Knowing how to craft an effective workout routine doesn’t have to be a mind-bender. You don’t need a PhD in exercise science, nor advanced certifications.
What I’m about to share with you is the simplest strength training system imaginable.
It’s a design that I’ve been using multiple times per week since 2010. And, it’s so simple, that plan to continue following it until I’m in my 80s and beyond.
Before jumping into the details, I want to point out a couple of things about this routine. First, it’s obviously not a system to help you become a competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, or CrossFit® athlete. Individuals who aim to compete in a specific athletic skillset, must train in a much more targeted way.
Although the type of workout we’ll go over is a great, general purpose design, it’s also obviously not a prescription for everyone.*
This routine is for people like myself, who want to stay fit and strong throughout their life. As an athlete who is in my 40s now (yikes!), my goal is to have enough strength and mobility to enjoy adventure sports for many decades to come.
Like you, I’m a busy guy. Given my hectic life, I don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes working out at a time.
Time is a precious gift. I’d rather be out bouldering, biking, or pursing other passions, than grinding away in a gym.
Thus, these workouts are meant to be fast and easy to complete in a half hour.
They are also designed to be done in a spare room, garage gym, or even the backyard, with a limited set of equipment.
So, what we are about to dive into is essentially a framework for constructing a simple and fast strength training routine.
The system is called the 2-3-2 Method, and it centers around a three-part workout structure.
You begin with two warm-up exercises. Then you complete a cycle of three (or four) strength training exercises. And, you wrap it up with two “cool-down” movements.
That’s the 2-3-2 Method of workout design.
Two warm-up movements. Three (or four) strength training skills. Two cool-down activities.
Now, to add a bit more detail.
The warm-up exercises should typically be bodyweight exercises. You are shooting for a few repetitive movements that you can perform for five+ minutes to get your heart rate up and ready your body for more action. Things like jumping jacks, jump rope, or air squats are great examples.Kettlebell swings and movements like burpees can be thrown in there too, but you don’t want to wear yourself out for what comes next.
The circuit training portion is the most important part of your workout design, so pay attention.
You want to pick one upper body pulling exercise, one upper body pushing exercise, and one leg strengthening exercise. Those three movements combine to create an exercise trifecta that guarantees a productive workout. Every time.
If you are wondering what those movement classifications mean, here’s a breakdown:
An upper body pulling exercise is anything where the main muscle action is to bring your hands closer to your torso. Skills like pull-ups, bicep curls, and bent-over rows are frequent examples.
An upper body pushing exercise is anything where the main muscle action is to propel your hands away from your body. Push-ups, shoulder presses, and dips are classic examples of upper body pushing.
The leg strengthening exercises can be anything where your leg muscles are the main focus. These could be squats, jumps, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges or any other movement that targets your legs.
Now, if you want to spice things up, you can add in a fourth exercise as a wildcard. Sometimes this could be a whole-body movement, like thrusters or clean and presses. Sometimes you might want to add a gymnastics-like skill or an exercise that targets your midsection.
The focus however needs to remain on targeting those three movement areas of upper body pulling, pushing, and legs.
How many times should you rotate across the three exercises? That depends on how intense of workout you want.
If time is tight, shoot for at least three rounds. If you want to go hard, aim for five rounds. I typically shoot for four rounds through the circuit training, and adjust up or down as time or my motivation-level dictates.
After you’ve worked your way through the three-exercise circuit, the workout finishes with two “cool-down” exercises. I put “cool-down” in quotes, because although these are a lighter section of the workout, the movements themselves can still be strenuous.
For this last portion, select a pair of exercises that can complement what you’ve done thus far. Are there areas of your body that weren’t targeted as much as you would like? Now is the time to address it.
My cool-downs often entail classic calisthenics, like crunches and planks. Working on trunk strength with prone leg lifts, supermans, or reverse-hypers are frequent favorites too.
In terms of the exercise volume to do during a cool-down, I’ll typically alternate 3 x 10 to 20 reps of each exercise.
Of course, you can also go way lighter, shifting your focus to flexibility and mobility work.
Depending on what my body is hungry for, I might toss in some yoga postures or simple stretches. Use this last phase of the workout to add any finishing touches to your physical training.
Okay, so what is missing from the workout design detailed above?
We clearly haven’t talked about the amount of resistance to use or the specific reps to perform during the circuit training portion. The reason for this is it depends on what tools you have at your disposal and your prior fitness level.
Maybe you don’t have a complete garage gym with a power rack, bumper plates, and a full set of kettlebells. Maybe your adjustable dumbbells don’t go past 25 pounds.
It doesn’t matter. The key to crafting an effective at-home workout is to focus on the EFFORT you expend during the circuit training.
Muscle is your body’s adaption to the imposed load you supply it. Feed your body the right resistance during your workouts and it will respond with strength gains. Conversely, fail to supply enough effort during your training, and your strength gains will be marginal.
Assuming that you have a decent selection of weights to use, a good rule of thumb is to shoot for five to 12 reps of an exercise. The major caveat here is that you need to use enough resistance that you are fatigued at the end of those repetitions.
