Article Request Series: If You Could Only Do 5 Exercises for The Rest of Your Life, What Would They Be and Why?

Man, I’m glad you picked that number, because there are essentially 5 basic human movements

  1. Hip Hinge
  2. Squat
  3. Press
  4. Pull
  5. Torso Stiffness

Now there are other subcategories like rotational movements, the press can be divided into vertical and horizontal planes, as can the pull, however, at the bare bones it all comes down to those 5 movements. I’m going to extrapolate a little and assume the person is essentially asking, what are the 5 most effective exercises? Because the truth is my 5 might be slightly different than your 5 depending on goals, individual differences in structure, and other limitations, so I’m going to give you the 5 that I believe will work for the most people reading this

Exercise 1: Front Squat

Why it’s awesome: Due to the front loaded position requiring a more upright torso, axial load and shear force are reduced on the lumbar spine, it makes it a more low-back friendly option than back squats for the long term. It requires less shoulder mobility and external rotation than the back squat, doesn’t put any lateral stress on the elbow (which doesn’t tolerate lateral stress very well) and is a self correcting exercise in the sense that if the weight is too high, and you lose torso position, you’ll be forced to ditch the bar. The front squat can be modified to be made more comfortable for almost every upper body joint, meaning it’s a great exercise to work through aches, pains and injuries that can occur over a lifetime of lifting.

Exercise 2: Barbell Deadlift

Why it’s awesome: Want to work almost every muscle in your body save for your pressing muscles? Deadlift. Want to gain a ton of muscle? Deadlift. How about burn a ton of body fat? Deadlift. For most people, the deadlift will be the highest load they can use on any exercise not named the partial leg press, and no single move recruits more muscle fibres at high threshold than the classic barbell deadlift, more muscle fibres stimulated means more growth potential activated, and also more energy expended per repetition. The real determinant of whether you put on loads of muscle or strip away tons of fat will be your nutrition. The ability to pick heavy stuff off the floor is an ability that never gets old, even as you do, and as a bonus, a strong deadlifter is usually decently strong in just about every other exercise out there, except the press variations

Exercise 3: The Military Push Press

Why it’s awesome: Most of you were probably thinking I’d pick the bench press, but I’ve already blasphemed against powerlifting with the front squat, so why not keep the streak going? The military push press is a full range movement at the shoulder, whereas any horizontal pressing motion uses only a portion of the total range that the shoulder can move through. Although this may not seem super important to you now, once you lose some range in the shoulder you’ll miss it more than recess and someone else packing your lunch for you. Despite the military press’s reputation as shoulder killer, it only wrecks shoulders that are predisposed to or are already injured. For those with healthy shoulders, using all your range can actually keep you healthy over time. Why the push press over the standard military press? First, the amount of weight you can handle is higher (see the deadlift for why that’s awesome), second, the explosive nature of the movement trains the fast twitch fibres to a higher degree, and fast twitch fibres do all the cool tricks like grow more, and burn more energy, and make you stronger.

This is the one exception I’ll make, if you already have shoulder issues but are cleared to train, then replace this with the dumbbell bench press. By using dumbbells instead of a fixed bar, you can manoeuvre around sticking points and painful ranges in the shoulder joint, and because most shoulder issues occur at the extreme end range of motion, the horizontal press walks right down the middle of the road. For really beat up shoulders you might need totally free shoulder blade motion too, in which case the banded pushup would most likely be your best option

Exercise 4: Chest Supported Barbell Row

Why it’s awesome: The low back can take a lot of abuse from even the most perfectly executed front squats and deadlifts once you are handling high loads, and sometimes you just need to give those muscle a damn break, but you still need to work those muscles that act on the shoulder blades and keep you from crunching into the gym-bro hunchback that presses way too much. The chest supported T-bar row kills the two most common types of cheating that even the most seasoned of athletes can be guilty of with the standard barbell row: driving with the hips/using momentum, and getting more upright as the weight gets heavier. By keeping the chest pasted to the pad, you’re not going to be able to do either of these things, and the work is going be done by the targeted muscles.

Exercise 5: Single Arm Farmer’s Walk

Why it’s awesome: Well, I firmly believe the ability to carry groceries into your house in one trip is the true measure of a man, but even if you don’t agree the single arm farmer’s walk is still a killer exercise: It crushes your grip, it’s an anti-lateral flexion aka a don’t let me fall or get pushed over sideways drill, it’s anti-rotational aka don’t let me twist myself into a pretzel, and it strengthens the entire chain from the ankles to the shoulders in unilateral fashion, much as you’d use them when changing directions or sprinting or playing whatever recreational sport you end up getting roped into. The farmer’s walk also makes your torso stiffer and more resilient for big lifts like the squat, deadlift and military press, and it also burns a ton of energy, oh and it’s high load too so you’ll probably grow some muscle. All that adds up to being a whole lot cooler than doing 100 sit-ups and having nothing but some back pain to show for it

Now let’s plug a loophole; someone is going to say “what about cardio, you can’t just lift and stay healthy!” true, but I’m not willing to give up one of my 5 precious exercises for the stairclimber, so if you want a cardiovascular effect, lighten up the loads and keep moving for 20+ minutes, the heart and the lungs are pretty dumb tissue, they don’t care what creates the demand, they just respond! Now get training!


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