The Big Four
Everybody has a big four. Whether we’re talking thrash metal bands, supplements, favourite athletes, whatever – everybody likes making lists of stuff and arguing about it. The big four we’re talking about here, unsurprisingly, is the big four exercises.Whenever I need solid results I always know I can turn to my big four and they’ll deliver.
So what are they? These are the exercises that should be the foundation of your training programs. Most of your time and effort should be channelled into these lifts, and any other lifts you do should be geared towards improving weaknesses to make your big four even better.
1. The Squat
No matter who you ask, if they’re worth talking to they’ll tell you that the barbell back squat is THE exercise for success. No other exercise recruits as much muscle, burns as much energy, or requires as much concentration. No other exercise stimulates such a huge release of natural testosterone and growth hormone which burn fat and increase lean muscle. You can load up huge weights and get strong and thick, attack them with volume and make every muscle in your body bigger and fuller, or go to town with high reps and get your cardio done in the rack. In fact squats use up so much energy they should also be essential in any weight loss program too. In short, like Ron Burgundy, squats are the balls. They’ve added more mass to more people over the last 100 years than all other exercises combined, and they’ve probably played a part in every single modern sport record. They make you bigger, stronger, faster, more ripped, taller, irresistable to the opposite sex, and approximately 78% more employable. Do them. Do them a lot. Become amazing.
The angry jealous younger brother of the squat, deadlifts are bitter about taking the number two spot and will make you pay for it with blood sweat and tears. Blood from your shins and hands, sweat from everywhere that’s able to sweat, and tears when even your best efforts can’t budge the bar from being welded to the floor. The deadlift calls for a vast amount of muscle recruitment, concentration, and guts and only loses out to the deadlift by the sheer irrecoverable stress it puts on the nervous system. You simply can’t deadlift as often as you can squat without killing yourself, but thankfully – you don’t need to. One heavy deadlift session will stay with you for weeks and the benefits of putting the work in on this lift are immeasurable. Combine this with the fact that most people neglect their entire posterior chain and deadlifts are a winner – and they’ll make you a winner.
Around about number three everybody’s list starts to look a bit different. Squats and deadlifts are absolutely key and most people agree on them, but the number three spot can be a toss-up depending on your goals and/or sports. If I was a powerlifter I might put bench press here, if I was an olympic lifter it could be cleans. Personally, I think a fundemental test of strength and speed is how much weight you can put over your head. It takes a stable base and core, good coordination and balance, and a mix of pure pressing strength and explosive power to drive the bar to an overhead lockout and hold it there. This is a great exercise to train all of those elements at once.
This one could easily be rows but if you’ve ever tried a chinup I think you’ll agree that even with your own bodyweight they’re a challenge at best and impossible for some people at worst. Chinups are an often overlooked exercise for the back simply because they’re too hard, but sticking with them and really putting the effort in will pay off in the long run. Being able to handle your own bodyweight is essential before worrying about overloading other exercises, it’s crazy how many people can’t do a single bodyweight pullup yet will happily load their bodyweight onto a lat pulldown and use sloppy technique to try and replicate the same movement. This is just asking for injury. Don’t be dim, pull and chin! Up.
So there we go. No matter what you’re trying to achieve be it mass gain, strength, fat loss, speed, fitness, power, athleticism, a focus on these big compound multijoint movements is the way to go about it. They use large groups of muscles as you would in every day activities (functional), they create the biggest adaptation response in the body (hence more results), and you can train your entire body quickly and more efficiently (less time). Who doesn’t want dramatic functional results as quickly as possible?
In fact if you did only the four exercises in this blog post in some combination at some point throughout the week, combined with a good clean diet and an appropriate amount of cardio you could achieve pretty much anything you wanted to in the gym.
So what are you still reading this for?