How do I maximize my time in the gym? What are the most effective exercises to get the best results? What can influence my metabolism and fat burning potential the most? These are common questions every new person thinks about when first attempting to get their butt in gear and on an exercise program to lose unwanted fat, build muscle, energy, confidence and most importantly their health. So, what are the most effective exercises and ways to maximize your time in the gym? In this article, we are going to answer just that.
Most newcomers to the gym arrive without a roadmap and tend to get lost very quickly. Knowing a proper order of approach is essential (you can read more on that here) as well as avoiding too much time spent on things that yield very little results for our efforts. In a nutshell, we are going to encourage you to shelf the crunches, side bends, tricep extension machines and treadmills while we encourage you to learn and perform the most effective compound movements listed and explained below. These are going to have the BIGGEST impact on calories burned, muscle (which burn calories too) and your resting metabolic rate long after the workout is done. So, let’s get into it…
Top 5 Most Effective Exercises #1: Squats
Hailed by most as the king of all exercises, is a weighted squat. Learning how to squat properly is one of the most fundamental places to start if you’re trying to march towards results with an effective program. Proper squat form requires that you keep your head up, back angled slightly forward but straight, knees traveling outward as you descend, elbows tucked and chest out. Nothing is better than this to build up your quads, hamstrings, glutes and a host of other stabilizing muscles involved with the lift.
It’s important to learn how to squat properly and to learn proper squat form if you want to keep your success coming while minimizing injuries to your joints. Form is an important part of any exercise, but it’s critical when it comes to the squat, given the loads that are often involved in the lift. Be sure to consciously contract your glutes (clinch your butt) before every repetition of the squat. This will help to ensure correct alignment of the pelvis and make sure that your hips are not left open prior to the descent. With a broom handle, a computer and YouTube, you can learn and practice this on your own to perfect it before going under a heavy bar at the gym. In fact, you can also do this for the remaining exercises explained in this article. Or, you can get the assistance of a good, qualified personal trainer to teach you.
Top 5 Most Effective Exercises #2: Bench Press (or Push-Ups)
The Bench Press is a great upper body compound movement. It works your chest, front deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (back of upper arm) most. It’s a very effective exercise to gain upper-body strength and muscle. To avoid shoulder pain, tuck your elbows 75° when you lower the bar. Don’t try to stretch your chest by flaring your elbows 90° out. Although suitable for a small population, you may impinge your shoulders if your upper-arms are perpendicular to your torso at the bottom so it is probably best you tuck your elbows 75° to bench press pain-free.
You will also want to emphasize, and engage a squeeze in the chest while pressing the bar up from your nipples as you exhale doing so. Unlike the Squat or Deadlift, the bar doesn’t move in a vertical line when you Bench Press with proper form. It moves diagonally from your mid-chest over your shoulders. This is the safest way to Bench Press to stay free of shoulder injuries.
The bench press can be done with a barbell or a set of dumbbells. If resorting to push-ups to get started, the same rules above apply in regards to form. Place a broom handle (or tape a line) on the floor and press off it using the same guidelines just mentioned and get pushing!
Top 5 Most Effective Exercises #3: Rows
Rowing, when done properly, is one of the best exercises to develop our mid to upper back muscles and also supports a good posture. In today’s modern world full of people in chairs sitting at a desks all day, its more common than ever to see rounded thoracic regions in the upper back with weak muscles, along with atrophied (shortened) muscles in the front shoulders and chest from being in a hunched position day in and day out. Developing a strong back gives support to prevent muscle imbalances and back pain, all while improving your posture.
There are a number of ways one can perform a row. Whether it is using a cable machine, a dumbbell for single arm rows or a pair of TRX straps, the rules are roughly the same. When performing a one arm row, position yourself to where your shoulders and hips are parallel to the floor and you have a slight arch in your lower back. Think to drive with your elbow to the ceiling while simultaneously “popping” that side of your chest into the row as your elbow hits the top.
- Round your back when rowing
- Bend, or pull with wrists (this usually flows with rounding of back)
The goal is to fully engage your lats here. Don’t make the mistake of working your traps and biceps too much here as it will take away the main emphasis, or intentions which is working those “wings” to build out that “V” taper over time!
You can see a short clip of this done properly here.
Top 5 Most Effective Exercises #4: Overhead Press
Few would argue the most effective shoulder exercise is the overhead press. This can be done a couple different ways including a seated or standing military barbell press or with a set of dumbbells. Done correctly, you will develop your shoulders best and also work your triceps nicely too. Anybody looking to give a nice and rounded look to and also develop their shoulder strength should not ignore this powerhouse exercise. Many new gym goers are challenged with this movement as they struggle to properly handle the weight. When and if using dumbbells to do an overhead press, getting the weights up and down correctly and understanding how to engage the deltoids through the peak of this exercise are key to its effectiveness over the long haul. You can take a quick look here to see what to do and what not to do when performing the overhead dumbbell press:
One of the other alternate ways here is the standing barbell military Press, which strengthens the anterior (front) shoulders, triceps, and upper chest. The standing position requires your core muscles and hips to stabilize your upper-body as you press the weight overhead. The seated version does as well, just to a smaller degree. When performing this exercise, it is important to keep the bar just slightly in front of your face with your elbows directly under it (not behind it) as you lower it down just below your chin. As you press it back up, exhale as you take it above the head to fully engage your deltoids at the top of the movement.
Top 5 Most Effective Exercises #5: Deadlift
The last to mention here but surely could be the first to call out, is the deadlift. There are two primary versions of this: one is the stiff leg version which the knees stay pretty tight through the movement. This version more emphasizes and develops nicely, your erector muscles in your lower back, hamstrings and glutes. Then there is the Romanian version in which the user bends their knees during the movement engaging their quads and the previously said muscles. Secondary muscles being used in both as well are those in the forearms and upper back. In short, there is a lot of work going on here and this is a demanding movement when done right! You can see a demonstration of these here.
Those choosing to perform a stiff leg version will often use a platform where they pull a barbell off that is already at hip height to start. However, most deadlifts will often start with the weight on the floor. While keeping your back straight and shoulders tight, pull the bar up until you’ve locked your hips and knees. Return it to the floor by moving your hips back first and then bending your knees. To Deadlift with proper form means that your lower back stays neutral. Excessively rounding your lower spine during heavy Deadlifts is dangerous for your back. It squeezes your spinal discs and can cause injuries such as herniated discs. Deadlift with your lower back in a neutral position to avoid injury. If you focus on engaging your glutes and keeping a mild shrug/retraction in the shoulders, this typically helps you stay neutral.
Learn, Incorporate and Be Consistent for Success!
These highly effective exercises are the foundation of every person’s exercise regimen that has earned and achieved success with their programs to become stronger, leaner and healthier. Ignoring these and just walking and doing some crunches will not have you progressing anytime fast. These exercises may sound a bit intimidating to some but with a little help and practice you can own them and be a pro in no time!
Here’s to your best body in 2016,
Roger Bowman, CPT