All of these 5 exercises can be done with a barbell and most can be done with dumbbells if you find the idea of storing an Olympic bar in our shed a bit too much. Together they will work everywhere, giving you a full body workout without a single bit of tricky jargon or any trending fitness fads. These are tried and trusted.
While machines can be great tools to concentrate on each muscle group, if you want to effectively build muscle mass and also shed fat, the best way to go is to do compound exercises with free weights, be that dumbbells (the small ones which you can easily buy and use at home) or barbells (the big ones) – although please note that the deadlift in particular is ideally performed with a barbell.
The Big Five compound exercises activate a range of muscles and are an excellent way to build strength and muscle mass, at the same time. Here, we'll go through these Big Five, simple exercises that you should do to get ripped soon.
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Don't forget to get your protein
There are three key elements to effectively gain lean muscle mass: rigorous exercising, a healthy diet and rest. If you skip either if these, you might see slower muscle development and or even worse, injure yourself in the process.
Bulking is a popular word among bodybuilders, it means putting on weight so your body can transform your carb and fat reserves into muscle mass. This definitely doesn't mean you can gorge yourself on pizza and pasta all day long, though.
Once you found your maintenance calorie level (if you have an office desk-based job and you are an average built male, that's around 2400 calories per day), eat 5-700 more calories on top of that, mainly more protein and good carbs. That should be plenty to fuel your body to gain more muscle (and not fat).
Supplement-wise, you only really need two: protein powder and creatine. The former will help in the muscle repair process and latter will boost performance. Both are safe to use and there is a wide variety of offerings so you can choose a flavour you prefer.
With creatine, we recommend you get the unflavoured variety because it mixes well with any liquid and you only need a small amount to keep your creatine levels saturated. This means you can mix your 3-5 grams of creatine with anything in the morning (water, juice, even coffee) without having to worry about an aftertaste.
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The BIG FIVE
Before you start doing any exercises, make sure you're all warmed up. Do 5-10 minutes of cardio plus a set or two of each exercise with smaller weights, to wake your muscles up.
Important: if you are new to weight lifting, start even the 'proper' lifting with smaller weights you can easily manage and work your way up slowly, over a period of days, weeks or even months. No need to rush into an injury, you won't impress anybody with pulling your back doing 120 kilo deadlifts. Be sensible and if you are ever in doubt, just ask. There are plenty of PTs lingering around in any commercial gym and also, most of the buff people in gyms are more than happy to give you unsolicited advice.
You might also need to consider looking at the best ways to lose weight if you have not exercised for years. Or, if you want those abs to really pop, check out our top tips on how to lose belly fat fast(er).
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In depth: How to do a deadlift
Muscles worked: calves, thighs, glutes, core/abs, lower back, traps, rhomboids
Best for: Building overall strength
Sets/reps: Do 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Deadlifts are the mother of all strength exercises. This exercise activates almost all of your muscles, from your toes to your neck. Performed correctly, you will feel the burn after the first few reps and will be pleasantly (?) exhausted by the end of the last set.
Make sure you keep your back straight and open up your shoulders to avoid back injury. Best way to visualise the starting position is to imagine you wanting to sit down on the floor and grab the bar to prevent you from actually sitting down. Your back is straight and your shoulders are open. Legs around shoulder-width apart.
Start the movement with your thighs and glutes (a.k.a. bum muscles) and then straighten your back. Do the same on the way down, only the other way around (first bend back, then glutes and thighs).
Although deadlifts can be performed at home too, it is advised to get someone to help you find the correct form first and then venture into testing your max capacity. form is very important with deadlifts and it is not all that difficult to injure yourself if you are not paying attention.
The best approach would be to consult with a PT and especially if you have back problems, talk to your GP first too.
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2. Bench press
In depth: How to do bench press
Muscles worked: pecs (chest), triceps, front shoulders, traps
Best for: Working the chest and the arms
Sets/Reps: Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
The bench press needs no introduction. This exercise is synonymous with bodybuilding and everyone knows how to do it right (or at least they think they do).
Saying that, get someone to spot you (stand behind you) when you first try the bench press. Tuck in your elbows a bit and really concentrate on your pecs (i.a. chest muscles) both ways of the movement.
Alternatively, you can start off doing bench presses on the Smith machine (a large frame with a fixed-movement bar). Using the Smith machine, you don't have to concentrate on stabilising the bar, which makes it easier to push the weight up.
Bench presses can be done on a flat bench or on an incline too. They can also be performed with dumbbells, and it is probably a more sensible way to do them if you are working out at home.
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3. Overhead press
In depth: How to do overhead press
Muscles worked: pecs (chest), delts, triceps, traps
Best for: Building shoulder definition
Sets/Reps: Do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
Sometimes called military press, this exercise is great for your shoulders and arms.
Keep your back straight and engage your core (if you unsure how to do this, flex your abs and straighten your back) then press the bar up, avoiding your chin. The movement of the bar should be a straight line up and down, make sure you bob your head back and forth as the bar crosses in front of it.
Shoulders can improve your looks a great deal, and are actually the real key to getting great guns.
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In depth: How to do squats
Muscle areas activated: glutes (aka the biggest muscle in your body), thighs, traps, abs/obliques, upper back/lats
Best for: Activating the thighs, glutes and improving core strength
Sets/Reps: Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps
The infamous leg exercise: squats are brilliant for all the right reasons. Doing back squats (with the bar sitting on your shoulders), you activate a range of muscles, not just the legs and glutes.
To hold the bar, you will need to engage your core as well as your legs. If you're brave enough – and use smaller weights, please – you can also do a calf raise after each rep to get big calves faster.
A variation on the theme is the front squat when you hold the bar in front of your neck. Be extra careful with this when you try it for the first time and drop the weights you can lift with back squats significantly to avoid you falling forward. You use different muscles to stabilise the bar with front squats which might feel odd at first, especially after doing back squats for a bit.
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5. Bent over row
In depth: How to do bent over row
Muscle areas activated: lats, shoulders, forearms and biceps, hams/glutes, spinal erectors
Best for: Widening the back (lats) and working your biceps
Sets/Reps: Do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
The bent over row is performed – surprise! – bent over while you stood up, legs shoulder-width apart. Use an underhand grip (palms facing up when you hold the bar) to activate bicep muscles and pull the bar close to your abs (not your chest).
This exercise is great for your arms and your back, as well as activating your core.
You can do the bent over row with dumbbells too. Same motion, just with holding a dumbbell in each hand.
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