On the Hunt for a Minimalist Exercise Routine
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe not.
Maybe you have young kids, a marriage, a full-time job, and time constraints, but you want to spend some time each week exercising.
Maybe you don’t mind going to the gym, but you want to find a routine you can do at home. And maybe you’re on the hunt for a new routine, but you don’t want something that’s going to take hours each day.
You just want an exercise routine that’s simple. It doesn’t have to be flashy, but it certainly needs to work. It needs to be efficient and effective.
That’s exactly where I was about a year ago. I was getting a little bored with bodyweight-only workouts, and I was looking for something new I could do at home. That’s when I stumbled across kettlebell training, and found a routine that fit everything I was looking for.
What Exactly is a Minimalist Exercise Routine?
Before we get into the program, let me share some definitions.
While I don’t consider myself a true minimalist, my pursuit over the years of efficiency with exercise has led me down this minimalist journey as a skeptical but interested participant. Over the years I’ve constructed what I consider to be a minimalist home gym, and have pursued minimalist workouts with a learner’s appetite. So, here’s what I’ve learned about minimalism, especially as it pertains to exercise.
Minimalism with exercise is about reducing excess in your training and maximizing the utility of the essentials. Put another way, it’s about using simple equipment and a simple process to take care of your health. It’s about only using the materials you need, and making energy and programming decisions that maximize your training outcomes.
So, a minimalist exercise routine is a structured, thoughtful, and programmed implementation of efficient exercise strategies with simple equipment.
The Minimalist Exercise Routine That Works
Pavel Tsatsouline is considered to be one of the key influences in bringing kettlebells to the US. And when I started kettlebell training, I read as many of his books as I could.
His book and training program called “Simple and Sinister” is hands down the best minimalist exercise routine I have ever done. I will review his program and approach in this article, but I *strongly encourage you to purchase the book and study his training principles for yourself.
This is an affiliate link, and as an Amazon Associate, I do earn on qualifying purchases. But I cannot recommend this program enough. This $20 spend is a small purchase that will earn you a massive return. It’s a minimalist buy.
The Simple and Sinister Training Program
Pavel’s program uses only 2 exercises, and the workouts are just as simple. Each workout takes about 20-30 minutes. And here’s the program.
Most days during the week complete:
In terms of weekly sessions, it’s recommended to do absolutely no less than two sessions per week, but ideally almost every day (somewhere between four and six). When I did the program, I was following the routine about five to six times a week for about four months.
Depending on your current skill and strength level, you will start with either one 16kg kettlebell or one 24kg kettlebell. If you are new to kettlebell training or have questions on purchasing your first kettlebell, I put together this kettlebell buying guide to help you navigate through some of your initial questions. Kettlebells are a great training tool, but they can add up quickly in cost!
With this program, you will slowly but regularly mix in movements using a kettlebell at a higher weight, until you can achieve the Simple and then the Sinister standards.
The Simple Standard is met when you can use a 32kg kettlebell and complete 100 one-hand kettlebell swings in 5 minutes, take a 1-minute rest, and then complete 10 Kettlebell Turkish get-ups in 10 minutes.
The Sinister Standard is met when you can use a 48kg kettlebell and complete 100 one-hand kettlebell swings in 5 minutes, take a 1-minute rest, and then complete 10 Kettlebell Turkish get-ups in 10 minutes.
Don’t Be Fooled
When I first heard about Pavel’s program and started researching it, I honestly scoffed at it for being “too simple”. I mean, only two exercises? Just two? The same movements for months? And why the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up? No thrusters, cleans, snatches, or squats?
I remember the day I realized how brutal this program actually is. After weeks of trying to write my own minimalist exercise routine, I realized that more experienced trainers have already done this successfully. I went back to Pavel’s books, picked up Simple and Sinister, and ordered my 32kg kettlebell.
The day my 32kg kettlebell arrived, I tried to do one Turkish Get-Up with it. The amount of total body strength and control it took to maneuver that 32kg cannonball smoothly just once through the movement shocked me. As the Simple Standard requires 5 Get-Ups on both sides in under 10 minutes, I realized this program was way harder than I thought it would be.
