Skill Based 2×2 is kinda something like Starting Strength (SS – a classic) or Stronglifts 5×5 — Starting Strength with more volume…
Two resistance training programs that have taken over the interwebz. I’d say without a doubt I answer more questions about these two ‘beginner’ programs online, than almost any other approach to lifting.
In essence they are wonderfully simple programs for strength development, with the latter even possessing enough volume and time under tension, to yield some moderate hypertrophy — muscle mass gains…
Note: Volume = Load x Sets x Reps (Basically the overall ‘work’ done in a training session)
It inspired me to write a little more about how I write basic routines and why I think there might be better options out there, especially for time crunched individuals with a variety of access to tools — some with a lot, many with very little.
Since then people have been asking me a lot more about my approach.
The lifts you find in both of those programs above (SS and SL5x5) are staples in most of the programs I design, but not exclusively.
I share much of their sentiment that strength is very important. It’s right up there under ‘movement’ on my list in terms of general physical qualities that are important.
However, that doesn’t mean you want to train it all the time, or shouldn’t spend time focusing on other objectives. What about fat loss, or athletic performance or explosive power or maybe like many of my clients you just want to do enough to enjoy life and be healthy.
That’s right fitness world, most people just want to be reasonably fit and reasonably healthy so as to support their real life objectives…
I’ve never worked with a 60 year old who turned to me and said, “you know what I wish I had? A bigger bench press...”
Also I see no reason to chase huge numbers unless you compete in something that requires it, I more actively encourage getting and maintaining a baseline of strength relative to your bodyweight.
Will having a 600 pound deadlift will make you that much better at looking after your kids or doing your job, than a 300 pound deadlift? It’s all relative…
Not everyone wants to lift heavy barbells 3x a week, though they probably should try lifting heavy barbells periodically for reasons I outlined here.
Having worked in athletic development for a number of years, I can tell you for a fact that the strongest athletes do not necessarily mean the best athletes, actually the opposite can often be true.
I’ve seen some pretty terrible barbell strength numbers put out by incredible athletes many times…
Though I would say that athlete A being of equal strength to athlete B and having more tactical or technical ability will definitely do better than if athlete A had less strength than athlete B.
There is a lot going on with respect to fitness and I think it’s important to consider balance in any fitness program.
Being incredibly strong with a resting heart rate of 100 BPM isn’t a great position to be in anymore than having a resting heart rate of 42 BPM and struggling with an empty barbell.
Furthermore, I don’t believe you should try to fit square pegs in round holes. These approaches don’t offer much flexibility, as they are commonly laid out there for one purpose: Strength.
However, that’s not to say that I can’t appreciate the simplicity of a 3 exercise program, but just because it’s simple, that doesn’t mean it’s really a beginner program and doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I love the sound of LP’s (records…), have a record player, but listen to MP3’s far more often due to convenience (always in my pocket) and accessibility (easy to put on any speaker in the house).
I have a wonderful immersion circulator that is pretty much foolproof for making incredibly tasty proteins, but I don’t cook that way all the time because it’s low temperature cooking that takes a lot of planning and time.
Point being, just because a method is pretty damn awesome (SL 5×5 and SS both fit that bill) doesn’t mean it’s always the best approach, all the time.
Sometimes you have to make lemonade with the lemons you have, not the oranges you wish you had.
Starting right off the bat with barbells is an easy way to get discouraged if you’ve never used them before and you’re over the age of 25. Years of schooling may have affected your posture, maybe you’re too stiff to get into good positions, or maybe they are just uncomfortable.
I can give you numerous examples of clients I work with that have limitations, and honestly the bulk of my job is finding ways to work around those limitations and still get the training effect they want.
I don’t just say, “oh well…I guess you can’t train strength ever…” because they can’t get their hands around a barbell that’s on their shoulders and traps, or they can’t get down to grab a barbell that’s six inches off the floor, or pressing makes their shoulders cranky and gives them tension headaches.
But you know…so and so…that designed this famous internetz workout…said it HAS to be done this way…
Poppycock — a word I’m trying to repopularize — and I realize what I’m about to do is ironically what I just made fun of but hopefully I give you something a little more flexible, and a lot more, well, YOU…
If all you have is body weight, then this can work for you. If you have barbells, this can work for you. Dumbbells? Kettlebells? A sandbag or a weight vest? Doesn’t matter, those are just tools, I’m here to give you the method.
