The Big 4.

Fat loss. Lean muscle. Strong bones. Blood pressure maintenance. Improved HDL. Sustained strength and energy.

These are some of the plethora of benefits that can be achieved through resistance training. It is historically well-documented and theoretically proven that anaerobic training has an enormous impact on long life. It is for this reason health practitioners and fitness professional continually push for weight training on a regular basis. But what are the best resistance training exercises?

For some fitness enthusiasts, being in a weight room with so many machines and equipment can be overwhelming. It’s like being in an amusement park with so many rides to chose from. Any of those machines will certainly help make a positive change (like I always tell people, Something is better than Nothing at all) on a person’s health. However, there are 4 exercises that we all MUST perform routinely.

The squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press are arguably the most important resistance training exercises known to mankind. Collectively referred to as The Big 4, they address strength gain, lean muscle development, fat burn, core stability and power when performed at the right intensity and with good mechanics. Known also as compound movements, they are functional in nature meaning they help immensely in real life activities and movement patterns.

Let’s dissect them one at a time.

1. SQUAT: Widely considered by many as the single most functional and important exercise, the squat is the premier traditional movement. Infants and toddlers spend countless hours in a squat because they have to progressively learn to go from crawling to standing. A tree with weak and fragile roots will ultimately collapse. The human body can be compared to a tree with weak roots in the sense that ligaments and tendons will break down over time thereby making walking, standing and sitting difficult. If squats aren’t made a priority in our training programs, it won’t be long before we start to fall apart. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! For more on the squat, read my Shut Up And Squat blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Although different versions exist, the traditional back squat remains the most popular.

2. DEADLIFT: Eerily similar to the squat, the deadlift is another vital exercise that should be a staple in our training programs. It mimics the action of bending down to pick something up from the ground. For this reason, some argue that the deadlift is more functional than the squat. In my opinion, both are valuable for strength, lean muscle, hip mobility and fat burn. Virtually every muscle of the body is engaged in this movement from the entire posterior chain to the forearms and even the dorsiflexors.. I’ve always maintained that if I had to chose one exercise only to perform for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one. Keep in mind that other versions like the sumo, suitcase and romanian deadlifts address different objectives and will not yield as much perks as the traditional version. While these versions can be performed occasionally for a change, the standard deadlift should get the greater emphasis.

3. BENCH PRESS: Perhaps the most regularly performed upper body exercise by guys, the bench press is widely considered as  the ideal upper body movement. “How much do you bench?” is a common question you’ll hear amongst guys in the weight room. Many consider it to be the best measure of upper body strength and along with the sqaut and deadlift make up the 3 primary powerlifting exercises. It is not uncommon to see guys spend over an hour in the weight room working on their chest. While supplementary versions like the decline and incline bench press can aesthetically improve the pecs, the standard flat bench press remains the staple. Aside from the chest, the anterior deltoid, anterior core musculature and triceps get some good work as well.

4. OVERHEAD PRESS: For many years, the squat, deadlift and bench press were the 3 most routinely performed resistance training exercises among fitness enthusiasts. The overhead press completed the quartet. It is an exercise that works the deltoid musculature primarily and the triceps secondarily. While this exercise can be performed seated, the standing version yields the most benefits. The resistance from gravity trying to push the weight forcefully back down creates a brace in the core. Preventing lumbar extension automatically engages the anterior core making it good workout for the abdominals. It’s like doing a plank where the objective is not to let the lower back sink via lumbar extension. Unlike a bench press where the low back is fixed on the bench, the prevention of the lumbar spine from hyperextending creates rigidity which engages and strengthens the low back.

These 4 exercises should be performed with an olympic barbell for best results. While dumbbells can be used as well, they don’t allow for greater load and make it difficult to illicit the same physiological response from the body as a barbell due to the design. And yes women can perform these exercises too. The key is to work at a challenging intensity but within your limits. As always thoroughly warm up and use good form when lifting. Perform no more than 2 of these movements in one workout session alternating between upper and lower body.

Top 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength.

From the beginning of time, exercises and movement patterns were mostly performed solely with one’s bodyweight. Over the years, and in part due to the evolution of mankind, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands and kettlebells have become the norm in our resistance training programs. While I do believe these are permanently here to stay, occasionally reverting to bodyweight training could alternatively help increase your strength and muscle gains.

Here are my top 10 bodyweight exercises to improve strength and build lean muscle. Keep in mind, these exercises must be performed at  moderate to high challenge level good enough to illicit a good physiological response on the nervous system.

1. CHIN/PULL UP:  This is obviously a no-brainer. No other exercise collectively works the biceps, forearms and lats as effective as the chin/pull up. In my humble and professional estimation, there’s no preferred choice between a chin-up and pull-up. Do whichever is easiest for you for a decent number of reps. The close-grip parallel bar handles, which can be seen on most modern day pulley stations, are a bit safer on the shoulders and elbows. 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps no more than 3 days a week is ideal. When that gets too easy, attach weight plates via a dip belt to your body or simply wear a weighted vest and do as many as you can.

2. PISTOL SQUAT: This is arguably the most challenging bodyweight exercise due to its unique execution. This exercise will work your entire lower body and could even challenge them harder than a traditional back squat because each leg has to absorb the weight of the entire body. Balance, hip mobility and coordination are some the factors that impact this exercise so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do them initially. Patiently and gradually work your way up to perfection. Aim to do 15 reps per leg for 3 sets.

