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Build Muscle With Only 4 Exercises

We’ve all heard that old “less is more” adage when it comes to simplifying things. And let’s face it, people for various reasons have a tendency to over complicate things. It is as if they feel that if they add more arbitrary exercises or volume to their routine, or complexify the structure of it, they will get better results.

Perhaps a lot of this comes from our innate nature to never be satisfied with ourselves, who knows, but I do know one thing over many years of experimenting and working with clients – the vast majority of people achieved better results when they cut back the number of needless cruft out of their training routines.

What I noticed is that this wasn’t a temporary phenomenon either – the sort you notice whenever you just change your routine, where you make progress for a few weeks and then things start to taper off. Cutting a training routine back to its bare essentials, adding only compound multi-joint movements and then from there adding only that which is absolutely necessary, is the way I would approach the design of any so-called minimalist routine.

 

Can You Gain Size With Only 4 Exercises?

 

Yes. I wouldn’t shit you. I’ve made the best gains from doing the majority of my training year round with just a few exercises. There is no shortage of programs out there these days where people are discovering the same thing – less is more for most people when trying to get bigger and stronger.

The most important thing here obviously is choosing not only the right movements for you, but the best bang-for-your-buck ones as well.

After several years of tinkering with trial and error in my own routine, plus lots of research into the movements themselves, I’ve become convinced that if all you did was the four following exercises (with the right loading parameters, volume and frequency), and nothing else, you could become a beast.

The following four movements sufficiently stress all the major muscle groups in the body and the fact that they are also naturally all compound movements, there is the added metabolic benefit as well. You can’t beat this when it comes to efficiency!

Maximum Efficiency: Build Your Physique With Just These Four Exercises

 

Deadlift

The most primal lift that we can do is a deadlift. As a species, we evolved picking up heavy objectes off of the ground. Whether you choose to do a conventional deadlift, sumo trap bar (“hex bar”) or RDL, rack pull – some sort of deadlift will use more muscles in the body than any other movement. (the conventional deadlift uses close to two dozen different muscles!).

The deadlift – simply picking a heavy weight off of the ground is the most effective lift that anyone can do. Especially those who work sitting at a desk all day or do not do enough physical labor outside the gym.

I personally love the hex bar for deadlifts. Compared to the conventional deadlift, the hex deadlift uses more quads and distributes weight much more evenly with less shearing forces on the lumbar spine. The posterior chain is hammered, as is the lower back, upper back, and grip. For everyone, the hex bar deadlift is a perfect lift for building maximum power. I also think that is is easier to learn and thus better for beginners and the average person who just wants to get bigger and stronger and is otherwise disinterested in getting into powerlifting (where your bread and butter would have to be mastering the conventional deadlift)

 

Front Squats

I know people will challenge this choice, but hear me out. Again, for most people, I believe front squats are a better choice because of the greater recruitment of quads over the back squat, the fact that front squats are a lot easier on your back and knees than regular back squats.

There are three different options to grip the bar in a front squat: using an Olympic grip, a “cross grip” or using lifing straps around the bar. Personally I like the cross grip as it feels most comfortable. For safety, in case the bar ever gets dropped, just adjust the safety bars while squatting inside the rack.

Aside from targeting the quadriceps, front squats also target: Gluteus Maximus, Adductor Magnus, Soleus, Hamstrings, Gastrocnemius, Erector Spinae, Deltoid, Anterior, Deltoid, Lateral, Supraspinatus, Pectoralis Major, Clavicular, Trapezius, Upper Trapezius, Middle Levator Scapulae, Trapezius, Rectus Abdominis, Obliques and Lower Serratus Anterior. You can’t beat this kind of of efficiency – hitting all these muscles with one movement!

 

Incline Press

One of the many great things about the barbell incline press is that it splits the difference between a flat bench press and an overhead press. Easier on the shoulder and lower back than an overhead press and has more carry-over to athletic functions since when one throws a football or a punch, the torso is leaning forward, similar to the angle of the upper arm to the torso in an incline bench, where it is almost identical to those sports movements.

Besides from having a better carry-over to sports, the incline press also carries over to all upper body pressing, including regular bench presses. Show me someone who has a big incline and they also likely have a good bench.

