The Big Five: A 20 Minute Mindful Strength Training Workout That Breaks The Norm
What if I told you that you could “get buff” - or whatever it is you gym rats call being fit these days - from working out just 15-20 minutes, once a week?
WAIT: THIS ISN’T A GIMMICKY FITNESS SALES PITCH I SWEAR!
I recently read Head Strong “the Bulletproof Plan To Activate Untapped Brain Energy To Work Smarter And Think Faster – In Just Two Weeks” by Dave Asprey, and I got super duper excited about some of the “biohacks” discussed. “Hacks” to a higher level of wellness? Um, yes please.
While I’m not about overhauling your life in order to “get healthy” - that’s not a holistic, kind, or long-term sustainable approach in my mind - there were still some “hacks” that Dave shared in the book which I can confidently get behind.
One in particular was his reference to Body By Science by Doug McGuff. Essentially, Dave summarized the main takeaway of the book: if you’re working out often, you’re working out wrong. Kill it once a week, and you’re golden.
Okay, that’s a major simplification, but basically the concept involves high intensity weight training.
Stay with me friends - I’m coming at this as a “yogi” who enjoys the occasional jog, and maybe a HITT bootcamp here and there, but lifting weights and all the other stuff that goes on in that weird room filled with muscle-ly people at the gym - I’ve tended to steer clear. Regardless, I think I’ve maintained getting and staying “fit”, but still, the idea that I could start doing more intense weight training effectively - in fact, most efficiently - by doing it in less than 20 minutes just once a week, is something I couldn’t help but investigate…
In no time I flocked to the gym ready to pump some iron.
Unfortunately, it turns out following a print-out PDF on the Big Five isn’t exactly ideal. Even after watching several Youtube tutorials, I still couldn’t quite master it. And by master it, I mean do it at all.
My building’s fitness centre didn’t have all the required machinery either, so I just sort of winged it with free weights. Bad idea!
Now I know there’s a reason why there’s essentially no good “Big Five Free Weights Tutorials” on the interweb...no one wants to be held liable for when you seriously hurt yourself trying it that way.
Quality machinery is really the best way to do it - that’s what I learned from my newfound fitness friend and total idol Andrei Yakovenko, founder of New Element Training and one of the most grounded, mindful and totally in-tune dude I’ve ever met. Talk about refreshing, especially in the fitness industry (sorry, it’s true - at least from my perspective).
After scouring the internet for a Toronto-local expert on the Big Five, I was finally connected with Andrei, and it was well worth the hunt.
He explained that the key to doing the Big Five properly and getting real results lies not only in your mental and physical devotion to doing it fully (& that means mindfully too!), but also in the quality of the equipment you use. It’s easier on the joints and prevent injury. The Big Five is all about muscle exhaustion - in other words, you push it to the limit. Pushing it to the limit with free weights or with poorly designed equipment is no doubt a recipe for disaster.
Hence, he opened New Element Training in Toronto - inspired by reading Body By Science himself - and it’s essentially the answer to your prayers once you realize the power this approach holds.
With that said, I still have a very special and entirely accessible FREE option for all of you who simply don’t have the resources to join a gym, or would like to start/maintain a killer workout regime while travelling.
Thanks to Andrei, I’m about to present a Body Weight Big Five Tutorial, that you can easily do at home - no gym or fancy equipment required.
*A few things to keep in mind before we jump into things:
Before you start - get in “the zone”. It was refreshing to hear that Andrei’s approach for this was not running on the treadmill for 15-20 minutes, nor was it practicing a set sequence of cardio stretching. Instead, it’s a minute of meditation. Close your eyes, get in tune with the space around you, and your body, and become truly present.
Do each move for 1.5-2 minutes, at which point you should reach maximum exertion - i.e. you simply cannot, for the life of you, do another rep in a good form.
Do each move slowly - anywhere from 5-10 seconds going up and down [or in terms Andrei used: the “positive” movement (most difficult) for 5-10 sec. and then the “negative” (least difficult) for 5-10 seconds]. You can take a slight pause at the hardest point, but generally you should be flowing through each movement fluidly.
No break between moves.
