I’m often asked:

To that, I answer, “It depends,” which it really does!

For example, I am not going to program the same exercises for an obese client as I would for a fat loss client as I would for a client who wants to build strength as I would for a client who wants to train for hypertrophy!

The goal determines the means to achieve said goal, and since most people have different ones–not to mention different workout preferences, schedules, psychologies, etc!–there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter answer to that common question.

However, there is a caveat (there’s always a caveat!)

When most people hear my answer “It depends,” more often than not, they will clarify their question using one of the following statements:

“What are the best exercises to do to lose weight?”


“What are the best exercises to get stronger?”

Now, there is still plenty of room for customization from one client to another, but generally-speaking, there are exercises that I will make sure to include in ANY strength program and/or weight (fat) loss program, and they are variations of:

The Deadlift

The Squat

The Bench press

The Strict press

The Pull-up/Chin-up

I call these the Big 5, and I think most coaches and trainers would agree that most people should learn to perform all five with relative proficiency.

In fact, I’d argue that since the Big 5 can be infinitely progressed, there’s no reason to do add anything else (unless it’s for fun or as part of a circuit or finisher!) to a program, and instead focus on progressive overload.

Now, even though the Big 5 are movements everyone should master, it doesn’t mean that everyone should be doing them the same way!

This is why I mentioned that these movements and variations thereof are what I recommend for strength and fat-loss clients alike.

For example, not everyone we work with will will have the mobility in their hips, knees and ankles; the core strength; or the shoulder stability, to squat with a barbell on their back.

It’s just not going to happen.

However, we can modify the movement with dumbbells, kettlebells, or bodyweight; and/or “raise” the floor to a point from which the client has the range of motion required to execute the movement.

So while there are ways to coach anyone on these movement patterns, a person whose goal is strength should focus on one primary lift/movement each session, while a person whose goal is fat loss should incorporate more than one of these movements each session.

Why? When your goal is strength, you’re going to put forth maximal effort in the beginning of your workout as you work up to moving more and more weight.

Typically, you’re working off of a percentage of your 1RM (one rep max) and after each cycle, you test your lifts to 1) assess your improvement; and 2) adjust your numbers for the next cycle.

This is how you know you’re getting stronger.

After your big lift is complete, any accessory work is going to be lighter and less strenuous for your CNS. This work is designed to complement the big lift, and therefore uses similar muscle groups to amplify the effort you’ve already exerted.

When training for strength, you may train a particular movement pattern more than once a week, but that’s rare given the nature of the training protocol and the importance of rest for proper recovery between sessions.

Typically, strength workouts take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to complete. Rest periods are longer, and the demands on your cardiovascular system are not as high.

When it comes to fat loss, I’ve found that the opposite is true: shorter, more intense sessions that incorporate various movement patterns in a circuit-style format are most effective.

Fat loss exercise is all about getting more bang for your buck; in other words, the more multi-joint, or compound, movements you can incorporate, the better. And the quicker you can move between exercises, the better, as well!

For example, the deadlift is a compound exercise (you will recruit muscles of the legs, hips, glutes, trunk, and arms to perform the movement), but I would not spend 20-30 minutes of a 55-minute workout adding weight to the bar with a client whose goal is fat loss. 

That would not be a good use of our time!

Rather, I would shorten the entire workout (45 minutes to include warm-up, workout, finisher, and cool down), and take the client through a circuit or circuits designed to elevate their heart rate and keep it up throughout.

I would incorporate weight-bearing exercises (their own body weight as resistance or additional weight, depending on the client’s conditioning), and have the client complete a certain number of reps or as many reps as possible (with good form!) in a prescribed interval before moving on.

I would keep rest periods short or use a rest-based training (a protocol developed by Metabolic Effect) method which instructs the client to “push until you can’t, rest until you can.” This way, the individual determines their effort and therefore how much rest they need so they can push hard again.

To ensure that my client achieves the greatest metabolic disturbance (think: heavy breathing, sweating, muscles burning from the increase in lactic acid, etc.)

When these conditions are present–an indication that the all-important hormonal “switch over” has occurred, i.e. the body’s burning fat as opposed to sugar (glucose))–I would program dual exercises so we can get as many body parts moving at a time!

For example, a circuit for a fat loss client might look like this:

Squat to Overhead Press (squat, strict press variation)

DB Walking Lunge w/ a Bent Over Row (pull up variation) 

Push-up (bench press variation)

DB Deadlift to High Pull (deadlift, pull up variation) 

Inverted Row (pull up variation)

All exercises are either 1) multi-lever or 2) compound, and therefore challenging the cardiovascular system while simultaneously developing total body strength. 

And because these exercises are intense, they are suited to a shorter-duration workout!  

In conclusion, you can get both strong and lean by mastering the same five exercises–it’s all about how you modify them!

Did you enjoy this post? If so, I want to invite you to join our *free* FB community, The Health-usiastic Life with Hilary!

This group is for fellow health-usiasts who love exercise and nutrition, but who also love life and want to enjoy it as much as they can.

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The Big 5: The BEST & ONLY Exercises You Need to Do

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