We all know that there are a variety of benefits to weight training — including improved fat loss, strength and athletic performance — but at the core of weight training, there are 5 key lifts that are known as the big 5. Also known as compound exercises, the big 5 work multiple muscle groups at the same time, making them some of the most effective exercises you can do when it comes to building strength. The big 5 lifts include:
- Bench Press
- Shoulder Press
What Are The Benefits of Using the Big 5 Lifts?
The big 5 lifts train not only intramuscular but also intermuscular systems, which improves muscle coordination and allows you to work on numerous muscle groups at once. This means instead of working on a different muscle each day, you can get a full-body workout every time. You’ll be building functional strength by using your muscles to do big, powerful movements that cross over into everyday life.
How To Use The Big 5 Lifts
As strength building works best with lower rep counts, the most recommended workout for the big 5 lifts is a 5×5 workout. As the name suggests, this workout includes 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each of the big 5 lifts, making it super easy to remember. You should aim to do this workout 2-3 times a week, with rest days extremely important to strength building, as it gives the muscles time to repair and recover. You can add to the weights of these lifts as your strength develops.
Deadlifts are a vital part of any strength training workout, which is why they’re number one on our list. Engaging the legs, lower back, shoulders and core, deadlifts build muscle groups that are extremely useful in everyday life, making them a great workout for anyone. As one of the best total-body moves for burning fat and building muscle, you want to ensure your form is right every time for maximum benefit.
For the perfect powerhouse deadlift, grab a bar and find yourself some floor space. Place the feet shoulder-width apart with toes pointed forward or angled out slightly for balance. Grab the bar with your hands just outside your legs, squeeze, then drive your hips forward as you lift the bar and squeeze your glutes tight. Ensure that the back stays flat throughout the movement. Lower the weight with control and repeat as necessary.
Our top tips: you can use either a double overhand grip or a mixed grip for deadlifting, but ensure you change hands regularly if using the mixed grip to avoid muscle imbalances.
2. Bench Press
The second of the big 5 compound lifts is another staple for any great strength training workout — the bench press. As a worldwide favourite, a bench press with great form is vital to weight training.
To bench press correctly, lie flat on your back on a bench. Press your feet into the ground and keep your hips in contact with the bench throughout. Then grip the bar with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart and lift the weight off the rack. Lower the bar with control down slowly to your chest. Then press the bar back up until your elbows are straight. Repeat as necessary.
Our top tips: use a spotter if you can, don’t go too heavy too early, and keep your elbows pointing down towards the floor for great form!
Squats can be scary to begin with but are a great addition to any strength training, even for beginners! It may take time for you to feel confident with squats and they can be difficult to master, so work on your form before piling on the weights.
To squat perfectly every time, you should secure your shoulders underneath the bar and lift off the rack with the bar on your back, before taking two big steps back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing out slightly and ensure to keep your torso braced throughout the exercise. Then, bend at the hips and knees, and lower as if you are sitting down until your hip crease is below your knees, before driving back up.
Our top tips: try focusing on a spot around two meters in front of you on the floor (without dropping your chin) and try to press your weight into your heels as you rise up for extra balance.
4. Shoulder Press
Also known as an overhead press (OHP), a shoulder press is another great compound exercise that works well for strength training. To perform a shoulder press correctly, you should start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the bar no further than shoulder-width apart, and hold at shoulder height with your elbows bent. Press the bar directly overhead, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower to your starting position with control. Be sure not to tilt your hips forward as you do this exercise.
Our top tips: if you don’t think you’re quite ready for the overhead press, you can do a seated dumbbell shoulder press instead, using dumbbells in the same way to help you build the strength required to use a barbell.
Last but by no means least of the big lifts are pull-ups — a great compound exercise that works both primary and secondary muscle groups and is excellent for building all round functional strength.
To utilise pull ups, you will first need to decide which grip to use. With three options to choose from, it might be worth doing some research around which grip will help you build the functional strength you’re aiming for. For example: a neutral grip can be good for beginners, a pronated grip can help build functional strength great for climbing and gymnastics and a supinated grip works the biceps and chest more than a pronated grip.
Once you’ve chosen your grip, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grab the bar however suits. Hang freely with your arms extended, bracing your core and keeping your head straight, then pull yourself upwards by bending at the elbows but keeping them tucked into the sides of the body. Pull your body up until your chin is just higher than the bars, then lower back to the starting position with control. In this exercise you will want to breathe out at the top and breathe in at the bottom.
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So once you do all the exercises 5 times for 5 reps that’s it for the day? Do you do another round or two or that’s it?
Hi Rodney, You would do 5 sets x 5 reps at the same weight, so the format doesn’t include warm up weights. The load should be heavy enough to feel very challenging, but light enough that you can keep good form and technique throughout.
I’m just starting out in doing these compound excercises for weight loss. I’m not even close to be able to do a pull up. What can you recommend to build strength to enable a pull up?
It takes time and requires patience, so consistency is key. Doing some kind of training for pull ups 3 times a week gets good results.
Back strength is key, particularly for the lats. Any type of row variation (e.g. bent over row, inverted row, DB single arm row) is good for lat development. Building up grip strength for pull ups is also useful. Start by hanging from the bar for time (active hang with shoulder blades pulled down), progress to doing slow negatives.
Thank you so much for this article. 🙂
Do you have a special order of execution to recommend for the 5 exercises?
Generally you would do biggest muscle groups first, so lower body exercises – squat and deadlift – before upper body exercises – bench, pull up etc. If doing all exercises in the same workout, however, it can be helpful to alternate between lower body and upper body exercises throughout the workout, to give the muscles some recovery. It is also common to alternate between ‘push’ exercises (bench press, overhead press) and ‘pull’ exercises (pull up, deadlift).
How do you recommend warming up for these big lifts to prevent injury?
1. A dynamic bodyweight warm up for the whole body, to raise muscle temperature and get the joints moving
2. A movement specific warm up, focussing on the muscle groups to be targeted (e.g. for deadlift, warm up core, lower back, hamstrings etc)
3. A minimum of three warm up weights, ramping up to the working weight
Hi Sally. I’d love your opinion on whether you think it is necessary to include a horizontal pull exercise along with the pull up (vertical pull)? I have read many articles stating that a muscular imbalance in the back can occur when not including this extra exercise.Thanks
Hi Pete, yes, I would recommend a horizontal pull exercise, although I think it’s a stretch to say that a ‘muscular imbalance’ would occur if you did deadlifts and pull ups but not another horizontal pull exercise.
The deadlift contributes to horizontal pulling to an extent, as the first half of the lift takes place in the horizontal pull position.
That said, as a coach I would also add bent over rows to most strength programs.
The exercises in this article are not an exhaustive list, and I would include many other movements in a general strength program.
I would like to suggest using bands to perform assisted pull-ups if you cannot do a pull-up. This is how I started and it’s very easy to progress to an unassisted pull-up over time.
Yes, great tip!