It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to do “cool” looking exercises like a single leg romanian deadlift while standing on a BOSU with the flat-side up. However the most effective exercises in terms of developing your overall strength, balance, muscle and physique really aren’t that “fancy” or gimmicky. The greatest exercises aren’t absurdly difficult to pick up and don’t require you to have been practicing gymnastics and contorsion since you were 3 years old.
It’s also easy to want to stick to isolation machine exercises because they are easy to pick up and figure out on your own however these exercises aren’t going to maximize your training potentially.
I was recently giving a client at my gym a machine orientation and she was asking me how I trained in order to get results…and so I explained to her, I generally focus on compound/multi-joint movements and try to do different variations of those movements regularly in full-body workouts. To train the full-body, you need several movement patterns a hinge pattern, a squat pattern, a pressing pattern, and a pulling pattern.
When it comes to weight training, without getting too hung up on minutiae, but there are five tradition exercises you should be focusing on that will help train your movement patterns. These moves were introduced to me as the “Golden Five” and I was told that they were what I should focus on the most while training. To this day, I still believe 95% of the gym population would see better results if their focus shifted more towards doing more variations of these lifts.
The common denominator between the Golden Five is that they are all “full-body” movements and qualify as compound exercises. Compound exercises allow you to maximize the muscles used and joints moved which translates nicely into getting very strong, puting on more muscle, increasing your metabolism, getting leaner and geting the most bang for your buck from your workouts. The five exercises we’ll be focusing on are the deadlift, the squat, the bench press, the row, and the overhead press.
The Golden Five
1) Deadlift: The deadlift is the best exercise of these five for developing overall strength and it’s normal to see impressive and rapid gains on this lift in novice trainers. This exercises is awesome for developing the posterior chain, especially the glutes and hamstrings. When performed correctly it trains the core and is awesome for developing power. It also the most metabolically demanding exercise of the Golden Five and should be implemented in any fat loss programming.
There are many different variations of the deadlift that can be used depending on your goals and training experience, some that I like to use with clients are: Kettlebell Deadlifts, Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts, Conventional Barbell Deadlifts, Trap Bar Romanian Deadlifts, and Rack Pulls.
The biggest take away with this exercise is making sure that you’re using “neutral spine” throughout the whole movement – meaning you’re maintaing the natural curvatures of the spine and not comprosing on that form. Maintaining neutral spines ensures that you will be using the correct muscles and be able to perform the exercise safely and effectively.
**Note: All of your exercises should enforce good posture and spinal allignment. To have a better understanding of what that means refer to the following image:**
Basic Cues for the Deadlift:
- Chin tucked in – neither looking down nor up. Look ahead.
- Shoulder blades pulled back and down.
- Keep your ribs down
- Lift with your hips, and squeeze the glutes. Think of it like you’re pushing the floor away from you.
2) Squat: The squat is an exercise that is loved and hated by many. Few feats of strength or more impessive than dropping it like it’s hot while holding 200lbs on your back. While a lot of people may think squats and deadlifts are similar or even the same the fact is that they are not. They have similar overall benefits in terms of fatloss, strength and muscle gain…but they emphasize different movement patterns and muscle groups. The squat is excellent for developing the quads and the glutes but feels entirely different from a deadlift.
A big argument with the squat is whether not it should be performed to full or partial range. My stance on this is that it should be performed in a way that is most effective to the trainee based off of their needs, ability, and goal. I say the range ends when there is a loss of neutral spine. This range or depth can be improved through doing proper warm-up, mobility and stability work. However other factors such as bone structure of the pelvis and femurs will affect what range is actually suitable for the squat. Play around with the movement and find the range that is most suitable for you. Variations of the squat that I love are: Goblet Squats, High Bar Back Squats, Split Squats, and Box Squats.
The Basics of the Squat:
- Break at the hips and push the knees forward (yes, you want your knees to pass your toes.)
- Keep the knees and the toes inline.
- Keep the torso upright and chin tucked in with ribs down.
- Press through the whole foot while lifting – toes, ball and heel.
