The Big Five: The Exercises that Deliver the Greatest Results

Want the secret to building the most strength and muscle? I am sure you do. Well, I have the answer for you. It comes down to proper nutrition, efficient stress management, quality sleep and effective training. We are going to focus on the exercises that will deliver the greatest results by building the most muscle while burning body fat. They are known as the Big Five. This consists of the squat, deadlift, bench press, row, and overhead press. All fall under the category of compound lifts meaning that they all involve several muscle groups and move multiple joints. By perfecting these exercises, you will access your greatest potential in building strength and muscle which results in speeding up the metabolism and burning body fat. Each exercise provides tremendous, yet different value to the body. Lets dive into each of them individually and achieve a thorough understanding on what they are, how to perform them, and the results they deliver.

Squat

The squat, aka. “The King of Exercises,” is one of the most innate human movements. We have all seen a toddle playing with his or her toys sitting in a squatted position. It is literally ingrained into us at birth, but over time, we lose this ability not because we get older, but we simply don’t practice it anymore, and sitting in a chair does not count. When you lose the ability squat into a deep position, it changes how your hips, knees, feet, ankles, and back function.

To perform a squat, proper ankle and hip mobility and upper and mid back stability is required to achieve perfect form. The load is typically oriented on the front or back of the upper body. The feet are situated hip to shoulder width apart with foot placement ranging from straight forward to slightly rotated out depending on the individual.

To load the movement, you will begin sitting down, pushing your knees forwards and hips backwards. The chest will remain lifted forward while your brace your core to add stability to the spine. It is important to lower down as far as your can with prefect form and stability with the minimum target being to squat down to where your thighs are parallel to the ground.

Properly squatting will help build strength and muscle in the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes while adding stability around the feet, ankles, knees, and hips. When loaded, it adds tension to the upper body and core, making it one of the best full body exercises known.

Deadlift

If squat is the king, deadlift is the right-hand man. Deadlift, in most cases, has the greatest strength capacities of all exercises. To give you some perspective, the squat being the King, has a world record of  490kg (1,080 lbs) while the world record for the heaviest deadlift is 501kg (1,104.5 lbs). Now I know you and I will probably never be able to lift that kind of weight combined, but it shows that deadlift, even in the extreme cases beats out the king of all exercises.

It is debatable whether the deadlift is a back or leg exercise. I will make it easy and say that it is both. It works the posterior chain (back of the body) while engaging the rest of the body including the core which stabilizes the spine during the lift. The main drivers for the deadlift in the upper body are the lats and erector spinae muscles and the gluts and hamstrings in the lower body.

When performing a conventional barbell deadlift, the bar is loaded on the ground where you will stand at it with feet hip width apart and hands on the bar just outside the hips with the palms facing backwards. When pulling the bar upwards, it important to brace your core to keep your spine stable. I like using the cues or sticking the butt out and chest up. This will help keep the spine in a neutral position. As you pull the bar, press your feet into the ground and push your hips forward. Once your reach an upright position, begin lowering slowly with control while maintaining a neutral spine.

Bench Press

The bench press is one of the most popular exercises in the gym world and one of the most bragged about. Many gym bros will boast about how much they can bench and for good reason. Having a strong bench press demonstrates tremendous upper body strength. There are many ways to do a bench press as they can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. They can be performed in a flat, inclined, and declined positions to achieve different muscle targets.

All bench-pressing movements work the pecs (chest muscles) and triceps (back of the arm). The chest is a unique muscle group in regards to the fact that not all of the muscle fibers travel in the same direction. There are two main parts to the pecs: the sternal (bottom) and the clavicular (top). Flat and declined bench puts extra emphasis on the sternal side and incline bench press leads to more clavicular portion. Too much training of the sternal portion of the pecs will lead to a bottom-heavy development, so it is important to incorporate a health dose of incline bench press into your regimen.

Even though bench press is one of the most common exercises done in the gym, it is also one of the most common exercises done incorrectly. When I coach my clients on bench press, I cue them to keep the shoulder blades retracted and down throughout the whole movement. Keeping the shoulders retracted allows you to drive the movement through the chest rather than the shoulders. To begin a bench press, the weight will be loaded at the top or bottom of the movement depending on if you use a barbell or dumbbells. When pressing the load up from the chest, push through your feet to create leverage and straighten your elbows at the top.

Row

The row is one of the best back and posterior shoulder strengthening shoulder blades. There are many variations of the row. It can be performed sitting, standing, single arm, bilaterally and with dumbbells, a barbell, or a cable machine. The list goes on and on.

Depending on the type of row you choose, you can put emphasis on the rhomboids, lats, or rear deltoids. All types of rows work these muscle groups but certain ones but extra focus on different muscles. In addition to the back muscles, you will be working your biceps. So this doubles down as a great arm exercise as well.

To perform a row no matter what type you choose, you will be pulling the weight into the body. As you pull the weight, it is important to retract the shoulder blades into the spine. As you reach the peak of the movement, holding a squeeze at the top will give tremendous stability of the shoulder in a retracted position which leads to improvement in posture.

Overhead Press

Along with squatting, the overhead press is one of most functional human movements one can perform. It expresses the body’s ability to reach over head while expressing a great deal of strength. It is a common act of having to put something up on a shelf or the cherish able moment when we get to pick our kids up and hold them up into the air or put our luggage in an overhead compartment on a plane. The overhead press, like most of the big five, comes in many different forms and can be done with many different types of equipment. Kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, and cables can be used to perform an overhead press.

The main driver of the overhead press are the deltoids. These are the big cap muscles on the shoulders and when developed, they really bring the arms together. When done properly overhead press works the triceps as the elbows fully extends and activates muscle around the shoulder girdle. But there is a caveat. You have the have proper posture and spine stability. Too many times have a seen someone press weight above their heads have an arched back. This is a manipulation of one joint to get one to move to “move” the way you want. The shoulders are not actually getting into proper position. The spine is moving so the shoulders appear to be getting overhead. This is a common mishap in form and can put extra stain on the spine and overload the front of the shoulders leading to imbalances in the shoulders and increased risk of injury.

Once you have corrected your posture and shoulder mobility issues, you can now overhead press more effectively. I want you to start by imagining that your body is pressed against a wall. As you slide your hands up you keep contact on the wall. Once you have that image ingrained into you mind you know how to overhead press. I will go out on a limb and say that the overhead press is the squat of the upper body. Now hear me out. The shoulders to fingertips are the same type of joints in order are the hips to the toes. In this analogy, the delts are the glutes, triceps are the quads and well the upper back is the lower back. When pressing overhead, you also must activate the rest of the body in a different, yet similar fashion as the squat.

Now that you are a scholar in the Big Five, your programing should include them. Take your time for they are skills. They must be practiced, mastered, and progressed. If you were to just work on these five forms or exercises, I can guarantee you incredible results.

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