6 Fundamental Gym Lifts For Everyone
Forget about the isolation machines and rows of flashy equipment. There are just 6 foundational gym exercises that do the job of all others to a level that would make any fitness fan proud. This is our guide to the fundamental lifts to take on holiday with you.
6 Best Exercises To Work Every Muscle
When you’re travelling, if you can’t find a good gym you may be limited to the range of workout you can have. But we have some good news, Arnie didn’t grow his Mr Olympia chest from hours of complicated machines and Tom Platz wasn’t using seated leg press. They just needed these basic moves and so do you. These are the 6 best exercises ever to work every muscle.
NB: These six lifts are part of our hotel gym assessments. We score how many of the six can be done by an average gym goer in a specific fitness centre.
To the point
How Credible Is This?
All of our articles are written as broad outlines on what has worked for us over decades of training. We verify our claims with sourced articles and follow a PT editorial policy. This means a qualified instructor checks the images and language used for efficacy. Our content is meant to inspire but not replace personalised professional advice.
Is This Only For Muscle Growth?
The fundamental 6 can be used to meet a range of personal training aims. Executed one after another with lower weight, this can form a highly effective HIIT or total body circuit. Broken up with heavier weights, lower reps and longer rest, they can be used for mass gain.
As with any exercise program, the outcome is based on the intensity not the exercises. If you are looking for a workout that burns lots of calories for a fat loss goal, these 6 lifts are just as appropriate.
1/6 - The Deadlift
There are few lifts that recruit so many muscle fibres to execute as the deadlift. From the core, to the lower back, the glutes, hamstrings, forearms, lats, traps, quads, it’s an impressive list of muscular demand. This makes it a desert island disc of a lift. Because of this compounding of muscle group demands, it burns a shed load of calories and it can also develop huge strength improvements.
- Lower Back
How to do the deadlift
The movement requires a straight back and should be lifted with the bar as close to the shins as possible, to make it a leg push from the floor, as opposed to a lower back lever. It’s also known as a hip hinge, but the move should be thought of as starting with a leg press.
We recommend everyone master this move, and start light, using a mirror. This will help you learn to keep a straight back and poke your bum back. There are a number of variations of this move, such as the RDL which focuses on hamstrings, or the sumo, which is more glute dominant, but if a gym has a barbell and some weights, you can do a deadlift. Heavy for mass gain and power, or light weights for conditioning and calorie burning. If a gym doesn’t offer this move – is it really a gym.
Dumbbells can work just as well, although you are limited by weight often in the lower rep ranges. The single leg dumbbell deadlift is a great move also if you are limited by kit.
Kettlebells can replace a bar as can a bar on the bottom of a cable column if light weight is fine for you.
2/6 - The Squat
Favoured by every old school lifter, from strength trainers to body builders, male and female. Tom Platz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reg Park and the list goes on. These masters of physique development operated in an age that didn’t have the machines we are used to seeing. To them, there was no better leg builder than the Squat.
The picture hasn’t changed as our gyms become more modern, squats are still the biggest and best move in the workout. The beauty of the move is that it can be modified to focus on different parts of the leg, and can be both mass building, booty bulging or a downright sweat party if you are putting the squat in a circuit.
- Quads (Primary)
How to do a squat
There are a few variations of the squat, such as the front squat or sumo with a kettlebell, but for the conventional back squat, the move should feel like you are pushing your bottom back, while your knees remain fixed above your feet.
With the bar moving in a straightline down to the ground, the only place for you to move to keep your posture is to push the bum back and keep your chin up. This ensures good form and don’t forget to at least go to parallel. That means no half squats. It makes a difference and there have been studies on this! (Squat depth study source)
Use a light weight and a mirror to perfect the move.
Like any move there are other ways to attack it. If I can’t see much weight lying around, I may opt for a front squat which is more quad dominant and bloody hard. That means I can train well with less.
If I have straps and see heavy dumbbells, I might opt for a seated squat. This is where you hold the dumbbells in your hands and start from inertia. You stand up, and then lower back down to the bench/seat. Then you drive up again.
Other moves include using kettlebells and if you have two step boxes, going really low to hit the glutes move.
However, if you have to do all these workarounds then ask yourself if the hotel gym is really right to call itself a gym. Sounds like it is getting a free ride on your knowledge and charging a premium for the hotel room for the privilege!
