For about 6 years most of my training occurred at the beach, multiple times a week. But I moved away from the beach last year, and with no good adult playground near me, I switched gears and started working out mostly at home because this was the only way that my training was going to stay consistent. (And you need to be real with yourself too: If the convenience of working out at home allows you to workout consistently, then it’s probably the best choice for you as well.)
I treated this change as a major opportunity to document my training and treat myself as an experiment. I narrowed my focus to only 1 or 2 major goals, which allowed me to easily log every workout and be extremely methodical with my training, to see how long it would take to reach certain goals. My current training plan is a bit more complex than what I am about to share, but this is the barebones version that is extremely effective. (By the way, I talk about this extensively in a recent interview.)
The Minimal Upper Body Workout Plan
This is an adaptation of Pavel Tsatsouline’s Fighter Pullup Program. This is the most simplest routine that I have found to be very effective! The structure is very light and perfect for doing it at home if you would like to rest for long periods while you do other things. But the most important point is that it’s extremely effective at increasing your strength and muscle mass in a very flexible manner!
Frequency: If you ignore the rest time between sets, the actual workout itself takes very little time itself, like 10-20 minutes only. The “catch” is that you should do this 4-5x/week. (e.g., Monday to Friday.) You could still progress if you underperform and do it only 3x a week (it’s better than nothing but not optimal) and on another week you might feel so good that you overperform and do 6 days in a row. All roads lead to Rome if you are consistent! The most important thing is you put the work in.
Rest Between Sets? Extremely flexible. You could rest as little as 2 minutes or as long as you want (even hours apart). The most important thing is you get the volume in (sets and reps) because volume is king. Nothing else matters. That’s what makes this so simple and stress free and thus, easier to stick to!
Step 1: Pick a Pulling and/or Pushing Exercise:
I recommend you start with just one pulling exercise (such as pullups). Then, if you are liking the program and are getting in the groove of things, add a pushing exercise. The reason I suggest you prioritize pulling work, such as pullups, is because it’s the most effective way to strengthen our upper back at home without weights, which helps us maintain proper posture and maintains good shoulder health because it counters the excessive sitting in our modern culture.
- Choose ONE Pulling Exercise such as…
- Choose ONE Pushing Exercise such as…
Step 2) Follow This Rep Scheme
Again, this is adapted from Pavel Tsastouline’s Fighter Program. It’s a simple descending rep scheme of 4 or 5 sets. The pattern is very easy to decipher. You’re just adding only one rep to only one set for each workout day. Write this out or print it out and put it somewhere visible in a high traffic area of your home. After you complete the sets and reps for the day, put a check mark next to it. I recommend you also write the date next to each workout day. If you want to add more info, add next to it the rate of perceived effort (RPE) from a scale of 1 to 10 for each workout day and any other notes on the side margins you wish to include. That will allow you to spot trends. (e.g., RPE stuck at 9 out of 10 might indicate it’s time for a rest day or deload week.)
- 3, 2, 1
- 3, 2, 2
- 3, 3, 2
- 4, 3, 2,
- 4, 3, 2, 1
- 4, 3, 2, 2
- 4, 3, 3, 2
- 4, 4, 3, 2
- 5, 4, 3, 2
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
- 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
- 5, 4, 4, 3, 2
- 5, 5, 4, 3, 2
- 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
- 6, 5, 4, 3, 3
- 6, 5, 4, 4, 3
- 6, 5, 5, 4, 3
- 6, 6, 5, 4, 3
- 7, 6, 5, 4, 3
- 7, 6, 5, 4, 4
- 7, 6, 5, 5, 4
- 7, 6, 6, 5, 4
- 7, 7, 6, 5, 4
- 8, 7, 6, 5, 4
- 8, 7, 6, 5, 5
- 8, 7, 6, 6, 5
- 8, 7, 7, 6, 5
- 8, 8, 7, 6, 5
- 9, 8, 7, 6, 5
- 9, 8, 7, 6, 6
- 9, 8, 7, 7, 6
- 9, 8, 8, 7, 6
- 9, 9, 8, 7, 6
- 10, 9, 8, 7, 6
- At this point you could keep increasing the reps or switch to a harder progression exercise.
- If you want to continue and get to 15 reps then switch to adding two reps like this…
- 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4
- 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 6
- 15, 12, 10, 8, 8, 6
- 15, 12, 10, 10, 8, 6
- 15, 12, 12, 10, 8, 6
- Again, at this point you should switch to a harder progression exercise.
Which # of reps to start at?
It’s quite simple: The first set should be a number that’s slightly less than your maximum ability. So for example, if you could do a maximum of 5 pullups before your form breaks down, then you should start with any of the days that start with 4reps, such as 4, 3, 2, 1 for the first day. Volume builds up fast so start with a very conservative (low) number.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve worked on the exercise and you feel rusty and you want to be on the safe side, start with an even lower number! If you start with too many reps, your body will struggle to recover from it in just 24 hours. Think Rabbit vs. Turtle. The turtle wins. If you are too run down to do the next days workout, then either do the same # of reps as before or regress back a little. You may have to tinker with finding the sweet spot for the first week but then it’s all auto-pilot!
Note: If you’re doing both pullups and pushups, they will have their own independent reps. (e.g., You may be doing 4,3,2,1 pullups but 10,9,8,7,6 pushups!)
If you’re doing pullups and pushups together, alternate them.
So you’d do one set of pullups and one set of pushup back and forth until you’ve done 5 sets of each exercise.
What if you can’t complete the # of reps that day?
Maybe rest for a day or 2 and then repeat it again. If you’ve been at it for over 4 weeks, you may need to just take a deload week off and then get back into it mega refreshed.
What if I get to 10+ reps of something? What do I do after?
Move onto a harder progression exercise! If you’re unsure what direction to go, leave a comment below telling me your situation and I’ll help steer you in the right direction!
What about lower body?
If you want to keep it short and simple, you could choose one pulling exercise and one lower body exercise if you prefer to do something like squats. I recommend split squats, especially if you have some dumbbells at home. Personally I mainly train my legs during cardio (hiking, bicycling, running/sprinting, skiing in the winter, sports like soccer and so on).
What about other things? Like flexibility, mobility, cardio, yoga?
With such a simple, minimal routine, even after 5 sets, you shouldn’t feel too tired and because it’s so minimal, progression is a lot more clear-cut because there aren’t other exercises that are cutting into your recovery. As a result, you could totally do anything else like cardio or take a yoga class on any day of the week of your choice!
But I don’t have a pullup bar at home!
No excuses for this one. Get a doorway pullup bar like the one pictured above. If you don’t trust your door frame, then install this pull up bar that gets screwed in between your frame and it’ll be super solid. It is of my strong opinion that every household needs a place to hang from for optimal health, and a nice space to lay down on the floor to stretch and relax. If you don’t want to screw anything in any door or hang a bar from any door, then maybe the pull up mate is right for you.
And that’s it! If you have any comments or questions, leave a comment below! Remember to keep a log and everytime you look back at it you will be amazed at how far you’ve come in such little time! The key here is to stick to it! The numbers increasing rapidly should be quite motivating! If you have any comments or questions, please leave a comment below!