These Are the Only Five Exercises You Need at the Gym

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These Are the Only Five Exercises You Need at the Gym
Image: Getty Images

Less is more is great approach to training at the gym, and this includes keeping the number of exercises you do to a lucky number five.

The key to maxing out the return on investment (ROI) from your gym session lies in stripping out anything superfluous. You should focus on five exercises, sometimes known as the ‘Big 5’. Nothing else.

Met-con workouts (short for ‘metabolic conditioning’) are strength training exercises that fire up your metabolism and turn you into a fat-burning furnace. They build a bit of a strength and a lot of heart.

Your parents, if they were into fitness, would have known these workouts as circuit training. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) also falls into this category. It’s basically circuit training with a few extra bells and whistles.

You see, not too much in the fitness world is new or original, but it sells better if you can brand it so it appears that way. Which is absolutely fine by me if it gets more people moving. For people with limited time and money resources, home met-con workouts can get you lean and build a little muscle in the relative comfort of your own home.

Motivation can be a stumbling block though, even for 8-10 minutes a day which is all you need to work up a bit of a sweat and free your body from whatever contortions your desk job has put it through each day.

After putting the kids to bed and grabbing a bite to eat after a long day in the office, sometimes the last thing you feel like doing is popping to the bedroom and banging out a 10 minute circuit.

Which is odd because that’s probably the best thing you could do for you, your family…hell, even the dog.

Sometimes you feel the need to get out of the house and hit the gym for some strength work. You reason that at least there you’ll actually do something, no matter how intense (or not) it is.

It’s a flawed logic but one I get understand completely. Because I’ve been in exactly that position.

If your gym is open late and everyone else is in bed, there’s nothing wrong with heading out for a workout.

You have to be motivated enough to go at, say, 8:30pm after the little cherub is in bed and the after-work crowd have gone home.

And you have to be efficient.

That means no messing around. No selfies. No reading social media. No trying new isolation exercises you’ve seen in Mens Health. Just good, hard, honest graft. (As an added bonus, this will also help you keep your sessions down to 40 minutes or less.)

Why Strength Training?

By the way, if you’re unsure whether strength training (i.e. lifting heavy objects) has a place in your schedule, here are some reasons why you it pays to lift heavy:

    • Develop strong bones. By stressing your bones, strength training can increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
    • Manage your weight. Strength training can help you manage or lose weight, and it can increase your metabolism to help you burn more calories.
    • Enhance your quality of life. Strength training may enhance your quality of life and improve your ability to do everyday activities. Building muscle also can contribute to better balance and may reduce your risk of falls. This can help you maintain independence as you age.
    • Manage chronic conditions. Strength training can reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, such as arthritis, back pain, obesity, heart disease, depression and diabetes.
    • Sharpen your thinking skills. Some research suggests that regular strength training and aerobic exercise may help improve thinking and learning skills for older adults.

[Source: Mayo Clinic]

There is also something primal and satisfying about lifting or moving increasingly heavy things. This is probably evolutionary and would be better served by carrying rocks to build walls or shelters.

For most of us, though, a barbell and some plates will have to suffice.

The Big Five

#1 Squat

I once read an article that said if you want big thighs: squat. It went on to say if you want big glutes (butt): squat.

It then applied this same principle to back, chest, shoulders and arms.

The point is squats hit everything – they’re the ultimate total body movement – and you’re extremely unlikely to ever see someone in the gym who can squat big but doesn’t have a similarly big all round physique.

Squats make everything grow. It really is a full body exercise.

For a decent back squat (a regular guy with a training background) you’re looking at 1.5 x bodyweight but it takes some training to build up to this.

Start with an empty bar (be aware that the empty bar weighs 20kg) or even a dowel and hone your technique with 5 x 5 (that’s 5 sets of 5 reps), adding a tiny amount of weight with each session.

This might seem very easy to begin with but stick with it. Squats tax your central nervous system.

SFD PR: 120kg

#2 Deadlift

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Sometimes called the King Of Execises, deadlifts vie with squats for the most important exercise in your gym routine.

They provide a counter-balance to squats by hitting your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, back) and also your shoulders. And it’s a massive test of your minerals.

There’s a degree of technical know-how required here so I’d advise a session with a powerlifting coach at your gym (if they have one) to lock in correct form. That could save your back. Or just take it real easy and ask a floating trainer at the gym for a couple of pointers.

