The Only 5 Exercises You’ll Ever Need

If you’re the type spending hours at the gym—chest fly, back row, biceps curl, repeat—it’s time to reconsider your routine. Find out how to get leaner and work out less (all without a trainer).

hat jaw-dropping, body-transforming results are achieved only by putting in the hours. But if you’ve been adhering to the muscle-isolating back-and-bi, chest-and-tri gospel, the truth is, you’re doing it wrong.

“Your brain doesn’t think in single ‘muscles,’ it thinks in terms of movement patterns,” says Pat Davidson, Ph.D., director of training methodology at Peak Performance, a private fitness studio in New York City. “Human evolution led to five basic movements, which encompass nearly all of our everyday motions.” Meaning your workout needs just five exercises, one from each of these categories: push (pressing away from you), pull (tugging toward you), hip-hinge (bending from the middle), squat (flexing at the knee), and plank (stabilizing your core).

It’s the approach Davidson takes when drawing up the regimens of Peak’s celebrity clients, including Gerard Butler, 50 Cent, and Jimmy Fallon. The time-crunched love it because it’s an efficient and effective workout—more taxing on the muscles, leading to increased strength and a faster metabolism. Plus, you’re not lost when your trainer isn’t around. “If you know the basics, it’s incredibly simple to build your own workout,” Davidson says.

Still—like martinis and porn—there can be too much of a good thing. “It’s stressful to the entire body,” says Jason Hartman, trainer to many U.S. Olympic bobsled and skeleton athletes and the U.S. Army Special Forces. “That means that if you overdo them, you’ll just beat yourself up. Do this style of workout no more than three or four times a week.” Mix and match the moves at right and feel okay about taking the less-time-consuming way out.

How It Works

Pick one move from each of these categories. Then do 2 sets of 12 reps. Change up the moves but repeat the plan 3 or 4 times a week. For cardio extra credit, see the add-ons below.

PUSH

The Ultimate: Bench Press
Lie face-up on a bench, holding a heavy barbell at your sternum, hands shoulder-width apart, elbows bent into sides. Extend arms, pushing bar directly above chest. Pause, then lower barbell to start. 
The Alternates: Push-up, dumbbell shoulder press, single-arm kettlebell press, push press

PULL

The Ultimate: Pull-up
Hang from a bar with palms facing away from you, arms straight, knees bent so feet don’t touch floor. Bend elbows, pulling chest toward bar. Slowly lower yourself to start.
The Alternates: Dumbbell row, TRX row, chin-up, cable row, lat pull-down

HIP-HINGE

The Ultimate: Deadlift
Set a heavy barbell on the floor in front of you. Push hips back as you bend forward, grabbing the bar with hands more than shoulder-width apart, palms facing body. Keep back straight as you stand up, lifting the bar and thrusting hips forward. Slowly lower bar to start.
The Alternates: Kettlebell swing, Romanian deadlift, trap-bar deadlift

SQUAT

The Ultimate: Split Squat
Stand on your right leg, left foot resting on a bench or box behind you, and hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand. Bend right knee, lowering body until left knee hovers just above the ground. Straighten right leg, returning to start. Complete all the reps on one side before switching legs.
The Alternates: Barbell squat, lunge, goblet squat, reverse lunge

PLANK

The Ultimate: Farmer’s Walk Stand up straight holding a heavy dumbbell in each hand, palms facing body. Maintain your posture as you walk 20 meters. Turn, repeat, returning to start.
The Alternates: Plank, bird dog, side plank, suitcase carry

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