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Training for Visual Mass, Part 5: The 20 Minute Workout

First off, I shouldn’t really take much credit for this idea. The concept came to me in the form of an email, which opened with, “You want to try something crazy?” It was, of course, from my online buddy Bryce Lane, he of the weirdo minimalist training, giant neck, and upside-down free weight leg press (yes, he takes a barbell, puts a few hundred pounds on it, and balances it on his feet). So, allow me to give credit where credit is due.

That being said, I’ve played with this idea a fair bit over the last several months since I got into it. Thus far I’ve been very pleased with the results. This program not only increases mass, it results in strength gains, including strength-endurance, and overall work capacity. In other words, you not only get bigger, you get fitter and stronger. Now I know all programs promise that. What makes this one different? First, the focus is on improving overall work capacity along with mass and strength. This means that it will transfer to improved performance in any other activity, simply because you can handle more work.

Second, the program is based on time, not on particular reps and sets. You record progress by recording a total number of reps performed in a predetermined time. And you base the time-total goal on your personal needs. If you need endurance, you make the time longer and total rep count higher. If you want max strength, you drop the number of desired reps and increase the weight used. In this case, since our goal is a mass/general strength combo, 20 minutes is used as the goal time.

Third, while this program is demanding, it does not require you to work to failure or any of that other unnecessary macho stuff. Completing the final reps will be hard. But each set is not an all-out effort. In fact, in the beginning you might feel a bit smug because it won’t feel like you’re doing much work. But make your final decision when the twenty minutes is up.

Fourth, this program is not divided by bodyparts, but by lifts. You train only basic, compound lifts with as much full body emphasis as possible. If you have a need for a specific lift, then you train it, but choose it carefully. For example, Bryce was training for strong man work, so he added a few sets of biceps curls at the end of his squat day, but this had applications to one of the lifts he intended to do, so it was useful. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to do a bunch of isolation lifts. Pick a few good compound exercises and let them do their magic.

OK, so what does this program look like? There are lots of possibilities. The fundamental premise is that each day has one central lift. That lift is trained for 20 minutes, using whatever set-rep parameter you want. I recommend using more sets and fewer reps, so something like 10 sets of 5 is ideal, rather than 5 sets of 10. On compound lifts, you’ll find that more frequent, shorter sets keeps your technique good and doesn’t fatigue you so that you start losing form. By the end, you might even be doing sets of 1 or 2. I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like much work, but just wait till you try. For strength/mass gain, pick a weight that’s around 80% of your max. This will take some trial and error. When you first start out, start a little on the light side till you get the hang of it. Rest as long as you like between sets, then go again. Your goal for strength/mass gains with this program is 50 reps total in 20 minutes. Once you can get 50 reps in 20 minutes, using whatever arrangement of sets and reps you like, then you increase the weight by 5-10 lbs. and start again.

What each lift is depends on what you can do. I’ve suggested two routines, one for someone who is more of a beginner, and one for someone who is more intermediate. Both routines are great in terms of how they work, it’s just that the intermediate one requires more skill and familiarity with the exercises. The beginner may also wish to start with a reduced time, such as 10-15 minutes, and work up to 20 minutes.

Level 1 Routine

Day 1

Full depth squat, 20 min
Calf raises, 3 x 12

Day 2

Superset of pull-ups or lat pulldowns with sets of standing overhead press or dips, 20 min
Weighted ab exercise of choice, 3 x 10-12

Day 3 (recovery day)

Unweighted squats to standing on toes, 3 x 12-15 reps
One-arm dumbbell row or horizontal pull-ups 3 x 12
Pushups, 3 sets x 15 reps


Full depth squat form is explained here: and tips on learning to squat here:

A superset in this case means you do one set of the first exercise, then a set of the second, then a set of the first, and so on. I’ve given a few choices which will depend on ability as well as what’s available. For example, pull-ups alternated with standing overhead press with a barbell is a handy set to do in a power cage if you can use the cage for pull-ups, and just set the barbell on the pins when not in use. Think about what is the most effective given your current ability, and convenient equipment.

If pushups from feet are too hard, start with pushups from knees. If pushups from feet are too easy, elevate feet on a bench. These are meant as a recovery exercise, so they aren’t supposed to be a maximal effort.

Both the one-arm row and horizontal pull-ups are shown here:

Unweighted squats to standing on toes are just that. With no additional weight, you squat down to full depth, then come up again, and at the top, come on to your toes. Hold it for a second, then drop heels to the floor again, and repeat the sequence.

Level 2 routine

Day 1

Front squat to overhead press combo, 20 min
Pushups, 3 x as many as you can do
Calf raises, 3 x 12

Day 2

Pullups alternated with overhead press, 20 min
Weighted ab exercise of choice, 3 x 10-12

Day 3

Clean pull to shrug on toes, or power clean, 20 min
One-arm dumbbell row, 3 x 10-12


To do the front squat – overhead press combo, you must front squat using a clean grip. You squat down, come back up, then press the bar overhead. Lower the bar to your shoulders, get it back into position for the front squat, then squat down again, and repeat the sequence. The front squat with clean grip is shown here:

The clean pull is essentially a deadlift. To do a clean pull to shrug on toes, perform a conventional deadlift, then at the top, shrug shoulders up towards your ears while coming up on your toes. If you can power clean, that’s cool too. If you can full clean, heck, why not do that instead? You probably don’t need my ideas on mass gain if you’re able to do those!

This is a pretty demanding routine. You may find that every 6-8 weeks, you need to take a lighter week where you drop the intensity and/or the time spent on the lifts. That’s fine. Take breaks as needed. You will be sore after the first week of this, but will adapt quickly. You may also find that after completing your 20 minutes, you need a nice long break before you finish up with the second exercise. That’s okay too. Hell, you may need a little lie-down to let the spots disappear from your eyes. I don’t get into the pump-till-you-puke mentality, but this routine is hard work, so ease into it slowly and be prepared to feel like you’ve put in a good effort. If you love this routine, it’ll love you back.

Don’t forget the most important part of mass gain: eating!

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