Fundamentals: Keep it Simple

Reg Park - seen here in his 50s - built ALL of his muscle by keeping it simple!

What follows might be slightly rambling (hey, it’s my blog so I can ramble however much I want).  So… I sat down at my computer this morning to crank out - or at least attempt to crank out - my second installment on “Sets and Reps”, a follow-up to my “Frequency” Fundamentals post from a few months ago, when I said to myself, “ya’ know, CS” (I always talk to myself in my mind in the third person for some damn reason) “I think you jumped the gun a little bit.  Maybe you need to just tell everyone to keep it simple, and stop trying to be so complex, before you get into the varying nuances of sets and reps.”

Now, why did I tell myself this?  A couple of reasons.

First, it started with a co-worker of mine who wanted to know about “sets and reps” himself.  He has been going to the gym for several months, and, of course, not making the best progress because he has been attempting to “go it alone” instead of listening to my advice.  (By the way, “going it alone” isn’t such a bad thing when it comes to crappy-ass commercial gyms, especially places that generally make me throw up in my mouth a little, such as Planet Fitness.  If you’re going it alone at PF, or other incredibly god-awful “fitness” establishments, at least that’s better than using one of their “personal trainers” - or, really if I’m honest, almost any personal trainer at any gym.  You have just about as much of a chance to catch Bigfoot in a trek to the Pacific Northwest as you do of finding a good personal trainer.  I’m not saying it ain’t gonna happen, but you have better chances - here I go again! - of getting eaten by a Great White shark or struck by lightning as you do of finding a good personal trainer in this country.)  Okay, okay, I digress, but, anyway, my co-worker decided to finally read some of my articles.  Which is a good idea, or so I thought, until he came into my office, plopped down in my faux-leather seat next to my office desk, and asked, “How many different ways are there to do 5x5 workouts?”

“Whadda’ ya’ mean?” I replied, unsure exactly where he was going with this one.

“I mean, you write about ‘straight’ 5x5 workouts, and then ‘ramp’ 5x5 workouts.  And then I got on some T-Nation site, and found - I swear - 10 other ways that the 5x5 workout can be utilized.  You got wave sets, and drop sets, and ‘straight’ sets where you do at least 5 sets working up to the 5x5, which kind of seems like that’s 10 sets to me…”

“Okay,” I said.  “Stop right there.  I see the problem.  You’re getting off the path instead of just keeping it basic and simple.”  I then proceeded to tell him much of the same stuff you’re about to read in this post.  Which we will get to shortly.

Second, I was at the local dojang where I train now on most Tuesdays and Thursdays during the week.  The man who runs the place - maybe I’ll discuss more about him in future posts, but he’s exactly what Stephen A. Smith would call a “bad man” - is a black belt in Tae Kwo Do, Tang Soo Do, and Hapkido, in addition to being a heck of kickboxer.  I’m a 4th degree black belt in Okinawan Karate-Do, and not a bad kung-fu practitioner to boot.  Which made for one very confused newcomer the other day during one of the kickboxing classes.  The grandmaster demonstrated some techniques, followed by myself.  The young man who is the newcomer said, “Which one should I learn?”  To which Grandmaster replied, “Just stick with the raw basics.  And they’re really no different whether it’s Korean or Okinawan or Chinese martial arts.”  When he was finished with that little bit of wisdom, he raised his voice for the whole class, and said loudly, “Simplify, simplify, simplify! Learn a few moves and perfect them!  Get faster, get stronger, improve your timing, your rhythm, and your footwork!  Everything else is just icing on the cake, but don’t ever confuse the icing for the cake itself!”

And thirdly (and finally), I have been doing a LOT of martial arts training lately, way more than I’ve probably done in the last ten years, to be honest.  But all of my increased martial arts work, and the conditioning that goes along with it, meant that I really had to sparse down my “weighted” workouts.  Funny thing happened, though: the simple workouts (only two or three movements per workout, and only five or six total lifts all week) lead to even better results than before I radically increased my martial arts work.

All of which (finally, you’re probably thinking) leads us to the title of this post, and the very thing I told my co-worker, which is essentially the very thing my Grandmaster told our class: keep it simple!  Or, in the way I always heard it growing up: keep it simple, stupid!  But nowadays I guess you just can’t go around calling people “stupid”.  

Keep in mind: simple doesn’t mean easy.  That’s the first thing most lifters (or martial artists, for that matter) need to understand.  Simple doesn’t mean it lacks complexity.  (I think Pavel Tstatsouline once referred to this notion as “simplexity”.)  The more you stick with, and practice, the basics, the more you realize just how “complex” the basics actually are.  If you don’t believe me, then stick with nothing but squats, deadlifts, power cleans, bench presses, and overhead presses for the next two months.  But really focus on perfecting your technique.  If you do exactly this, you will discover just how complex such a “simple” two months worth of training can truly be.

WIth the simplexity of this way of training (and thinking) out of the way, let’s get down to some practical tips.  These are the exact same tips I gave my confused co-worker before he left my office.

First things first: focus on the “Big Four”.  I don’t care whether you train every single day of the week, or only twice per week.  I don’t care whether you train full-body or split your training into a six-day, six-bodypart split.  I don’t care whether you train just one lift per day or 12 lifts per day.  None of that matters compared to this: each and every week, you should be:

  1. Squatting something heavy in some way (overhead squats, front squats, back squats; doesn’t matter)

  2. Picking up heavy weights (or rocks or sandbags or large dogs or small sheep or whatever) off the floor

  3. Pressing heavy weights over head

  4. Dragging or carrying heavy weights (or rocks or sandbags; oh, hell, you know the drill) for either distance or time, or a combination of both.

