I got my answer from Dan John.
[First, a little bit about Dan John - skip to "The Workout" below if you don't care.
Dan John is a strength coach who has gotten quite famous off of seminars, his blog, and his books. It's a little hard to describe his appeal without making him seem simple (which he isn't), but really he has an uncanny knack for getting to the most important bits of whatever he's talking about and looking past the peripheral details. He's the ultimate 'big rocks' kind of guy, which is perfect for 90% of all trainees (basically, if you're an elite athlete, you're going to benefit from some more sophisticated programming, but almost none of us are elite athletes, and Dan John's programs are going to more than do the job.
He's also a hell of a nice guy - I've never met him, but I have listened to him talk for at least 20 hours on various podcasts, and I am a keen judge of character.]
The Workout:In this blog post Dan John recommends a minimalist approach that is surprisingly easy to follow AND effective. If you don't want to read it, here's my summary:
- Warm up.
- For each exercise, pick a load and do 25 total reps (this number is not magical - if you really want to do 23 or 27 you can. But don't; do 25).
- Each set should be hard but not burst a blood vessel hard.
- If you do 25 reps in 2 sets, the weight is too light. If it takes you more than 6, the weight is too heavy. Next workout, respond accordingly (either use more weight or pick a harder version of the exercise).
- If one workout it takes you more sets to get to 25 then the previous, you might need extra rest or to lighten the load a bit. Use your judgment.
That's kind of it.
The Exercises:Which exercises should you pick? Dan didn't address it in that post, but there are some standard ways to pick your exercises. Basically, you're going to pick from a set of categories, and WHICH exercises you pick will depend on what you have access to, equipment-wise, and what you prefer.
Basically, there are 7 categories (different authors organize these differently, but this is the basic idea):
Vertical Push: You push a load above your head. Handstands, handstand pushups, dumbbell overhead presses, kettlebell overhead presses, Barbell military press, jerks, and so forth.
Horizontal Push: You push a load forward from your chest. Bench press, push up, one arm pushup, pushup with weighted vest, Dumbbell bench press, some kind of bench press machine.
Vertical Pull: Pull something overhead towards your body. Pullup, chinup, lat bar pulldown.
Horizontal Pull: Pull something in front of you towards your body. Rows, one arm rows, anything with the word 'row' in it.
Hinge: Lower body exercise where the focus is on movement at the hip, not the knee (the knees often do flex and extend, but they contribute less than in a squat). Deadlift, swing, hip thrust.
Squat: Different from the hinge because more of the work comes from the knees (though the hips do flex and extend). Squats, goblet squats, one legged squats, pistols, leg press... it's a long list.
Beach and accessory exercises: Curls, overhead tricep extensions, crunches. Anything you do to attract the opposite sex, or to hit some specific weakness (I use the hip adductor and abductor machines, but that's for kicking specifically).
Beach exercises are always optional. If you can, pick one exercise from each of the first 6 categories. If you are short on time, pick just one push, one pull, and one hinge/squat. Then, the next workout, switch (so if on Monday you did vertical push, on Thursday do horizontal push, and so on).
The Circuit:There are roughly 2 ways to arrange the exercises. You can do all 25 reps of one exercise before moving on, or you can superset (or complex) the exercises. Suppose you're doing dumbbell presses, pushups, pullups, TRX rows, goblet squats, and kettlebell swings. You could do all the presses, then all the pushups, then all the pullups, and so on. OR you could alternate - either do some presses, then some pullups, then back to presses until both are done, then do the same with pushups and TRX rows, OR even circuit train - do a few reps of each exercise, back to back, then start again with the first one, until you hit 25 on them all.
The more you mix up the exercises, the greater the conditioning demand, the less the strength demand.
If you make a giant circuit out of this, you're going to be breathing very hard and getting very fatigued, and you won't be able to do as much strength work. So if you want some strength gains, and you want to get some conditioning, go right ahead. If you want mostly strength and hypertrophy, DON'T do that. Generally, if you can, do your strength work and conditioning separately, but if you just don't have time for more workouts, you can m ix them like this.
Weekly/Monthly Planning:You should probably try to do this at least twice a week. Three times would be great, once a week is sort of iffy, depending on your training level. If you're squatting 400 lbs. for 25 reps, once a week is plenty. If you're swinging the pink kettlebell, you can go 3/week.
You can get as fancy as you want periodizing this routine, but we're trying to stay minimalist. Every 7th week or so, take a rest week - either use much lighter loads for the same workout, or don't do any weight training (don't do NO movement for a week, light exercise is better than complete rest for recovery). And no, there's nothing magic about every 7th week.
Once you've done this workout a few times, tune it to how you feel that day. If you're really energized, use higher weights. If you're really lagging, use lighter weights. Make sure your workouts are hard more often than not - if you're lagging most of the time, you need to address those issues, not just push light weights.