One of the best changes I made in 2016 was adopting a more minimalist lifestyle. When my wife and I decided to move down to California last July, we pared down a 2,200 square foot house into only what would fit in our Scion xB. We only had a week, so we had to make lots of rapid-fire decisions about what to take, what to sell, and what to give away. In hindsight, the short timeframe was actually a blessing as it didn’t afford us the time to overthink. It worked. By the end of the week, we had only a small percentage of belongings left, all of which were either items we use almost everyday (e.g. our Vitamix and pressure cooker) or items that bring us great joy (mostly books). Lots of things that we thought were “needs” were actually just “wants” or “likes”.
But the minimalism didn’t end with physical belongings. Since then, I’ve continued to simplify my life, minimizing finances (we cut our grocery bill down to a third of what it had been and have paid off nearly all our credit card debt!), work processes, routines, and even exercise. Instead of spending extra money and time going to the gym, I now do my workouts at home with the following minimalist exercises. They take less time and hassle, require little or no equipment, provide a full-body workout that builds muscle, boosts testosterone, and increases insulin sensitivity, and are free (with the exception of building a “T-handle” kettle bell; see below).
Two-Arm Kettlebell Swings
“If you could only do one movement for the rest of your life, do the kettlebell swing.” —Tracy Reifkind
Kettlebells are a deceptively simple device. Until you use one, you might not believe the transformative power that lies waiting in this hunk of steel. I first met the kettlebell at a CrossFit gym, and I naively assumed that the two-arm kettlebell swing would be the “easy” part of the WOD (“Workout of the Day”). Boy, was I wrong. It seemed like a piece of cake for the first 10 swings, but that was because I had been cheating by using my arms instead of thrusting witht the hips. Bad John. My coach corrected my form and I suddenly realized what all the fuss was about. Doing the movement correctly used the whole body! After completing the prescribed 50 swings, I was left exhuasted, wheezing for air, and feeling like I had just done 1,000 crunches. Amazing.
The one main problem with kettlebells, however, especially from a minimalist perspective, is that they are expensive (usually about $2 per pound) and require you to buy multiple weights as you get progressively stronger. Fortunately, Tim Ferriss came to the rescue in The 4-Hour Body with the low-cost, homemade, customizable “T-Handle”:
“The ‘T-handle.’ Rumored to be one of the core tools of dominant Hungarian hammer throwers, this simple device is also known as the Hungarian Core Blaster (HCB). I have 20 kettlebells of various sizes but still prize my T-handle, as it can be disassembled for travel and packed flat at a weight of less than five pounds. In addition to swings, it can be used for deadlifts, two-arm bent rows, curls, reverse curls, and more. For $10, five minutes of shopping, and less than five minutes of assembly, you have an entire gym.”
Here’s what you will need as per Tim’s recipe:
- For the vertical shaft of the T-Handle: One “pipe nipple” (am I the only one who giggles at this name?) measuring ¾ inch in diameter and 12 inches in length. If you’re curious, a “pipe nipple” is a pipe with threading on both ends.
- For the handles: Two pipe nipples measuring ¾ inch in diameter and 4 inches in length. Tim suggests covering the threads with electrical or duct tape and wearing leather gloves when training just to be safe. I just use my mountain bike gloves as that’s all I have.
- To connect the vertical shaft and handles: One “T” fitting with ¾ inch diameter openings for all three holes.
- To keep the weights from flying off: One ¾ inch floor flange.
You will, of course, also need some weight plates, which means that your total expenditure will exceed $10 if you don’t have any lying around. I ended up buying four 10 pound plates, totalling $60. This made my grand total about $75 with tax, but this is still less than buying a kettlebell, and gives me the added benefit of adjustibility (I can quickly add or take off plates as needed to change the weight) and portability.
Push-Ups, Pull-Ups & Chin-Ups
Push-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups are the ultimate minimalist exercises:
- They require minimal equipment: just a piece of ground or floor for the push-ups and a park jungle gym or branch for pull-ups and chin-ups. A pull-up bar is a great affordable option, but definitely not a requirement. In fact, I think it’s more fun to use objects you find in your environment.
- They are “functional movements” that recruit multiple muscle systems and translate to reallife contexts and movement patterns.
- They are extremely versatile. You can easily change things up by adjusting your hand positions. For example, to avoid plateaus, keep things interesting, and provide different load profiles, you can try mixing up the type of push-ups you do (e.g. wide-grip, narrow-grip, single-leg, incline, decline, etc.).
Last but definitely least are sprints, technically called high-intenstity interval training (HIIT). Most people will think of running when they hear the word “sprinting”, but HIIT can take the form of any all-out physical effort, including (but not limited to):
- Doing burpees
- Jumping rope
- Shoveling snow
- Running in the water
There are many HIIT regimines to choose from, but one of the best is the Tabata method, which involves eight sets of the following:
- 20 seconds of all-out, maximum effort
- 10 seconds of rest
All said and done, the entire workout lasts only 4 minutes! But I will admit, it will feel like much more.
High-intenstity interval training has a number of advantages over typical “cardio” workouts:
- They’re short. Compare the 4-minute Tabata workout to a typical 1-hour cardio session.
- They offer more bang for your buck. A typical cardio workout only helps improve aerobic systems, while HIIT boosts both anarobic and aerobic systems.
- They increase testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin sensitivity. How would you like to boost your libido, muscle growth, and fat loss in four minutes a week?