I talk a lot about training with a lot of different people, most who want advice, whether it’s the guy who wants to be “buff” or “big” or the gal that wants to look “hot”.  And almost to a “tee”, I can tell you that none of them are doing all four of those things.  In fact, far too many trainees do absolutely none of the Big Four.  If I’m lucky, and I’m talking to someone fairly well-built, he or she does two of these, but rare is the lifter that does three of them every week, and almost unknown is the lifter that does all four.

The sets and rep schemes, the frequency, etc. - none of those things matter nearly as much as doing the above 4 things on a weekly basis.  For example, here are a couple example training programs:

Program One: 

Monday: Squats - 5 sets of 5 reps

Tuesday: Overhead Presses - 5 sets of 5 reps

Wednesday: Deadlifts - 5 sets of 5 reps

Thursday: Bench Presses - 5 sets of 5 reps

Friday: Power Cleans - 5 sets of 5 reps, followed by Farmers’ Walks for distance

Saturday and Sunday: Rest, eat a lot of food, drink a lot of beer

Program Two:

Monday: Squats - 2 sets of 20 reps

Dumbbell Deadlifts - 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Presses - 1 set of 15 reps (each arm)

Barbell Curls - 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Thursday: Barbell Deadlifts - 2 sets of 20 reps

Sled Drags: 2 sets to near failure for distance

Barbell Bench Presses - 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Farmers Walks - 2 sets for time

Just so you’re not confused about sets and reps with the first program, I could truly care less how the hell you get your 5 sets of 5 reps.  You could do 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, you could do 5 straight sets of 5 reps with a weight that you can handle for 8 reps; it just doesn’t matter “how” you do it but that you “do” it!

With the 2nd program, do one or two warm-up sets, then work your 2 working sets of each exercise to failure or damn close.  In other words, it's a brief program, so it must be worked hard.

Here are some additional ideas that will help you “keep it simple”:

  • Try implementing the “two-barbell rule”.  Start each workout with two barbell exercises.  Could be squats and deadlifts.  It could be power cleans and stiff-legged deadlifts.  It could be bench presses and barbell rows. It could be hang cleans and standing behind-the-neck presses.  Once again, you get the point.

  • Stick with full-body workouts.  Seriously, you don’t need “split” workouts ever! I mean, don’t get me wrong, you can do split workouts all you want, but you definitely don’t need it.

  • If you want “speed and power”, or if you want to be as strong as possible, then stay the hell away from “bodybuilding” style workouts.  I once wrote in “Ironman Magazine” back in the ‘90s that bodybuilding “ruined strength training in America.”  I’m pretty sure that I got more hate mail from that one article than all of my other articles combined.  But I stand by it.  In other words, don’t do a lot of “repetition” training or “split workouts.”  You need to do multiple sets of really low reps.  This could be a lot of sets of really heavy weights, or it could be multiple sets of 2 or 3 reps for pure speed.  It could be Olympic-style lifting.  It could be “strongman”-style workouts.  All of those are fantastic for speed, strength, and power.  But none of them are bodybuilding workouts.

For now, that’s it!  Next time on “Fundamentals” perhaps I will discuss more about simplicity, or perhaps I will get back to “Sets and Reps.”

Until then, train hard as hell and keep it incredibly simple!


  1. Why not include pullups as one of the most basic exercises? Was thinking to a lesser extent hanging leg raises and dips.... But then might as well add a million more

  2. What about rests? I always thought really simple: 0-5 reps 3 min, 6-10 reps 2 min, 11-15 1 min. Finally, 2 programs above could be weeks A and B.....

  3. Chino,

    First off, you're right about the fact that there a "million" different exercises you COULD do, but I ALWAYS emphasize the need to pick stuff off the ground, put stuff overhead, squat stuff, and drag or carry weights for distance. Pull ups, dips, leg raises - none of that fits the bill. They are "good" exercises, but if you're not squatting, pulling, overhead pressing, and carrying heavy objects, you're limiting your progress.

    Also, it depends on what your goals are. AND I think a lot of martial artists (as an example) enjoy doing bodyweight exercises because they are "good" at them (they have a similar "training style" to the martial arts). But you should always try to do the stuff that you're NOT good at, and martial artists would benefit greatly from ditching their push ups, pull ups, and dips, and doing the BIG FOUR above.

    As to your second question, if you read a lot of my articles and posts, you'll quickly discover the answer. I almost NEVER recommend rests between sets, other than telling lifters to wait until they have "recovered their oxygen debt" before doing the next set. Rest between sets is a VERY individual thing. Be wary of ANY trainer who is adamant about rests between sets (or even worse, training tempo). As a GUIDELINE for MOST lifters, what you recommend above is pretty good, and probably a good place for most lifters to start.

    And, finally, yes, the two programs above could easily be Weeks A and B programs.

    Hope this helps. If you have any other questions, let me know.


    1. Awesome. I once heard that a martial artist needs to be able to lift at least 2.5-2x their body weight ( doesn't seem to matter the specific exercise is long as it moves) to really be successful assuming skill sets and conditioning are somewhat similar. Other than artist that dabble in CrossFit with a large emphasis on the endurance component I seldom come across a martial artist who really wants to touch a heavy weight or even moderate weight, even to do one or two basic bar exercises once or twice a week. I love to be in great cardio shape for a sparring and especially grappling match however sometimes you need to move a heavy object on demand and if you're strength is not there, it's just not there. You are a good man and thank you for your contribution to the physical and spiritual health of all of us

  4. Thank you, Chino. Your words are too kind.

    One of my goals on this blog is to get martial artists interested in hard, heavy weight training. So spread the message to any martial artists you know or train with!


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