Minimalist Strength Training, Phase 1: Getting Ripped

by Justin Skycak on

Daily 20-30 minute bedroom workout with gymnastic rings hanging from pull-up bar -- just as much challenge as weights, but inexpensive and easily portable.

Throughout high school, I started each morning by going down to the basement to lift weights for an hour. But this routine fell apart as my schedule became more hectic during and after college. Six years later, after losing all my strength and muscle mass, I set out to recover it.

I had initially planned to get back on track once it was more convenient to do so – namely, once I had a house of my own and could set up a gym in the basement – but eventually I realized that wasn’t going to happen until much later in life, and that I needed a different solution.

Solution Requirements

While it wasn’t feasible to recreate the old environment that made it easy to a strength training routine (i.e. a basement gym), I wondered if I could identify the key factors that helped me keep a routine, and then create a new environment that remained feasible while retaining those key factors.

Here are the key factors I identified:

  • I was able to work out immediately after waking up, before doing anything else.
    • I don't like to do anything before working out. Not even commuting to the workout location.
    • Once I shower, my workout window is over, and there's zero chance that I'm going to exercise later in the day.
    • When I work out in the morning, there's no opportunity cost in terms of time productivity. If I don't work out, it takes me about half an hour to get over my morning grogginess, and even then I don't feel as awake as if I had worked out.

  • I didn't have to share the workout area with anyone else.
    • I find it hard to reach a state of mental flow in places when I have to coordinate with other people to share equipment, space, etc.

  • The weights were heavy enough to keep me challenged.
    • When I perform a set of an exercise, I want to be thoroughly exhausted at the end, to the point that I can't do another rep. And I want to reach this point within about 30-45 seconds of starting the exercise.


A feasible solution would need to retain those key factors while also satisfying the following constraints:

  • I no longer had much space -- a bedroom, and that's it. And there was no additional space outside.
  • Any equipment had to be lightweight, small, and easily portable. I was moving to a different place every year or two.
  • Any equipment had to be inexpensive. I spent nearly $1000 on my basement gym during high school, only to have to sell it later. I didn't want to spend more than $100 or so on this new setup.

Solution

Below is the thought process I went through to find a solution.

  • Q: Are there any athletes who are impressively muscular despite not lifting weights?
  • A: Yes. Gymnasts.

  • Q: What kind of exercises do these gymnasts do, that contribute to their muscularity?
  • A: Pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, high bar. There is also vault and jumps/flips (i.e. "floor"), but I think those are more about balance and explosiveness and don't contribute to muscularity so much as the other exercises.

  • Q: Which of these exercises are feasible, given my constraints?
  • A: You can hang a $30 pair of rings from a $30 pull-up bar and do all sorts of isometric holds and dynamic movements. Portable parallel bars can be found for under $100, but they are not tall enough to hang from, and they are not sturdy enough to remain planted on the ground during high-intensity movements. Pommel horses and high bars are big, heavy, and expensive.


After purchasing a pair of gymnastic rings and a pull-up bar, I created a basic routine to carry out every morning:

  1. Dips
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Handstand push-ups (against wall)
  4. Bent-arm planche
  5. Back lever
  6. Jump squats


I performed each exercise for 3 sets of as many reps as I could (or in the case of an isometric, as long as I could hold it). Each set took about 30-45 seconds to perform, and I rested for the same amount of time between sets. The total workout time came out to about 20-30 minutes.

With dips and pull-ups, I quickly reached a point where my own body weight did not provide enough resistance to fully tire me out within 45 seconds. To remedy this, I purchased a basic $20 set of resistance bands so that I could load an unlimited amount of additional resistance when performing dips. (I draped each resistance band across the back of my neck, like one would with a barbell during squats, and sandwiched each end between my hand and the ring.) With pull-ups, I managed to provide sufficient resistance by leaning side-to-side, focusing my body weight on one arm at a time.

Additionally, I generally did not bring my equipment with me during travels. Instead, I modified the routine as follows:

  1. Push-ups leaning side-to-side, focusing body weight on one arm at a time
  2. Pull-ups against a door (with a towel draped over the top for a comfortable grip)
  3. Handstand push-ups (against wall)
  4. Bent-arm planche on the floor
  5. Jump squats


Lastly, given that the goal was to put on muscle, I intentionally ate more than I was used to and drank a couple glasses of milk each day. While I didn’t monitor it too closely, I’d estimate that my protein intake was about 120 grams per day on average (0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight). But I also allowed myself to eat less at times when eating was not convenient (e.g. when traveling) or when I felt too full for a meal. I’d estimate that I had a caloric surplus 5 days per week, and a deficit the remaining 2 days – effectively a less extreme, higher-frequency version of bulk/cut cycles commonly used in bodybuilding.

Results

Success! Below is a physique transformation timelapse spanning 20 months. (Note: the Jan 2021 photo was taken a year earlier in Jan 2020, but I didn’t start this routine until 2021. I don’t have any other pictures of myself during 2020.)

icon


An additional benefit to this minimalist routine (that I hadn’t anticipated when designing it) is that I could do productive things between sets such as writing and responding to messages or cleaning my room. Within half an hour of waking up (or a full hour if I needed extra time to do things between sets), I was done exercising, done with some chores, fully awake, and ready to shower and move on to the main priorities of the day. Peak productivity.

Next Phase

In the next phase, I’ll modify this minimalist routine in an attempt to gain more mass. I expect that the workout will need to be made longer and more intense, and that I will have to increase and consistently maintain a caloric surplus.