No Distractions: The Occam’s Razor Training Plan

“How are you feeling?” one Russian asks another.

“Worse than I used to—but better than I will be.”

That about describes the state of strength today. Recently I had a conversation with a well-known bodybuilder. Not typical of his breed, he trains like a powerlifter. He shook his head and said, “These kids have never experienced the deep soreness you get right in the middle of your workout—when you squat or deadlift heavy.” Then he told me, “You should have seen this gym in the 1990s. Guys were strong.”

You Have One Goal—Get Strong

A leading cause of the weakness epidemic is what Rif derisively calls “random acts of variety.” The fitness establishment is hollering at you to work your rotator cuffs, mobilize your ankles, and not forget the tibialis anterior. Are you kidding me? By the time you are done foam rolling your IT band, an hour is up and it is time to go home. What is your malfunction, son (or daughter)? You are majoring in minors.

Occam's Razor Training Plan

If you learn to “pack” your shoulders, any overhead kettlebell lift will strengthen your rotator cuffs. Sitting on your shins in a posture the Japaneze call seiza (feet plantar-flexed, then dorsi-flexed) after your training will mobilize your ankles, and so on. This stuff just does not deserve to take up valuable training time. When you come to the gym, you have only one goal—get strong. The rest is distraction.

Occam’s Razor: I Dare You to Follow this Plan

In this educated age everyone is familiar with Pareto’s Law. The essence of the law is, 80% of all results come from 20% of the efforts—and the ratio can be even more skewed, e.g. 95/5. If most strength gains will come from a few time-tested exercises, why, why waste your time and energy on sumo stance alternating dumbbell curls?

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss had a great idea—start a “not-to-do list.” I have some suggestions for yours:

  1. Any exercise or piece of equipment that elite strength athletes do not use. (Can you imagine Shannon Hartnett with a Thigh Master or Ed Coan on a Perfect Push-up?)
  2. Anything done by people wearing gym gloves.
  3. Any corrective work that has not been prescribed to you by a professional.
  4. Any exercise with a vague goal like “making you functional.”

For the next six weeks I dare you to do only four exercises: kettlebell swings, Zercher squats, handstand push-ups, and weighted pull-ups.

On Mondays and Thursdays, loosen up with a couple of minutes of kettlebell get-ups, then ladder wall-supported handstand push-ups and weighted pull-ups for 45 minutes. Go back and forth between the two exercises. Ladder options: (1, 2, 3), (1, 2, 3, 4), (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), (2, 3, 5).

Use the overhand thumbless grip in your pull-ups on Mondays and the parallel grip on Thursdays. Note: If you cannot do handstand push-ups, do double kettlebell presses. If you are not strong enough to do pull-ups, get a partner to assist you by pushing up on your mid-back. Machine assist is not an option.

On Tuesdays, loosen up with a couple of sets of prying goblet squats, then work up to a moderately heavy triple in the Zercher squat. For instance, 135×5, 185×3, 225×3, 245×3. Aim to increase the top set for the next six weeks. Then swing a heavy kettlebell or pair of kettlebells (about 50% bodyweight) for 10 sets of 5 of Rif’s “dead swings.”

Occam's Razor Training Plan

On Fridays, work up to a top set of five Zerchers, e.g. 135×5, 185×3, 225×5. Aim to increase the top set for the next six weeks. Then 10×10 maximally explosive swings with a kettlebell around 30% of your bodyweight.

Hang on a pull-up bar, then go home and eat. Do some light stretching at night.

In the 14th century, William of Occam of Occam’s Razor fame gave us the best training advice: “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.”

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

43 thoughts on “No Distractions: The Occam’s Razor Training Plan

  • I planning to do this after finishing Total Tension Complex (report soon).
    Do you think it is good to follow the vertical pushing pattern or do you think I can (must) substitute the HSPU with Dips or OA(OL)PU?
    Thanks, marco

  • Awesome program, I too have always found that the simplest programs are the best.

    Just one quick question about the kettlebell swings: one arm swings or two arm swings?

  • Great post, thank you. With the weighted pull ups, is the goal to increase the weight progressively or to just pick one and do all pull up sets with the same?

    • Andrei –
      I’m not sure, but I’ve been using the same weight on the pull-up’s ala the ETK ladders and just increasing the rep’s & rungs during the 45min block. I figured that I’d run the entire 6 weeks this way then back off, increase the weight (and range of motion on the HSPU), and go again.
      I’ve just finished week 3 and so far this has been working very well for me. My hunch is that if you start off too light and are getting >75 reps in the 45min that you can always increase the weight.
      Hope that this helps,

  • Great program Chief!
    I will start it after I recovered from the CTS surgery which is going to be done in 21st of January .

  • I’d like to recommend a method for staying on a simple abbreviated strength program — having children.

    • Amen, Rob!!! Nothing like children to keep your training along the sharpest of Occam’s razors…and nothing like having your five year old son ask you “Are you gonna do the ‘BEAST’ today daddy?” to get the motivational juices flowing!

  • I’m intrigued by the No Distractions workout but am looking for more ways to scale it back a bit. I don’t have the double kettlebells to press or a partner to assist with pullups for instance.

    Is there any reason not to start with chinups and partial HSPUs and then move to rows and pike pushups when you must? Also, in the absence of a 50% bodyweight kettlebell or being familiar with dead swings, is there a way to work around that?


    • Chris, there are a lot of things that you can do—but then you would be doing an altogether different program.