With that in mind I give you the Skill Based 2×2…
Skill Based 2×2 Training
The main premise of my basic routine is equally quite simple: 4 exercises total.
- 2 different workouts
- each workout has two paired sets (Notated as Set A and Set B)
- each paired set consists of two non-competing resistance training lifts (Notated as A1/A2, or B1/B2)
Here’s the basic template:
A1) Squat (*Knee Dominant Bilateral Lift)
A2) Vertical Pull
B1) Hip Dominant (Typically Single Leg…)
B2) Vertical Push
A1) Deadlift (*Hip Dominant Bilateral Lift)
A2) Horizontal Push
B1) Knee Dominant (Typically Single Leg…)
B2) Horizontal Pull
You may have noticed that I don’t necessarily discuss explicitly what each exercise actually is there, that’s because what I’m using here is more of a framework, than a workout program.
Computer science majors can correct me if I’m wrong…
A framework sorts out all the nitty gritty details that are common to every website, so you don’t constantly have to write new code from scratch.
There are just certain things that all websites have in common, like a home page, or a contact page, or a WYSIWYG — think Microsoft Word online that allows me to publish my writing with all the neat formatting you see after I publish.
Of course you can ignore things that you don’t need and use things more often that you really need, and sometimes you need a little customization but it saves you eons of time if you have all the basics of what you need set first.
That’s what Skill Based 2×2 Training is.
You can take this basic program and add more work to it to work on weak areas for aesthetics, or you can layer some conditioning on it for some fat loss, or maybe you just want to cycle through a bunch of general physical qualities because you’re just concerned with moving well, being fairly strong and being in fairly good condition.
This is one of my dirty little secrets but I’ll discuss my concept of fitness frameworks a little more in-depth below if you care.
What I have here, could also be called a template, and I can plug and play exercises that fit the criteria you have to create something a little more specific. So a more time efficient, slightly higher volume beginner program in the spirit of SS or SL, might be:
A1) Barbell Back Squat
A2) Chin Ups
B1) Back Elevated BB Glute Bridge
B2) Military Press
A2) Bench Press
B1) BB Reverse Lunge
B2) Bent-Over Row
That’s only one example of how this program can work though, that’s the beauty of using a framework as opposed to a strict program.
See the nice thing is that you can swap things out easily and you still have a good program available to you.
Kind of like how each wordpress site is a little bit different, but the system I see is exactly the same as the system everybody else sees when they write a blog post.
Can’t get your arms straight above your head to do a proper military press, cool, just do an incline bench press instead, problem solved, but similar training effect with a similar movement pattern.
You don’t have a barbell just laying around at home? Cool, do a dumbbell loaded squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press and row…
Takes a little more figuring out perhaps than just having someone hand you an exact handout of exercises and telling you, “here, just do this!”
Until you can’t…
That’s the problem with one-dimensional programs you grab off the internet — I know again with the irony here… — it’s really easy to hit a roadblock very quickly.
So yes, my beginner 2+2 program might not be quite as simple as some other routines you’re likely to find floating around, but… additional effort put forth in understanding it, is minimal, and will make your training life a lot easier long-term.
Plus knowledge is power, so boom!!, I just made you a training jedi in less than a few thousand words.
What’s a Paired Set?
Skill Based 2×2 utilizes a time efficient way to get more work done, in less time.
Sometimes you see it online described as a Superset, but the terminology can get confusing because that also refers to when you combine exercises that work the same muscle groups consecutively.
You see this far more often in bodybuilding circles, but a superset might also be if you do bench press, then push ups, then dumbbell chest flies.
All of those exercises mostly work the chest, front shoulders and triceps…
To distinguish this approach from that common bodybuilding approach, I’ve gone with the slang from a different world: the research community.
They often add complexity with ‘Agonist-Antagonist‘ Paired Set…whatever….tomato…tamato…
That first part just means using opposing muscle groups, for instance if you pull then the opposing group would push.
I’ll keep using the term superset for sets that work the same muscle groups…
Paired sets are sets where you use two non-competing exercises within the same set, essentially taking advantage of the rest period you’d normally have to take with traditional sets and making better use out of it.
