We are living in a world where time is our most critical resource. Everybody has so much going on – you have your 9 to 5, you have your friends, family, maybe children, a hobby or two. You barely find some time to relax. Where should gym time fit in this crazy schedule?
On average, a decent weight training routine takes close to 1 hour. If you think about it, 1 hour is just 4% of the entire day. That doesn’t sound like much, but then your agenda is booked full time you simply don’t have the time.
I had this issue not too long ago and I’m betting you’re having the same problem. Then I remembered a quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger which I liked very much and which goes like this: “When the Pope has time to workout, when the President of the United States has time to workout, then you have time to workout ”.
And that motivated me to come up with a solution to my problem. A solution I will share with you right now.
- What Is the Science Behind Muscle Growth
- 1) Deadlifts
- 2) Dips
- 3) Front Squats
- 4) Chin-Ups
- Two-day Split Workout Plan
- How to Make the Most out of It
In today’s post I am going to give you a list of just 4 exercises (2 for lower body, 2 for upper body) you can do in the gym (or at home) and still build a well-round muscular physique.
Yes, I know there are tens of machines in small to medium size gym, and probably hundreds of exercises you could be doing, yet you can make just about the same progress following a much, much simpler routine and save lots of time.
On top of that, for there 4 exercises you will need just a handful of gym equipment. In could be set up in your garage or spare bedroom, so you can take out of the list the commute time as well.
Nevertheless, this routine requires just the same amount of effort (if not more) as any other weight training routine for that matter. It might be time effective, it might be a very simplified training regiment, but it is intense. You will have to work hard.
What Is the Science Behind Muscle Growth
My goal has always been to have a muscular physique. That was my reason for training so hard in the gym.
Therefore, I had to think at a simplified, time-effective workout routine which is based on the science behind muscle growth.
And science is telling us that muscle growth is happens when:
- We include heavy compound exercise in our workouts
- We progressively overload the muscles
- We have a high protein, high carb diet
The last bullet point is diet related, which leaves you with just two criteria to take into account for designing the optimal training routine.
What Is a Compound Exercise?
Simply put, a compound exercise is a movement which uses more than one muscle group and more than one joint, to perform the exercises. Compound exercises are also called multi-joint exercises.
The other type of exercises are called isolation or single-joint exercises. These primary target a single muscle and, as the name suggest they use a single joint to perform the movement.
From a muscle growth point of view, compound exercises are superior to isolation exercises, therefore we are going to put all our focus on those.
Because compound exercises use more than just one muscles, they enable us to move heavier weights. Heavier weights mean stronger and bigger muscles.
What Does Progressively Overload Mean?
Muscle growth also requires that we constantly put more stress on the muscles. Muscle growth is an “adaptation game”. You have to stimulate the muscles to grow.
If you’re using the same weights over and over again you will not make progress. The muscle adapts to your training and the weights you are using and it stagnates. However, if you increase the weight, the muscle will have to adapt to a higher intensity workout and grow bigger.
So the workout regimen, as simple as it might be, must allow you to get stronger over time which will then result in muscle hypertrophy.
Let’s get started.
The deadlift is the absolute most complex exercise you can do in the gym. Even though it is a very natural movement – such as picking up something of the floor which we humans did it for millions of years – you rarely see anyone in the gym doing it.
That’s because it requires a lot of coordination, balance, a strong core and perfect posture. Many people say they can’t deadlift because it will damage their back. It is the other way around in fact.
People can’t deadlift because their bad posture or weak core won’t allow them to deadlift. Fix yourself and you will be able to deadlift.
Deadlift is a unique exercise and probably the most complex compound movement you can perform to build muscle and strength. It is considered to be mostly on lower body focused, but it will hit parts of the upper body as well. Here are the main muscles worked when you deadlift:
- A little bit of calves
- Lower back
- Abs, including oblique’s (the core)
Deadlifting will also make your grip and forearms stronger.
There’s no question why an intense deadlift workout feels like cardio and will leave you with so little energy for the rest of your training. As you can imagine it is also a very time effective exercise because you are able to hit a lot of muscle at once.
Due to the fact that so many muscles and joints are involved in the movement, you will be able to move really heavy weights. This is another advantage of deadlifts if you’re thinking about muscle growth. The heavier the weight, the bigger the muscles.
Best deadlift variations
Just as with any other exercise, there are quite a few deadlift variations which are useful if you want to start putting more emphasis on different muscle groups than others. Here are some of the best versions of a standard deadlift.
Sumo deadlifts will put more emphasis on your legs, so if your legs are lagging a little bit, but you have a good back and core, give this variation a try.
