I have been asked quite a few times ‘If you had to choose one exercise, which would it be?’ There is no one exercise to rule them all. There are certain exercises to be used for different situations. What is the training goal? Size? Strength? Speed? Power? While this completely dependant on the context, I will give you my thoughts on the most efficient exercises for each body part and which does the most complete job for the purpose of improving size, strength and shape.
Legs – HIGH BAR BACK SQUAT
Referred to as the ‘king’ of leg exercises and for good reason. This should be a staple exercise for the ladies. Performing a high bar back squat will give you the maximum growth potential for overall leg development, in particular the quads. Superior to leg machines not just for this reason, but also for the carry over to sports performance. A staple exercise for those in contact sports such as rugby and American football, the squat builds muscle and shapes the legs as well as teaching you core skills such as bracing tight to utilise the core and instils good movement patterns that are applicable to helping you everyday life. This also burns the most calories and works your entire body. The squat gives you the most bang for your buck.
Other squat variations such as the low bar and front squat are fine exercises if you choose them, however they are slightly more situational exercises. You may want to front squat as a way of working the core, learning the squatting movement and/or if you do weightlifting. A low bar squat will likely allow you to lift more weight but will put more of the emphasis on the posterior chain (hamstrings + glutes) rather than the quads. This is most likely the squat you will use if you are power lifting.
Whichever you choose to do, JUST SQUAT! ☺
Chest – BENCH PRESS
This should be the bread and butter of your chest routine. This exercise needs to be performed with the correct technique to ensure you are using the correct musculature. Retract your shoulder blades, don’t flare the elbows and keep your butt on the bench to make sure your chest is firing.
The bench press is superior to other chest exercises such as dips, flys and other bench press variations as you can overload with more weight. Although the bench press may not have much carryover to sports, its still better than most, if not all, other chest exercises.
Shoulders – OVERHEAD PRESS
The overhead press can be seen as the complete shoulder compound exercise. It’s the best exercise to hit all three heads of the shoulder and you get the benefit of extra tricep activation, as the grip is narrower. This exercise should be working your arms pretty well. It’s also be a great accessory for improving your bench press. It has a greater range of motion than any other shoulder exercise and is very safe exercise to execute too.
The standing overhead press has pretty good carry over to field athletes. You can perform either the standing or push press for this. Lifting heavy objects over your head while standing and bracing the core really does the trick. Also a great exercise for weightlifters.
Back – CLOSE GRIP CHIN UP
If I had to pick one back exercise for a defined back then it would be the chin up. Physique athletes would be jealous of the back development of top level gymnast and kayakers. The conditioning programs centre on – you guessed it – chin ups. There’s also good reason SWAT teams and military forces require candidates to perform a certain number of chin ups. They will also add size and shape your biceps. Who doesn’t want that?
Because you have to move your body around a fixed object, this will carry over better to real life situations. You also don’t get the benefit of using stabilising muscles when using machines, they are almost completely taken out of the movement.
Hamstring/Glutes – CONVENTIONAL DEADLIFT
An electromyogram (EMG) measures the electrical activity of muscles at rest and during contraction. Looking at EMGs studies, the deadlift is the winner when it comes to overall posterior chain development. In terms of efficiency, your going to get the most out of your time deadlifting compared to other exercises working the posterior chain.
The deadlift is also a staple exercise in fitness programs for field athletes. Becoming stronger on the deadlift will transfer over to real world situations. You can choose other variations such as the sumo and Romanian deadlift, which are fine exercises. Just bear in mind they work slightly different muscles and are unlikely to be complete for the posterior chain development as the conventional deadlift.
Biceps – INCLINE CURLS
How could I forget everybody’s favourite? I like doing seated bicep curls with the bench inclined at about a 30-45 degree angle. The benefit of doing this type of curl is you are able to get a full range of motion and take advantage of the myotatic reflex. This will put a deeper stretch on the bicep at the bottom part of the movement, recruiting more muscle fibres.
Incline curls can also give a little extra insurance preventing bicep tears from deadlifting. It best replicates the position at the top of a deadlift when holding the bar with a mixed grip.
Tricep – SKULLCRUSHER
The trick with the skullcrusher is that it needs to be performed correctly. Most people bring the bar to their forehead. Not only does this put you at higher risk for elbow tendonitis, but it also negates using the long head of the tricep, the head of the muscle that is least used in most tricep exercises. This should be performed by extending the bar past your head, in an extended shoulder position. This will have the benefit of working all heads of the tricep.
For the 6 pack appearance appearance the ab wheel targets the rectus abdominus pretty well. Again EMG studies support this. To work the deeper core muscles, something like a kneeling cable lift gets the job done effectively.
And that completes my list of go-to exercises. I hope you enjoyed the read!