Choosing The Exercises That Yield The Best Results
Written by Robert Cheeke
Created Thursday, 12 April 2012
Just like the idea that not all foods are created equally, the same can be said for exercises; some are inherently better than others. When we’re talking about bodybuilding, some exercises stand out as being superior in many ways for good reasons. Most of us would agree that when it comes to aerobic fitness and improving endurance, running is superior to walking. It accomplishes the goal more efficiently, and adaptation and improvement come much more quickly. Methods of exercise and training can be compared in all sports, and superior exercises reveal themselves for their unique sport-specific interest and the benefits that they deliver.
When it comes to bodybuilding, the common understanding and belief is that multi-joint compound exercises are the best exercises to perform to gain muscle, strength, and overall size and muscle development. Within the compound exercises, there are favorites that stand alone among many bodybuilders and are considered the best. Some will go so far as to say that other exercises are not even necessary because the few compound exercises engage the entire body and do so in effective ways. Others will have a varied approach using a combination of compound exercises with isolation exercises, and others will have different approaches still. With all the different styles of training, one thing that appears to be a universal truth is that compound exercises simply are the best. If one has healthy joints, is injury-free, and can handle the stress, compound movements should be performed often as the primary exercises in a bodybuilding program.
When bodybuilders are asked to name the most effective exercises, the overwhelming majority name dead lifts, squats, and bench press. Some will go on to add power cleans, shoulder press, leg press, and occasionally some additional barbell and dumbbell exercises. I am a believer that these fundamental core exercises will indeed create a foundation of strength and power and will yield positive results in muscle gain and progression in bodybuilding. I am a firm believer that these core exercises are superior to other exercises, and a healthy person should perform these in order to get the most out of their workouts.
But what if you’re not a healthy person because you have injuries in the lower back, shoulder, knee, or other joint? What if you can’t do squats because of a weak back or bad knees? What if you can’t perform overhead presses because of a pinched nerve or a shoulder that goes in and out of placement regularly? Well, that is when training adaptations need to be made; substitute exercises are utilized and become mainstays.
The following exercises are the best and should be performed if you’re healthy and able for optimal results from your training program.
The Rankings - The Top 12:
Definitions and descriptions of exercises extracted from online websites cited in my book Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness - The Complete Guide To Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet
1. Squats: An exercise for conditioning muscles of the legs and buttocks. It can be performed with or without additional weights.
Stand erect with feet about shoulder width apart. Keeping your back straight and head up, slowly bend the knees to squat down, and then return to the standing position. If the knees are bent fully, tremendous mechanical strains are imposed on the joint and can cause irreparable damage. Therefore, the knees are bent only to the half- to two-thirds position. The back is kept straight to reduce the strain on the knees and lower back, and movements should always be slow and controlled.
Squats with additional weights are usually performed with either the barbell resting at the back of the neck (back squat) or across the front of the shoulders and top of the chest (front squat). Both types of squat develop leg, hip, and back strength, but the front squat places more stress on the quadriceps.
There are at least eight other types of squat, each with their own specific advantages and disadvantages. Squats have been called the ‘king of all exercises’ by some body-builders. If performed properly, squats can greatly strengthen the muscles (especially the quadriceps), bones, tendons, and ligaments in the legs. However, if performed excessively or with poor technique, they can cause a host of stress injuries, including arthritis and torn cartilage of the knee.
2. Dead lifts: A weight-training exercise in which a barbell is picked up from a rack or the floor and slowly brought up to thigh height. It is a simple exercise that increases mobility of the thighs, hips, and lower back muscles, and increases the strength of the back and abdominal areas.
Stand upright, with feet a shoulder's width apart. Bend your legs in order to pick up the barbell and then straighten them to lift it; keep your back and arms straight during the lift; make your legs do most of the hard work.
3. Power Cleans and Clean and Jerk:
A weight-training exercise that develops all-round explosive power by strengthening the legs, trunk, and shoulder girdle muscles. This is an advanced lift and is not recommended for young or novice exercisers. You should always wear a weight belt when performing a power lift.
Crouch down, feet shoulder width apart. Lean forward to grip the bar firmly with an overhand grasp. Before you start the lift, your back and arms should be straight, hips low, shoulders just forward of the bar, and eyes focused forwards. Use your thighs to initiate the lift and then pull power-fully with your upper body to bring the bar to your shoulders in one movement. Keep the bar close to your body. Bend your knees quickly and force your elbows under the bar to ‘catch’ it. Hop slightly forward between the extension and catch and bend your knees into a slight squat position to receive the barbell at your shoulders. Do not hook the bar over in an arch at the top of the pull. This will cause the bar to hit your chest, pushing it backwards and imposing an unnecessary strain on your lower back. Lower the bar first onto your thighs and then to the floor.