A basic squat: knees behind toes, back straight, weight in heels, and try to dip lower than your hips. You’ll want to hold onto something at about the height of your belly.
*Note that for people who are already quite fit, 2-3 minutes of a wall sit to pre-exhaust the muscles is a good idea.*
2. Pull Ups
Or in my case, releasing my chest from the bar with intention (i.e. focusing on the “negative” portion of the exercise). You should feel this in your arms.
At the top of the range of motion, focus on squeezing your shoulders back, lean away from the bar by about 30 degrees and start lowering your body, while trying to engage your back muscles. As you come lower (bottom range of motion) it’s okay to start transitioning to your arms (biceps). Try your best to maintain constant tension and lower yourself slowly under control until your arms are fully extended. It should take 3-5 seconds to complete one rep.
Go up without a break and repeat. On the last repetition you should not be able to lower yourself under control for 3 seconds or more. Once you can do 8 such repetitions, increase your repetition duration to 5 seconds, 10 seconds and so on. If you can do 8 repetitions of about 15-20 seconds in duration, you are probably strong enough to do a full chin-up (doing both the positive and negative phases of the exercise).
Note: you’re going to need to get a pull up bar for this, but they’re cheap and easy to instal inside a doorway of your home. Here’s the one I’m ordering from Amazon. You may also want to get a stool to make things easier at the start - in other words, you can simply work on letting yourself slowly drop from the bar onto your step tool.
3. Push Ups
For the beginner, use a kitchen counter and do a “full” push up leaned slanted against the elevated surface. Try to do the fullest extension possible on the way down so that your chest almost touches the counter. Keep your core tight at all times.
Of course, as you become more advanced, you can do a push-up completely parallel on the floor.
4. Lat Bent Over Row with Resistance Band
One side at a time for this one.
One knee bent facing forward, and the other leg is straight and rotated out at about a 40 degree angle - for all my fellow yogis: think warrior one (ish). Hips are forward (not rotated out to the side - they’re going to want to shift towards that angled foot, but don’t let them). Place your foot (from the leg with the bent knee) on the resistance band and pull up with the arm on the side with the straight leg. Elbow bent - pull back and up. You should feel this in your lat muscles.
*Note: Okay, one more tiny purchase - I promise! Get yourself a resistance band. They’re like $10 and easy to find - I got mine at Winners, but any department store should sell them.
5. Overhead Press with Resistance Band
Feet about hip-width apart (or however far apart they need to be to offer you suitable resistance for your arms on the way up), and palms facing each other as you extend the band upwards.
Start by keeping your arms slightly forward, hands at about shoulder level, and extend fully.
Have your arms at your sides and parallel at all times - try your best to keep your arms from sprawling out.
And BOOM you’re done!
Five simple but extremely challenging moves that - if you practice with complete presence, and execute on with all of your diligence and strength - will get your “buff”. I’m serious - just once a week. This workout start to finish is tops 20 minutes. I think most of us can spare 20 minutes once a week, let’s be real (there’s even zero travel time since you can do it from the comfort of your own home).
Now I do want to clarify something important before you leave this post with the wrong idea: this isn’t meant to come across as commercial “fitspo”, or in any way encouragement for achieving a particular outer appearance.
In full transparency, I was drawn to this workout for the idea that I could really “work” and consequently strengthen my entire body with a few key fundamental exercises - in a way that I easily fits my lifestyle. As someone who’s always preferred more mobility-type exercise like in a basic flow vinyasa or hatha class, it was appealing to think that I could experiment in this whole “weight training” world without the time commitment, joining a weird reddit community, or having to pretend I like whey protein shakes.
After meeting Andrei, I began to love this concept even more. He brings what he likes to call “a touch of mindfulness” to all of his workouts and training sessions. They are truly meditative coaching sessions. Yes, you’re in discomfort - especially at the very end of each exercise, but his entire approach to how you should be with your body in these moments is extremely refreshing. He suggests really being present with exactly how you feel in each and every moment - acknowledge it, and even dive deeper into that feeling - but always without judgement. Instead of labeling, try exploring how each movement is making you feel with a curious and open mind.