  • I am a recent convert to the Zercher squat (thanks to your “best squat” article) and am working on increasing my reps on handstand push ups with a view to starting this program in January. Could you please explain why regular push ups or training for pecs has been excluded ? Thanks RT

    • Richard, in a couple of weeks I will post the “best press” blog.

      Meanwhile, you cannot keep your pecs out of HSPs.

  • Genius!! Why do most of us make this stuff so complicated?!

    Really liking the look of the new site and posts so far Pavel and looking forward to your views on the best ‘pulls’ and ‘pushes’.

  • That seems about right except that I would vote for one arms on the pullups *grin*…

    Have to say i am thankful that you are still writing good material amidst a world full of assistance exercises chief.

  • Thank you for this entry Pavel.

    This will be my winter strength program starting mid-month once I wrap up the Program Minimum. I’ll keep some easy gripper work in there and report back in 6 weeks.


  • What would be the best way to implement KB front squat as a replacement for zerchers. Obviously the weight jumps are going to be higher. Just wondering how this would best be done on this 6-week program.

  • This looks like a rock solid program. And coming from Pavel I bet it is. 🙂 I don’t quite understand the setup for how to do the squats. Could someone please explain how I should do them rep and set wise? Pretend I’m 5 years old. 😉
    Also, what are dead swings? If someone clears this up for me I’ll try out this 6 week program starting on Monday. 🙂

    • Henrik,
      “Dead” swings have also been referred to as “reset” swings and “power” swings. It is when you park the bell after every swing, but do not release the handle.

      For squats, the sets are indicated by weight example (single set at that weight), and the reps are indicated by the x5, x3, etc. Your own weight/reps program are likely to vary somewhat. Enjoy!!

      • Thank you for explaining this for me. After reading the text a few more times I understand the squats setup, I think. The sets leading up to the final set are sort of warmup/prep sets, right?
        The swings were new to me, at least the name dead swings. Power swing is something I’ve heard if and done before. Thanks, Nikki! 🙂

  • “corrective exercise” is recommended by every trainer who is a wannabe clinician.”

    Right on, Craig.

    • One thing I have learned from Pavel is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. 3 – 5 sets, 3 – 5 sets of 3 – 5 compound exercises 3 – 5 times a week is my mainstay, it really doesn’t need to be any more complicated !

  • Thank you for your kind words, gents!

    Adam, check with a doc. If there is nothing wrong, it is a matter of finding a better bar placement—and tensing the forearms.
    Some powerlifters place an 18″ long 2×6 on their forearms but I have never tried it.

    Westside makes and sells a Zercher harness.

    Double kettlebell front squats are an excellent arternative.

  • Dear Comrades
    Funny, this minds me on an article in the RKC certification instructors manual by Kenneth Jay, “How to get strong” and it minds me on Pavel’s “The Naked Warrior”. Swings with a heavy KB minds me on Tommy Blom’s article on Dragon Door,” One month with the beast”. And what is special with these articles? They are about simple exercises, few reps and heavy loads. Kenneth’s exercises where MP, Pull Up and Pistols, changing between heavy load and many reps. Like this: Monday, MP, heavy load. Tuesday, Pistol, many reps. Wednesday, Pull Up, heavy load. Tuesday, MP, many reps. Friday, Pistol, heavy load and Saturday, Pull Up, many reps. Of course it works, if any knows, Kenneth does. I wrote some years ago, “How to stay strong” to the Dragon Door, but it never came….. Now I write again! Once a week I do like this: one rep max MP left, one rep max MP right, one rep max Pull Up, one rep max squat. Two reps all the three exercises with lighter KB’s. Three reps all the exercises with lighter KB’s. You see the system? Four reps and five reps. And reverse! Believe me, the last one rep max’es happens to feel lighter and easier. Feels crazy!! I combine two ladders, going up in reps/ down in weight and up in weight/ down in reps. I take a little rest between the sets to be sure to do them correct.
    Holger Danske

  • I’m really liking this program. I think I’m going to try it as soon as I rap up my current program. Zercher squat is my favorite lift bar none so it’s nice to see a program that includes it.

  • I can say the strongest I have ever been has been with a couple kettlebells and deaflifting. I started out doing a PTTP program, deadlift, press and added a pull (Row or pullups) and that was it. Get in, get out for 4 weeks. Then after that rotated a double KB routine with a PTTP routine every two weeks. I did that for about 3 months.

    It was a great thing and an unfortunate thing. I got bigger and stronger AND LEANER than I had as an adult. I was throwing in the Highland games and went out for the first practice of the year and set PR’s in the first two events without practicing them all offseason. Unfortunately I got my left foot caught in the trig and blew my patellar tendon so I wasn’t able to see the full fruits of my labors.

    I am attempting to go back and do that same routine again and see how it goes. I guess the main thing I am trying to say here is Simple is better, at least it has been for me.

  • The closing quote from William of Occam is gold. I think of it medical phraseology as well: minimum effective dose. If four exercises will work, do not use five. Use five when five is the new minimum effective dose. Thank you for the terrific post, Pavel.

  • Pavel,
    You are so right. Functional has been bastardized so it is no more than an excuse for exercises that have ZERO potential to transform a person. While “corrective exercise” is recommended by every trainer who is a wannabe clinician. Why not serve the client by turning their “weak links” into strengths. Period.

    Thanks for your insight which as usual is both contrarian and on the money.

  • Pavel,
    I have had a strange chronic pain in both forearms for about 8 months and Zercher squats seem to flare them up. Do you have a suggested lift to substitute for the Zerchers? Thanks in advance!

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