If You Could Only Do One Exercise: Rules for Picking The Best Lifts

If You Could Only Do One Exercise: Rules for Picking The Best Lifts

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. –Theodore Roosevelt

Is there a best exercise? One lift you’d pick if you could only do one?

Sure, it’s a silly question that coaches tend to either love (they relish a good argument) or hate (they just want you to shut up and train).

But it’s a useful thought experiment because the vast majority of people training aren’t doing the best lifts to help them reach their goals.

In fact, they’re making common mistakes that cause their efforts to be a waste of time. Athletes often suffer the same pitfall when they are at the mercy of inexperienced coaches.

Which makes you wonder: Is a bad program really better than no program at all?

Enter a few rules for picking the best lifts to reach a given goal. For the vast majority of everyday people, the best training exercises will be those that build strength, muscle, and give you a better looking physique.

This article will discuss six of those superior exercises and give you tips for training them.

#1: The Deadlift

The deadlift, especially the hex bar deadlift with it’s super functionality and ability to provide an easier motion for folks who lack mobility is arguably the most important lift for the majority of people.

The squat, which we’ll look at next, is also a highly productive lift, but due to being a slightly more technically challenging lift, it’s a close second for the general population. Athletes may get more out of squats, though they will certainly benefit from overloading all areas of the strength curve.

Best deadlift variation for novices: The hex bar, a six-sided, hexagonal-shaped bar that allows you to perform the exercise with your arms at your sides is great for novices who are gaining neuromuscular strength.

It allows them to develop the core stabilization required to move heavy loads during ground-based lifts. It is also a useful exercise during the late recovery stage after lower back injury because it evenly distributes the stress throughout the joints, with the quads performing a large percentage of the work.

Best variation for athletes:

Rarely will “slow” lifts like the squat, deadlift, or bench be used to train power because of the need for deceleration during the latter stages of the concentric action.

In addition, the Olympic lifts and low load plyometrics produce superior training adaptations, but the hex bar deadlift can be useful here, particularly for younger or less experienced athletes.

Research shows it’s possible to achieve a peak power output during the hex bar lift that is as high as has been previously recorded in the power clean (nearly 4,900 Watts). Use loads in the 30 to 40 percent of the 1RM range when training for power.

Best variation for packing on muscle:

Snatch-grip deadlifts on a 4-inch platform are excellent for building big quads, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, traps, lats, and forearms. Standing on a platform and using a wide grip requires just about the largest range-of-motion possible.

Relevant for fat loss?

Naturally. Because deadlifts train all the largest muscles in the body, they are a no-brainer for including in a fat loss training program:

By working so much muscle with one lift, you can significantly elevate the amount of oxygen your body uses during the post-workout recovery period, boosting metabolic rate and enabling you to burn a lot more calories than you normally would at rest.

Further, the hex bar deadlift is safe to perform in a fatigued state. You can throw a ton of weight on the bar, making the deadlift the perfect lift to perform in a “death” circuit in which the goal is a large metabolic disturbance.

#2: The Squat

Everyone should be doing some form of squats because they work the whole body, and studies show that training squats to increase lower body strength can produce the following benefits:

  • Better functional mobility and faster walking speed
  • Greater bone mineral density and less chance of breaking a bone
  • Stronger core musculature to prevent lower back pain and injury
  • Faster running speed at short and long distances
  • Greater vertical jump height
  • Better sports performance on the court or field
Best squat variation for novices:

Instead of searching for a “best” squat variation for novices, most important is to develop proper form over a full-range of motion.

Beginners and trained athletes alike suffer from lack of flexibility and structural imbalances that make squatting less effective. Solve these issues first and you’ve got a whole range of squats at your disposal.

Best to master single leg squats first (see #5) and then learn a basic back squat with an unloaded bar.

Many trainees continue to suffer from tight calves and poor mobility in the ankle, which can be “trained around” by standing on a wedge board with the slant facing away from you in order to plantarflex the ankle and increase the range-of-motion. Weight plates under your heels also work if you don’t have a wedge board.

Best squat variation for athletes:

Front squats are highly relevant for lower body strength and power sports because they improve jumping power, speed, and lower body motor control. The Olympic bar position has more carryover to the power clean, which is probably the best single lift for athletes to train.

Further, EMG analysis of muscle activation during deep front squats shows they are more effective for training the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris of the quads but place less stress on the knees than partial-range training or even deep back squats.

Best variation for packing on muscle:

Deep, full-range of motion back squats will allow you to train heavier loads than the front squat for superior growth in the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

One study that analyzed the effect of squat depth on muscle growth showed that full back squats increased lean muscle by 1.2 kg more and produced nearly double the increase in quadriceps cross-sectional area compared to partial-range squats.

This is important because it shows that range-of-motion is more important than load for putting on muscle.

Best squat variation you’re not doing:

One-and-a-quarter squats, in which you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom, and come up quickly.

One-and-a-quarters insert an isometric hold into the squat, which leads to greater neural drive and favorably recruits the vastus medialis of the quad that is often under developed.

#3: Chin-ups

It’s a tough call whether to favor chin-ups over the bench press for the single best upper body exercise, but since this is a hypothetical discussion, let’s do it.

