Written by Tim Rigby, M.A., NSCA-CPT
Forget what you think you know about the most efficient, successful and useful exercises in the gym. We’re not here to win a popularity contest, but we ARE going to give you the goods on what scientific research has demonstrated to the best overall exercises in several categories, whether they’re the most popularly performed or not. Remember that nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, and once in a while you have to step outside of your comfort zone to induce the greatest results. Want to know the best of the best resistance exercises in the gym? That’s what we’re here for and what this issue is all about; read on and learn.
Here at fitdeals.ca , winning is a habit, and it has been for the last 14 years. This is why we can accurately lay claim to being Canada’s number one fitness magazine. As such, it’s our honour to offer a special “Best Of” annual feature such as this issue you’re reading right now. Regardless of what other publications might be doing, we’ve made it our winning habit to provide our readers with nothing but excellence and clarity.
To that end, when it comes to resistance training, there are a battery of exercises you can perform which we consider to be “Best Of”. These are not always the same exercises that you might have expected. Having listened intently to what you, our readers, want and prefer in terms of results, we have crafted a compilation of “Best Of” exercises that will help you build muscle in all the right places at an efficient pace. We’ve categorized these exercises in such a way to feature barbells, dumbbells, flat bench, incline bench, decline bench, machine and cables. Then, after we’ve walked you through an analysis of each move (along with the most ideal execution technique), we’re going to provide you with a workout that you can perform twice (or even three times) a week, depending on your desired level of volume.
THE “BEST OF EXERCISES” WORKOUT
Use an appropriate weight each set that will allow you to complete all reps without failing, but make sure you don’t leave anything in the tank and use sufficient resistance to ignite excellent muscle growth.
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
DEADLIFT 4 8, 8, 6, 6 2:00 mins.
SMITH-MACHINE SQUAT 4 8, 8, 6, 6 2:00 mins.
DECLINE BENCH PRESS 3 10, 10, 8 1:45 mins.
SEATED OVERHEAD PRESS 3 10, 10, 8 1:45 mins.
SEATED CABLE ROW 3 10, 10, 8 1:45 mins.
DUMBBELL FLYE 3 12, 10, 10 1:30 mins.
INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL 3 12, 10, 10 1:30 mins.
Best of Barbells: DEADLIFT
No surprise here, really. The deadlift is the king of all compound moves as it involves the action of more muscles in your entire body than any other resistance training move. It is natural, therefore, that this exercise allows you to lift a greater amount of weight than any other. If you hypothetically had time to complete only one exercise in a workout, the deadlift would be your choice for overall muscular development.
Many of the world’s top powerlifters can deadlift over 800 pounds, nearly triple their own bodyweight. Imagine the strength involved in pulling three people all at once who shared your mass. In competition, there are very strict guidelines for a successful lift, the most significant being a full range of motion and drawing the bar as high as you can, sliding your shoulders back, and holding for one second. Any violation of a pause at the top results in a disqualified lift.
Load a bar to your desired weight on the floor and approach it, keeping your shins as close to the bar as possible. Let your arms hang freely and extended in front of you. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward from your hips and bend your knees such that you can reach the bar with an alternate grip; this means grasping the bar with one hand in an underhand position and the other with an overhand position. Keep your arms inside the width of your legs and point your toes slightly outward. Press into the floor forcefully to raise your body up to a vertical position with the bar in tow. Hold at the top position, then using careful control, lower the bar back to the floor.
Best of Machines: SMITH-MACHINE SQUAT
It’s certainly true that machine variations of certain exercises are a little easier to perform because the element of control is more or less negated. You needn’t worry about keeping the moving resistance on a consistent and efficient path, since it can only travel along the path set up by the machine, however, this is not to say that a machine-based squat is less effective for developing muscle stimulation than a free weight barbell squat, since you can compensate by loading the bar with greater weight. In turn, this actually assists with fast-twitch muscle activation that will make you stronger long term. Smith-Machine squats are the king of machine exercises owing to the heavy weight involved, the overall muscle activation and the ensuing growth hormone (GH) you can produce (which in fact builds more muscle all over).
Load the Smith-Machine bar to your desired weight and step underneath it as you would with a barbell squat. Grasp the bar with a wide overhand grip and spread your feet out to the width of your shoulders, with your toes pointing outward about 30 degrees. Make sure the bar is resting comfortably on your trapezius muscles. Flick your wrists backward slightly to unhook the bar. Using control, allow the weight to lower by flexing through your legs, all the while keeping your back straight and head up. Descend until your quads are parallel to the floor. From the bottom, forcefully press into the floor by extending your legs and raise back up to the start.
Best of Decline Bench: DECLINE BENCH PRESS
There are many reasons why we’re including the decline bench press in our “Best Of” classification, and one of them is based on the current trend in fitness: people don’t do this move any more. At least, not often, but that is not to detract from its effectiveness as a real developer of your lower pecs, front and middle shoulders, triceps and forearms. Furthermore, the weight that you can involve with such a complex compound movement is significant; there’s a loose rule of thumb (based on scientific research) that suggests people are able to press about 10 percent more weight on the decline bench than the flat bench, so there’s no doubt as to the stimulation you’ll be sending to your pectoral region.
