Listen Up, Ladies: Minimum Training for Maximum Results

There is a plague that is devastating the world of women’s strength training, and I’m not just talking about the foolish “light weight and high rep” recommendations touted about in fitness magazines and all over the internet. No, what I am referring to are the marathon workouts performed multiple days per week with the only goal being to achieve as much fatigue as possible.

Some men are guilty of this as well, but women especially tend to believe that if they don’t end a workout completely exhausted and drenched in sweat that they didn’t “do enough”. And if they can’t dedicate at least 60 solid minutes to training, they don’t see a point in training at all. So they perform session after session of circuits, conditioning work, and anything else that has them sweating, panting, and working themselves into a puddle of sweat.

Some women thrive on this type of training and can follow such routines long-term. However, the women I have witnessed who perform these marathon workouts quickly burnout, and stop coming to the gym all together within a few weeks or months. They realize it’s not practical to perform such gruesome, long workouts on a consistent basis. And because they are told that such workouts are the best way to get results, they stop training all together assuming it’s hopeless to even try something different, and less fatiguing.

Ladies, it is entirely possible to spend much less time in the gym (about 2.5 hours per week, to be exact) and still reap the benefits you desire from your training program. Furthermore, it’s even possible to enjoy your training and leave the gym feeling energized and not wiped out.

This is Your Challenge

For some women, this is going to be intimidating to do “so little work” each week. Undoubtedly some will look at the following program and scoff exclaiming, “There is no way I can get results from that!”

I’ve heard it all before, but I know these minimalist training routines work because it’s what my clients and I have used for years. And don’t worry, ladies, even if your main goal is looking better naked, such a simple (I said simple and not easy) training program is just the ticket.

So if you’re ready to get great results, spend less time in the gym, have more energy and actually enjoy your training, then keep reading.

The Exercises

Note – acceptable alternatives are in parenthesis

  • Squat (or front squat or Goblet squat)
  • Deadlift (or trap bar deadlift or rack pulls)
  • Reverse lunge (may use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or weight vest)
  • Hip thrust (or back extension)
  • Standing overhead press (only if you have healthy shoulders and proper thoracic mobility – may also use dumbbells or kettlebells; push presses are also acceptable)
  • Chin-ups (use bands for assistance if you can’t perform them with your bodyweight – neutral or a supinated grip or ring chin-ups are recommended)
  • Push-ups (or parallel bar dips or bench press if you can perform at least 10 perfect push-ups)
  • Inverted rows (I prefer these be performed on a suspension trainer, but you may also use a barbell set in a power rack; other options are chest supported row and dumbbell rows)
  • Farmer walks (use dumbbells, kettlebells, or weight plates)
  • Waiter carries (only if you have proper thoracic mobility; use a dumbbell or kettlebell)

Note – if the bodyweight exercises such as inverted rows, push-ups, chin-ups, and parallel bar dips are too easy, add weight via weight plates, weight vest, chain belt with weight plates, or bands.

That brief list of exercises is all you will use for this training program. Welcome to the world of minimalist training – it works.

The Program

Now that you know which exercises you will be performing, let’s get into a sample training program. You will be performing three total body strength training sessions each week, on non-consecutive days. Something like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday works well for most people.

Note – keep in mind that you may use the acceptable alternative exercises listed above, but only those alternatives.

Day 1

1) Deadlift – 2×6 (2 sets, 6 reps each), and 1×8

2a) Standing one arm dumbbell push press – 2×6-8, 1×10

2b) Chin-ups – 2×6-8, 1×10-12

3) Farmer walks – 5 sets x 30-50 yards

Day 2

1a) Reverse lunge – 2×8, 1×12-15

1b) Inverted row – 2×8, 1×10-12

2a) Back extension – 3×10-15

2b) Push-ups – 2×8, 1×10-12

3) Waiter carry – 4 sets each arm for 30-50 yards

Day 3

1) Squat – 2×6, 1×10

2a) Parallel bar dips – 2×6, 1×8-10

2b) Dumbbell row – 2×8, 1×10-12

3) Farmer walks – 3 sets x 60-80 yards

You Must Work HARD

If you’re only going to do a minimum amount of work, you must put in a lot of effort. The previous program is very simple, but that does not mean it will be easy.

Be prepared to challenge yourself and to get a little uncomfortable under the bar. I’m in no way encouraging you to push so hard that your form deteriorates, but I am telling you to push hard. Leave a rep in the tank, but no more.

Don’t stop the set because it’s getting tough – stop the set when you know you have one more rep left in you, but that’s it. If you end the set knowing you could do two or more reps while maintaining proper form, you aren’t training hard enough.

