Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Essential Exercises

The following exercises are the ones that I consider vital to any weight lifting program. If you are not currently doing them, you should be! I have seen the best results from these exercises and I never saw significant strength gains until I used all of them in my routines. The New Rules of Lifting by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove only strengthened my beliefs. It is an excellent read for anyone considering weight lifting. If you aren’t considering weight lifting, why not!? Weight lifting (with some cardio) is the absolute best thing you can do for your body.

Only young guys though, right? Absolutely not! Who should do them? Anyone with any sort of fitness goal or any desire to be the healthiest they can be.  This includes men and women of all ages.

Here is a list of the exercises, why you probably aren’t doing them, and why you definitely should do them!  I will also mention how some people approach these exercises incorrectly. I will leave it to you to find the proper technique. I highly suggest Strength Training Anatomy, 3rd ed, Delavier as a reference to proper form. It is a very thorough book with loads of information on just about every exercise you can think of. If you get mixed answers from your research or you are just unsure on proper technique, I would be glad to explain any of these. Just leave a comment!

The squat is the ultimate lower body exercise. It primarily works your quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus. It works your lower-back which has to keep your body upright through the lift. Lastly, it enlists all of your muscles from your feet to your abdominals and middle back.
Excuses I have heard:
Only athletes need to do squats. False. Squats are the ultimate leg exercise. You saw the lengthy list of muscles that squats engage!
I’m too old to be lifting free weights. Definitely not. This applies to all of the following exercise. I encourage Men and women of all ages to lift free weights. Use light weights and work your way up if necessary. I have seen countless episodes of The Biggest Loser where 60 year olds are lifting weights and seeing amazing improvements in their overall health.
It will hurt my back. With proper form, squats are incredibly safe. Just make sure to keep your back straight. Do not hunch over. If you’re worried about form try to utilize the mirrors in the gym to keep yourself on track – yes, mirrors are there for more than just the buff guys to check themselves out in.
Leg press is better and safer. Leg presses isolate your quadriceps and you don’t work half the muscles you would with a squat. Not to mention, leg presses put horrible sheering stresses on your knees.

The deadlift, like the squat, works just about all of your lower body muscles. For this exercise the focus shifts your gluteus, hamstring, and lower back. Your trapezius (the muscle between your neck, shoulder blades, and middle back) and forearms also get a great workout from having to support the barbell. Still questioning the importance of deadlifts, think about this: You probably pick things up off of the ground pretty often, right? If you want to decrease your risk of back injury, do deadlifts. Strengthening your lower back is very important for protecting your spine.
It will hurt my back. Just like squats, with proper form, deadlifts are incredibly safe. Just make sure to keep your back straight. I always tell people to poke their butt out. We have a natural tendency to want to hunch over, but do not. Hunching and doing the exercise incorrectly is how you would hurt your back. Just keep that butt poked out!

This works all of the same muscles as squats and deadlifts, but allows you to attack the all-important hip flexors. If you have a desk job or just spend a lot of time sitting, you will have pretty tight hip flexors. This limits your mobility by making it difficult to take long steps or jump.  Lunges are very important for increasing your flexibility around your hips and legs. You can do these by holding weights at your sides or a barbell on your shoulders. There are several variations (static lunge, dynamic lunge, and twisting lunge just to name a few).
I haven’t heard too many excuses from people about lunges, but the problem I often see is that people will do tons of them without any weight. Adding weight helps stretch and contract the hip flexors even more than a weight-less lunge, while increasing strength in all of your leg muscles.

I put these together because they are all pushing exercises. It is important to do all of these or you will be building uneven shoulders and, more importantly, an uneven upper body. I have never heard any excuses from men on these exercises, but it seems women avoid them like a bad disease!
I don’t want a big flat chest or wide shoulders like a guy. Women can and should lift the same as men. Genetically, females do not have the same amount of testosterone that males do. For this reason, women cannot build large muscles without supplements and crazy diets. There are a small percentage of women who have high testosterone. If you are one of these women, just avoid heavy weights and make sure to work your chest and back evenly. For all of you women out there, I challenge you to start lifting just like men.  I doubt any of you will grow big strong muscles like men. Seriously, try it! If you start to see bigger muscles than you want, just ease back on those exercises (reduce weight, increase reps). You can lift like a man and mold an incredible feminine figure.

Most guys crave what I like to call “mirror muscles.” This includes the chest, abdominals, and biceps. For this reason, guys head straight for the benches and dumbbells when they get in the gym. Guys that focus on these mirror muscles rarely spend an equal amount of time doing these three pull exercises.   Everyone that does this is building a very lop-sided body.  If you do a push exercise like a bench press, it is very important to do the opposite muscles in the form of a pull. The pull exercise associated with the bench press would be the row. You want to make sure you’re working both equally! I’m pretty sure this is an epidemic.

Read my earlier post, "Don't Stop Running," on how to incorporate cardio into your routine. You need to change the amount of time you devote to cardio based on your goals. 

So that’s it! That’s the list. Pretty short right? You’re probably thinking, “You left out bicep curls!” That’s because they are a waste of time! Focus on chin-ups for working the biceps and your upper body. If you want to continue to burn out your biceps after chin-ups, wrap dumbbells with towels and do towel dumbbell curls. This does great work on your forearms. There’s no reason to just work one muscle when you can work two! That’s the point of all of these exercises. They all will give you the most bang for your buck. Sure, they’re the hardest, but that is because they work the most! Incorporate these exercises into your workouts and you’ll see fat burning, muscle building results in no time. Better yet, you will be on track to be the healthiest you can be!

Please ask me any questions you have about form or clarifications about any of these exercises! Do you avoid any of these like the plague? Are you going to try to start incorporating these into your workout routine?


  1. Oh man! I really hate it when you make me do deadlifts and squats AND lunges but I know that those are the most painful which means those are the most effective! Thanks for being a wonderful trainer, Super Husband!

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