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 asĀ  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.

How to design your own workout program

Stronger, leaner, body fat reduction and improved endurance are some of the plethora of reasons why we exercise and train. One of the most difficult challenges in exercise is the ability to continually push the body safely and effectively but also being able to yield upward progressions. Many trainees have told me of their struggles with boredom, inability to bench press or squat past a certain load and a lack of enthusiasm on training days.

All of this can be attributed to program design, arguably the most overlooked aspect of training. Very few people put in the effort in planning out their workout programs over the course of several weeks and months. The eagerness to get a good pump in the weigh room or to break tons of sweat on the treadmill has often lead to this. All of the sudden we stop seeing the results and over time, complacency creeps in, lack of focus, lethargy and we hit a plateau.

I was faced with these same problems when I first started training, both with my clients and myself. Here are my 5 most effective ways to design a training program:

  1. SET GOALS: Goal setting is like the foundation that is laid out for a house to be built upon. Knowing exactly what your specific short and long term fitness goals and objectives are will make it much easier for a program to be written and quicker for the goals to be met. Regardless of the goal at hand, programs should be planned for 2 to 4 weeks in advance with small progressions in intensity and exercises.
  2. INTEGRATE RESISTANCE TRAINING: It has been scientifically and theoretically proven that resistance training is the most effective modality of training. Fat loss, muscle gain, increased metabolism, improved self-esteem, reduction in high blood pressure and increased bone density are some of the many benefits. Resistance can be obtained via one’s body weight, barbells, dumbbells, medicine ball, bosu ball and resistance bands.
  3. WARM-UP: This is obviously a no-brainer but warming up is more than just using your favorite cardio machine. Although core temperature of the body will elevate after a 5-minute brisk walk on the treadmill, dynamic and mobility drills offer more bang-for-your-buck perks. Foam rolling, self myofascial release work and certain dynamic drills help loosen up the muscle tissue and promote blood flow quicker and better prepares the body for the workout ahead.
  4. EMPHASIZE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS: These are exercises that utilize more than one joint and also engage more than one muscle group. The squat, push-ups, deadlift and overhead press are some of the popular compound movements that can work virtually the whole body which translates into more calories burned. Perform compound movements at the start of your workouts before transitioning to single-joint movements like biceps curl, tricpes extension and lateral raises.
  5. DE-LOAD: The body is like a car in the sense that it can’t run continuously without frequent refueling and serviced maintenance. By frequently scheduling active rest and recovery periods (at least once a month), the body is able to recharge its batteries and increase performance. Far too many people exercise for several months in a row without de-loading and end up with nagging aches and pains, lack of motivation on training days and a decrease in energy and strength. A de-load period can be anywhere from 4 to 7 days with complete rest (no training) or achieved performing lower intensity activities like brisk walking and/or cycling, resistance training at very low intensities or self myofascial release and soft tissue work.

These steps are based on my experience as a seasoned trainee and trainer over the course of 12 years and through extensive research study. Listen to your body, leave your pride and ego at the gym door and remember to always use good form.