I have read that exercises like squats and bench press work a number of muscle groups. I really have limited time at the gym, and I'm trying to build an exercise routine that is as efficient as possible. What are the most efficient exercises that target the majority of muscle groups.

  • You need to know a full-routine comosed of few compound exercises might not train enough some muscles (as calves or obliques). So I recommend to add a few core and small muscle exercises to any of the anwers of your question.
    – Felix L.
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 16:04

4 Answers 4


I'm a fan of the following progression(1), which is the simplest I've seen that hits all the major movements (press, pull, squat, hinge). The beauty of the workout is that each exercise warms up the next one. It goes like so, adding weight to the bar both between and within each step:

  1. Clean and press the bar. (You can front squat it--before or after the press--as a warm-up for the next step, if you like.)
  2. When it's too heavy to press, clean and front squat it.
  3. When it's too heavy to clean, deadlift it.
  4. Hit the chin-up bar.

Between 2 and 3, you could add a few squats from a rack if your squat is much stronger than your clean.

The last time I did this, I power clean and pressed 45 pounds as a warm-up, then 95, then 120 or so. Then I power clean and front squatted 145 or so, then 200 or so. Then I deadlifted in the 300s before doing three sets of chin-ups.

I get the "major movements" from an amalgam of the work of Mark Rippetoe and Dan John, the latter of whom might recommend adding a farmer's walk finisher to the end of the workout. (He sees carries as another fundamental movement.) I figure that squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and chinning covers all the basics of lifting. The rest of human movement (or "targeting" other "muscle groups") can come from sports or running.

In terms of muscles worked, which I think is a red herring in this endeavor, you're hitting everything. Squats work almost everything in your body, as do deadlifts, and anything they miss, the presses and chins should get. As far as I know, these exercises require the broadest swath of our body.

1 - On second thought, this may be more explicitly cribbed from Dan John's book with Pavel than I initially recalled. Will have to check.


There are really only 2 movements: PUSH and PULL.

These two movements are then broken down into mostly 2 different planes: Vertical and Horizontal.

They look like this:


Vertical push: Overhead press

Vertical pull: Chinup/pullup

Horizontal push: Bench press or pushup

Horizontal pull: Rows


Vertical push: Squat

Vertical pull: Deadlift

If you do all these movements, you will no stone unturned. What is best (and most efficient) is to do antagonistic pairing (ie opposing movements in the same plane). If you are really short on time, do tri sets with a lower body exercise (squats or deadlifts) thrown in there as well.

 A1) Squat (--Lower front)
 A2) BB overhead press (--Upper front)
 A3) Chinup (--Upper back)

 B1) Deadlift (--Lower Back)
 B2) Pushup (--Upper front)
 B3) 1 arm DB row (--upper back)
  • Your proposed program is very close to a program I was doing recently. Neat. But what about vertical pushes in the downward direction, i.e. dips? Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 21:36
  • I think it depends on how you do the dip (ie lean forward vs. straight up). I classify them as horizontal push but I know others that call them vertical.
    – user2396
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 21:42

I've got a routine I can finish within 5 minutes + time spent waiting for the squat rack.

I've usually done the following order, Squat > Overhead Press > Deadlift > Chin Ups, but other orders could work as well. The squat and deadlift by themselves already target the majority of muscles, the overhead press and chin ups have a lot of overlap but use the muscles differently (there's a good mix of pulling and pushing with those 4).

I do 1 work set of 5 reps, where 5 reps is usually the max I can handle at that weight (going up 5lbs per week initially for the press, 10lbs for the squat, 15lbs for the deadlift, and as many reps as possible in one set for chin ups), with each work set preceded by 1, and occasionally 2 warmup sets of 5 with ~40%-60% of my work weight.

I had quite good results with just that, and I don't think it gets more efficient than 5 minutes, once per week.

  • 2
    The five-minute time span compels me to ask: what kind of weights have you been able to progress to with this method? Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 20:08
  • I'm still going up, I'll come back and answer when I hit a wall on one or more of them.
    – Robin Ashe
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 8:43
  • OK. Even knowing where you are now would clarify things in my head. I don't know whether my inability to conceive of rest periods that short is due to my failings or the fact that recovering from a ~BW deadlift is different than recovering from a 2xBW deadlift. Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 14:08
  • I'm at 1.5xBW on the DL. 4 exercises, 5 reps, ~30 seconds to complete each set (being generous), ~15 seconds for the warmup set (none for the chin ups), 3 rest periods of ~1 minute. I usually do the chin up after the dead lift, and the number I get isn't as consistent, so that's probably reflective of level of recovery.
    – Robin Ashe
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 17:25

The following hits every muscle. I won't give sets and reps, because the group of exercises works beautifully as a High Frequency routine, a HIIT routine, and with pyramids and drop sets and rest/pause finishers. Anyone that thinks that the calves and mid back are being ignored has never done farmer's walks and ab wheel rollouts. Suffice to say, 10 power reps and 40 continuous swings is a fine measure for the kettlebell swing before increasing weight, as is 100 yards with ever increasing poundages for the farmer's walk.


  • Hi and welcome to the fitness stackexchange! Unfortunately, your answer doesn't conform to our community standards, so you might want to edit and improve it. Some pointers: This is not a workout, it's a list of several exercises. A workout has exercises, sets, reps, resting time etc. If you could also provide information and/or (anecdotal) evidence of why you think this would be a great selection of exercises, that would be great. Lastly, what about calves/middle back?
    – user8119
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 7:51

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