Translation: It shortens your workout, while also getting more stuff done.
See with the beginner 3 exercise programs you see above, you Squat for one set, rest the allotted time, then squat again, rest, squat, rest, squat…etc… until you hit the required workload.
Then you do the same for the bench press, and then the deadlift — and the two other exercises on the other workout day, when you do that workout.
However, when you do resistance training it’s ideal to take significant rest periods between each set. How long??:
- Training Strength: <6 reps, 2-5+ minutes between the same exercise
- Training Explosive Power: <6 reps, 3-5+ minutes between the same exercise
- Training Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps, 90-120+ seconds between the same exercise
- Training Muscular Endurance: 12+ reps, less than 60 seconds typically
Give or take…
That’s a lot of time when you do straight sets that a lot of people spend either loading plates on barbells or sitting around shootin’ the shit.
It’s also valuable time that you could just fill with a second exercise, to get in and out of the gym faster.
In doing so, you can also add a fourth exercise to the mix, instead of just three.
You get 33% more work done, in 33% less time, all with a very similar effect. At least for most beginners and intermediate lifters.
I’ll do a write up about the science behind all this at a future date, because there is actually fair bit of it, for the sciency I-need-proof-types like me.
Otherwise you’ll have your doubts.
Look it probably won’t make you powerlifter strong but many of my clients can deadlift 2x their bodyweight, squat more than 1.5x their bodyweight, bench press more than 1.25x their bodyweight and bang out 8 solid chin ups.
In other words, not herculean strong but STRONG ENOUGH.
I get the same or similar results that other traditional basic routines get for most beginners and intermediates, which is most people, like 80% of the population, in less time and it frees up some additional space to work on areas that get no love, like pulling or single limb action.
It also frees up some time for other things you probably care about like spending time with your family or getting work done.
Like all routines, it won’t work forever — though with some modifications it certainly has a shot… — and once you start approaching powerlifter strong, you’ll probably need to use traditional sets for the lifts you really want to improve.
Plus a more specialized, advanced powerlifting framework program like 5/3/1 or Westside.
Let it be known before I get trolled that this is largely beginner program, that can easily take you to an intermediate level but with additional benefits I’ve not found in the above mentioned programs:
- You seem to get a better cardiovascular response with this style of training — about a 10% increase in Heart Rate according to research — with minimal to no degradation in strength or hypertrophy response. This could quite possibly mean that you can get away with doing less heart specific training, but the jury is still out on that…and I still think some aerobic work is important for health.
- Easy to integrate some unilateral (single limb) work maintains balance, is better at improving the quality of balance, limits injury potential and increases joint stability, joint health and joint function
- It’s more balanced. Particularly upper body pulling maintains a better balance in the upper body (a lot of basic programs are pressing heavy and make shoulders cranky)
- It’s faster to execute due to paired sets vs traditional straight sets (which take FOREVER…)
- Has a little more flexibility baked in, because you don’t have to follow a strict routine and you can make easy modifications to suit your goals
How Does 2×2 Training Work?
I’m glad you asked…
See in programs like SL 5×5, the 5×5 implies that you do 5 sets of 5 reps. So it’s easy for you to assume that I mean 2 sets of 2.
That’s not what Skill Based 2×2 means in the context of this program and actually I’ve been referring to it as such only because I haven’t managed to come up with a more badass sounding name — leave suggestions in the comments if you want…
I actually wanted to call this 2+2 to distinguish it from the common way to describe set and rep sequences, but google and bing kept penalizing me for using that ‘+’ sign.
‘X’ on the other hand is just another letter, so google likes that, and if google likes that, then more people have a chance of reading this.
Luckily enough for me 2+2 and 2×2 equals the same thing…
In the context of this program is actually just means two exercises together, done twice.
Though it was tempting to call it 2+2+2, for two workouts, with two exercises together, done twice, I didn’t want the name to get too long.
The reality is that you could also just use one four exercise workout, instead of two and you’d probably get a decent result as a beginner too.