3) Bench Press: Now that we’ve gone over the lower body exercises it’s time to give some attention to the upper – starting with everyone’s favourite exercise to do on a Monday, the bench press. The bench press is used to develop, the chest, triceps leading to stronger horizontal pressing power and it can be done using many different implements, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, etc. Other great options for working on horizontal pressing are push-ups, dumbbell or barbell floor presses, dumbbell incline press, decline presses, plate presses, or kettlebell presses.
This biggest mistake people tend to make when performing the bench or other horizontal presses is forgetting to engage the core and glutes, and neglecting press throught the feet or in short “get tight” before the lift or movement. Press your feet into the floor and get the lower body fired up too, don’t just think about your arms – you really do want to be using your full body. In addition to that – in beginner’s there’s usually a lot of “elbow flare” which is okay if the exercises you’re trying to do calls for that, but if it’s not stated or demonstrated that way you want to keep the elbows tucked in. There’s a “sweet spot” between having your arms held out at 90 degrees and having them right along the sides of your torso – play around and find your sweet spot.
4) Row: The Row is our next upper body exercise. It is essentially the bench press of the back. It’s important to train the back in order to prevent and correct bad posture. It targets the romboids, lats, rear delts and traps. Depending on which variation of this exercise you do it will target these muscles different, but my go-to row movements are the Seated Cable Row, Standing Cable Row, Chest Supported Dumbbell Row, 3-point Dumbbell Row, Ring Rows, Inverted Rows, T-Bar Rows and Barbell Bent Over Row.
If you are already very comfortable working with body weight and have good mobility, other good exercises for your back that could be added in are Pull-ups, Chin-ups, and Lat pull-downs. To me being able to row correctly is a prerequistie before moving into overhead pulling, which is why I would prioritize rows before doing pull-ups with novice trainees.
Highlights of the Row:
- Keep the shoulders retracted – meanining pulled back and down.
- Think of this exercise as trying to bring your shoulder blades as close together as possible versus pulling with the arms. Squeeze your back muscles together
- Avoiding pulling with momentum or rocking the upper body.
- Add a pause at the end of the “squeeze” in order to maximize contraction through the muscles.
**Note: If you don’t feel it in your back, it’s not working your back.**
5) Overhead Press: Last but not least, we’re finishing off with the overhead press. This exercise is great way to develop your delts as well as your core. Any imbalances or weaknesses you have will likely be made visible while doing the press. The predominant muscles worked during the overhead press are the deltoids, while many other muscles (abs, glutes, triceps, traps, serratus anterior, etc) are firing and working in order to make the movement happen. The press does require a great deal of mobility through the shoulders and thoracic spine, if you are limited in these areas this is not a good exercise for you until you rectify those issues.
Some other alternatives to the Overhead Press are: Arnold Presses, Dumbbell Split Stance Presses, Half Kneeling Dumbbell Presses, Seated Presses, Z Presses, and Push Presses.
Points of Note for the Press:
- Keep the abs and glutes engaged, these are your stabilizers, get tight before pressing. Stand with your feet in a comfortable position (usually similar to your foot position for the deadlift or squat.)
- The path of the weight should start by your collarbones/anterior delts or below the chin, hold the weight just outside of your shoulders and keep the elbows close to the body.
- Squeeze the glutes and bring the head back as your start to press overhead, once the weight has passed the top of the head, push the head forward and finish into the top range of the lift.
If you’re not sure exactly how to implement these exercises into your workout, here’s a basic outline of a German Body Composition workout that you could use for 3-4 weeks performing the workouts 3 to 4 times per week. You can run this on Monday, Wednesday, Friday type of schedule or a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday type of schedule depending on your recovery.
The beauty of the Golden Five exercises is that they can be implemented in multiple ways. The deadlift, squat, bench press, row and overhead press can be altered through loading pattern, implement, and positioning. Any variaiton can be found and used based on your goals and needs, it’s just a matter of finding which variation is ideal for you. Play around, explore, find what feels comfortable and make sure you have some compound movements in your training – whatever progression or regression may be appropriate. Whatever you do, make sure you’re hingeing, squatting, pressing and pulling in one way or another.
Get to it!
Do you love or hate some of the exercises? Maybe a little bit of both?
Did you find this helpful? Do you have any questions or feedback?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section or feel free to contact me by e-mail.