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What exercises would be in a complete, but minimalist, general fitness workout? This would include strength, conditioning, and mobility. I am looking for the quickest workout using the fewest, simplest exercises.

I expect that it will focus on exercises that activate a lot of different muscles.

Any equipment necessary should be minimal as well, but anything--kettlebells, barbells, bodyweight exercises--is valid.

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Are we talking least equipment or least # of movements. Barbell makes a big difference. –  masonk Dec 10 '12 at 2:15
    
From the question it seems it only targets body weight exercises, but I am not sure which constraints minimalist puts on the workout. I think after all the question is too vague to be reasonably answered. –  Baarn Dec 10 '12 at 6:59
    
@Informaficker: Agree. I mean pull-ups and push-ups work all the main upper body muscles to some extend, but maybe not enough to force certain adaptations. If OP's only goal is to work all muscles somehow, I would go for pull-ups, push-ups and squats. –  zero-divisor Dec 10 '12 at 10:51
    
@zero-divisor But then you could ask why push ups and not dips?. I am only exaggerating of course, but what I am trying to say is that there is no way to reliably answer this question in its current form. –  Baarn Dec 10 '12 at 11:00
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Like @DaveLiepmann said: its closed for now, but if you can add some more information, so it isn't overly broad, it can easily be reopened –  Ivo Flipse Dec 10 '12 at 22:51
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5 Answers 5

What is minimal? We can minimize equipment, we can minimize time, but to determine the minimal exercises we need to know more about who is asking the question. Someone who is morbidly obese with emphysema would have a minimum workout of "walk to the end of the driveway every day". An Olympic athlete might have ten workouts a week just to keep from regressing. My point: fitness is relative to a specific task for a specific person, so minimal needs vary widely.

So, here are some variations on the theme of minimalism.

The Luddite Workout

When we talk about minimal exercise programming, the first thing to go is all the equipment. It may not be optimal to eschew dumbbells, barbells, squat racks, bumper plates, kettlebells, benches, rings, pull-up bars and everything else, but it's certainly possible. Most dedicated people can get quite fit and strong with nothing but their own body. So out the window the equipment goes, if we're looking for "minimal". We assume only the use of your own body and the world around you.

So what are the most productive exercises to do with just one's nude body and gravity? Well, I wouldn't omit running and sprinting, push-up progressions (from on-the-knees negatives all the way to explosive triple-clapping push-ups and one-armed push-ups), pull-ups and chin-ups if you can find a tree branch or convenient ledge, handstands and flips and other gymnastics, squat progressions (from holding onto a pole to do a third-world squat all the way to jumping single-leg squats for height and distance) and dips if you see fit to allow a pair of sturdy chairs into your arsenal.

Of that list, I would say that there is no "must-have" exercise. If you want to do all upper-body strength work and leave out all the running and squatting, that could work. If you want to just run, that will work too. But optimally I would do at least the following:

  • something fast that makes you winded, like sprinting or picking up or carrying random heavy things (e.g. tires or logs)
  • something to make your legs strong, like single-leg (pistol) squats and jumping
  • some upper-body pulling, like chin-ups
  • some upper-body pushing, like handstand push-ups or dips

Notice that most lists of bodyweight exercises very quickly start using at least some equipment. But technically you don't need a pull-up bar or chairs for dips; it just really helps.

Bodyweight Workout Resources: I am partial to Coach Sommer's Building the Gymnastic Body book (here's a summary article), though I've heard that the prolific and inventive Ross Enamait's Never Gymless is good, and that Convict Conditioning is pretty good (book, summary image).

Best Return On Investment

For the best results in a minimum amount of time, barbells can't be beat, particularly for strength. A user on MetaFilter distills strength training down to this minimal program:

A: Squat 3x5, (Overhead) Press 3x5

B: Deadlift 1x5, Bench (Press) 3x5

That's probably the simplest, most minimal full-body routine you can do and still cover all the bases. You should be able to do it in 30 minutes or less. Do it 3 times a week, alternating A and B each workout. Do a few lighter warmup sets first, then do all your work sets at the same weight. Rest 3-5 minutes between work sets. Start with a weight you know you can accomplish and add a little bit every time.

As described, it requires a barbell, some plates, a bench, and preferably a squat rack. (Technically, one could clean the weight to a front squat, but that requires at least one additional skill.) Personally I would substitute pull-ups or dips for bench press, which would allow the use of more readily-accessible chairs or pull-up bar instead of a weight bench, and remove the danger of doing bench presses without a spotter. Taken as a template, this program could take many forms, such as:

This hits the same major movements: squatting in the recovery of the clean, pressing (overhead), "deadlifting" in the clean, and pulling in the chin-ups.

