Our bodies aren’t naturally inclined towards maximum strength and muscle*, which means a strong stimulus is required to force changes.
It’s logical to think we’d need a lot of different exercises, each with its own contribution towards building a large adaptive response. However, decades of training and experimentation has taught me that just five will do it.
* As much as we love them, from a survival perspective huge muscles aren’t necessary, and take a lot of energy to build and maintain.
- The Pareto Principle
- Training Efficiency
- Human Movement
- Strength and Mass Kings: the 5.5 Magic Exercises
- Accessory, Assistance, and Auxiliary Lifts
- The Experiment
The Pareto Principle
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
While the Pareto principle isn’t hard science, it’s a useful concept that applies to many aspects of life, pointing to considerable inefficiency in how we do things.
Insofar as it applies to training, it means most people are spending a lot of time doing exercises that aren’t building much muscle or strength.
The most efficient way to train is to use movements that actively train more than one muscle at once (compound or multi-joint—as opposed to single-joint or isolation—exercises, ie, those in which more than one joint moves).
For instance, to train the lower body and core we could use a bunch of isolation exercises, say back extensions, crunches, leg extensions, hamstring curls, calf raises, and hip thrusts.
Or we could just do barbell back squats.
If we did squats and all the previous exercises, the Pareto principle kicks in and says we’re basically wasting our time.
To develop all the muscles we’re interested in, we need exercises that involve all the basic movements of our bodies. These are often stated as:
- Loaded carry
To adequately cover the musculature, I’d further break the first two down as such:
- Vertical plane
- Horizontal plane
- Vertical plane
- Horizontal plane
Strength and Mass Kings: the 5.5 Magic Exercises
To cover all the movements we’re capable of and the muscles we all want to grow and strengthen, a mere five exercises is all that’s needed. They are:
1 – Chin Up
Basic movement: vertical pull.
Muscles covered: mainly the back (central emphasis), rear and side shoulders, biceps, forearms, and secondarily the core.
Depending on strength, these can be done assisted—on a machine or with bands, for instance—with just the body, or with weight added via a dip belt, or by holding a dumbbell between the knees (which is what I do—not exactly comfortable with heavier weight, but gets the job done).
I recommend either performing these with rotating handles of some kind, starting the movement hands forward, and rotating them inward (ie, supinating your grip) as you pull yourself up.
If you don’t have access to rotating handles, or can’t rig some up with a TRX or gymnastic rings, at least use an angled grip so that the hands aren’t full supinated the whole time. The reason is that using an underhand grip on a straight bar as they’re often done is extremely hard on the forearm tendons, and can lead to tendonitis (golfer’s and tennis elbow).
It’s also important to use a controlled, deliberate motion. Wildly swinging around will only take stress off the muscles we’re trying to train.
2 – Dip
Basic movement: vertical push.
Muscles covered: chest (particularly lower aspect), triceps, front and side shoulders, and core secondarily.
Again these can be done assisted or with weight added.
This is another exercise that needs careful execution, especially at the bottom of the movement. Too violent a motion will likely lead to shoulder issues.
3 – Barbell Row (Upper Body 45°)
Basic movements: horizontal pull and loaded carry.
Muscles covered: back (mid and upper emphasis), rear and side shoulders, biceps, and forearms. The lower back also gets a lot of stimulation through holding you in position, and the lower body and the rest of the core to a lesser extent.
Although I’ve classified this as a loaded carry movement, it’s not normally classed as such. However, when the exercise is performed with the upper body in a 45° position instead of parallel to the floor, the outcome is similar enough to warrant it because the upper back and grip are more involved.
A strongman athlete would view that as a stretch, but I think it’s valid for the general purpose athlete. Unless you’re training to be a strongman, we’re looking for overall bang-for-the-buck. (Plus, walking around with loaded implements or heavy dumbbells is profoundly uninspiring and boring, and training enjoyment is important.)
4 – Bench Press
Basic movement: horizontal push.
Muscles covered: chest (upper part in particular), front and side shoulders, triceps.
My preference is to use a barbell on an incline bench (at roughly 30°) as the incline is easier on the shoulder joint. However, if you can tolerate it, a flat bench can also be used, as can dumbbells.
5 – Barbell Squat
Basic movements: squat and hinge.
Muscles covered: primarily whole upper leg, backside, and lower back, but also calves and core.
It’s impressive that one exercise could cover an entire half of the body by itself, but the squat does it. Even further, it’s sometimes referred to as a whole body exercise because it works a significant portion of the upper body, too.
Because it’s so all-encompassing, it takes a lot of effort and focus, which means it can be very draining and care needs to be taken to avoid exceeding recovery ability.