With sumo deadlifts your legs must be placed very far apart so that your toes are close to the plates on the barbell. While keeping your back straight, chest and eyes forward, you bend your hips till you can grab the barbell.
The hand placement should be shoulder-width. You are now in the start position.
Lift the weight by pushing through your legs. Once the bar passes the knee level lock everything out by pushing your hips against the bar, tighten your back while leaning backwards a little bit. At this point your shoulder blades should be squeezed together a little bit.
Bring the weight back down by controlling the movement. Back should be straight throughout the negative and you should only bend your hips and knees.
Sumo deadlifts does not put any stress on your core. Al the weight will be on:
- Lower back
- And a little of upper traps
Sumo deadlifts are very similar to squats in terms of muscles worked.
These are also called stiff leg deadlifts and will not more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
As opposed to the sumo deadlifts, with Romanian deadlifts you should have you feet close together, less than shoulder width apart.
Keeping your back straight, eyes forward and legs as straight as possible (it’s ok to bend the knees just a little bit), bend over and grab the bar. Hand placement should be shoulder width apart. This is your starting position.
From there, keep everything on lock and start pulling up the bar while keeping the back straight. You should be pulling with your hamstring, glutes and a little bit of back. No arms or shoulders should be activated in the movement.
Once you are in vertical position you should stop there in order to keep constant tension on the glutes and hamstrings. If you extend backwards the tension will shift away from your legs to your lower back.
The negative should follow the same movement, while keeping the back straight, eyes forward and legs straight.
Rack Pulls Deadlift
Finally, the third variation we’re discussing in this article will put more emphasis on your back. This variation will also allow you to use heavier weights because the range of motion is shorter than any other deadlift variation.
This works just as a standard deadlift, the main difference is that instead of pulling the bar off the ground you will be pulling it from a higher surface. Every other aspect of it is the same as a standard deadlift:
- Feet should be placed a little bit wider than shoulder width
- Hand placement should be just outside of your knee (knees bent)
- Eyes forward, back straight, chest forward and lift the bar keeping it close to your thighs
- Lean backwards a little bit and bring your shoulder blades together
- Control the negative a slowly bring the bar down by keeping your back straight, bending your hips and knees.
Thanks how you do the rack pull deadlift. It’s great for your back, it takes a lot of stress away from the legs and allows you to lift much heavier.
This is the number one exercise on your list. Moving on to number two.
Dips are great for developing a strong upper body. Some say it’s the deadlift of the upper body and I can’t say I disagree.
However, you don’t really see that many people doing dips. Most people are doing the bench press, some cable machines, maybe the Smith machine and that’s it.
But with dips you get to hit your chest, triceps and shoulders, all at once. And you only need 2 parallel bars and your bodyweight. Of course, if you are strong enough you can add more weight by using free weights.
The basic dip exercise uses both chest and triceps equally. Here is how to do it.
It’s all in the positioning of your lower body, upper body and hand placement. A wider grip will target your chest more and a narrower grip will target your triceps more.
So, for the standard dip exercise you want everything to be in a neutral position. Hand placement should be not too wide and not to narrow. The lower part of your body should point straight down and your upper body should be leaning slightly forward.
Maintain this position while performing the exercise. The range of movement should go from the lower point – where your elbows level are just a little bit above your shoulder level – to the upper point – where your elbow is almost straight up, but without locking in.
This way you maintain constant tension on the muscles while using the maximum range of motion.
By making small adjustments to your body placement you will be able to bring your chest or your triceps a little bit more into the movement.
The most common variation is the triceps dip. In order to hit more triceps you need to shift your bodyweight backwards as much as possible.
To do this you need to do the following things:
- Keep the upper body as straight as possible (perpendicular to the ground)
- Bring the legs backwards as much as you can.
- Hands placement should be shoulder width apart
- Elbows close to the torso
You will need to tighten your back chain (lower back, glutes and hamstrings) to get it right.
Another very popular variation is the chest dip. As opposed to the triceps variation, in this case you want to shift as much as possible your bodyweight in the front.
This way more emphasis will be put on the chest (and front deltoids). It might be a little bit tricky position to get into, but with a little bit of practice you will get it.
Here’s how you should do it:
- Lean your upper body forward as much as you can
- Bring your lower body forward (you will need to squeeze you abs for this)
- Hands placement should be a little bit more than shoulder width apart
- Keep elbows a little bit wider out
That’s how you do the chest dip. You will know you got it right when you are feeling the tension in the lower part of the chest and front delts.