I'd say that such a program would be plenty for a basic level of strength. To get to fitness, I'd add a little running (say, half a mile or less, as fast as possible) or other form of cardio, or do the clean-and-presses as a complex. Address any mobility or flexibility issues that arise from the workout program as described. That's it. Strength, conditioning, mobility.

Barbell Training Resources: the best introduction to barbell strength training I've yet read is Rippetoe & Kilgore's Starting Strength (book, unaffiliated and mostly-correct wiki summary).

Minimal Equipment (But Not Bodyweight-Only)

If getting a barbell and squat rack seems too costly, but you want the rapid return-on-investment that external loads provide for resistance exercise, I'd buy one kettlebell, as heavy as you can safely handle. This should be between twenty-five and fifty pounds for untrained adult men and women. That plus a pull-up bar or gymnastic rings allows for tremendous external resistance (though not as much as with barbells).

With this kettlebell-plus-pull-up-apparatus setup, one could do pull-ups, goblet squats, kettlebell-style swings, clean, and snatches, as well as overhead presses, Turkish get-ups, and with some practice, single-leg (pistol) squats, eventually with the kettlebell. That's a heck of a lot of strength and conditioning potential.

The bare essentials of that list would be some form of squat (goblet or pistol), plus some form of press (overhead, or a Turkish get-up), plus either swings, cleans, or snatches. They can be combined with rests for maximal strength or as a complex for strength and conditioning.

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Do you feel that just rings would be enough? Pull-ups/muscle-ups for pulling, pushups/dips for pressing and pistols for the legs? V-ups can be added for extra core work. (Rings instead of just bar as they allow a worthwhile pressing movement) –  VPeric Dec 13 '12 at 11:15
    
@VPeric As HerrKaput says, nothing is irreplaceable. I think that the lower body, particularly the posterior chain, needs an external load to create meaningful resistance. Hip extension via KB swings/cleans/snatches provides it. I also found that unweighted pistols very quickly became like push-ups: strengthy, but also endurancey. But as gymnasts and the BarStarzz show, one can get impressively strong and capable (particularly in the upper body) with just a pull-up bar and no more. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 13 '12 at 14:07
    
I really like this one. For the Luddite workout, I wanted to mention a few things specifically. The Tabata protocol for sprints is proven effective for hypertrophy and conditioning (8 repetitions of sprint 20s, rest 10 seconds). A great high intensity conditioning workout is AMRAP (as many repititions as possible) burpees, for somewhere between 5-15 minutes. Finally, there are several arm balances from the floor which can build upper body strength & total body flexibility without weights. "Crow pose", "Scale pose" and "Firefly pose" are good ones. –  masonk Dec 13 '12 at 17:09
    
@masonk Your comment is about 75% of an upvote-worthy answer :) I recommend creating it! –  Dave Liepmann Dec 13 '12 at 17:16
    
@DaveLiepmann Yeah, I tend to agree on the pistols actually. Once you "get it" they're no longer a challenge (source: I've been able to do a pistol for the last 5 years or so, and I don't consider myself very strong). –  VPeric Dec 13 '12 at 22:05
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I think that your best bet for this kind of arrangement is going to be a setup similar to many of the "fitness trails" that are available in many public parks.

These are exercise/fitness paths that can be completed at a walking through running pace, with various stations at predetermined intervals to target various muscle groups and agility/power training, as well as balance and stretching. If you are interested in doing this yourself, it can easily be done by substituting for various things.

Some of the exercises that I would absolutely include:

Exercises for muscle building

  • Squat jumps - Squat down, jump up as high as you can. You can add a leg tuck at the top of the jump as an advanced variation.
  • Walking/standing lunges
  • Push ups/supermans (Superman - lay on stomach, arms outstretched like superman. Arch backwards until only stomach is on ground. Lather, rinse, repeat.)
  • Situps/curls
  • Calf raises
  • Dips*
  • Pullups/chinups*
  • Reverse bench press/pullup*

Exercises for endurance/agility

  • Lateral jumps - Place a stick or similar on the ground, stand on one side of it, feet together. Jump from one side to the other, keeping feet together. When you land, jump back to the original side. Do this for :30-1:00, 2-3 sets. You can also do this forward and back. Raise the height of the obstacle for more challenge.
  • High knees - Run in place, bringing the knees as high as you can on each "stride"
  • Grapevines - Sideways run for 50-100 yards, with one leg crossing over in the front, then the back. Very hard to describe, I would recommend youtube or having someone show you. Do repetitive sets
  • Backwards running - Also 50-100 yards, repeating sets.
  • Agility steps - Draw a box on the ground. Starting outside one edge, step in with one foot, then the other. Step out the other side with the original foot then out with the second foot. As you get used to the motion, speed it up, and combine with somewhat high knees. You can do this forward/back or side/side. If you are well practiced, you can draw a ladder on the ground and do it diagonally, traveling up/down the ladder.

