Which 4 Exercises Would You Choose for Total Body Development?

Tom Kelso

Contributor - Strength and Conditioning

Strength and Conditioning

A hypothetical. Due to time constraints, assume you had to address your entire body with a minimal number of exercises. In this case, we are going to limit it to four. To optimally address overall body development, what exercises would you choose?


A Challenging Choice

This could go two different ways. There are those who would think in terms of all-inclusive bodyweight exercises such as jumping jacks and burpees. There are also those who would think in terms of basic resistance exercises such as squats, bench presses, and pull ups. All of these are great choices depending upon your goal.



Fitness, programming, strength training, resistance training, exercises, movements, combinations, How To Choose


Performing jumping jacks and burpees in proper fashion can be productive, provided they are executed with the proper intensity and volume. Likewise, performing squats, bench presses, and pull ups can do a significant job of addressing most of the major muscle groups if done correctly.


Addressing the entire body using only four exercises can be a challenge considering all of the skeletal joints you posses and the variety of articulations at each. There are over 600 skeletal muscles that make up the human body, so how do you narrow it down to only four exercises to optimally tax the greatest amount of muscle? Check out this list of skeletal joints and all the possible movements at each.


Determine Your Training Goal

It would take a plethora of exercises to apply direct resistance to each of the movements of which your body is capable. Most of the time it is impractical to do that. Therefore, here are a few approaches that can be used depending upon your training goal.


Of course, you first need to determine where you want to go:


  • Are you after pure strength?
  • Are you after pure cardio-vascular (CV) fitness?
  • Are you after a combination of strength and CV fitness?


Many variables now come into play, independent of the four exercises chosen. High repetitions or low repetitions? Bodyweight only, light resistance, or heavy resistance? Free weights or machines? Minimum or maximum rest between exercise bouts? Is the speed of exercise movement slow or fast?


Regardless of your training goal, what follows are some four-exercise combinations that can be used if you were limited to only four. The four-exercise suggestions are intended to involve the greatest amount of muscle possible. Of course there are limitations, but it's difficult to hit it all with only four options.


Fitness, programming, strength training, resistance training, exercises, movements, combinations, How To Choose


All said and done, what you plug in relative to sets, reps, load, rest time, and movement speed is contingent on your goal. So, here you go. Here are three four-exercise examples for each category.


Bodyweight Only

  • Single-leg burpees
  • Jumping jacks
  • Close grip pull ups
  • Sumo squats


  • Mountain climbers
  • Lunges
  • Push ups
  • Chest-to-bar pull ups


  • Run in place
  • Glute bridges
  • Tent push ups
  • Wide grip pull ups


Bodyweight Plus Free Weights

  • Spread-eagle burpees
  • Dumbbell squat-to-press
  • Bicycle crunches
  • Barbell lunge


  • Dumbbell 1-arm plank row
  • Frog jumps
  • Barbell bicep curl-to-press
  • Bear crawls


  • Dumbbell squat
  • Single-leg jumping jacks
  • Barbell incline press
  • Close grip pull ups


Bodyweight Plus Machines

  • Bar dips
  • Machine leg press
  • Pull ups
  • Machine back extensions


  • Squat machine
  • Push ups
  • Chest-to-bar pull ups
  • Machine overhead press


  • Squats
  • Leg curl
  • Smith machine grip push ups
  • Chest-to-bar pull ups


Fitness, programming, strength training, resistance training, exercises, movements, combinations, How To Choose


Free Weights Only

  • Barbell squat
  • Barbell standing overhead press
  • Dumbbell bent-over row
  • Dumbbell upright row



  • Dumbbell dead lift
  • Dumbbell incline press
  • Barbell upright row
  • Barbell decline press


Machines Only

  • Chest press
  • Pulldown
  • Overhead press
  • Leg press



  • Smith machine squat
  • Incline press
  • Leg curl
  • Seated row



  • Overhead press
  • Leg press
  • Pulldown
  • Plate-load stiff-leg dead lift


Free Weights Plus Machines


  • Squat machine
  • Barbell incline press
  • Seated row
  • Dumbbell stiff-leg dead lift


  • Machine overhead press
  • Barbell dead lift
  • Machine dips
  • Dumbbell lunge


Fitness, programming, strength training, resistance training, exercises, movements, combinations, How To Choose


Free Weight Combination Exercises

3 to 6 rounds for each:


  • Dumbbell lunge (6 reps each leg) + dumbbell squat (12 reps)
  • Dumbbell chest fly (5 reps) + dumbbell chest press (10 reps)
  • Barbell bicep curl (4 reps) + barbell bent-over row (8 reps)
  • Barbell stiff-leg dead lift (12 reps) + barbell standing press (5 reps)


  • Dumbbell upright row (10 reps) + dumbbell side lateral raise (5 reps)
  • Barbell lunge (5 reps each leg) + barbell squat (10 reps)
  • Dumbbell bicep curl (10 reps) + dumbbell bent-over fly (5 reps)
  • Barbell front squat-to-press (4 reps) + barbell stiff-leg dead lift (8 reps)


  • Dumbbell side lateral raise (5 reps) + dumbbell bent-over raise (5 reps)
  • Dumbbell bicep curl (5 reps) + dumbbell upright row (10 reps)
  • Barbell squat isometric-hold squat (:30) + barbell dynamic squat (8 reps)
  • Dumbbell inline fly (5 reps) + dumbbell incline press (10 reps)


The Golden Rules

Yes, four exercises can work if you only have minimal training time. You will need to work hard, though. The above options can be used to fit your busy schedule. Even if time is not an issue, these options can be used effectively and to add variety to your program.


It all comes down to how hard you apply yourself. Remember: work hard, rest hard, and train consistently.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.



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