Good cues are: keep your chest up like a proud gorilla, keep your back locked and engaged, keep your arms absolutely straight and push your feet through the floor. The bar should travel up and down in a straight line, effectively scraping your shins and thighs.

As the weight increases it will be your grip that gives way first and you’ll need to switch to a mixed grip (as shown in the picture).

Again, start light and build to 5 sets of 5.

SFD PR: 170kg

#3 Bench press

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Monday might be universal bench press night at every gym anywhere so you’ll need to schedule these later in the week.

A vanity muscle? Maybe.

But don’t skip ‘em.

Completing the powerlifting trinity (with squats and deads) the bench press is the premium upper body exercise, building a strong chest, big shoulders, blocky triceps and working a whole range of stabilizer muscles.

Warm-up with an empty bar for several reps (I like 2 sets x 20 reps with a normal grip followed by 2 x 10-15 with a close-grip) and build slowly.

SFD PR: 85kg

#4 Shoulder press

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Probably the most isolative exercise listed here, the press is nonetheless an essential part of the mix and builds rock-solid boulders for shoulders.

Keep everything braced and the weights light as you progress. There’s nothing shameful about starting with an empty bar or even something lighter as you find your way.

As usual 5 x 5 is a good protocol to follow but if you fancy 3 x 8-10, go for your life.

Keep your body tight – that means gluts and abs tight. Push up, aiming to keep your elbows forward rather than splaying out to the sides. And remember to lock out at the top.

SFD PR: 60kg

#5 Pull-Ups

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The only exercise here that doesn’t require a barbell and one you can practise at home with a doorway pull-up bar.

When I landed in Australia six years ago I tried pull-ups for the first time, thinking that, as a seasoned gym-goer, I’d be able to crank out a cruisey ten reps straight off the bat.

2.5 reps later I was back on the floor, humbled but determined.

If you’re new to the pull-up game there are a few ways to ease in. Some gyms have machines that you can load up with weight that supports you. Steer clear of these. Instead use power band/s wrapped around the bar as a stirrup and support yourself on a foot.

Alternatively try chin-ups (palms facing inwards), jumping pull-ups or even controlled reps off a box.

I like 5 reps every-minute-on-the-minute for 5 or 10 minutes, depending on how I’m feeling and how frequently I’ve been doing them.

For the reps to really count we want a dead-hang which involves dropping down until your arms are straight before pulling back up.

SFD PR: 17 unbroken dead-hangs

Packing this into a workout

The beauty of focusing on the Big 5 is that it keeps thinking time to an absolute minimum. Just get to the gym, warm up and then move some iron around.

We’re not flitting from machine-to-machine, looking for different handles or apparatus or generally dicking about. This is no-nonsense strength training with a happily accompanying dosage of fat burning, muscle building, CNS taxing and loads of other good stuff.

You’ll also sleep like a baby.

Here is what a sample three day routine might look like. Simple, huh?

If you do this for 30 days you will see results.

Day 1:

5 mins rowing

5 mins stretching

Build to 5 x 5 bench press

Build to 5 x 5 squat

5 x 5 pull-ups

Cooldown

Day 2

5 mins rowing

5 mins stretching

Build to 5 x 5 deadlift

Build to 5 x 5 press

5 x 5 pull-ups

Cooldown

Day 3

5 mins rowing

5 mins stretching

Build to 5 x 5 deadlift

Build to 5 x 5 squat

5 x 5 pull-ups

Cooldown

Conclusion

This might seem simple but try sticking to it for four weeks and see how you a) feel and b) look afterwards. These workouts will start to build strength and, crucially, will turn your body into a fat-burning centre.

Don’t worry about the lack of cardio, this will get you good and gassy. It will tax your heart, lungs, limbs and mind.

If you’re concerned about the lack of weight or find the workouts easy, be patient. Wait until week four when you’re adding a bit more weight and see how five sets of five feels.

These workouts talk to everything we’re interested in: no thought required other than focusing on the weight to be moved; 35-45 minute time-frame; massive return-on-investment.

Resources

Stronglifts: great site with tons of simple yet effective information about the 5 x 5 training protocol.

Dan John: if you’re ready to step it up a notch (and even if you’re not), Dan John’s books and articles are probably the most accessible yet erudite material on lifting out there. I especially like Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning.