I have worked with numerous clients who claimed to “train hard”, but they were really holding themselves back. They would want to stop a set well short of where I wanted them to because they had to strain a little and things got uncomfortable. It wasn’t uncommon for them to think a set was “over” when in reality they had at least three more perfect reps left in them.

And know this; if after performing three sets of squats or deadlifts you feel like you could do another set, you didn’t push your sets hard enough.

You Must Improve Your Performance

Improving your performance is the name of the game. If you’re not improving, then you aren’t challenging your body, and you won’t get results.

Each week you must do one of two things:

1) Use more weight than last week (even if it’s just a single pound)

2) Perform more reps with the same weight (even if it’s just one rep)

In the case of the farmer walk and waiter carry, you can also walk longer distances.

Improved performance while maintaining proper form – that is what you will focus on throughout the duration of this training program.

What about Cardio?

There will be no crazy metabolic circuits or anything like that.

Why? Because I want you putting 100 percent into the weight training sessions. I want you to be fresh and focused and improving your performance on the exercises listed above. That is where the majority of your results will come from, and so that is where I want all of your effort going.

The only cardio that is acceptable on this program is brisk walking. You can do this first thing in the morning, after your training sessions, or any time you prefer. And please note that I said brisk walking and not jogging.

Keep the brisk walks limited to 40 minutes, and no more. Personally I like to walk first thing in the morning on my non-lifting days, that way I get some activity every day. Plus, the walks will help you recover from your weight training sessions.

What Do You Do with the Extra Time?

If this program is much less work than you’re used to doing, you’re probably wondering what you should do with the extra time on your hands.

Anything! Do something fun with your friends and family. Start up a new hobby. Explore the world. Try some new recipes in the kitchen. There is more to living then spending every spare moment in the gym or working out. Take advantage of this opportunity and discover something new, or do something you once loved but haven’t done in a while.

You can also take this time to focus on other things that will help you achieve your body composition and performance goals such as nutrition, but that’s a completely different article all together.

Are You up to the Challenge?

The program outlined in this article may appear to be “too easy”, but I challenge you to give it an honest shot for six weeks. Work hard, improve your performance, and see what happens. Because you are only training a few basic exercises, you should be able to focus entirely on those three training sessions each week and make consistent progress.

But make sure you follow the program completely as written. Don’t start throwing in things like crunches, curls, kick backs, and sprints and then ask me why the program didn’t work.

Allow me to end this article with an excellent quote from Dan John:

“I think many of us think this way: If it’s free or simple or easy to understand, it can’t be as good as something that’s expensive, complicated and difficult to figure out on your own”.

Nia Shanks is a strength coach and writer at  She’s been featured in T-Muscle,, EliteFTS and Muscle and Strength.  She currently holds the SPF push/pull world record with a bench press of 145lbs and a deadlift of 300lbs at a whopping body weight of 122lbs!  She’s also the author of the popular women’s strength training resource Beautiful Badass.

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  1. Danielle says

    I love lifting heavy and hate running so of course I love this work out. I do have one question though. I recently signed up for a Tough Mudder race which is a 10 to 12 mile run with a lot of obstacles on it. I have actually never ran a race before, and like I said I hate running, but I feel I need to to prepare for this race. Will it completely mess up your training if I run on the off days?

  2. Chi-Chi says

    For the waiter carry and the farmer’s walk, do you mean 30-50 yards total? Or should each set be 30-50 yards?

    I just started this program on Monday after finishing Men’s Health Power Training. I appreciate the brevity of the workouts! Thanks so much for sharing. )

  3. Angela T says

    Hi Nia
    Great article!
    Just wondering what sort of rest period you recommend between sets, and what tempo for the reps?

    • JC Deen says

      I’m not Nia, but I’d suggest 3 minutes rest for the big movements, 2 minutes for the accessory stuff. Don’t worry about tempo – just make sure it’s in good form and explosive.

  4. Tanya Bartlett says

    Started the workout yesterday but just one question. When you give the rep range you said to either increase reps or weight. How many reps am I supposed to max out at? I am thinking I will try to up my weights first , but as I progress was just wondering what the max amounts of reps are that you recommend. Thanks for the great program as I love to lift heavy and love this short but intense workout!! :)

    • JC Deen says

      not Nia, but I’ll take a stab. If it’s like 6-8 reps, try to add two more reps, then weight.

      So if you’re doing dips 2×6. aim for 8 reps before increasing weight.