So unlike what you might see elsewhere on the web, the set and rep ranges can change in Skill Based 2×2, depending on your objectives and imagination, but I’ll give you the 3 basic rep ranges I’d use for different objectives:
- 2-4 sets of 7-12 repetitions if you’re chasing hypertrophy or fat loss
- 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps if you’re chasing strength*
- 2-3 sets of 12+ reps if you’re chasing endurance
*WarningA word of caution about chasing strength as a beginner. Beginners are probably better off staying closer to the higher end range of the traditional strength training rep range (1-6 reps) at first. I’d say you’re actually better off starting with 7-12 reps for one or two months before going there too, even if your ultimate goal is to improve strength. You probably need to practice the movement before you load it significantly, and it’s easier to do that with lower intensity rep ranges first.
So if you’re the average young male just getting started out and want to put on a little muscle use something simple like this:
A1) Barbell Back Squat 3×8
A2) Chin Ups 3×8
B1) Back Elevated BB Glute Bridge 3×8
B2) Military Press 3×8
A1) Deadlift 3×8
A2) Bench Press 3×8
B1) BB Reverse Lunge 3×8
B2) Bent-Over Row 3×8
Ironically that same routine will work for fat loss for most beginners quite well, I’d just add some conditioning to the fat loss program for people who don’t want to add too much muscle bulk.
Arguably, most people need a little and it helps in more ways than one but everybody has their own perception of how they want to look.
Assuming you’re going to train three times a week, and you don’t want to train weekends, then you’d train Monday, Wednesday, Friday and it’d look like this:
- Monday – Workout 1
- Wednesday – Workout 2
- Friday – Workout 1
When you get to the next week, you just keep following the cycle:
- Monday – Workout 2
- Wednesday – Workout 1
- Friday – Workout 2
It’s a 2 week cycle really before it repeats itself, but really you can do any non-consecutive training days if you want like Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, whatever…
You could train twice a week if you want, making it a weekly cycle. Something like Tuesday and Friday or Monday and Thursday — my go to maintenance approach…
Or once a week, making it a two week cycle again. Hopefully only if it’s a rough week, or you’re really just testing the waters.
I think three is ideal for all outcomes, but most people can scrap by reasonably well with two, and if you’re time pressed, once a week is certainly better than nothing.
It’s not like training three times a week is 3x better than training once a week, but it is still like 65% better still…so it’s significant…
Meet yourself where you’re at, that’s how I designed this framework to be utilized.
Lastly, consider your rest intervals between your sets.
Newer research suggests that rest intervals for gaining muscle aren’t the 60-90 seconds we probably previously thought, it seems for this aim as long as you train to fatigue, the rest intervals don’t matter that much at all, so I usually say get a minimum of 90-120 seconds (1.5-2 minutes) between doing the same exercise for this objective.
Maybe go a bit shorter if you have fat loss objectives, but the jury is still out on that.
If I do A1 in let’s say 16-20 seconds (8 reps at 2 seconds a repetition), then I can rest 50 seconds or so before I do A2, which takes another 20 seconds or so, then rest another 50 seconds, then I have a total of 2 minutes rest from exercise A1, before I try to do A1 again.
Keep in mind that I actually don’t use a strict timer with beginners or intermediates…like…ever…and that’s because in my experience it’s more of an intermediate-advanced strategy, to use strict rest intervals.
However, you should shoot for a rough minimum in most cases.
For strength you probably want closer to 3 minutes between A1 and A1 again, and of course each exercise takes less time, so with strength you can often get away with using another filler in there — AKA a tri-set, or simply just a filler, the evidence that could also work is in it’s infancy, but promising; Unfortunately that’s another article.
So you’re probably looking at about 80-90 seconds between A1 and A2 and 80-90 seconds before going back to A1, more than enough time to load plates or grab heavier stuff to lift.
For endurance, each exercise takes longer to execute so the rest intervals can almost be immediate, or at least 10-2o seconds at the most.
I’m not convinced rest intervals need to be super strict or that short for endurance training purposes, but that’s kind of the standard look at that moment.
So you do your max push-ups, then rest the time it takes you to pick up the weight for your max goblet squats, then rest the time it takes for you to put the weight down and get back to the floor.
Muscular endurance training with paired sets can really drive your heart rate up, something I believe can be the limiting factor.
I typically tell clients to wait until they’re at a 6 out of 10 of perceived exertion before the start the next exercise when using paired sets for endurance purposes. This can lead to longer rest intervals especially towards the end of a paired set sequence.