3) Front Squats
The third exercise is in fact a variation of the standard back squat. The reason we picked this particular variation is because it puts a lot more weight and tension on the quadriceps. The other lower body exercise of your 4 exercises program – the deadlift – doesn’t really focuses that much on the quads, and we don’t want any muscle imbalances.
What we are doing with front squats is to shift the weight forwards so that the quads will be doing most of the work.
This exercise is pretty straight forward. Legs should be a little bit wider than shoulder width apart, back straight, eyes forward and you are set.
The only tricky part is the barbell placement. The bar should rest on the clavicle and front delts, and should be secured by your arms which should be parallel to the ground or elbows pointing up just a little bit.
To get the bar placement right, first of all you will need to set the power rack right. Set the height of the bar so that it is at upper chest level. Then go towards the bar until you have it rest on you clavicle bone, at the base of your neck.
The bar should rest on your front delts and clavicle bone. If you got it right it should stay there even if you don’t actually hold it with your palms. Just keep your hand up parallel to the ground and the bar should rest on your clavicle and front delts.
To secure the bar bend your elbows, cross your arms and push your palms against it. Practice this with no weights until you have it right.
Another important thing for front squatting is the range of motion. The purpose of a front squat is to work the quads. For this reason there is no need to go as deep down as you would on a back squat. If you go too much below parallel, the tension will go away from your quads and the exercise will not be as effective.
When you go up, push through your heels and do not lock out your knees. Keep the constant tension on the quads – don’t lock your knees out and go down just a little bit below parallel.
The last exercise is for the upper body. Chin-ups will work your biceps and lats. Chin-ups are in fact a variation of the pull-ups, they are also called reverse grip pull-ups, because the palm is facing inwards.
Doing chin-ups is pretty straight forward.
So, palms are facing inwards and hand placement should be shoulder width apart. This is the main difference between chin-ups and pull-ups. With the pull-ups your palms will face outwards and hand placement is much wider.
Now, there are a couple of different tweaks you can do in order to put more focus either on biceps or back muscles.
If you want to work more your biceps all you got to do is grab the bar, hand and then go straight up and down. All the way up, chin above the bar, and then all the way up.
However, if you want to target the lats more you will need to lean backwards a bit. To do this open up your rib cage, hang from the bar, lean back a little bit and then start pulling up. Just remember to lean back throughout the movement.
There you have it, 4 exercises with a couple of small variations which will hit all major muscle groups in your body. I don’t think you can get any better than that. Now let’s see how to combine them in a nice and time effective workout that will give you to most bang for your buck in the gym.
Two-day Split Workout Plan
With regular exercises it would not be an issue to do at least 4 of them during one single workout.
However, when we are talking about 4 complex compound movements it is a good idea to split them into two workouts. Otherwise you will get burned off really quick, your body will not be able to recover between workouts, bottom line it’s just too much to handle in a single day.
So, here’s how this 4 exercises workout program should look like.
Day 1A – Deadlifts & Dips
- Deadlifts – 3 sets
- Sumo Deadlifts – 3 sets
- Chest Dips – 4 sets
- Triceps Dips – 4 sets
Day 2A – Front Squats & Chin-ups
- Front Squats – 5 sets
- Chin-ups (biceps) – 4 sets
- Chin-ups (back) – 4 sets
Day 1B – Deadlifts & Dips
- Romanian Deadlifts – 3 sets
- Rack Deadlifts – 3 sets
- Chest Dips – 4 sets
- Triceps Dips – 4 sets
Day 2B – Front Squats & Chin-ups
- Front Squats – 5 sets
- Chin-ups (biceps) – 4 sets
- Chin-ups (back) – 4 sets
Ideally you want to get in 4 workouts per week, or 3 at minimum. Each workout consists of either 11 or 12 sets which can be completed in about 30 minutes, including the warm-ups sets and rest periods.
If 30 minutes is still too long, you can superset deadlifts with dips and squats with chin-ups, but you will probably need to increase resting time between sets to at least 2 minutes. With this approach you can probably finish the workout under 20 minutes.
How to Make the Most out of It
In order to make the most out of this workout routine make sure to lift heavy, focus on getting stronger and have a diet which supports muscle growth.
1. Use weights that are around 80-85% of your 1 rep max. Do anywhere from 6 to 10 reps each set and stop 2 reps short of failure. Going to failure will burn you off really quickly and you will not be able to lift as heavy on your following sets.
2. Don’t settle with the same weight forever. When it starts to feel easier and you can do more reps add more weight. This way your muscles will have to adapt to a different level of stress which will trigger growth.
3. Lastly but not least have a healthy, protein rich and carb rich diet. Protein will support muscle growth and carbs will fuel your body with energy for the workouts.