Clean and Jerk
A lift in weightlifting in which a weight is raised from the floor to shoulder height, held there briefly, and then pushed overhead in a rapid motion of the arms, typically accompanied by a spring or lunge from the legs.
4. Bench Press: A relatively simple weight-lifting exercise for toning up arm muscles (particularly the triceps brachii), the anterior deltoids in the shoulder, and the pectorals in the chest. It is usually performed with a barbell.
Lie with your back on a bench and feet flat on the end (or on the floor). Grip the barbell tightly; your palms should face towards your feet, and your arms should be positioned so that you can push vertically upwards. Push slowly against the weights until your arms are fully extended. After holding the extended position, gently lower the weights and return to the starting position. Breathe out when your arms are straightened and in when they are bent. It is important that your lower back maintains contact with the bench.
The bench press is one of the three lifts in the sport of power lifting and is used extensively in weight training, bodybuilding, and other types of fitness training to develop the chest.
5. Bent-over Rows: This weight-training exercise simulates a rowing action and strengthens the shoulder muscles and biceps in the arm. It can be performed with free weights or at a bench press station on an exercise machine. A bent-over row is a weight training exercise that targets the latissimus dorsi muscle. The bent over row is a much used exercise in training for both bodybuilding and power lifting as it is a good exercise for increasing strength if carried out correctly.
From a standing position, bend down to the floor to hold a barbell with an overhand grasp (palm down). Your hands should be slightly more than shoulder width apart, your upper trunk parallel to the floor, your knees slightly bent, and your feet apart. Keep your trunk parallel to the floor and pull the barbell directly up to your chest, then return to the start position and repeat the movement.
Stand upright with your feet slightly apart and with your back straight. Take a step forwards with the left leg and bend the knee forwards so that it is directly above the foot. The right leg should be extended backwards with the knee touching (or almost touching) the floor as a result of the movement. The knees should be bent only to a 90° angle. Put your left hand on your left knee and lower your buttocks slightly to increase the stretch in the muscles of the extended leg. Swap legs and repeat. (In the case of “barbell lunges” you will hold a barbell across your back, resting on your shoulders just as you would during squats and you perform walking lunges carrying the weight).
7. Military “Shoulder” Press: The military press is a variation of the overhead press weight training exercise.
The military press targets the deltoid muscles in the shoulders. Additionally, it works the core and legs, because the lifter must use them to help stabilize the weight. The lift begins with the lifter standing heels together and the barbell on the anterior deltoids. The lifter then raises the barbell overhead by pressing the palms of his hands against the underside of the barbell.
Lift the weighted barbell up to your shoulders, breathing in as you do so. As with all lifts, keep your back straight and use your legs to execute the movement. Hold the barbell on your shoulders for a few seconds and breathe out. Then lift the weights above your head by fully extending your arms. Hold for a few seconds. Gently lower the barbell to your chest then immediately push up again. Repeat the pressing action about four times before slowly lowering the barbell to the ground. Remember to continue breathing throughout the exercise; at no time should you hold your breath.
8. Leg Press: A strength-training exercise done at a leg press station on a weight-training machine. It is popular among sprinters and other runners because it puts little strain on the back. The muscles worked include the quadriceps, gastrocnemius, soleus, and gluteals.
Place your feet flat on the foot rests. Your legs should be bent at 90 degrees at the knee, and your hands should be grasping the seat handles. Fully extend your legs and thighs then return to the start position. Keep your backside on the seat and your back against the backrest throughout the exercise.
Additional Definition: The leg press is a weight training exercise in which the individual pushes a weight away from them using their legs. The term leg press also refers to the apparatus used to perform this exercise. The leg press can be used to evaluate an athlete's overall lower body strength (from knee joint to hip and partially ankle extenders as well).
There are two main types of leg press:
- The diagonal or vertical 'sled' type leg press. Cast iron weight disks (plates) are attached directly to the sled, which is mounted on rails. The user sits below the sled and pushes it upward with their feet. These machines normally include adjustable safety brackets that prevent the user from being trapped under the weight
- The 'cable' type leg press, or 'seated leg press', commonly found on multi-gyms. The user sits upright and pushes forward with their feet onto a plate that is attached to the weight stack by means of a long steel cable.
9. Barbell Shrugs:
Preparation: Stand holding barbell with an overhand or mixed grip; shoulder width or slightly wider.
Execution: Elevate shoulders as high as possible. Lower and repeat.
Since this movement becomes more difficult as full shoulder elevation is achieved, height criteria for shoulder elevation may be needed. For example, raising the shoulders until the slope of the shoulders become horizontal may be considered adequate depending upon individual body structure.