3. PUSH-UP: Considered by many as the the premier bodyweight exercise, the push up is arguably the most routinely performed exercise in the world. Its easy set-up makes it virtually possible to do anywhere. The chest, triceps and anterior deltoid are the primary muscles involved but the anterior core gets engaged as well due to its anti-extension component (preventing the lumbar spine from going into extension or ‘arching’). Perform as many reps until low back starts to arch and progress to weight plates on your back when it gets too easy. Unique variations like the one-hand push-up, TRX atomic push-up and decline push-up offers exciting challenges.

4. PLANK: The most basic and simplest core stability exercise for developing the abdominals. The plank is arguably everyone’s favorite exercise for working the abs. Although the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominus are the primary muscles involved, it is assisted by muscles of the trapezius, shoulder girdle, lumbar spine, quadriceps and calf muscle. The only drawback to the plank is it challenges the shoulder a great deal. This means a person with preexisting shoulder pain or chronic ailment will have a hard time holding a plank for a long time.

5. BULGARIAN SPLIT-SQUAT: This variation of the squat is much easier than the previously discussed pistol squat. Stand with your back facing a  bench, chair or stool. Pick up one foot and place it on the bench or chair behind you and descend to a squat. High reps really work the quads and glutes very well with this exercises so aim to perform 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.

5. SINGLE-LEG HIP THRUST: The hip thrust, invented by the innovative Bret Contreras, is the most effective exercise for activating the gluteus muscle group. No other exercise works the butt better than the hip thrust. It’s that simple! The single-leg hip trust is basically the same but performed with one leg. Make sure you drive the hip as high as you can when you thrust and hold and squeeze that butt cheek at the top. Perform 12 to 20 reps per side. For all you ladies looking to tighten and firm up your butts, this is a must do!

6. PARALLEL BAR DIPS: The most effective triceps builder is also the number one ideal supplementary exercise for developing the chest. Just like the push-up, the pectoralis muscle group and anterior deltoid are the prime movers. Do not dip the shoulder beneath elbow on your descent as that has been linked with impingement of the shoulder. Perform as many reps as possible and just like with the chin/pull-up, attach additional resistance when the challenge starts to get easier.

7. MUSCLE-UP: Inspired by the CrossFit movement, this unique exercise combines a pull-up and a dip. Because of its requirement of supreme athleticism, coordination and dexterity, most people will never be able to do this exercise. But if you’re like me and you welcome challenges, patiently practice and learn the movement. 6 to 8 reps will suffice for most people.

8. HANGING LEG RAISE: I talked about this exercise on my post on abdominal training last week as part of the hip flexion exercise. A very challenging exercises that requires balance and coordination, this  exercise may take you time to master. But when done properly, it immensely recruits the fibers of the rectus abdominals. The only drawback is when performed too often, it can tighten the hip flexors. Take your time in learning the necessary steps and do this exercise no more than 4 times a month.

9. SIDE PLANK: Just like the plank, the side plank is one of the most popular exercises for working the obliques. And just like the plank also, shoulder stability and strength are the prime factors in performing the side plank. While some people can hold for as long as 60 seconds, I personally wouldn’t recommend more than 45 seconds of hold time to prevent stressing the shoulder joint too much. If 45 to 60 seconds is too easy, progress to advanced variations like the TRX or stability ball.

10. BIRD DOG: Not too many exercises target the anterior and posterior chain simultaneously. The Bird Dog is one of the few that does just that. The anterior core, shoulders, upper back, lumbar spine, glutes and various hip extensors are all engaged in this unique exercise. Balance and coordination are key factors so it may appear difficult initially, but once you master the technique, you’re going to want to make it a staple in your training program.

Shut up and squat!

Before you’re quick to curse back at me, calm down for a second. I did not make that up. That is the new catchy phrase that has been making it’s way around fitness circles in quite some time now. In fact you may have seen it on t-shirts and on social media. But what exactly does it mean? Well I’m about to tell you it isn’t what you think it is.

Would you believe me if I told you that you once squatted everyday for a number of years?

baby-full-squat

See, I told you! As toddlers, thanks to the spry flexibility in our hips, we could virtually stay in a squat stance for hours! (I’m curious to know how long I can last in this deep-squatted stance). This is one of the reasons babies can play and stay active for hours and not get tired. The ability to rely on those ‘squat muscles’ enables them to stay on their feet and move for a long time.

The squat is arguably the most important and effective physical movement known to mankind. There are over 600 muscles in the human body and the squat alone is known to work half of them! Several case studies and science-based theories support and conclude that the squat is the most vital exercise for fat loss, muscle gain and building raw strength. I learned early in my lifting days that I needed to squat frequently if I wanted to be achieve all my fitness goals.

So how exactly is a squat supposed to be performed?

How to squat

Although many variations of the squat exists, the traditional barbell squat (pictured above) remains the most common and the one to yield the most dividends.The baby in the picture demonstrates the exercise as simple as possible (I’m still amazed how this brave toddler was taught to do this. Kudos to the parents and/or whoever the coach was).

Due to many media publicized images of injuries, several trepidations inevitably come within the territory of barbell squats and have caused many people to avoid it. The fact of the matter is we can get hurt even just walking up the stairs or stepping down from a curb. Safety and injury prevention are essential parts of staying fit for a long time and can be achieved through proper warm-up, a sound training program and adequate diet and supplementation.

Moral of this post: Embrace squats and do them frequently. A tree with weak roots will ultimately collapse!

I’m curious to hear your feedback. How often do you incorporate squats into your training programs?

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