things normally deemed as "unhealthy" in isolation may be healthier in the large scheme of things. (Alcohol can be one of these things.)

As someone who's been in the trenches of startup life, I am making the call that cardio is not conducive to your lifestyle...right now. At least not until this important mental shift is made and you can see that you can be successful without cardio. If you truly enjoy running and have copious amounts of time, you can add it back later.

The greater point is that you cannot think in black and white, healthy or unhealthy. That's the only way to experience enlightenment and the "rewiring of the brain."

Strength Training


Strength training provides three main benefits.


1. How good you look naked is dependent on your body fat percentage.


Body fat percentage = body fat mass / total mass (total mass is body fat mass + lean mass)


The lower your body fat percentage, the better you will look naked. Strength training increases lean mass, i.e. the size of your muscles. As lean mass increases, your body fat percentage will go down--provided, of course, you don't gain much fat along with it.


Let's translate this into something visual. Muscle resides beneath your subcutaneous fat. As those muscles grow and your fat mass stays constant, you will actually get leaner because your skin and fat are spread across a larger surface area.


2. Building muscle increases your BMR (basal metabolic rate), the amount of calories that you burn if you were to stay in bed all day. This is a novel effect; it means that you are now burning more calories doing nothing. In addition, you'll be able to lift heavier weights, which leads to even more burned calories. As a personal example, my "maintenance calories," the amount of calories that I need every day to maintain the same weight, has gone from 2,100 to 2,800 calories per day.


3. Strength training, especially heavy strength training, increases your body's insulin sensitivity. An increase in insulin sensitivity also increases your body's nutrient partitioning ability.


This means that your body will utilize its own stored fat for fuel while shuttling the nutrients that you consume towards muscle repair and replenishment. This also means that we can get away with eating large quantities of foods that would have otherwise encouraged fat storage.


As busy professionals, this widens our food options and leads to greater success.


Unfortunately, when most people think of building strength, they assume you need to follow programs from magazines. They also use worthless heuristics to gauge whether or not they had a good workout: how much they sweat, how sore their muscles are the next day, etc.


This is why most people are unsuccessful when it comes to building muscle; they spend hours doing useless shit at the gym--shit that they think is working because of how they feel the next day.


I'm going to share with you two exercise truisms that took me nearly a decade to realize. They will allow you to improve ten times faster than the average beginner.


1. The only thing that truly matters to building muscle is progressive overload.


On this program, that means doing more weights or reps than you did the previous week. That's it. Not "how sore you are," "how much you worked your abs," or "how exhausted you were at the end of your workout."


Focusing on hitting new "personal records" means that you can build muscle at a rapid pace with only a few hours every week.


2. You can grow every single muscle group with only a handful of exercises.


These exercises are squats, bench press, deadlift, rows, and chin-ups. These will work every body part. In fact, if you focus on these lifts, additional isolation sets like curls actually yield very little additional benefit. These exercises are also better for your abs than any crunch variation.


Your strength routine should therefore be one that incorporates these two truisms. Here, you'll find the routine that I've found to be the absolute best in terms of ROI on time. These are my own variations on Martin Berkhan's Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) system and have been used with great success.


Additional routines will become available before the class starts.

Training Program

Workout Scheduling


Your workouts will be spaced every other day, with at least one day of rest in between. Your full week should look like this:


Monday - Back day

Tuesday - Rest Day

Wednesday - Chest day

Thursday - Rest Day

Friday - Leg day


You can shift exercise days forward and backward, but stick to the scheduling guidelines below the exercise. For example, if you accidentally miss your Wednesday chest day workout, complete it on Thursday.


Exercise Day A - Back Day


There should be at least seven days since the last time you completed your last Exercise Day A and at least three days since you last completed Exercise Day C.


"Easy Mode"


Dumbbell Deadlifts -

Set 1: 8-12 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10%* from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Lat pulldowns -

Set 1: 8-12 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set

Set 3: Lower the weight 10% from set 2... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Dumbbell rows -

Set 1: 15-20 reps

Set 2: 15-20 reps (same weight)


Standing barbell (ez-bar) curl -

This is one large "rest-pause set." Do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can until you feel like you cannot finish another full rep. Record the total number of reps. The total number of reps should be in the 15-20 range.


"Normal Mode"


Barbell Deadlifts -

Set 1: 4-6 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Chin ups (either assisted or weighted, palms facing you, shoulder width apart) -

Note: The "weight" that you record should be the total weight with either assistance or additional weight. If you are 180 lbs and are using 20 lbs on the assistance machine, then the "weight" is 160 lbs. Similarly if you are adding 20 lbs to your body, then the "weight" is 200 lbs.


Set 1: 6-8 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 2... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Barbell Rows -

Set 1: 8-12 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Standing barbell (ez-bar) curl -

This is one large "rest-pause set." Do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can until you feel like you cannot finish another full rep. Record the total number of reps. The total number of reps should be in the 15-20 range.


Exercise Day B - Chest Day


There should be at least seven days since the last time you completed your last Exercise Day B.


Same exercises for both "Easy Mode" and "Normal Mode"


Dumbbell bench press -

Set 1: 6-10 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from the total* and get at least 1 more rep above set 1

Set 3: Lower the weight 10% from the total* and get at least 1 more rep above set 2


Incline dumbbell bench press -

Set 1: 8-12 reps (use the weight from your third set of dumbbell bench press)

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from the total* and get at least 1 more rep above set 1


Overhead Two-hand Triceps Press -

This is one large "rest-pause set" Do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can... count to 20... do as many reps as you can. Record the total amount of reps. The total amount of reps should be in the 15-20 range.