Load the bar to your desired weight and position yourself facing upward on the decline bench with your feet securely placed under the top rollers. The execution of this move is not dissimilar to the flat bench press in that you’ll grasp the bar with an overhand grip that’s about 1.5 times the width of your shoulders. Unrack the bar and carefully allow it to descend slowly toward your lower pecs. From the bottom position, forcefully extend your arms by pressing the bar upward back to the top position.
Best of Dumbbells: SEATED OVERHEAD PRESS
The seated overhead dumbbell press is often done reluctantly, as it requires effort, concentration and balance. The move is a variation of the barbell overhead press and is performed to build strength and muscle in your shoulders and triceps especially; to a smaller extent, your traps and forearms. Make no mistake that there’s a distinct involvement of your abdominals as well. By using dumbbells instead of a straight bar, you’ll be required to control the weights to a higher degree and not be able to lift as much combined weight as a straight bar, however, you’ll be better served in your quest to isolate and stimulate your shoulders and triceps.
Grasp a dumbbell in each hand using an overhand grip and sit on a chair with a backing (or an adjustable bench set to 90 degrees). Plant your feet squarely on the floor at a minimum width of your shoulders; many individuals prefer to spread their feet out wider to enhance the balance. Draw the dumbbells up to the level of your chin, making sure your elbows are below your wrists and not flared outward. When ready, press the weights simultaneously in a vertical plane until they reach an overhead position with your arms locked out. Pause in this top position for one second, then using control lower the dumbbells back to the start.
Best of Cables: SEATED CABLE ROW
When you think of cables, your first thought might be of the large cable crossover apparatus or the lat pulldown, however, we may surprise you once again with our pick for the “Best Of” cable movement being the seated cable row. While it may appear basic at first glance, there are many subtle variations it affords you, making it an incredibly versatile move. It’s not a matter of simply rowing a bar toward you. Depending on whether you want to emphasize your lats, lower back or trapezius, you can employ a wide grip or narrow grip, an overhand grip or underhand grip, and a low, medium or high row position. Using a little thinking outside the box, this pulling action really has it all. To make the best use of cables, experiment with slow negatives for time under tension and even isometric holds of say three or fives seconds in the peak position of each rep.
Set the weight to your desired load and attach whichever bar you want to work with. Sit on the apparatus with your feet securely against the plates. Bend forward from your hips to grasp the bar with an overhand grip (or if you wish to intensify the difficulty, an underhand grip). Make sure that in reaching for the bar you don’t extend your legs fully, keeping a noticeable bend in your knees. When ready, pull the cable in toward you, usually into your upper abdominal region. Pause for one second to break return momentum, then using control allow the cable to return to the start.
Best of Flat Bench: DUMBBELL FLYE
We bet that after seeing the words “flat bench” and “dumbbell”, that we were going to take you to the press move. Wrong! While using the combination of this equipment and performing a pressing action is effective for your pecs, shoulders and triceps, we’re going to have you really target your pecs here by using the flye action against the force of gravity. There is a higher element of focus required in the move as well, because unlike a simple pressing action, you’re going to have to ensure that you preserve the angle of your elbow throughout the range of motion of an arcing path. As you near completion of a set and start to fatigue, this task becomes increasingly difficult, and the necessity for additional focus really kicks in. The result is worth it, however, since not only will you ignite growth for your pecs by using resistance, but you’ll get a nice stretch through the shoulder girdle that help the muscle fibres to grow.
Pick up a dumbbell in each hand using an underhand grip. Lie face up on a flat bench and position your feet securely on the floor. Make sure your head is flat on the bench as well, and in line with your spine; too often we observe lifters whose head is off the bench and cocked forward. Draw the dumbbells outward from your body in the same plane as your upper pecs, and make sure to bend your elbows slightly to take the tension off them (and keep it on your pecs). With your body fully anchored in place, bring the weights together overhead along an upward, arcing path. At the apex, pause for one second, then using control, lower the weights back down to the start.
Best of Incline Bench: INCLINE DUMBBELL CURL
Once again, the move we’ve selected as “Best Of” may not be the exact move you think of most often, when you think of the incline bench. You probably assumed our selection would pertain to a barbell or dumbbell press, however, it’s a well-known fact that biceps are arguably the most popular muscle group to train because of their aesthetic value and conveyance of strength. Therefore, since we know what’s of significant importance to you, we’re going to deliver the goods. The incline dumbbell press hits the peak of your biceps better than any other move you can do with free weights, because your arms are drawn behind the plane of your torso. If you think that the preacher curl (with your arms positioned out in front of you) hits the peak of your biceps, then you’ve got it wrong, my friend; it’s in fact the other way around. The preacher curl hits the lateral head, while the incline dumbbell curl is superbly effective at building your long head (aka the “peak”).
Pick up a dumbbell in each hand using an underhand grip and sit facing up on the incline bench. Plant your feet securely on the floor at a width of about your shoulders. Let the weights rest in your arms which are freely hanging vertically at your sides. Although you won’t actually be able to see the weights at the start position, simply have faith that they will soon be in action and concentrate of preserving a fixed position of your upper arms throughout the movement. When ready, curl the weights in an upward arc as far as you can go comfortably. Make sure your elbows stay tucked close into your sides. Pause at the top position for one second, then using control lower back to the start.