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How To Easily Build Muscle and Burn Fat Like a Minimalist

4 hours/week is all you need.


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Shivendra Misra

3 years ago | 7 min read

When it comes to training in the gym, I’m a minimalist. Who has the time to spare an hour every day?

I know you too have a lot on your plate. We all have things to do. We have families to take care of, businesses to run, jobs to go to, and an endless list of skills to learn.

But there’s also a deep-rooted desire in all of us to look good. But even though you want it, you think you cannot have it.

“Where’s the time to think about building muscle?” you think.

But I’m here to tell you, that you can have it all.

You don’t need to hit the gym every day. You don’t need to hit your biceps from different angles. And you don’t need to listen to all the BS your gym bros tell you.

Let’s see how.

Understand the Philosophy Behind Minimalism

Minimalists are not people who try to get by with things that they can’t live without. In other words, it’s not about minimizing your possessions and processes for the sake of it.

It’s about consciously choosing only that which adds value and letting the extraneous go.

The best way to do that is to ask the focusing question, first given by Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing:

“What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The mere act of asking this question tells you that you can excel by focusing on a few key aspects of your life rather than juggle many balls in the air.

Applying the Focusing Question to Your Workouts

The focusing question is not a magic pill because asking the question itself is not as easy as it seems.

You need to frame it in intelligent ways to get the answers you need.

Let’s say your goal is to make a workout plan. By breaking it down, you realize that it requires you to train your shoulders, arms, legs, abs, chest, and back.

Now you can ask the focusing question for each part. For example,

“What’s the one exercise I can do to train my shoulders, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The answer for me is the Overhead Press.

Now, when you ask the same question for all these parts, you can make a list of fundamental movements:

  • Shoulders → Overhead Press
  • Arms → Chinups and Dips
  • Legs → Squats and Deadlifts
  • Chest → Bench Press
  • Back → Bent-over Row
  • Abs → Other movements already train your abs enough

I hope you see the benefit of the focusing question here.

You defined one movement per body part. By doing that, not only did all other movements became unnecessary but the abs took care of themselves.

From personal experience, there are immense benefits in choosing these moves:

  • Simplicity: No more looking for curls, and chest-flyes, or crunches.
  • Works many muscles: All these movements are multi-functional. The squat, for example, works on your stability, core strength, quads, and calves.
  • High ROT: These movements give the best return on time invested. You can only do 3–4 of such moves in a single workout which means you’re in and out in an hour. Also, since you’d need more time to recover, you go to the gym only 3–4 times a week without sacrificing gains.

Spending less time in the gym also pushes you to go for quality reps as opposed to volume. If done right (which I’ll talk about in a second) you can beat your friends who go to the gym 5–6x per week.

You can go a long way just focusing on pressing, squatting, deadlifting and chinning. Throw in some calf and ab work if it makes you feel better — Martin Berkhan, Founder, Leangains

Let’s Get Dirty

Now that you’ve chosen your moves, it’s time to practice them.

How?

Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT).

Before we begin, the complete credit for RPT goes to Martin Berkhan. I’ve learned a lot from him.

According to Martin, there are two reasons everyone loves RPT:

  • Time efficiency: If you can’t be in the gym for more than thrice a week, then you have to make every rep and every set count. RPT does just that. Every set is AMRAP — As Many Reps As Possible. By doing this, you increase the quality of your workouts which lets you get superior results in less time.
  • Have your cake and eat it too: It’s the best way to lose fat and maintain or build muscle at the same time. It’s better than doing winter-bulks and summer-cuts.

What is RPT?

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Most weightlifters follow a pyramid.

A typical pyramid starts with lower loads with higher reps, progressing to higher loads with lower reps — finishing with the heaviest set.

RPT reverses the flow. This is better because you get to lift the heaviest weight first. Saving the heaviest weight at the end, when you’re fatigued, is a recipe for injury and shitty results.

Sample Exercise Routine

Here’s what a week of RPT would look like.