Exercise Day C - Leg Day


This should be at least four  days after Exercise Day A and seven days since you last did Exercise Day C.


"Easy Mode"


Machine Leg Press

Set 1: 8-12 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set


Goblet squats

Set 1: 8-12 reps

Set 2: 20 reps (otherwise known as a "widowmaker"). Use a relatively light weight here to start out, about 60% of your set 1's weight


Dumbbell stiff legged deadlifts

Set 1: 12-15 reps

Set 2: 10-15 reps (same weight)


Crunches or Weighted Crunches

Set 1: Until failure (15+ reps)


"Normal Mode"

Barbell Squats

Set 1: 6-8 reps

Set 2: Lower the weight 10% from Set 1... aim for at least one more rep than previous set

Set 3: 20 reps (otherwise known as a "widowmaker"). Use a relatively light weight here to start out, about 60% of your Set 1's weight.


Barbell Stiff-legged deadlifts

Set 1: 12-15 reps

Set 2: 10-15 reps (same weight)


Cable crunches

Set 1: Until failure (15+ reps)



Training Instructions


Weights and Reps


With each exercise description, I've included a range of reps ("repetitions") that you should aim for. For example, Dumbbell Bench Press prescribes a rep range of 6-10. If you can do more reps than the prescribed rep range (8 in this example) then you need to increase the weight. If you can't do the minimum with good form, then you need to decrease the weight.


Figuring out how much weight to start with


Beginners might have no clue what weight to start with at first. If that's the case, start as light as possible (10-15 lbs for dumbbell exercises, only the bar for barbell exercises) and complete 2-3 reps.


If you felt absolutely no difficulty, increase the weight and try again until it starts to get more difficult. When you feel a bit of difficulty on the third rep, then stop. Increase the weight once more and take a two-minute rest. Now you're going to start your first "working set." (The first set that actually counts.)


Complete your set until you cannot do another full rep. You may accidentally overshoot or undershoot your rep range. If that's the case, just adjust the weight accordingly for next week and keep following the instructions for this week.


It is mandatory that you record your sets.


I'll repeat this again because it's that important. Recording your sets is not optional. If you do not record your sets and attempt to improve each time, then you might very well be spinning your wheels.


Rest time in between sets


As a rule of thumb, you should take as much time as you need so that the previous set does not cut into your next set's performance. For heavy compound exercises (squat, bench, deadlift... usually the first one in your routine), this is four to five minutes. For other exercises, this is three to four minutes. This may seem like a lot if you're not used to high intensity strength training, but if you are lifting with the correct intensity, then you will need this amount of rest.


How to progress on this program


Every week, you will strive to hit a new personal record (also known as a PR) for each exercise. This means either increasing the number of reps in a set or increasing the weight.


Determining whether to increase weight or reps


If you hit the top of your rep range for a particular exercise, then increase the weight the following week. If you are still well within the rep range, then attempt to hit more reps the following week.


Determining how much to increase the weight


When you hit the top of your rep range, it's time to move the weight up. A good amount to move up is 5% for barbell exercises or the next heavier dumbbell group for dumbbell exercises. Beginners may find themselves moving up much faster than this, so it may take some feeling around.


Reverse Pyramid Training Progression


We will be doing a Reverse Pyramid Training scheme (RPT), which includes a "top set" (the first set will be the heaviest in that exercise) and "back off sets" (subsequent sets will be lighter in that exercise). For each set, you should stop when you absolutely cannot perform one more full rep.


That means that you should not end on a "partial rep"; doing so means that you went to "absolute failure," which will tax your nervous system and recovery. It may be difficult for a beginner to gauge when a rep is their "last full rep," but you'll get better at figuring this out over time.


You should prioritize set PRs in the order that they appear in your workout. For example, always try to hit a PR on your first set. If you cannot hit a PR on your first set, then try to hit it on your second set. If you cannot hit a PR on your second set, then try to hit it on your third set and so on.


Warmups


Before your very first "working set" (the set in which you aim to increase), you'll want to warm up. Warming up helps to "prime" your body so that you're prepared for the heavy weight of your first working set. Let's say you are attempting to goblet squat at 40 lbs.


The worst thing that you can do is immediately start with that weight, as it will feel relatively heavy. Your first set will feel much easier if you try to goblet squat 25 lbs first... then 30 lbs... followed by your working set of 40 lbs.


I recommend warming up with the following scheme:


Warmup set 1 - 60% of your top working set - 5 reps... 2 mins rest

Warmup set 2 - 75% of your top working set - 3 reps... 2 mins rest

Warmup set 3 - 85% of your top working set - 1-2 reps... 3-4 mins rest


You only need to warm up the first time you are working a body part for the day. After you're finished warming up for your first set, you don't need to warm up for any subsequent exercises.


Trainees vary in their need to warm up, so you may need to adjust the scheme above. Just remember the following: the purpose of your warmup sets should be to maximize the output of your first working set. For this reason, your warm ups should not be taxing in the slightest. Warm ups should help you acclimate to the weight of your working sets. If they are not achieving that purpose, then you need to adjust.


Part 1: Minimum Viable Fitness

Part 2: Minimum Viable Nutrition

Part 4: MVF Guide to Drinking Alcohol

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