The 5 most important exercises for strength, definition, and overall fitness
Imagine you moved to your dream house. It has everything you could possibly hope for and more; a swimming pool, tennis courts, stables, a helipad and even a personal chef. You get to live in it for free, but with one caveat. You have to sign up to the gym next door, where you’re only allowed to do five exercises for the rest of your life.
For most people, this wouldn’t be a problem in the slightest. Five exercises? That’s more than I do all year!
But you’re not like most people. You’re hooked on your training programme like it’s an intravenous drip, and the notion of limiting yourself to only five exercises for the rest of your life makes you feel sick. You seriously consider blowing the whole plan out of the water; only to remember it’s a really beautiful house, and if it means adjusting your training programme a little, it’s a compromise you’d be silly not to make.
As you begin to sign over the paperwork, the inevitable question pops into your head.
What five exercises will keep me in great shape for the rest of my life?
These are our suggestions – and for most people, focusing on these five exercises alone would deliver results far greater that some of the most intricate training programmes out there today.
#1 – Squats
Squats are the cornerstone of all bodybuilding programmes, working the glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and abdominals. Squats are an essential movement for building size and strength, by activating the major muscle groups and supercharging testosterone production. The increase in testosterone also accelerates fat metabolism – making squats one of the best exercises for developing a lean, sculptured physique.
There are numerous squat variations that can be explored to inject variety into your training. Barbell back squats are the most common; but try front squats for a greater emphasis on the quadriceps, or goblet squats to reduce the pressure on the shoulders. Hack squats are also a great way to build explosive power in the legs, whilst putting less stress on the knee joints.
#2 – Deadlifts
If you’re looking to work the most muscles in a single movement, then there is nothing that beats the deadlift. It’s perhaps the most functional of all barbell exercises; quite simply, you pick up something heavy, then you put it back down again.
Deadlifts work the hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, biceps, shoulders and trapezius. They’re great for strengthening the posterior chain and the lower back, improving grip strength, and, like squats, deliver a hefty testosterone boost with each movement.
Deadlifts are very taxing on the central nervous system, so limit them to once a week (twice for more experienced lifters) to harness all the benefits without burning yourself out.
#3 – Push ups
No exercise routine would be complete without a pushing exercise; and although being able to bench heavy may look impressive, the humble push up is equally effective for targeting the shoulders, triceps and chest. Unlike the bench press, however, push ups also target the abdominals whilst putting far less pressure on the joints – making them a must have exercise for building strength and definition without risking injury.
Push ups can be varied to target different muscle groups more effectively; try a narrow hand width to focus on the triceps, or go wider for more emphasis on the chest. For progression, you can do plyometric push ups whereby you explode off the ground and clap before returning to repeat the movement, or even incorporate a weighted vest.
#4 - Pull ups
For every ‘push’ exercise there must be a ‘pull’, and by far the number one pulling exercise is the pull up. Targeting your lats, biceps, forearms and abdominals, pull ups hit all the upper body muscle groups that the push up cannot.
Like push ups, pull ups can be varied in numerous ways. Use a wide, overhand grip to target the lats, or a narrow grip with palms inward for greater emphasis on the biceps. When you can do five sets of 12 on each grip, try using a weighted vest for an additional challenge.
With these four exercises, you target every major muscle in the body, as displayed in the diagram below:
Now you have covered all bases in the gym, your final exercise will take you outdoors to seriously overhaul your body composition.
#5 - Sprint
There is no exercise that melts away fat quite like sprinting – which is why we have chosen it as our fifth and final exercise. Anaerobic exercises like sprints burn body fat whilst preserving muscle - and what’s more, they actually enhance the rate at which fat is oxidised after exercise by as much as 75%. Sprinting has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, meaning the carbohydrates you eat are less likely to be stored as fat.
The best thing about sprinting? Almost anyone can do it. Whether it’s on the running track, at the local park, on your bike or in the pool, there are no limits to where you can sprint.
These are our five essential exercises – what are yours?
James Haskell Health & Fitness helps you achieve a healthier and fitter lifestyle
We do this delivering professional fitness and nutrition advice in a simple, clear and easy to understand format. In conjunction with the development of our own range of clean and certified sports supplements, this allows the individual to achieve the lifestyle balance, which is right for them.