Hopefully you get the idea, and you can see how you might be able to get a very effective workout in only 20 minutes or so, another big plus!
Questions? Check out the FAQ, or leave a comment…
The Basic Guidelines
- Do resistance training on non-consecutive days — meaning always get a day off from resistance training between workouts — so it looks like you train Mon/Wed/Fri if you want, or Tue/Thur/Sat if you’re training three times a week, or Mon/Thur, or Tues/Fri if you’re training twice a week and if you only training once a week then this won’t matter
- Alternate between A1 and A2, getting the right amount of total rest between doing the same exercise, until all your sets and reps are completed for that pairing
- Then move onto the B1 and B2, doing the exact same alternating thing
- Choose set and rep sequences that suit your objectives: My suggestions for a beginner are 4×6 for strength, 3×8 or 3×10 for hypertrophy, and 2×15 for endurance to start — you’re probably not going to jump into explosive power training as a beginner
- Try to use movements that minimize impact on one another, for instance if you’re doing a deadlift, don’t choose and upper body exercise that also challenges your grip — that’s why I almost always pair a press with a lower body hinge/deadlift/hip dominant move.
- I recommend a 5-10 minute warm up at a minimum, but because I don’t have much space in this post, and I have a lot of empathy watching how most people warm up, I’ll have to write another article detailing a basic warm up routine…
- Fill off days with ESD training if you want, I’d recommend some, or you can put 10-20 minutes at the end of one of these routines if you prefer
My concept of fitness frameworks require a whole other post really but quickly to expand upon what I was getting at above.
Rather than tell you exactly the lifts to do I’m giving you a basic template or framework from which to build your routine off of. I’ll be posting some sample routines for download at some point in the future for people who need a little more direction for specific purposes but hopefully after reading above you understand the basic premise of the routine:
- Lower Body Push paired with an Upper Body Pull
- Lower Body Pull paired with an Upper Body Push
What qualifies for each of those is really based on my experience experimenting with good combinations of exercises. For instance, it’s tough to do rows and deadlifts together, they just work too much of the same muscle, but pressing and deadlifts go together like peas and carrots.
Lots of popular routines work like this, where you get a framework to build a routine off of. Like Westside for instance which is typically a powerlifting routine with a basic framework of:
- Day 1 – Lower Body Max Effort (high load, slow rep training)
- Day 2 – Upper Body Dynamic Effort (50% of 1RM, high speed training)
- Day 3 – Lower Body Dynamic Effort (same idea as Day 2)
- Day 4 – Upper Body Max Effort (same idea as Day 1 but upper body…)
Or at least that rough idea, you can move the days around to suit training objectives, like a weak bench you might want to put Upper Body Max Effort earlier in the week.
Frameworks like this offer a ton of flexibility, but require a little learning and they utilize training principles or concepts over training tools or exercises alone.
Sure there are lists of exercises recommended (I’ll post something like that soon…) and some details about how to implement the training but piecing everything together right now is kind of on you.
For your sake, I think this is a good thing because it forces you to learn a little about the training process, rather than just blindly following a random strict program from the internet and then complaining about not making gains.
You have to actually experience the training process to derive the most benefit, otherwise you’ll always be reliant on people to catch fish for you, rather than learning how to fish.
In order to build the shear number of programs that I’ve built over the years, I’ve had to adopt hundreds of frameworks that I can tweak to the needs of an individual, rather than trying to fit people to my programs.
Skill Based 2×2 Training is only one such framework and I might release some of my other more popular/frequently used ones in future, but for now this is a good starting place for most folks.
For those who care, I’m completely a programming geek, this is really essentially ‘my thing‘ when it comes to fitness. I obsess about it.
Unfortunately, this makes my approach slightly more complicated than do this exact routine; squat every day, do bench, military press, deadlifts and power cleans some days.
And yet, less boring because I’m not telling you to do the exact same handful of lifts for the next year.
I still however believe that it is incredibly easy to learn, given that I’ve taught this basic framework to hundreds of people. If just requires you to do a little bit of thinking and a little bit of learning.
One day I might even release a programming book on Fitness Frameworks, as the skeleton of that book already largely exists in my programming library.
For now, just know this is a good simple one you can build a thousand different programs with very easily.
Also published on Medium.