Studies show that squatting mainly hits the quads and glutes, with hamstring stimulation being subpar, but it’s dependent on individual proportions and limb lengths. Personally, I find my whole leg is trained hard, and it’s because I’m built such that squatting involves a lot of forward lean.
If you don’t get much hamstring stimulation, you’ll need the ½ part of this 5 ½ collection of movements—the deadlift.
5 ½ – Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Basic movement: hinge.
Muscles covered: primarily the hamstrings, butt, lower back, and grip; and secondarily the core, upper back, and calves.
Why the stiff-leg variation instead of the full deadlift?
Many swear by the full deadlift, and wouldn’t consider a program without it. But to me its cost/benefit ratio isn’t worth it. The full deadlift is monumentally draining, in my experience the most fatiguing exercise there is, and a maximum effort deadlift session can leave you feeling hungover for days. Most of what the full deadlift trains is better and more directly worked during a squat.
There is a line of thought attributing great upper back development to full deadlifts. Again those muscles are better trained with a barbell row in which the muscles are being worked through a full range of motion instead of statically as in the deadlift.
Also, as with the squat, there is work showing the full deadlift isn’t especially effective for the hamstrings either. However, the stiff-leg version is a very good hamstring exercise, and is also less taxing in general. Therefore, if you’re someone who’s proportions mean the squat doesn’t adequately cover the back of your upper leg, you should add stiff-leg deadlifts.
- Proper exercise execution is imperative. Full development is impossible if you can’t activate and use the intended muscles.
- Research shows development is better achieved with a full range of motion, so don’t short-change yourself with half movements. (Not that partials don’t have their place, but complete movement should be first and foremost.)
- You can effectively train forearms and grip by avoiding the use of straps. The stiff-leg deadlifts, barbell rows, and chin ups are great for this, particularly as you get stronger and increase load.
Accessory, Assistance, and Auxiliary Lifts
So, five base exercises, now time to fill in the gaps?
For maximum efficiency, a program consisting only of those five exercises—supported by sound nutrition, and in which you continually aim to get stronger in a variety of rep ranges—will get you most if not all of the development you’re capable of. There aren’t really any gaps, and no better exercises for the muscles involved.
Take biceps for instance. Curls are fine, but chin ups are just as good (better in my opinion), but have the advantage of simultaneously training the back hard, plus other supporting muscles.
But don’t you need a thousand different variations and angles for maximum stimulation? What about the research showing that you can stress different areas of individual muscles with different exercises?
All true. But the aim here is to elicit most of the desired results in the most efficient way. Adding in a bunch of single joint exercises and other variations will probably elicit a marginally greater response, but it’s a case of diminishing returns. The big five will get you 99% of the way in a fraction of the time.
That’s crazy, I insist on doing more.
Okay. But at the very least, structure your base on the big 5.
2 Years, Just the 5
At first I was uncertain as to whether only five exercises would be sufficient. I thought my logic was fair, but it’s so different from normal recommendations that doubt lingered.
As such, of course I had to test it myself. So for roughly two years, the five movements were literally all I did.
During that time I successfully went through both diet and muscle-gaining cycles. Workouts were short and to the point.
I have many years of previous experience of long workouts comprising many different exercises to compare to. While admittedly it was far from a rigorously controlled scientific study, my results confirmed my hypothesis to my satisfaction.
In other words, I achieved similar results far more efficiently in far less time.
My base program is still just those five movements, but with one difference. Depending on recovery and energy levels, I’ll go in for extra intuitively-based sessions, including variations of the big five, machines, and single joint work.
I don’t track these workouts, and they’re just to build extra volume and have fun. These sessions will be on days off my more formal work, or later on the same day if circumstances permit.
This article is for general purpose, the person who wants to look good, strengthen their body, and improve health. If you fall outside of that category, of course you’d have to change your approach as appropriate.
Personally, I’m happy to wring the basics out for all they’re worth, and don’t get bored. Quite the contrary actually, I love the quest for perfect form and improved strength in those fundamental movements.
But enjoyment is critical for adherence, so if you need more variety because of boredom, you should add more.
If you’re a bodybuilder who needs to do absolutely everything possible to maximize muscle growth, you will likely want to add more exercises.
If you are some other type of athlete, you might have sports-specific needs. Obviously a powerlifter has no choice regarding the deadlift, for instance.
If you have lagging body parts you would like to improve, it might be desirable to add specific single-joint work.
Simplicity is a beautiful thing. In this case it’s extremely powerful and convenient, saving time, but not at the cost of results.
All feedback and questions welcome, I’d love to hear from you—just use the comments box below or send me an email.