3/6 - The Bent Over Row
There are a few ways you can hit this back building move, dumbbells or barbell, either is fine, but we opt for the barbell as the premier move due to the stabilisation of core that is required when in position.
Holding your position stable, core tensed and driving your elbows back, means a lot of work is being done to perform the move and unlike the pull-up, it can be done by anyone. Top exercise!
- Rear delts
How to perform the bent over row
Feet shoulder width apart, back straight, look up and pull your elbows back. The mind muscle focus is advised to feel like you are trying to meet your elbows together behind your back. The pulling motion from the bicep should be the last muscle engaged.
You do not need to lean 90 degrees, just sufficient that gravity is able to pull the bar straight down and your row back up, has a clear range of motion.
You can replace with a dumbbell row, or two kettlebells either side of your body can work well where lighter weight loads are fine. Ideally you want an Olympic bar with a rack to rest the bar back onto, without having to over exert your lower back. Fingers crossed the hotel owner knows what that means!
4/6 - The Pull Up
I was torn about adding this movement into the list. It’s a phenomenal exercise and being able to do them should be a target for all gym goers who want to showcase a level of physical strength. THAT BEING SAID, most gym goers aren’t able to do these on day 1, unlike the bent over row and few hotel gyms will have bands to put your knees in to reduce weight.
Having someone spot your knees requires, well, someone, which isn’t great if you travel alone. But if you can knock out a 5+ then you should begin to consider them as a great bicep and lat building move.
Despite all this, the chances are, the next hotel gym you use will either have no chin up bar or it will be positioned at hobbit head height, still, it’s a move militaries of the world seem to value and if it’s good enough for commandos, it’s good enough for you and I.
- Rear Delts
How to perform a pull up
Pull yourself up, then lower to full extension, before repeating.
Close grip palms facing you, if you want to smash your biceps; or go wide with palms out if you want to focus on your lats more. Have a mate hold your knees to give you assistance, or use a rubber band and pop your knees through if you’re on your own.
You can do these with a TRX strap, albeit at a slightly funny angle, or a lat pulldown machine can offer a good entry level option.
5/6 - The Bench Press
The cornerstone of International Chest Day, the standard that every gym bro judges themselves by, the bench press is a critical lift. In life there are occasions where we are lying on our back and are being crushed by a large mammal or a small car. In this situation, the bench press comes in handy. Being able to push a heavy load vertically while lying is also a measure of one’s muscle power in the NFL combine.
Better than any chest machine, this is THE lift.
- Front Delts
How to perform the bench press
Pinch your shoulder blades back, aim for hands shoulder width and your bum and feet flat, then lower slowly to your chest, before driving up to lock out.
Then rinse and repeat.
Slow for muscle pump, fast up for explosive development.
Bring your hands in close to emphasise the triceps, or wide for a more chest focused movement.
With no weight on a bar, imagine you are pushing your hands in together, almost bending the bar in your mind, but obviously don’t move your hands in. This mind muscle variation, really focuses on lifting the weight with your chest and nothing else. It’s a surprisingly difficult move.
Dumbbell bench press is a great move too, and if no bench exists I’d probably go for variations of push up before using a chest press machine, but that’s personal preference. (I find the machines tend to restrict my long arms)
6/6 - The Military Press
Just as we pull up, the inverse movement is valuable too. Pushing a heavy weight above our heads is probably the most practical movement out of the upper body moves in fairness too.
I tend not to find myself in a cliff hanging situation, nor being trapped laying flat on my back by a silverback gorilla. Picking up tins of paint while poking my bum out is also a rarely executed move, but placing heavy boxes above my head in the attic is definitely something I remember doing. For way more reasons than that, the military press enters the list.
How to perform the military press
Find a rack ideally and ensure you are not going to have to uncomfortably overreach behind yourself, or lean too far forward…get comfortable. Other than that, take the bar in your hands and lower to your chin/nose area and drive back up.
Dumbbells of course offer a great alternative, including alternating and standing single sided options. It doesn’t need overthinking though, raise a free weight above your head and lower.
Outro & that's a strap
That’s your lot, those are the 6 exercises you need in life. Nothing else will truly matter, if you perform those moves to the best of your ability and aim for progression each week, either in more reps of a new weight, or just more weight lifted correctly.
You can keep your wobble plates and bosu balls, we just need a barbell and a power rack. Here’s hoping we can find some hotels that listen!