by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Some of my best gains in the gym have come during my busiest and most stressful times.
I distinctly remember hitting two big personal bests on the front squat and trap bar deadlift during finals week of my junior year of college. I had low expectations going in because for the three weeks prior, I'd been forced to pare down my program to the bare minimum because I was holed up reading and writing papers.
I'd gone from training 4-5 days a week to three. Workouts went from two hours down to 30-35 minutes tops, including warm-ups. There was no accessory work. No hitting the muscles from all angles. Just a few concentrated hard and heavy sets on the basics.
I wasn't sleeping much, or eating particularly well, and I wasn't obsessing at all about my workouts. In fact, except for the half-hour I spent in the gym, I wasn't thinking about lifting at all.
I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I'd managed to get stronger. Then the same thing happened again during midterms of my senior year, and that's when it dawned on me.
I was getting stronger because I wasn't obsessing about my workouts. I'd been spending too much time over-thinking and over-prioritizing the minutia.
Lifting is tricky because it's not that time consuming. It's not like video games or chess where you can do it all day every day because you'll quickly burn out. That leaves a lot of time unaccounted for to think about lifting – and that can be dangerous.
The more you think and the more you read, the more you start to mind-screw yourself and start worrying about the little things that don't really matter.
To that end, here's a template based around the premise of getting back to the basics. I'd recommend it for the following audiences:
- Those who've been sputtering with excessively complex programs and need to get out of their own heads.
- Those who are super busy and don't have much time to devote to the gym.
- Those coming off a high volume training phase that need to get stronger while giving the body a little break.
The beauty of the program lies in its simplicity. Don't get it twisted though; this is not a de-load and it's not meant to be easy. I call it the Power of Three.
The program consists of three workouts: A, B, and C. Try to spread them out over the course of the week with at least one day off in between. It doesn't matter if your workouts fall on the same days each week; just get them done.
Each workout will consist of three main exercises, one from each of the following categories: lower body, pull, and push.
The actual exercises should be different for each of the three workouts, but the categories stay the same throughout. That means you need to pick three lower body exercises, three pulling exercises, and three pushing exercises.
For each exercise category there will be a heavy day, a medium day, and a light day. So if you do heavy lower body one day, the next workout would be medium, then light, etc.
This way, you hit all the major muscle groups three times a week – giving you the benefit of increased frequency – yet you're modulating the intensity to avoid crushing yourself.
The weekly split looks like this:
Heavy Lower Body
Medium Lower Body
Light Lower Body
Note that heavy, medium, and light refers to the rep ranges and the weight, not the effort. Full effort is expected on everything.
The ideal reps per set will vary slightly depending on which exercises you choose, but in general:
Heavy = 3-6 reps
Medium = 6-9 reps
Light = 10-15 reps
The heavy exercise of the day will be done for six sets while the medium and light exercise each get three.
To save time, the entire workout will be performed as paired sets. I say "paired sets" rather than "supersets" because for many, a superset implies moving between exercises with no rest.
The primary goal here is strength, so I want you to rest – but I realize you're also busy and don't have time to sit around the gym.
With paired sets, you move back and forth between two different exercises, but you'll take as long as needed in between each set to fully recover.
The first three sets of the heavy exercise will be paired with three sets of the medium exercise, while the last three heavy sets will be paired with the light exercise.
Confused? Here's how it breaks down for Workout A as an example:
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Heavy Lower Body 3 3-6
A2 Medium Pull 3 6-9
B1 Heavy Lower Body (A1 continued) 3 3-6
B2 Light Push 3 10-15
Remember, you only get three exercises for each category for the entire week, so choose them wisely.
- For lower body, include at least one knee dominant (squat, lunge) and one hip dominant pattern (deadlift, hip thruster, etc.). In addition, include at least one bilateral and one unilateral exercise.
- For your pulling work, include at least one vertical pull (chin-up, pulldown) and one horizontal pull (row).
- For your push exercise, incorporate at least one vertical push (overhead press variation) and one horizontal push (bench press variation). Also, make one of your three selections a bodyweight movement (push-up, dip, etc.).
Picking the Right Exercises
I've provided you with some loose guidelines for exercises, but I've deliberately left most of the work up to you. Here's why:
There are no "best" exercises for everyone. We're all built differently, have a different injury history, and have access to different equipment, all of which play a role in determining which exercises are optimal.