Ben Ford is the author of SuperFitDad, a lifestyle blog that focuses on health tips for busy dads.


This story has been updated since its original publication.

Comments

  • 5×5 squat every session with one break day in between.

    then add 5×5:

    Day1: Bench Press and Bent Over Row
    Day 2: Shoulder Press and 1×5 deadlift

    This is 5×5 stronglifts routine.

    • Read my response. If you look up 5×5 stronglifts and do it for a few weeks, you will be able to do pull-ups. It is a great beginner setup for building muscle and many people return to it in between more advanced routines to build overall power back up.

    • While the article says to not use the pull up machine it’s actually not a bad way for new people to get used to them. And it’s really easy to gauge progress as you change the assistance weight from week to week.

      You should find that if you’re losing weight at the same time the amount of assistance weight you drop from the machine increases rapidly. This is because you’re both getting stronger and pulling up less weight.

      Once you’ve gotten more comfortable using the machine and reduced the amount of weight assisting you then definitely swap to regular pull-ups. Just be aware that you may (probably) won’t complete a full set with no assistance. And as DaFish points out negative pull-ups help at that point too. I don’t like them when first starting because there is no feeling of control. The machine gives you greater control, so less chance of injury when starting out.

    • You can do negative pull ups if you can. Stand on a Box and jump up and try and hold yourself up and slowly lower your body.

      If you can’t do this, then you can sit on the floor with a bar above you just where you can reach with your arms up. Then pull yourself to the bar. Use your feet if you can’t just pull yourself up. As you improve, don’t push with your feet, or have your feet elevated.

      Good luck! It takes a while to get to that first one. After that though, 2, 3, 4, 5 come a lot easier. So don’t get disheartened when you can’t get to your first pull up!

    • The pullup, chin up and other variants are great compound exercises that have a focus on your lats, and your hand position determines the the assisting muscles. Pronated (palms facing away from you) has a greater focus on the brachialis. Supinated grip (palms facing towards you) works the biceps more. And a neutral grip balances the two and is often makes it easier to perform a pullup
      If you cant perform one, though, there are numerous ways to build up to being able to do one. I’d first assess what your limiting factor is: lat strength or grip. The latter is easier to deal with, and often overlooked for pullups and deadlifts – you can train your drip strength with farmer walks, and hanging onto the pullup bar for as long as you can muster
      Otherwise, you can do:
      Technique and form: Always look for someone who can show you good form, or there are some great resources online – I know a few I’d recommend. Good form will reduce risk of injury and help get the best gains in the long run. Also, often will make the exercise easier
      Floor Pullups: Using a barbell resting on squat safety rails, or the squat pins/j-rails low enough that you can keep your legs on the ground to remove some weight from your body to make the pullup easier
      Lat Pulldowns: Much more isolating to the Lat muscle, but this machine is great at strengthening the primary mover for pullups
      One Arm Rows: Bent over, bracing against a raised surface and rowing with a down bell is another good lat isolating exercise to build up strength, and being one arm helps eliminate potential imbalances you may have
      Band Assisted Pullups: Using a resistance band wrapped around the pullup bar, you step one foot in the looped band to help raise you during the lift. Start with a band strength at allows 10-12 good reps, then reduce the strength of the band until you don’t need one anymore
      Pullup Machine: Its a counter weight machine to assist learning pullups
      Eccentric focused pullup: Ever muscle goes through a concentric phase, where the muscle contracts, and then the eccentric phase where the muscle extends – muscles are stronger in the eccentric phase, and often get the most muscle growth from the micro damage caused by this phase (don’t skip the eccentric phase in any muscle growing exercise!)
      Eccentric focused pullups have you exhaust the concentric phase, or if you cant complete any pullups skip to the next portion. “Cheat” to get to the top portion of the pullup – this can be done by safely climbing up and getting into the top contracted position, using a band to get into position and then while still at the top getting your foot out of the band, or getting a friend to help.
      You then slowly “lower” yourself down through eccentric portion of the pullup, ideally over 10 seconds or longer. If you can complete multiple reps, the better.
      I’ve used this technique to train beginner to advanced, and use it on myself when training for extra weight and prior to Covid lockdown had gotten up to 4 reps of 40kg extra weight pullups, or 25 uninterrupted pullups, or 18 plylo pullups

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