With these, you are hitting your entire pec, shoulders and triceps. There is a common misconception that incline presses only target the upper pec, however this is not true. If I had to pick on upper body press, the incline barbell press would be number one.

 

Chins or Pull-ups

You have your choice of grips: neutral grip, pronated (as in pullups), or supinated (as in chins). This is a must if you want a big strong upper back. Not only do these scorch your upper back muscles, but also your core abdominals as well. Again, talking about efficiency, chins effectively target: Latissimus, Brachialis, Brachioradialis, Teres Major, Deltoid, Rhomboids, Levator Scapulae, Trapezius, Pectoralis (minor and sternal), biceps and serratus.

Once you can pop off about a dozen of them, think about adding some weight either with a weighted belt or by holding a dumbbell between your feet. The latter will put even more strain on your core abdominal muscles.

Chin ups are one of the best builders for your biceps. There was a bodybuilder back in the 1940s by the name of John Grimek who apparently could not do regular curls due to some injury, so instead his staple for training the biceps was chins. (Do me a favor and do a Google Image search for photos of this guy to see what I mean! The man had biceps that rolled up into a perfect baseball shape when flexed)

That’s it. If all you did were these four exercises and worked hard at it, you would have all the growth stimulation you need to gain slabs of muscle.

 

Build A Routine With Four Exercises

There are several ways you can arrange this. One is to mix upper and lower movements into one session and another is the opposite – to do an upper/lower split. A third option would be to do a full body push/pull.

This would be doing either:

 

Full Body Push/Pull

Day One:
Front Squats
Incline Press

Day Two:
Deadlift
Chins

Upper/Lower

Day One:
Deadlift
Front Squat

Day Two:
Incline Press
Pull-ups

Full Body

Day One:
Incline Press
Deadlift

Day Two:
Front Squat
Chins

 

Right now I am doing the full body push/pull variation of this and loving it. I start off with front squats and incline press. And then after a day or two in between, I do hex bar deadlifts and tons of pull-ups and chins.  Back when I was doing some martial arts on the side (Muay Thai), I found that with all the push ups and stuff we did in class, I really only needed one minimalist weight session hitting each muscle group once a week, so if I were faced with that same scenario today, I would choose the upper lower version.

 

How Often Do I Train Like This?

For most people, to maintain a high level of intensity consistently and be able to recover optimally, the best thing might be three workouts a week. Reason being that we are using compound movements and plan on working with high intensity, load and volume, so with three sessions per week, recovery will be optimal.

Being in my 50s now, I find that going 3 times one week and 2 times the next week works perfectly for me. Many people much younger that I’ve had experience training have found that training on a one day on, two days off worked best for them.

The main thing is that your recovery abilities will never be consistent – some weeks you might be able to recover adequately from four sessions a week and at other times, two sessions might be all that you can handle due to external factors that affect your recovery, like lack of sleep, stress from relationships, work or exams as school etc. There is a reason that the old adage about listening to your body never got old!

 

Parameters – How Many Sets and Reps Do I Need?

Since we are purposely using a low number of movements per session, I would argue that you need a bit more volume – particularly if you plan on only hitting two sessions per week. So, the two best methods I would opt for are either doing a set number of sets/reps in the strength building range, followed by some sets at a lighter weight in the pure hypertrophy range – if you are looking for strength gains, or if you are looking for pure size, then using a volume template of higher reps for a large number of overall sets with a more moderate overall weight/load.

For Strength:

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

For Hypertrophy (aka “German Volume”):

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

 

 

Or, alternately to get the best of both worlds you could also alternate each workout so that you use both of these loading schemes. For example using a full body push/pull template:

Week One

Monday

Front Squats

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

Incline Press

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

Wednesday

Deadlift

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

Chins

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

Friday

Front Squats

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

Incline Press

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

 

Week Two

Monday

Front Squats

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

Incline Press

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

Wednesday

Deadlift

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

Chins

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
3 sets of 5 at 80-85% of 1RM
5 sets of 10-15 at 50-55% of 1RM

Friday

Front Squats

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

Incline Press

3 warm-up sets at 30-50% of 1RM
10 sets of 10 at 50-55% of 1RM

With a training routine like this it is easy to add in other aspects to your training as well, such as mobility and conditioning. So for example, this could be doing yoga and running sprints on the off days.

I would be very interested to hear how training like this works for you!

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