Monday/Day 1

  • Deadlift — 2 x 6
  • Row or Overhead Press — 3 x 8
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps — 2 x 10

Wednesday/ Day 2

  • Bench press — 3 x 8
  • Row or Overhead Press — 3 x 8
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps — 2 x 10

Friday/ Day 3

  • Squat — 3 x 10
  • Weighted Chin-Up — 3 x 8
  • Accessory: Calves, biceps or triceps — 2 x 10

Start each day with a compound movement followed by accessories.

Sample RPT Workout

Now that you know the weekly plan, here’s how to practice each exercise:

  1. Warm-up: 2–5 sets at 40–67% of your first set x 3–6. Warm-up as much as you need. Some movements need more warmup than others.
  2. Goal: 8
  3. Breakdown: 10%
  • Set 1: 100 x 8
  • Set 2: 90 x 10
  • Set 3: 80 x 12

As you can see, with every set, the weight reduces by 5–10%, and the reps increase by 2.

RPT uses double progression. Every exercise has a goal — 8 in this case. The moment you cross 8 reps, you increase the weight across all three sets by 2.5kg or 5 lbs.

Let’s say you increased the weight by 2.5 kgs,

  • Set 1: 102.5 x 7
  • Set 2: 92.5 x 10
  • Set 3: 82.5 x 12

…but are not able to hit 8 reps in the first set.

Don’t worry.

Compare it with your previous workout. You’re now able to lift 2.5 kgs more in your 2nd and 3rd set. This means that you have improved, but the strength gains aren't enough to get to 8 reps in the first set.

At this point, keep lifting as usual. Once you’re at 10+ in set 2 and 12+ in set 3, it’s only a matter of time before you get 102.5 x 8 and can up the weight to 105.

The cycle then continues.

A Quick Note on AMRAP

Doing as many reps as possible is not the same as training to failure.

You must understand this.

I’ve made the mistake of training to failure — having the bar stuck on my chest during the bench press, shouting for help. Don’t embarrass yourself like me.

AMRAP means doing as many reps as possible with proper form and terminating the set when you doubt your ability to do more. Use your common sense.

You can also keep a spotter. But make sure your spotter understands to not help only until you cannot lift the weight back up. Don’t use the spotter to complete reps that you can’t do on your own.

For the Overachievers

If you want some extra gains and are willing to work a bit harder, here’s what Martin recommends and what I did too:

  • Add the 4th day: If you follow a Mon-Wed-Fri routine like me, you can add a fourth day on Saturday. Your workout should be like Wednesdays with a few differences — increase the goal by 2, and reduce loads by 5%.
  • Add more volume on Monday: Do some squats before your Monday deadlift. But since it’ll be followed by deadlifts don’t use RPT for these set of squats. Alternatively, you can do other concentration movements like leg curls and leg extensions towards the end of your Monday workout.

In my experience, when you add these two tips, you can feel a bit tired if you’re not resting optimally.

This can include the weight feeling heavier, joints making a ‘crack’ sound, reduced flexibility overall, etc. On such days, reduce the load by 15%.

Beware of the Naysayers

When I started practicing the RPT method with an increased focus on the fundamental moves, I was frowned upon in my gym.

No one spent as much time with the deadlift bar and the squat rack as me.

Trainers asked me why I wasn’t using the machines, or doing my set of crunches, or even worse, ‘feeling the burn’.

You will face the same criticism. Because this is not what 99% of the people are doing.

People will try to convince you that more is better. That you need to hit the gym every day. That you need ten different supplements. And that you need to buy the latest treadmill to lose weight.

All of that is to help the businesses, not to help you. The philosophy of more only serves the producer, not the consumer.

When you encounter such setbacks, say nothing. Don’t try to baptize them into your way of doing things. Maybe you can send this post to them and they can reach their own conclusions. (shameless plug, I know)

TL;DR

  • Follow ‘The One Thing’ minimalist approach to your workouts to get superior results in less time.
  • Focus on fundamental, multi-functional movements.
  • Use the Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) method to maximize the quality of your workouts
  • Use AMRAP with a mix of common sense.
  • Finally, you’ll meet people who’ll try to convince you with conventional, 6x per week programs. Listen to them at your own peril.

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Shivendra Misra

Get my new book, Bend Reality: Timeless Tools to Shift the Illusion of Reality, Reinvent Yourself and Master Life: bit.ly/30shivam


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