Other exercises that you can include are balance walking, single leg drills/exercises, various stretching routines to increase range of motion (Static stretching should only be done after finishing your workout), and other agility/motion drills that you desire or that fit with your chosen sport(s). For many other ideas on this, simply search the internet for "Health Trail", "Fitness Trail", and similar.

A setup like this could very easily be done on a track, trails, or other running paths. With the exception of the few exercises that are marked with *, no equipment is needed, and if you have a fitness trail near you, then it is already set up. Alternatively, you could even set up some stations in your garage, and set out some 1/4 mile loops in your neighborhood so that you come back to your garage to do the exercises.

This will hit quite a few areas. The straight muscle building with lunges, etc., mobility and agility with the high knees and other moving drills, range of motion, flexibility, and jogging/running the course will hit the cardiovascular as well. Depending on how hard you hit some of the movement drills, that also incorporates the HIIT style of training.

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Assuming that "minimal" means minimum number of exercises, the easiest thing is to look at all of the "beginner" workouts, and see what they have in common. Beginner workouts are generally aimed at achieving the best results with a minimum to learn or do.

Nearly every beginner workout plan I've seen includes the Deadlift, the Squat, and the Bench Press. Most also include the Shoulder Press, though not all. These four exercises will work the largest muscle groups of the upper and lower body as well as the torso.

An argument could be made that the Olympic lifts also work many of these same muscle groups all in one exercise, but I'd certainly hesitate to call them "minimal".

If you want a workout that uses minimal equipment, the recommendations are largely the same: Bodyweight Squats, Push-ups, and planks to strengthen the abdominal muscles. If you have access to a pullup bar, I would absolutely add pullups and chinups to this list as well. The downside to doing only bodyweight exercises is that because you cannot add weight, you will need to do more repetitions to improve instead. For more on this, look for books like "You Are Your Own Gym" or "Convict Conditioning".

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In my opinion, you need a minimum of three exercises. A leg exercise, a push exercise and a pull exercise. For example, you could do Deadlift + Push-ups + Pull-ups, or Squats + Bench-Press + Rows.

I don't think any exercise is so important that ANY workout has to include it. For example, the Deadlift is a very good exercise for your posterior chain, but there are plenty of successful programs which don't use it. Same for squats, chin-ups, bench-press, etc.

A bodyweight-only example would be:

A) pistol squats (start with lunges if pistols are too hard), push-ups, pull-ups

B) pistol squats (same as above), dips, chin-ups

If you have dumbbells, you can use lunges (or a variant, like walking lunges) which provide a decent workout for your legs. You can also do dumbbell bench press although I don't recommend them without a spotter. For example:

A) lunges, push-ups, pull-ups

B) lunges, dips, chin-ups

If you have a barbell (which I recommend), you can go to a gym or ask someone with experience to teach you how to deadlift, and you can do Starting Strength or, if you don't have rack and bench and don't want to pay for a gym, use the following replacements:

Squat -> Lunge or a lunge variant

Bench Press -> Push-ups (up to 15 reps), push-ups with a backpack with books, dips, etc

These aren't as effective as the SS program itself, but they will give you decent progress especially in the beginning stages.

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Would any 3 exercises work? Could my "minimum complete workout" be made up of crunches, lateral raises, and calf raises? –  Doc Faustus Dec 10 '12 at 18:27
    
@DocFaustus "Leg, push, and pull", not just any 3. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 10 '12 at 18:51
    
Missed that, and boy do I feel sheepish now. Probably not a bad formula, all things considered. –  Doc Faustus Dec 10 '12 at 21:50
    
I didn't explain much, but my own (completely amateur) opinion is that too much volume on the legs is a mistake of many "beginner programs". IMO, the main goal of a beginner program is making sure the trainee doesn't quit, which is why you should start with something with few exercises. Starting Strength is a good example. I think it lacks a pulling motion (pull-ups and/or rows), but it's still pretty good. –  HerrKaputt Dec 10 '12 at 22:26
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Excellent point about "no irreplaceable exercise" in the 2nd paragraph. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 13 '12 at 14:06
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High intensive interval training workout set will do the job. You tube -> Body Rock TV. A former soft porn star and her hubby have started it and not it is something like new phenomena. It looks like easy exercice for women, but believe me they ask for endurance,power and stamina. The interval training goal gurues believe that the effect from the workout lasts 2-3 hours after the training.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

    
Can you describe why this workout is minimal? –  Baarn Dec 10 '12 at 8:15
    
It is 10-15 minutes and with basic home equipment. –  speedyGonzales Dec 10 '12 at 8:17
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