For example, at our house we have a pair of eight-pound dumbbells lying around. Using those little weights for shoulder presses or flies wouldn’t do much for me. I could probably do dozens of reps before fatigue. That’s not a demonstration of strength. It’s demonstration of endurance, and it won’t yield the muscle development I desire. In order to reach fatigue at five reps of a single arm shoulder press, I need to use near 50 lbs. To reach fatigue with lateral flies, I need around 25 lbs.
Those are my numbers. Yours will be higher or lower depending on your physique and training level.
So, what would you do if you were similar to my current strength, but you didn’t have 25 to 50 lb dumbbells at your disposal? How could you still get an effective shoulder workout?
The answer is to be creative and seek out other movements where you would be fatigued at similar rep ranges. Perhaps you max out at 10 jackknife push-ups. That would be a nice alternative to focus on. Same thing for inverted rows on a TRX, rings, or a bar. They don’t replicate the exact same motions as flies or shoulder presses, but they are similar enough for our purposes. Remember, for the upper body portion of your workout you want one pulling and one pushing movement.
To restate this point, you must selective movements and resistance levels where you are tired and almost out of gas at the final few repetitions. If you are choosing exercises where you aren’t challenged, then don’t expect results. Again, aim for movements where you reach fatigue at between five to 12 reps.
For any naysayers, these set and repetition ranges are obviously a basic rule of thumb. There are a variety of reasons why one would adjust these numbers up or down. Yet, for the purpose of general at-home strength training regimen, they do the trick.
Circling back to the “reaching fatigue” at the end of the rep range idea, please be smart here. You want to leave enough energy in your tank that you don’t hurt yourself due to muscle failure. Dropping a weight on your head or falling to the ground because your body gave out is not a desirable outcome. Stop even though you feel like you might have a rep or two left in you. Getting hurt is not worth it.
When you are training at a gym with a partner, it’s a different story. A spotter can help you safely access those final few reps without fear or injury. Training alone at home is a different story. Be wise and play it safe.
Lastly, let’s talk about exercise variety.
We’ve gone over the general structure of an effective at-home workout. We’ve also talked about the types of movements to incorporate into each section of the session. But, how do you select the movements from one workout to the next?
Once you’ve found some movements that hit the mark for an effective push-pull-legs training routine, is there a need to vary them?
Listen, if you are the type of person that loves routine, then by all means, stick with your exercise choices until you get bored.
I’m the type of person who likes a bit more variety. Remember how I said that this was a strength training program, that I could see doing into my 80s? That’s because each workout I do is slightly different from the last one. My movement choices vary each time I set foot in my garage gym. There is an element of excitement in anticipating what the movement combo will feel like today.
Plus, there is actually a more concrete benefit to varying your exercises between workouts too. When you swap your movements from one session to the next, you decrease the likelihood of developing a repetitive motion injury. By using variations in your stance, grip, alignment, and symmetry, you avoid the repetitive overload that can lead tissue irritation
To wax philosophical for a moment, I also think that exercise variety helps to keep our “movement tree” full and vibrant. As we get older, we tend to lose movement variety. We stop tumbling, climbing, and bouncing around. It’s like we develop this amazing, multi-limbed tree of athleticism in young adulthood, but then the branches start shearing off in later years. Somedays you might even pass the day by simply rolling out of bed, walking a block or two, and then sitting for hours on end.
In order to stop your tree of movement from decaying to only a few branches left, you’ve got seek out movement variety
Play with adding a rotational component to one of the pushing, pulling, or leg exercises. See If you can vary from a two-footed to a one-footed base of support. Try lifting different types of weights, the way Strongmen competitors do.
I could go on for a long time about how to add movement variety into your workouts, but that’s not the point of this article.
You came here for the 2-3-2 method, so let’s recap:
- Start your warm-up with two lightweight or bodyweight movements.
- The more “whole body” these warm-up movements are, the better.
- Shoot to complete each exercise 20 to 100 times, or until you are sufficiently ready for the rest of the workout. This should take you at least 5 minutes.
- After the warm-up, begin cycling between three (or four) distinct exercises.
- One exercise should be an upper body pulling skill.
- One exercise should be an upper body pushing skill.
- One exercise should be lower body dominant.
- Don’t be afraid to add movements that span across more than one of these categories.
- Rotate through the circuit three to five times.
- Perform each exercise five to 12 reps, depending on the level or resistance you are using.
- “Cool-down” with two lightweight or bodyweight movements.
- The cool-down is often calisthenics-type skills or mobility work.
- Shoot for three sets of 10 to 20 reps of these movements. (If you’re doing static holds, like a plank or a L-sit, this doesn’t apply.)
That’s it. That’s one of the simplest and most effective strength training workouts you can do.
As I said earlier, it’s a workout structure that I plan to stick with for many more decades.
I hope you enjoy the simplicity as much as I do.
It’s such an easy-to-remember format, that it should provide you with effective at-home strength training sessions for years to come.
If you are the type of person who likes a visual reference for what these 2-3-2 workouts look like, check out the two new Mad Skills Exercise Mixtapes.
Volume One covers 100+ at-home workouts using kettlebells, dumbbells, and gymnastics-strength training tools. Volume Two illustrates 100+ garage gym workouts with barbell, kettlebell, and other workout tools.
Both books are available in print format from Amazon and other retails. They can also be purchased in e-book format if you prefer to view the workouts on a tablet.
Once you’ve had a chance to play around with the 2-3-2 Method, please drop a comment to let me know how you like it. Enjoy!