It’s funny. People love to play these “WHAT IF..” games and put all the constraints on someone as if that will produce a magic answer. “What if you only had FIVE EXERCISES and you HAD to get swole?” The thing is, it doesn’t work like that. There’s a LOT of exercises that work and as with most things in life, it all depends on you (injuries, range of motion, experience, equipment availability, etc).
Now that I got that out of the way, lets face it – people are still going to ask me (sigh). I’m going to attack it at a slightly different angle than you are probably expecting.
1. Knee Dominant – Back squat, Front Squat, Lunges, Hack Squat, etc.
2. Hip Dominant – Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Hip Thrusters, RDL, Good Mornings, etc.
BONUS 6. Horizontal Pull – Bentover Barbell Rows, One Arm Row, Seated Row, etc.
If you are going to limit me on my exercise choice to get you the best results, then I am going to choose MOVEMENT patterns (not necessarily exercises), that target more muscles than others (isolation). By thinking of exercises as movement patterns it gives you a better understanding of how the muscles need to function and be balanced out, rather than as individual muscle groups.
It’s time to stop thinking about training in terms of “RDL’s grow my hamstrings” and start thinking about it in terms of “RDL’s will strengthen my posterior chain giving me a stronger back, glute and hamstring development which carries over to my other lifts better.” This also teaches you to keep your body balanced. Now it’ll be more apparent when you see you’re favoring a lot of pushing movements, and not enough pulling movements (i.e. this is very common with people with rounded shoulders who focus on chest all week).
The smaller exercises like biceps, or machine work are great for isolating the muscle and really focusing on THAT particular muscle. But compound exercises allow you to hit SEVERAL muscles at once which is obviously what you want in this case. They give you strength, muscle building, and metabolic boosting effects at a much faster rate than any other style of lifting. Some coaches even argue it would take 15-20 sets of isolation, to equal the kind of effects you’d get some just 3-4 sets of compound movements.
Now don’t get me wrong. Isolation still has its important role in getting you to your goals. It’s just more of a complementary role to be used once you start achieving the physique you want and find certain muscle groups are lagging behind in strength or aesthetic. Start including them once you need to create a better mind muscle connection for those weaker parts.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of exercise as a whole. I didn’t want this to just be about exercise selection, but a chance for you to learn something new about how the body should work, and how you SHOULD start thinking about programming. Now it’s time to take a look at your programming and see how it stacks up.