Don’t lose your gains when life gets crazy. Here’s how to make progress when your training has to be cut to a minimum.
It’s okay to occasionally tone down your training to either enjoy other parts of life or have the energy to face the challenges life throws at you. When it happens to me, I switch to what I call a “skeleton” program. It’s a minimum amount of training I can do to maintain my physique and strength and maybe even improve slightly.
Regardless of how I feel, I do my skeleton work. If I happen to have more energy and time, I add stuff to it. I feel secure knowing that if I do my skeleton program with the intent to progress, something good will happen.
Before I tell you how to build your own skeleton program, I’ll show you what I’m currently doing. After much consideration, I went with the following lifts:
I picked this over flat bench or military press simply because it hits more muscles more efficiently. The incline bench is just as good as the military press for the shoulders, maybe even better since you can add more load and it’s easier to perform.
Plus, it’s arguably better than the flat bench press for pec development. It’ll also hit the triceps as well as the bench press. Among pressing lifts, it gives you the most bang for your buck.
I prefer it over the traditional deadlift (for a minimalist plan) because it hits the quads a bit more. It’s also safer and technically easier to do than a normal deadlift. It’s a bit more efficient than a squat since it’ll hit the traps and upper back to a greater extent.
These are my two main skeleton program exercises, to which I can add either a row or a curl, staggered between sets of the incline press. More on that in the section on how to add exercises.
Sure, you can argue that these two exercises neglect biceps, lats, and maybe medial delts. But working hard exclusively on these two exercises can still deliver pretty good strength and development. And they’re likely a lot better than driving yourself into the floor by doing too much work during a stressful time when recovery capacity is crap.
Here’s the real secret: I do my skeleton program as frequently as possible, every day if I can. Heck, I’ve done it twice a day on some occasions.
Am I contradicting myself here? One of the reasons to switch to a skeleton program is to be able to keep training when recovery is poor and time is at a premium… yet I’m telling you to train every day?
Yes, but these sessions will only take 20-30 minutes. They can even be as short as 10-15 minutes, depending on how many sets you’ll be doing.
“But won’t I overtrain by doing the same lifts every day?”
At first, you might have a performance decrease on some days, but you’ll adapt. Heck, weightlifters snatch, clean and jerk, and squat 5-6 days a week. You can even learn something from the glute girls of Instagram who train glutes all the time, yet their backsides are overdeveloped, not overtrained.
Here’s a hypothetical question for you: If there was a bench press contest where the person who gained the most on his bench in a month would win a million dollars, how often would you bench? Probably 5-7 days a week, right? Not once or twice. But you’d do very little else so you’d be able to recover.
That’s the way I see the skeleton program. I don’t have the time, energy, or drive to do much. So I’ll focus on improving a few things as much as possible under those circumstances. Frequency is the key.
If my incline bench and trap bar deadlift go up by 20, 30, or even 40 pounds during my time on the skeleton program, I’ll have gained quality muscle in many places. And it won’t take long to fill in the gaps once regular training starts back up.
Why not rotate exercises every day? You can do that, but you’d lose the frequency benefit. When you can’t train a lot, it’s best to focus on bringing up just a couple of lifts as much as possible.
The number of sets and reps on the skeleton program can vary greatly depending on your goal and preferences. You can easily switch sets and reps daily if you want to, or include a regular rotation. The two “rules” I like to follow are:
- Get between 15 and 20 effective reps. This is sufficient to trigger significant growth
- Avoid high reps. Why? You want your skeleton program to be as efficient as possible. If you keep the reps at 8 or fewer, almost all of them will be heavy enough to provide size and strength gains.
Anywhere between 1 and 8 reps per set are fair game. If you want to prioritize strength, do more in the 1-3 range. If you want mostly muscle mass, go with 6-8 reps. Do 4-5 reps per set if you want to maximize both simultaneously.