You need a certain degree of autonomy. The best program is one that garners enthusiasm. If I give you a bunch of exercises that you hate, you're less likely to bust your balls – and without full-unbridled effort it just won't work, no matter how good the program looks on paper.
You should learn the principles of exercise selection. Being spoon fed a program won't benefit you long term. Those who prefer having everything laid out for them usually hop to the next new program in a week or two.
If you learn how to choose your own exercises effectively, however, you'll be able to take that and apply it to whatever program you decide on, both now and in the future. If you only get one thing from this article, I hope it's this.
Pick exercises based on your needs, not wants. Put another way, pick exercises that improve your weaknesses, not just ones you like doing. It's natural to like what you're best at, but you'll always be limited by your weaknesses. If you are really only as strong as your weakest link, then if you avoid what you suck at, you'll always suck. Don't suck.
That means if your posterior is comparatively weaker than your quads, you might want to pick two hip dominant movements for your lower body exercises and only one squatting or lunging variation.
Or if you have noticeable size and/or strength discrepancies between limbs, you may want to include more unilateral work. If you're especially bad at chin-ups, do more chin-ups. You get the idea.
Try to choose exercises that best match the intended rep range. Certain exercises are best suited to lower reps, while others tend to jive better in higher rep ranges.
Generally, your heavy exercises are best done with barbells while your moderate and light exercises may be better suited for dumbbells, kettlebells, rings, bodyweight, etc.
The one exception is your pulling work. I'm not a fan of low-rep barbell rows because form often deteriorates into something resembling a monkey humping a football. For your heavy pull, I'd rather have you do weighted chin-ups or dumbbell rows and save barbell rows or other rowing variations for moderate and light work.
Pick exercise pairings with the least amount of overlap possible. This is especially important when pairing a lower body exercise and a pull. For example, if you're deadlifting, avoid pairing it with rowing variations like barbell and T-bar rows that are also lower back intensive.
Also avoid pairing exercises that are highly grip-intensive, though this can be tricky when using deadlifting variations or single-leg work with heavy dumbbells. In those cases, you may need to use straps.
Here's a sample workout. This should give you an idea of the framework of the program, but feel free to plug in different exercises as you see fit.
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Deadlift 3 3-6
A2 Dumbbell row 3 6-9
B1 Deadlift 3 3-6
B2 Ring push-ups 3 10-15
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Bench press 3 3-6
A2 Front squat 3 6-9
B1 Bench press 3 3-6
B2 Inverted row (weighted if necessary) 3 10-15
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Chin-up (weighted if necessary) 3 3-6
A2 Alternating overhead dumbbell press (neutral grip) 3 6-9
B1 Chin-up 3 3-6
B2 Walking lunge 3 10-15
All sets listed are working sets only. Start off with a few warm up sets for your heavy and medium exercises before the first pairing. Before you start the second pairing, you may need to do one or two warm-up sets for your light exercise too, but since your body is already warmed up and the weight is light, you won't need much.
For each exercise, ramp up to a top set where you reach technical failure – the point where you can no longer complete another rep with good form. No sloppy reps, but push yourself.
Only the last set of each exercise should reach technical failure, but all work sets should still be relatively challenging. Start with about 75% of the weight you plan to use for your final set and ramp up from there.
For all unilateral work, rest 45-60 seconds between limbs. If you're pushing yourself like you should be, you'll need every last bit of it.
If you have some extra time and want to tack on some core and/or arm work, that's cool, just don't go overboard. It's not required.
Keep a logbook and try to increase each week. Your first choice should always be to increase the weight. However, if you fall short of the given rep range one week, maintain the weight and try to increase the reps back into the rep range, at which point you'll increase the weight the next time.
Don't make this overly complicated. There's no need for calculators or complex equations.
Your success (or lack thereof) with this template will hinge on two things: wise exercise selection, and brutal effort. I hope I've given you an idea of how to pick the best exercises to suit your needs. The effort part has to come from you.
Remember, there's a reason that the big and strong dudes are labeled "meatheads" and skinny guys are called "geeks." It doesn't take a whole lot of brainpower and fancy programming to get strong. What it does take is persistence, a tenacious work ethic, time, and a brass set of balls.
Get er' done!