Everyone wants to get the most out of their time in the gym. Unfortunately, one of the most common mistakes people make, including athletes, is to choose less than effective exercises. They waste their time on exercises that seem like a good idea but give a poor return. Or they choose exercises that are too advanced and they end up getting injured.
Enter a few rules for picking the best lifts. These top ten exercises receive top status because they help you reach multiple goals at once: strength, muscle, and a better, leaner body.
#1: Hex Bar Deadlift
The deadlift motion, in which you pick a heavy weight up off the floor, is arguably the most important exercise for the majority of people to train.
Many coaches will agree that of the numerous deadlift variations, the hex bar deadlift, which uses a six-sided, hexagonal-shaped bar, is the best exercise because it can be used for multiple goals and is appropriate for novices as well as elite athletes.
For example, the basic hex-bar deadlift allows beginner trainees 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.
Finally, the hex bar is a great tool for training explosive power, but it doesn’t require the same years of honing technique as the Olympic lifts. 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.
#2: Split Squat
Split squats and lunges are often overlooked by trainees because they’re incorrectly thought of as a “soft” option.
In fact, research shows that split squats actually produce a greater testosterone response than a regular bilateral squat, possibly due to the increased neuromuscular demand required from training a single leg.
Splits squats are unique because they are one of only a few exercises that optimally train the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) and the vastus lateralis, which are the two principal muscles in the quadriceps that stabilize the patella when you extend the knee. Research shows strong and balanced quadriceps muscles can help improve movement patterns, which will allow you to prevent knee pain and avoid ACL tears.
Novices should start with front-foot elevated split squats, whereas bodybuilders and advanced trainees can use barbell split squats in which the back foot is elevated on a 4-6 inch platform in order to force the forward leg to do all the work, targeting the glutes and hamstrings for superior growth.
Chin-ups are the single best upper body exercise because they work more muscles than any other lift. They work the upper back and arms as prime movers and activate the abs and lower back to a significant degree.
Of course, chin-ups may seem out of reach for non-athletes or beginners, but they’re a great exercise with which to mark your progress. Try eccentric-lowering chins to begin training 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.
#4: Barbell Squat
Recent research supports what experienced coaches have known for a long time: That full-range squats are safe when progressed properly. Using them as a primary exercise in your training will result in superior outcomes. Here are a few of the good things that can come from training full squats:
- Better muscle coordination and movement patterns.
- Maximal muscle development in the hamstrings and quads.
- Greater speed and jumping ability.
Most trainees will get great gains from regular full squat training with a barbell. But if you need to make life just a little bit harder, do 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.
This squat variation will allow you to overcome strength plateaus because it leads to greater neural drive and favorably recruits the vastus medialis of the quad that is often under developed.
#5: Bench Press
The bench press allows you to train pressing strength and power, which are essential skills for the general population and athletes.
It’s also a key lift for achieving upper body balance between the muscles on the front of the body and the posterior chain. Everyone should start with a flat, close-grip bench press trained with a 4-second eccentric motion and 1-second upward concentric motion.
A close grip—a.k.a. the bi-acromial width, which is the distance between the two bony prominences on the edges of the shoulders, places the least stress on the joints and is the most natural movement. If you have history of shoulder injury or want to take stress off the shoulder, use a neutral grip dumbbell bench press.
#6: Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift hits the posterior chain of the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to a greater degree than the conventional deadlift because the knees are only bent about 20 degrees at the bottom position.
Be sure to avoid flattening or rounding the lower back. Maintain the natural arch throughout the range of motion.
If you get to a point were your lower back flattens out or rounds, stop, and use a power rack or blocks to decrease the range-of-motion. A trick that can help as you lower the bar is to keep the head up, but neutral to the torso throughout the movement.
#7: Overhead Press
The overhead press is one of the most overlooked but effective exercises and everyone should be training it.
First, the overhead press has lots of functional carryover because we often need to lift heavy things like boxes or suitcases overhead. Second, overhead pressing will improve strength in almost every other multi-joint upper body exercises. For instance, if your overhead pressing strength is poor, it reciprocally inhibits the strength of your upper body to pull when in a hanging position.
Giving attention to the overhead press can help you prevent shoulder injuries because when it’s neglected in favor of all-bench-press-all-the-time, it results in a shortened subscapularis muscle that causes dysfunction in the shoulder.
Use the dumbbell overhead press to increase your bench. The optimal strength ratio of the overhead press to the close grip bench is 29 percent. If you can close-grip press 100 kg, you should be able to overhead press a pair of 29 kg dumbbells for 8 reps.
#8: Farmer’s Walk
The farmer’s walk is a superior strongman exercise that can produce powerful benefits and is accessible to all populations:
It’s the perfect loaded conditioning exercise and it trains your core in a highly functional way. Plus it improves grip strength (key if you want to do heavy deads and chin-ups) and has transfer to daily life challenges.
A variation, the loaded overhead carry, is excellent for training shoulder stabilization and prepares you for future overhead work.
#9: Glute-Ham Raise
An often ignored but super valuable posterior chain exercise, the glute-ham raise can help you avoid structural imbalances by training the often neglected muscles of the posterior chain. It trains the hamstrings in both the hip extension and knee flexion functions, and targets the glutes, lower back, calves, and even the abs a little bit.
This is key because a weak lower back will inhibit force transfer from the legs to the upper body, which is not only key for sports performance but necessary for general movement economy in everyday life.
Be aware that the glute-ham raise is not a novice exercise. Beginners should start by mastering the back extension and reverse hyper prior to training on the glute-ham machine.
#10: Garhammer Raise
The Garhammer raise is a top exercise if you want six-pack abs. It activates the entire area of the rectus abdominis, especially targeting the lower (below the bellybutton) area of the abdominals.
The beginner version of this exercise would be performed on the floor, followed by an incline bench, and then hanging from a chin-up bar. You start with your legs crossed and then lift your knees up towards your chest. Perform the motion under control without rocking.