Recently I finished Essentialism by Greg McKeown. It’s about the “disciplined pursuit of less.” In summary, it’s a way to identify the things that are important (essential), recognize things that aren’t, and maximize time and energy in only those important things.

Less, but better.

Many of its principles can be applied to daily life, like:

  • What’s the most critical project that needs attention today?
  • What am I losing (or better, gaining) by saying “No” to this particular event?
  • What obstacle is preventing my success, and how do I remove it?

It’s principles can easily be applied to program design: the strategic planning of your workouts to drive the results you’re looking for.

There’s a reason why the “big, bad” exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, and chin-ups have stood the test of time: They Work.  Often we get caught up in the crazy new fads that appeal to our goldfish-like attention spans.  As soon as the shiny new object appears, we overlook the things that were working before.

But what if we took an essentialist’s approach to our program design? We would ask questions like:

  • What is absolutely necessary to make the most progress? What are the essential exercises?
  • What do I gain by not saying “yes” to every shiny new variation on the old version of this exercise?
  • What’s keeping me from making progress in the gym? Is it time? Facebook/Instagram? Focus?

    Doing a little bit of everything is a sure-fire way to make little or no progress. Focus your efforts on the essentials only, and you’ll find much greater success

Imagine you have only 15 minutes to train every day. I use the word “train” here because it’s not about today. Exercise is just something we do for the moment, with no context relative to the last moment or the next moment coming.

“Training” however is different. Training implies the long haul: how today’s training session will help us tomorrow. And the next day. Next week; and next year.

We’re in this for the long haul.

So I ask again: if you have only 15 minutes to train, what do you do?

The answer is probably not bicep curls. While every guy wants them and thinks every girl likes them, they don’t do much for us other than pump our ego.

Chin-ups however build a bullet-proof back and big biceps.

We’re probably not going to do crunches in the squat rack. Abs are better made in the kitchen anyway. We can squat in the squat rack.

Want a good butt? Same thing: while you can do every single hip kick-back thingamajig, strong (and good looking) glutes are made with squats and deadlifts.

Shoulders and arms? We’re back to push-ups, overhead presses, and chin-ups.

There’s a pattern here. With only 15 minutes to train, suddenly that time becomes precious. We put down Instagram and Facebook, get our shit together and start making magic happen.

The Essentials:
Squat
Deadlifts
Presses (push-ups, overhead, etc.)
Chin-ups/Pull-ups
Rows
Weighted carries/planks/other core work

The Non-Essentials:
Bicep Curls
Tricep Kickbacks
Lateral Raises
Leg Extensions
Leg Curls
Crunches

I’m not bashing any of these exercises. They all have their place in a comprehensive program (albeit a small place). But remember, we only have 15 minutes to train.

Building your program:

Obviously I’m advocating for big exercises that cover lots of muscle mass. If pumping biceps was all you needed to get fit, every pimple-popping high school student would look like that wolf guy on that vampire love story movie.

  1. Write your program based on this approach: what can you do in 15 minutes?
  2. Start with the essentials: squats, deadlifts, presses, chin-ups, rows, and planks.
  3. Fill in the gaps

Going forward, what essentials would you add if you had 30 minutes to train? 45 minutes?

Keep doing this and you’ll find out quick what activities are worth your time and which ones are not. And just because you have 90 minutes to train every day doesn’t mean you have to fill that time with activity.

Maybe all you really need is 30-45 minutes of hard, dedicated work.

Work out smarter and utilize your time wisely. I promise you’ll achieve better results!

Andy Van Grinsven

About Andy Van Grinsven

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