  5. MDM says

    I am going to try it. I am actually relieved to read this article. Recently I started strength training and at first it was hard to get my head around not doing a run or something afterwards. I really wanted to lose fat as well as get strong and it just seemed too short. But to be honest in the end I just didn’t have the energy to do something like sprints after the training session! Up to this week I was doing similar training sessions as you outline 3 times a week but was doing bleacher sprint intervals as my 4th workout and fast walking on the other days. However this week the intensity of the sprints and not eating enough to match seemed to really affect my training session. So I am up for the challenge!

  6. Carolyn says

    Hi, I would just like to know if there are any substitutions for the farmers walk, and waiters. My gym is very small, (room at local community center) can also get real crowded. They won’t let me take any weights outside to walk. And I also wanted to know what results women can expect to have from doing deadlifts.

    • says

      The farmers/waiter carries aren’t absolutely mandatory. Feel free to omit them as 95%+ of your results will come from the main exercises listed, and eating properly.

      Deadlifting, done properly, will help improve posture, build strength, and build muscle in the posterior chain (also helps improve self confidence). It may also elicit a lifelong addiction to lifting heavy weights off the floor.

      If you’ve never deadlifted consistently, I suggest you learn to do so properly and work very hard at that lift and improve your performance. You’ll experience first hand the awesome results.

      • Carolyn says

        Well thanks for responding. I went to the gym before I saw you had responded, did everything but the farmers and waiter. So I added lunges. I am not sure about how much weight to start with for the deadlifts. So I started with two 35 pound dumbells. I just turned 50, and it is a wee bit hard to accept that your program will work as good for me. I just started lifting heavier a few months ago. I am squatting 100, and benching 75. Funny at first I couldn’t even lift the bar. I started doing pushups, and can do 125, but only 20 at a time. I am excited about trying out your program, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

  7. says

    I’ve been wanting to address this myself – the endless “challenges” women are putting themselves through . Getting to 100 planks, pushups, or burpees; P90x followed by Insanity, endless challenges that have no value other than causing pattern overload and burnout. I agree that workouts should be simple and brief IF you want them to be brief (I enjoy my 1-1/2 hour long weights sessions). Thanks for a nice article.

  8. Toni says

    I’m currently doing Stage one of the NROL4W and Lou states just this – that you basically don’t have to be sweating like a crazy person and killing yourself 24/7 to get into shape. In fact, the strength coach Alwyn Cosgrove says, “you don’t get better by training. You get better by RECOVERING from training.”

    I went from working out 6 days a week or 6 hours weekly (and feeling completely fried) to a mere 2.5 hours or 3 days weekly and I have never felt better. More energy, sleeping better, moods are more even, focus is back. In fact, everyone around me from my husband to the cashier at the grocery store is saying that I never looked better…so I guess it must be working. :)

  9. says

    Nice article! I’m one of those people that likes to work out 6x a week, but I recently started going to a trainer and he put me on a similar program that involves weight training 3 days a week and cardio for 2. I might have to mix it up and try these exercises instead! Thanks for the advice.

  10. LK says

    I love it!! “What do I with all my time …. ANYTHING!!”

    Thank you to our beloved JC – helping the gym-obsessed masses get their lives back … one woman at a time <3

  11. says

    Ah, Nia. A girl after my own heart. Perhaps slowly we can influence the way females train. Every time a woman asks me for advice in the gym, I feel like it falls on deaf ears. I can here the conversation in her head after she walks away. “Yeah, she doesn’t have to train that hard because she’s in good shape.”

    Well, sisters. We don’t get these legs from slaving away in Zumba then following it with a 1 hour workout on the gym floor. :)

  12. says

    My philosophy exactly, Nia!!

    The idea that you have to be destroyed after every workout is nonsense. Workouts are NOT competitions. Workouts prepare you for competitions (if that’s your thing … at least the competition of life, if that’s not froo froo sounding enough, LOL).

    Combine the above with a “calorie-reasonable” diet and you’ve got a serious 1-2 punch!

    My wife is the primo example of this philosophy. Her workout “program” consists of coming into the gym and Front Squatting to a max 4 days a week … and if she feels like it she’ll mess around with pull ups, push ups, RDL’s, Hip Thrusts, etc. But, many many times … just the 1 rep max front squat. Takes about 20 minutes if you include warm up and rolling around.

    She squats over bodyweight and is one lean-mean lady.

  13. Kylee says

    I have to say Nia Shanks is a legend and as the saying goes
    “Less Is More” and it’s true.I only work out 3-4 days max with 3 days of Body Weight/Weight exercises and one day of Fast Interval Training with a girlfriend.
    Why kill yourself and not get the results when you can do what you have to, have a life and get really sexy doing it.
    Thanks JC you know what is awesome to post for us !! :)


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