10. Pull-ups: A pull-up is an upper body compound pulling exercise where the body is suspended by extended arms, gripping a fixed bar, then pulled up until the elbows are bent and the head is higher than the hands, utilizing an overhand (pronated) grip. A traditional pull-up relies on upper body strength with no swinging or "kipping" (using a forceful initial movement of the legs in order to gain momentum). The exercise targets mainly the Latissimus Dorsi muscle in the back along with many other assisting muscles. Pull-ups are similar to chin-ups, which are distinct due to the underhand (supinated) grip. The difference is that palms are facing away from you in pull-ups, while in chin-ups the palms face yourself. When your arms are not fully extended when doing a pull-up, it is still considered a pull-up.
11. Barbell Bicep Curls: Although the exercises differ, a common factor of each is a 'curling' motion, where a weight—attached to an item of equipment—is moved through an arc, primarily using the strength of the biceps. The biceps is contracted to lift the weight upward through the arc, to a point where further movement is not possible. It is important that the elbow remain next to the body during this motion as to keep stress on the biceps. The biceps is then extended, lowering the weight back through the arc, to the start position. This contraction and extension together constitute a single repetition.
Several variations on the biceps curl transfer some of the load from the biceps to other flexors of the elbow. One group of variations involves postures that hold the elbows in front of the trunk, shortening the biceps and forcing the brachialis to do more work. Variations on this theme include the preacher curl where the elbows rest upon a sloped bench, the concentration curl where the elbow is braced against the inside of the knee, and the prone incline curl performed lying prone on an inclined bench, where the force of gravity holds the upper arms in front of the trunk.
The biceps curl is usually performed with the palms supinated (facing upwards). Turning the palms inward transfers load from the biceps to the brachioradialis. Variations on this concept include the hammer curl, performed with the palm inward, neither pronated nor supinated, and the reverse curl, with the palms pronated (facing downwards). Another variation, the Morelli Curl uses a traditional over-under or power lifting grip with one palm supinated and the other pronated. The concentric component of the lift is emphasized in the pronated arm, while the eccentric component emphasizes the supinated arm.
12. Weighted Dips: The exercise is done in between parallel bars or facing either direction of trapezoid bars found in some gyms. Feet are crossed with either foot in front and the body is lowered until the elbows are in line with the shoulders. The subject then pushes his/herself up until his/her arms are fully extended, but without locking his/her elbows. This process is then repeated. Dips focus primarily on the chest, triceps, and deltoids. (In the case of “weighted” dips, a belt can be worn with weights attached using a chain, or the weight lifter can grasp a dumbbell between their crossed feet, squeezing it in place using their calves, and perform the dips with additional resistance from added weights).
Honorable Mention Exercises:
- Core exercises for midsection such as hanging leg raises and static holds
- Power lifting techniques such as tire flips and stone lifting-Heavy machine exercises that focus on pushing or pulling
- Heavy bodyweight exercises
- Lower body exercises involving the largest muscles in the body
- Rowing movements
- Dumbbell exercises
- Any calisthenic exercise with added weights, such as push-ups with a heavy weight on your back
In my bodybuilding program there is still a use for machine exercises, cable exercises, and isolation exercises. I believe compound exercises are most beneficial, but it can still be beneficial to support compound exercises with isolation and machine exercises. These can add much more diversity and fun to your training program when included. I just wouldn’t make isolation exercises your priority if adding strength and muscle is your ultimate goal.
My advice would be to—with caution, care, and responsibility—squat, dead lift, press, and pull yourself to a great physique, then eat, rest, recover, and repeat.
Seriously consider using the exercises listed above to help you achieve your best results in bodybuilding. If you don’t know how to do the exercises correctly, ask an experienced weight lifter at your gym; ask a personal trainer or a bodybuilder and get feedback to make sure you are doing them correctly. Compound exercises are ones you want to do correctly because if you don’t, they could lead to injury and setbacks. If there are only a few exercises you choose to do or choose to make time for, squats, dead lifts, and bench press would be the big three I suggest. If you don’t have access to a lot of equipment and still want to make the most of your training, choose pull-ups, dips, and explosive power exercises that challenge you to push yourself hard. Be careful; have fun; bring out your best ever physique by incorporating the best possible exercises into your training program.
All photos taken on the same day in an old fashioned home gym in a friend's garage on leg day.
This article originally appeared on the Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness website.
Robert Cheeke is a best-selling Author of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness - The Complete Guide To Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet and a champion Vegan Bodybuilder who runs the company and website Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness. Robert is a motivational speaker who tours around North America with his speaking tour and he is also the Director of the award-winning documentary Vegan Fitness Built Naturally.
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