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A Minimalist Approach to Exercise for Time Poor High Achievers

As with most things in life, the benefits of exercise adhere to the 80/20 rule – the Pareto Principle.

20% of your customers take up 80% of your time.

80% of a business’ income comes from 20% of a business’ products.

80% of a country’s wealth is in the hands of 20% of the people.

20% of your enjoyment comes from 80% of your possessions.

Your wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time.

80% of the time, you’re eating just 20% of your total variety of food – which incidentally, is a great way to make small changes to your nutrition that have a big impact.

The numbers might not be exact, but the premise is sound. 20% of one thing can cause 80% of the outcome.

Exercise is no different.

And in a society where productivity and hustle are heroed, the most valuable resource at our disposal is not money, but time. And although we can leverage our use of time, it is, ultimately, finite.

All too often, the vast benefits of exercise to our physical and mental health, and indeed to our ability to be productive, take a back seat to the allure of the ‘hustle’.

And this is understandable. Cognitively, it makes sense that more time spent working hard will reap more rewards. It’s hardwired into our psyche. We perceive a need to increase the time working on the things that will give us the fastest possible route to our goals.

And yet. Exercise is important. You know that. But this knowledge alone isn’t enough.

And it isn’t enough, because even though you know it to be important, that awareness doesn’t seem to actually be driving you to prioritise exercise. The mistake health professionals often make is in trying to convince you to exercise more, even when you don’t believe you can sacrifice the time that you should be spending pursuing your career goals. Effectively, they’re trying to change your value system. And changing your core values is an insurmountable task.

So what’s a better approach? What’s an approach that works? Instead of changing your core values, they need to meet you where you are. ACCEPT that you’re a highly driven (possibly type A) high achiever, and design a way of exercising that works regardless of your considerable time constraints.

What you need, is a minimalist approach to exercise.

A style of exercise programming that trims away the fat, metaphorically speaking, and focusses on the exercises and methodologies that give you the highest possible return on your investment. A style of programming that uses 20% of the possible exercise strategy, to deliver you 80% of the results.

So what would that exercise program entail?

What is the minimalist guide to exercise?

Our first priority is consistency. This rates far higher than the types of exercise you do, how long you exercise for, the intensity at which you exercise, how many times per week you exercise, or any other variable. So the first point to ensure, is that whatever the program is that you choose to follow, it’s easy to stick with – even on those weeks where you’re working 25 hour days. If you can’t maintain your program in the long run, lower the barrier to entry by making it easier.

Once we’ve got a template that you’re certain you can stick with, we can look at how many sessions a week you should be doing. And here, we’ve got a law of diminishing returns. If you do no exercise, the benefits you’re elicit from that exercise are of course, zero. If you exercise just once a week, the benefits sky-rocket. Exercise twice a week, and you get another big jump in benefit, but no where near as big as the jump from zero to one. Add another session, another increase in benefit, but less of an increase as you got from going from once a week to twice a week. And se we get diminishing returns. Increased benefit with every bout of exercise you add, but less of an increase than you’d have got from the previous increase.

So while more is better, and exercise every day would be great, it’s absolutely not realistic for everyone. And it’s worth revisiting our overriding priority – consistency. What’s the greatest number of sessions you can consistently maintain, even in a bad week?

Because we’re discussing a minimalist approach to exercise, we’re going to set your target number of exercise sessions per week at three. A big increase in benefit from two, but not much less benefit than four. A session every two days is also a great strategy, because research shows that after a session of intense exercise (and we’ll talk about exercise intensity soon), your metabolic rate (all the chemical reactions going on inside your body) is higher for up to 38 hours. So a session every two days results in your body’s engine ‘revving’ higher (this is a good thing) for about 70% of the week.

But again, if you don’t believe you can consistently commit to three times a week, drop it to two. Still too much? Drop to once. ‘Something’ is infinitely better than ‘nothing’.

So, you’re exercising three times a week.

What exercises should you be doing?

We need to build our training around heavy, compound, resistance based exercise. Lifting weights. Compound exercises refer to movements that use as many muscles and joints as possible. Using big groups of muscles burn big bits of energy. Maximal return on investment. Contrast this with ‘isolation’ exercise (which uses only one joint and one muscle at a time), and you can see that compound movements are a more efficient way to get more benefit in less time – a minimalist approach.

You should choose at least one exercise from each of the following categories:

  • Squat (front squat, back squat, overhead squat, squat clean, squat snatch, lunge).
  • Hip Hinge (deadlift, sumo deadlift, trap bar deadlift, power clean, power snatch).
  • Upper Body Pressing (bench press, overhead press variations, dip, push-up).
  • Upper Body Pulling (pull-up, bench pull).

Select a combination of exercises that involve lifting an external weight (a barbell will give you the best bang for your buck) such as squats, deadlifts and bench press and those that require you to lift your own body weight, such as pull-ups and dips. If you find dips and pull-ups easy, add weight.

Sometimes, use a very heavy weight for low reps (over 80% of your max for 1-5 reps), sometimes a moderate weight for moderate reps (50-70% of your max for 6-12 reps), and sometimes, use a lighter weight for higher reps (30-50% of your max for 20+ reps). For true minimalism, hedge your bets by focusing on the middle variation.

These movements will train strength and power, while increasing lean muscle mass and creating an environment to reduce body fat and optimise body composition.

Traditionally, the cardiovascular benefits of training have been achieved by doing ‘cardio’ – running, rowing, cycling, swimming etc. If we’re looking for minimalism, there’s no need for separate ‘cardio’ training. Instead, we can move quickly between the exercises we’ve already covered. By cycling rapidly between exercises that fall in to the squat, hip hinge, upper body pressing and upper body pulling categories, we create a ‘blood shunting’ effect, where we redistribute blood to different areas of the body. This places a strong demand on the cardiorespiratory and pulmonary systems – achieving the benefits of cardio training while still getting the benefits of strength training.

Intensity is an important variable. As we know, time is an issue, and a resource we’re looking to protect. Training time and training intensity are inversely related – the longer we train for, the lower the intensity. The higher the intensity, the less time we can last. Not only is high intensity more time efficient, it also unlocks an extensive range of further benefits. Just 15 minutes of cycling through these resistance-based compound movements has a massive effect. To squeeze out even more intensity, follow the guidelines we’ve discussed, but do them while interval training – intersperse periods of high intensity work with periods of rest. The increased intensity that can be achieved by shorter work periods will further maximise the benefits.

Of course, variety is important, though sometimes too many options can give us a ‘paradox of choice’ or ‘analysis paralysis’ – where the need to make a decision can actually be a barrier to entry. If you’re someone who craves variety, stick with the above guidelines, but focus on more variance of movements, reps, weights and time structures. Variety is preferable – it creates a wider range of benefits to your body. But if you prefer more routine, that’s fine too, just stick with the guidelines we’ve discussed.

Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated.

Do heavy, compound, resistance training. Use movements from each of the four categories, and cycle between them at high intensity. Do this consistently.

With just 20% of the options, you can achieve 80% of the results. And with how far reaching the benefits of exercise are, 80% is a great outcome.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams

Founder/Director

Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.