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The Only 5 Exercises You Really Need

Go Back to Basics

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"What's the best exercise for my [insert any “trouble zone" here]?" It's one of the first questions people ask when they find out I'm a fitness professional. It's also one of the most difficult to answer. First, you won't get the results you want from any exercise unless your diet and sleep habits are in check, but further, an accurate answer really depends on four things:

  1. What do you really need?
  2. What’s your goal?
  3. What kind of training experience do you have?
  4. What kind of equipment do you have access to?

I also tend to think in terms of “movement patterns” rather than single exercises, which complicates things even more. The bottom line: As much as I would love to fire off a list of the “five best exercises ever created,” I can’t without leading you astray. There are myriad great exercises, and the best ones for you depend on your answers to the four questions above. What I can do is share what I consider to be the top five big-bang-for-your-buck movement patterns and how you can add them to your routine. I've also outlined the recommended training guidelines (sets, reps, rest) for the goal of fat loss. Click through to check it out!

Photo: Getty Images

Hip Dominant: Deadlift

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Beginner: Kettlebell or dumbbell deadlift (shown here). *Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.

How to do it: Grab a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands and hold it at arms length in front of hips. Bend at hips and knees to lower the weight to the floor. Without allowing lower back to round, pull torso back and up, thrust hips forward, and stand up with the kettlebell or dumbbell. Squeeze glutes as you perform the movement.

Intermediate: Clean grip (hands shoulder width, palms facing in) barbell deadlift. *Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting up to 30 seconds between sets.
Advanced: Snatch grip (hands approximately twice shoulder width, palms facing in) barbell deadlift. When standing upright, the barbell should be about 2 to 3 inches below bellybutton with arms straight. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, resting up to 15 seconds between sets.

*All sets/reps/rest recommendations in this workout are appropriate for the goal of fat loss.

Upper Body Push: Pushup

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Beginner: Pushup with hands elevated on box, step, or bench (shown here). Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.

How to do it: Place hands on a box, bench, or step slightly wider than and in line with shoulders. Slowly lower body until your chest nearly touches the bench. Pause at the bottom, and then push back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.

Intermediate: Standard pushups. Do 3 sets of as many reps as possible with proper form (AMRAP), resting 60 seconds between sets.

Advanced: Pushup with feet elevated on box, step, or bench. If this is still too easy, try adding more resistance by wearing a weight vest. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.

Knee Dominant: Split Squat

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Beginner: Split squat with front foot elevated (as shown). Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side, resting 60 seconds between sets.

How to do it: Stand in a staggered stance with front foot on a box or step. Your feet should be 2 to 3 feet apart, front knee slightly bent. Slowly lower your body as far as you can. Pause, then push back up to the starting position as quickly as you can. Complete all reps on one side, then do the same number with your other foot forward.

Intermediate: Standard split squat. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side, resting 30 seconds between sets.
Advanced: Split squat with rear foot elevated. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, resting 15 seconds between sets.

Upper Body Pull: Chin-Up

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Beginner: Neutral grip chin-ups with assistance from medium or strong band (as shown). Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.

How to do it: Loop one end of a large exercise band around a chin-up bar and then pull it through the other end of the band, cinching it tightly to the bar. (The thicker the band, the more assistance it will provide.) Grab the bar with a shoulder-width, underhand grip, and place your knees in the loop of the band. Hang at arm’s length. You should return to this position each time you lower your body back down. Perform a chin-up by taking 1 second to pull your collarbone to the bar. As you pull your body up, stick your chest out, squeeze your shoulder blades down and back, and focus on pulling your upper arms down forcefully. Once the top of your chest touches the bar, pause, then take 3 seconds to lower your body back to a dead hang. That's one rep.

Intermediate: Neutral grip chin-ups and possibly a light band for assistance. Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.
Advanced: Neutral grip chin-ups with no assistance (possibly add external load like a weight vest). Do 3 sets of up to 12 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets.

Core Dominant: Carry

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Beginner: Carry with dumbbells or kettlebells at sides (as shown). Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (about 30 to 45 feet), resting 60 seconds between sets.

How to do it: Stand holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing thighs. Walk forward at a moderate pace, keeping your braced and head high the entire time.

Intermediate: Hold the dumbbells or kettlebells at shoulder level. Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (about 30 to 45 feet), resting 60 seconds between sets.
Advanced: Hold the dumbbells or kettlebells directly overhead. Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (about 30 to 45 feet), resting 60 seconds between sets.

Recap: The Full Workout Routine

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Training tip: The weight you choose should allow you to achieve a minimum of 10 reps and a maximum of 12 reps with proper form. If you can do more than 12 reps, you need to increase the resistance. If you are unable to complete 10 reps, you need to lower the resistance slightly.

Beginner:
A1) Kettlebell or dumbbell deadlift: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
A2) Pushups with hands elevated on box, bench, or setp: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
B1) Split squats with front foot elevated: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
B2) Chin-ups (neutral grip with a medium to strong band): 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
C1) Carries with dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides: 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (or about 30 to 45 feet), 60 seconds rest

Intermediate:
A1) Barbell deadlift (clean grip): 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, up to 30 seconds rest
A2) Pushups: 3 sets of AMRAP, 60 seconds rest
B1) Split squats: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps/side, up to 30 seconds rest
B2) Chin-ups (neutral grip, possibly use a light band for assistance): 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
C1) Carries with dumbbells or kettlebells at shoulder level: 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (or about 30 to 45 feet), 60 seconds rest

Advanced:
A1) Barbell deadlift (snatch grip): 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, up to 15 seconds rest
A2) Pushups with feet elevated (possibly add external load if applicable): 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
B1) Split squats with rear foot elevated: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps/side, up to 15 seconds rest
B2 Chin-ups (neutral grip, possibly add external load): 3 sets of up to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest
C1) Carries with dumbbells or kettlebells directly overhead: 3 sets of 15 to 20 steps (or about 30 to 45 feet), 60 seconds rest