I like to use a daily undulating periodization approach: the loading schemes change every day. Example:
- 1 x 5
- 1 x 4
- 1 x 3
- 1 x 2
- 1 x 1
- (15 total reps, 15 of which are effective reps)
- 3 x 6
- 18 total reps, around 15 of which are effective reps
- 1 x 3
- 1 x 2
- 1 x 1
- 1 x 3
- 1 x 2
- 1 x 1
- 1 x 3
- 1 x 2
- 1 x 1
- (18 total reps, 18 of which are effective reps)
- 3 x 8
- (24 total reps, around 15 of which are effective reps)
- Repeat cycle
The trend among the “evidence-based trainers” is to recommend three minutes of rest between sets on everything. The logic? Shorter rest periods will yield fewer strength and size gains because it decreases performance and the capacity to recruit fast-twitch fibers.
And studies do show that longer (three minutes vs. one minute) rest periods lead to more gains. BUT these studies either use beginners or people with little “serious” training experience. They likely have a lower tolerance for exercise, a smaller work capacity, and poor recovery after an effort. So it’s not surprising that they’d need longer rest periods.
But you can train to recover faster between sets. I’ve seen it in countless athletes I’ve trained specifically for that purpose, including football players needing the capacity to recover fast between plays and CrossFit competitors.
What happens is that when you do a set, especially of higher reps (which leads to the accumulation of lactate, hydrogen ions, etc.) your muscles, tendons, and fascia send messages to the nervous system that informs it about the high level of stress. It leads to an inhibition of force production.
But by gradually reducing rest periods, you can desensitize yourself to those signals. The metabolites are still there, but the body no longer sees the situation as “dangerous,” and less inhibition is created.
Bottom line? It’s fine to rest less than three minutes between sets as long as performance is maintained. If your performance doesn’t drop off after resting only 90 seconds, then your sets are not magically less effective.
Use performance as your guide to select rest periods. The less you can rest – without a decrease in performance – the more effective the training will be.
By all means, start at three minutes of rest between sets if you want, but gradually work your way down to 90 seconds, or even less, if performance is maintained. Remember, even if you build up a bit more central fatigue by using shorter rest periods, you don’t have lots of work to do on a skeleton program, so fatigue won’t build up enough to have a negative impact.
And if you’re at the point of using a skeleton program, you probably want to be in and out of the gym as fast as possible. Rest 90 seconds instead of three minutes and your skeleton workout might last 15-20 minutes.
When you’re in a phase of needing to do skeleton training, your focus (during the workouts) should be on doing your two lifts regardless of how you feel. But if you’re feeling good on that day, or if you have a bit more time, it’s perfectly fine to add a small amount of work.
Here are my three favorite strategies:
Add a pulling exercise after the two first movements. This one doesn’t have to use the same low-rep schemes as the other lifts. Usually, 6-8 reps are more effective for pulling/rowing movements than lower reps.
Stagger the minor work. Add a set of an isolation exercise between sets of the main lifts. Pick an exercise that won’t interfere with the main movement. Here are some examples for the two main lifts:
Staggered with incline bench (pick one per session): Biceps work, leg curl, leg extension, calves, rear delts, traps, lats in isolation (straight-arm pulldown or pullover), or abs.
Staggered with trap bar deadlift (pick one per session): Targeted triceps work, targeted pectoral work, targeted delt work. Do these for 6-10 reps per set.
Do an assistance circuit at the end. Here you could pick three targeted (single-joint) exercises, ideally for three different muscle groups, for a circuit with 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps per exercise. Rest minimally between exercises (30-60 seconds).
Remember, the additional work isn’t mandatory. Only do it when you’re feeling good and have time. Don’t force yourself. As long as you do the two main lifts hard, it’ll work.
One of the most impressive athletes I’ve worked with (bobsleigh guy) could only do 6-9 total work sets in a workout (2-3 sets of 2-3 exercises) if he wanted to recover and progress. And he turned out okay with a 425-pound bench press, 550-pound squat, and 365-pound power clean at a body weight of 181 pounds.
The point is, if you make good exercise choices and work hard, it’s possible to get very strong and muscular with minimal training. Maybe you don’t always want to use a minimalist approach, but when you’re in a training funk, your energy is low, or you don’t have much time, it’s a way to keep progressing until your situation and mental/physical state improves.