Studies show that chin-ups not only work the upper back and arms as prime movers, they activate the abs and lower back to a significant degree.

Perhaps chin-ups aren’t the most important lift for athletes who need upper body pushing power, but they work more muscles than the bench press and are more metabolically taxing, which is relevant in this body composition-focused world.

Best variation for novices:

For those who can’t perform a chin-up, eccentric-lowering chins are the place to begin training for them. Start by jumping up and holding yourself in the flexed arm position (top position of a chin-up) and lower yourself as slowly as possible.

Pair these with modified chin-ups that use a spotter so that you can train a fuller range-of-motion.

Best variation for athletes:

Depends on the sport—chin-ups are most important for sports that require upper body pulling, such as the winter sports of luge and bobsled, combat sports, and gymnastics.

It’s useful to train both chins (palms facing you) and pull-ups (palms away from the body) because different hand positions result in greater muscle growth and stimulation to a wider range of muscles.

For instance, chin-ups provide a greater range-of-motion for the lats and biceps than pull-ups, and when you use a narrow grip, they will work the biceps brachii muscle. Pull-ups work the forearm muscles, and a narrow grip will favor the brachioradialis and brachialis of the biceps.

Best variation for muscle development:

Eccentric close-grip chin-ups in which you lower the body for a 6- to 8-count each rep for 4-6 reps per set. Use additional loads by wearing a belt with weights attached to it.

Best alternative to chin-ups:

Unfortunately, pull-downs and chin-up machines are probably not going to help you gain the strength required to do a chin-up, but they can give a good upper back workout if you do them properly.

Pair pull-downs with bent-over rows, preferably using the hex bar to distribute the weight more evenly over the joints.

#4: Bench Press

Though it doesn’t provide as much overall physique benefit as the dip exercise, the bench press allows you to train pressing strength and power, which are essential skills for the general population and the vast majority of athletes.

Best variation for novices:

Your standard flat, close-grip bench press is perfect for beginners who are developing upper body motor control. Plus, the bench press provides the motivating benefit of allowing for rapid strength progressions since it’s not as technically challenging as squats.

If you have history of shoulder injury or want to take stress off the shoulder, use a neutral grip dumbbell bench press.

Best way to get strong fast:

Assuming you have base levels of strength, research shows that benching with a tempo in which you lift as fast as possible with a load of 85 percent of the 1RM will increase strength by as much as 10 percent in just 6 training sessions.

When lifting with a fast tempo, rather than a random, self-selected speed, you produce more force, placing greater demand on the muscles that leads to greater recruitment of fast-twitch motor units.

Best variation for packing on mass:

Muscle growth is a function of time under tension, so bench pressing with chains is going to produce superior growth. Chain training will build explosive power and allow for greater overload in the end range of the lift.

For example, a study that compared chain and traditional bench press training in female college athletes showed the chain group increased 1RM by 17 percent compared to 11 percent with traditional training.

Optimal loading with chains should be approximately 40-50 percent of your 1RM in the bench press. Eight to ten sets of 1 to 3 reps works best.

#5: Single-Leg Training

Programs that are skewed too heavily towards bilateral training simply won’t allow you to achieve your athletic potential, making single-leg training essential.

Best variation for beginners:

Just about everyone will benefit from doing simple front foot-elevated split squats. You’ll strengthen the VMO of the quad, improve coordination and running speed, and build your thigh cross-sectional area for more sculpted legs.

Best variation for athletes:

When choosing exercises, you need to pick an exercise that targets specific muscles in the lower body that won’t get trained in competition or practice. They also need to have maximal carryover to the sport, while reducing injury risk.

That said, step-ups done properly (with the top leg doing all the work) are an excellent choice for most athletes in order to equalize strength on both sides of the body, Keep the toes of the bottom leg elevated to prevent pushing off. Toes of the top foot should be turned out five degrease, for better alignment between the upper thigh bone and its insertion into the pelvis.

Best variation to pack on muscle:

Barbell split squats in which the back foot is elevated on a 4-6 inch platform will force the forward leg to do all the work, targeting the glutes and hamstrings for superior growth.

For example, a study of college football and track athletes found that single-leg squat training produced higher glute muscle activity compared to bilateral squats.

#6: Modified Strongman Exercises

Pushing a truck makes you look like a badass, and flipping a tire is pretty cool, but neither is best for most people who want to get out of a training rut.

Best variation for novices:

The farmer’s walk is a great place to start because it will train your grip (key if you want to do heavy deads and chin-ups), requires core strength, and has the greatest transfer to daily life challenges.

If possible, use farmer’s walk cylinders rather than dumbbells because they can impede walking mechanics. If dumbbells are your only choice, keep the truck stabilized and avoid side-to-side or twisting motions because such lumbering movement places excessive shearing forces on the spine.

Best variation for athletes:

Intervals with a weighted sled will improve conditioning and set you up for impressive numbers in the squat and deadlift.

Best variations to avoid:

Flipping tires is the least practical for everyone except maybe wrestlers and football linemen, and injuries are common if impeccable technique isn’t used.




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