The Skeleton Program: 2 Lifts, 20 Minutes, Every Day

Do the Bare Minimum, Still Make Progress

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.


The Two-Lift Solution For When Life Gets Crazy

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.

My Skeleton Program

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:

EXERCISE 1: INCLINE BENCH PRESS

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.

EXERCISE 2: TRAP BAR DEADLIFT

deadlifts-which-type-is-best-for-you

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.

Training Frequency: Every Damn Day (Mostly)

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.

Sets and Reps

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:

  1. Get between 15 and 20 effective reps. This is sufficient to trigger significant growth
  2. 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:

DAY 1

  • 1 x 5
  • 1 x 4
  • 1 x 3
  • 1 x 2
  • 1 x 1
  • (15 total reps, 15 of which are effective reps)

DAY 2

  • 3 x 6
  • 18 total reps, around 15 of which are effective reps

DAY 3

  • 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)

DAY 4

  • 3 x 8
  • (24 total reps, around 15 of which are effective reps)

DAY 5

  • Repeat cycle

Rest Between Sets

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.

I Feel Good Today and Have More Time, Can I Do More?

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:

OPTION 1

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.

OPTION 2

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.

OPTION 3

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.

Work Hard Often, But Don’t Work Long

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.

15 Likes

nice minimalist program–thanks for sharing,Coach

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This is great advice too for the aging lifter. Thanks.

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I do similiar a few times a year, like now, a few more work sets, a couple more minutes rest, just 2 exercises, 3 if add crunches, Im not sure if because im 55, I do it only 2-3 days a week personally. If I was young and motivated I could see 5 (or using light weights)

I absolutely love this!

As a full time massage therapist, this may work for me.

Would you suggest rotating the two skeleton exercises every four weeks?

Example:

weeks 1-4
Deadlift
Incline press

Weeks 5-9
Thrust
Chest supported row

Adding single exercises as energy allows…

Do I have the concept right?

Etc

Thank you, Coach!

This looks exactly like what I need right now. It gives my training structure and gets me training daily, but doesn’t require me to max out every tiny aspect of recovery to make it work. It also requires minimal thinking and because of other commitments I’m not in the right frame of mind to plan a training phase.

If I want to add weight vest walks, and some more intense conditioning every few days, how do I go about it?

Adding them post workout is not a good option, mTor, AMPK etc. Would I do them as a second workout on days when time and energy allows, or would I be better doing them every 3-4 days instead of lifting?

Thank you for your time, Coach!

Actually, the AMPK/mTOR inhibition angle is WAY overplayed and is based on animal models. Unless we are talking about a true endurance session (like running 8-10km+) I really would not worry about that, especially not with the weighted vest walks.

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Not really, the goal is to be able to cover most of the body to some extent with 2 exercises. A thrust and and row neglects too many muscles.

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Thank you, Coach!

This info has made things SO much easier for future programming.

Any phase or cycle I have planned that wasn’t pure strength and mass but involved conditioning beyond walking or short vest walking, the hardest part was always where do I put the conditioning.

Thank you!

I get it!

I don’t have a trap bar. Which would be better:,stiff leg or Romanian in this scheme?

@Shoshanarose13

It’s just my 2 cents, but I’d say in that case conventional or snatch grip is best.

Based on the article, the trap bar is used because it involves the quads more than conventional deads, plus it brings in the upper back more.

If you do RDL or SLDL, you basically minimise quad work, therefore defeating the purpose.

Personally, I’d go with conventional or snatch grip DLs in your situation, if there is no injury that prevents you using those variations.

I see.

I’m limited w equipment. I have barbell and plates. Nothing fancy.

Perhaps I’ll do something stupid in between sets for quads, like wall squat?

It could definitely be used as one of your targeted accessories, but in itself I don’t think it’d make up for the stimulation of a DL or Snatch Grip DL.

Combined with it, it could work pretty well.

Coach, this looks like a brilliant repeatable program.
I’ve been following your various 2-lift (Reeves TrapBar Deadlift and Flat Bench)/20-minute concepts on and off for a number of years as I can easily do these lifts at my home gym.

I’ve recently moved onto an Upper/Lower split at a full-blown facility almost exclusively using Hammer-Strength machines to give my joints a rest.

Day 1 - Upper Compounds/Med stress + Session 2 - 3 x 8 or 12 Bench
Day 2 - Lower Compounds/Med stress + Session 2 - 3 x 8 or 12 Reeves TrapBar Deadlift
Day 3 - Upper Isolations/Low stress + Arms
Day 4 - Lower Isolations/Low stress + Abs
Repeat

How can I best plugin this skeleton program into my upper-lower routine, if appropriate?

I was thinking:
Day 1: 5/4/3/2/1
Day 2: 1/2/3 Strength ladders
Day 3: 3 x 6
Day 4: 3 x 8

Looks great for when you’re short on time and energy.

What RPE would you shoot for with this? Presumably you’d still leave a rep our 2 in the tank, particularly if you are doing the programme because looking for lower stress alternative.

Here’s the thing: I can give you a theoretical answer. And even in the programs that I sell, I do include an RPE recommendation most of the time. But the reality is that most people are bad at estimating if they are 1, 2,3 or even 4 reps short of failure.

My recommendations would thus only be as good as your '“skill” to determine where you are in a set.

My theoretical answer would be 1 to 2 reps short of failure, in most cases. However MOST people (even those who swear that they are good at evaluating their RIR) will be 3 or 4 reps short when they think that they are 1-2 short.

2 Likes

You can’t.

The skeleton program is not about the sets/reps scheme.

It’s about doing 2 exercises per workout and doing those same exercises, with different loading schemes, a often as possible.

Your plan literally has none of these elements.

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I dig this idea. I’m a truck driver (new career that just started a month ago), and I’ve been looking for a way to keep lifting besides only on the weekends.

Do you think this program will work with only calisthenics? If so, which exercises do you suggest?

Thanks

You could use a similar approach with calisthenics, but it wouldn’t work exactly the same way.

Sure, if you take chin-ups and handstand push-ups, they are hard enough for most people to use a low-mid rep scheme and get something out of it.

For squats, not so much, except if you can find something to load them with, or maybe have a weight vest. But even that, a 40kg vest which heavy for a vest, will not be heavy enough for a low rep squat session.

However, while on the road, there is absolutely no downside in my opinion in keeping up with what you can and doing military PT style calisthenics daily, even twice a day. Doing repeated sets of BW squats, push-ups, chin-ups with higher reps, like 20-10-5 for 10sets, and with added weight for lower reps if available, will at least keep your body able and ready for when you have a gym available.

You could even do PT when there is no gym, and if you come across one on the road do a Skeleton session.

Maybe not be as effective for raw strength and size, but rest assured you are also unlikely to lose muscle doing this.

what tempo /speed/ of the reps you recommend ? are using ‘strech reflex’ will work ?
im trying to reduce my cns burnout from every day workout / i/m 55 y. old /