My Experience Accomplishing the Simple Standard
I read Pavel’s book a few times, studied the principles, followed his training protocol, and about four months later I hit the Simple Standard with the 32kg kettlebell.
Here’s what I learned from that process.
This program requires patience
Without giving away all of Pavel’s secrets (again, I encourage you to buy the book), you should know that he does not rush anything. He employs step loading, which is a strength-building strategy that moves you up through heavier weights systematically over a long period of time, and in this case, several months.
To follow this program, I began with a 24kg kettlebell (as a side note, beginners will likely start with a 16kg; I had already been training with kettlebells for months). I added only a few reps each week with my 32kg kettlebell, stayed with that mixture for about a month, and then added a few more reps each week for the next month. And repeated that process, inching up, plateauing, then inching up again.
After about two weeks, I quickly realized that I had been conditioned for wanting quick results with my training. I wanted more reps with my 32kg bell than what the program had prescribed for me. I wanted to work my max weight and max reps every session. And I wanted fast results.
This program does a great job of forcing you to slow down and work through a long process. There are no hasty gains. It’s a diligent path towards gain (Proverbs 21:5). And it worked.
This program builds lasting strength
About three months into the program, something strange happened. The 32kg kettlebell didn’t feel as challenging on my Swings, nor as heavy on my Get-Ups. I started to be able to move through the daily training sessions without getting as winded.
I kept at the regular, rhythmic programming and continued to slowly mix in those weightier reps with the heavier bell. And before I knew it, the 32kg kettlebell felt light enough to where I decided I was ready for the Simple Standard.
But the remarkable thing is that months after following the program and finishing the Simple Standard, that 32kg still feels easier with my Swings and Get-Ups.
As a former rock climber, I remember how hard the days were after I returned to the climbing gym after taking just a week off. My fingers and forearms seemed like they had lost their maximum strength after they weren’t used in the same way for a short period of time.
Not so with this training program. On most days, even months after finishing the program, I can still pick up that 32kg bell and complete the Simple Standard. This phenomenon is called “owning the bell” and is a key principle in Pavel’s program. This minimalist exercise routine teaches you patient strength building so that once you hit the Standard, you really become strong.
This is a true minimalist exercise routine
This plays to the program’s strengths and weaknesses. This program only requires two exercises, it takes only 20-30 minutes, it can be done anywhere, and it actually works.
You will need to invest in kettlebells for the Simple Standard (16kg, 24kg, and 32kg), and then 40kg and 48kg if you want to get to the Sinister Standard. But the program only requires one kettlebell of each weight, and there are limitless possibilities with kettlebell training, even if you only have one 16kg, 24kg, and 32kg kettlebell.
The downside of a program like this is you are investing most of your workout time into just two exercises. Swings and Get-Ups are some of the absolute best exercises you can do, but this program does feel restrictive at times. What I ended up doing is adding a few sets of pull-ups and push-ups a few times a week after my sessions.
Onto the Sinister Standard
After finishing the Simple Standard, I took some months off from that program and started experimenting with Snatches, Squats, and Thrusters. I did this to change things up in my routine, but also to build strength with other kettlebell movements.
But now, I’m ready to simplify my routine once more and start working towards the Sinister Standard goal with the 48kg bell.
If you are looking for a minimalist exercise routine, I encourage you to pick up Pavel’s book and try working through the Simple and then to the Sinister Standard. Don’t be fooled by its perceived simplicity. It’s sinister as it comes.
*As always, it’s recommended to consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.
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- A Theology of Exercise: Work and Movement
- Modesty: Fitness Culture Has No Clothes
- The One Missing Ingredient from Your Fitness Goals
- The Last Kettlebell Buying Guide You May Ever Need
- My Year of Walking Barefoot
- 10 Minimalist Workouts You Can Do at Home
- Threats to the Glory of Young Men
- 3 Nutrition Choices to Win in the Margins
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