In this article I will discuss the best gym exercises and the most practical training methods for improving your overall fitness.
Without the need for supplements and other over-hyped products. The majority of fitness models and athletes are being paid to give credit to the supplement brands. Do not buy into it.
Once you understand the types of training to pursue your success will depend on your lifestyle choices (eating habits, rest and recovery), exercise technique, training frequency and volume.
The Importance of Strength Training
Muscle is vital for our well-being. It requires fuel, stimulation and recovery to grow and maintain.
As you age your muscle deteriorates and strength declines, this is a natural part of life but it can be slowed down significantly.
With the loss of muscle your everyday activities become increasingly difficult.
Extreme examples are all around us – when the elderly lose balance and fall it is because they have lost their muscular coordination and power and therefore are too slow to respond by placing their foot / hand out in time.
Free weight exercises that stimulate as much muscle as possible per given movement will become the building blocks in our gym training programs.
The Best Free-Weight Exercises
Bench Press and pushups target the chest, shoulders and triceps and engage your core musculature as you stabilize your body throughout the movement.
Both exercises have different variations for example bench pressing can be performed with either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells.
The Shoulder Press can also be performed with dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells. Each tool offers its own unique benefits. Handstand pushups offer a bodyweight alternative.
Shoulder presses target the shoulders, triceps and upper chest. It also transfers a lot of force throughout the body stimulating other muscle groups including the core musculature.
Dips strengthen the chest, shoulders and triceps. It is a simple but effective body weight exercise that every exercise program should include.
Pull ups are also a simple : high effect body weight exercise.
Pulling exercises target the musculature of the back and biceps – pull ups stimulate more of the the upper back fibers and rows stimulate the middle.
The Core has 5 Actions – Hip Extension, Lateral Flexion, Rotation, Flexion and Stabilization.
For complete development of the core – workouts need to include exercises that collectively target all 5 of these movement actions for full strength and function.
The video excludes rotation and hip extension, hip extension is included in many weightlifting exercises such as deadlifts, swings and power cleans which aren’t known to be core exercises but to some degree they are.
Squats target every muscle group in the lower body – the glutes, quadrieps, hamstrings and calves. If you are squatting with a barbell then your core musculature will contract to assist with stabilization as well.
There are many ways to do squats, each with their own unique benefits.
Not as much weight may be used with uni-lateral exercises compared to bi-lateral options such as a barbell back squat. However you will develop the smaller muscles in your lower body as they fire to help you balance and stabilize yourself throughout the movement. Use both.
The Deadlift is the single best lift for improving your posture and one of the top 3 lifts for building maximum strength.
Deadlifts also lay the foundation for many other exercises such as swings and power cleans. It may be performed with barbells or dumbbells and with different variations for each.
All 3 exercises target multiple muscle groups (known as the posterior chain) through triple extension at the three joints in motion – ankles, knees and hip. The posterior chain is important for athletic activities and used when sprinting or jumping.
With so many exercises and several exercise variations for each you must be wondering how do you know which variations to use and how to create workouts using them.
We understand that each exercise can be performed with different tools and each tool creates a different exercise variation. For example – using a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell or your own bodyweight will all create different variations of the squat exercise.
Some variations for a particular exercise are better suited for the beginner than others and may be used to build you up toward the more difficult, rewarding variations e.g. Goblet Squats before Barbell Back Squats.
Every training tool has their unique benefits so you should learn to ‘Exercise Your Variety’ to prevent staleness and plateau in order to see continual progression with your training.
Barbells, dumbbells and your own body weight will be the only tools you will need to worry about for now. They offer more than enough exercise variations for several years of continual growth.
Depending on your training goals you may perform 1 to 3 strength workouts a week and no more than an hour in duration each.
Strength workouts should balance pushing and pulling exercises followed by core exercises or a cardio finisher. Build your routine with 1 upper body push, 1 pull, a leg and a posterior chain exercise.
I recommend at least a sport or cardiovascular activity every other day.
Learn all about exercise programming in my next article on How to Build an Exercise Program.
Strength Training for Fat Loss
Strength training is perfect for fat loss due to the anabolic effects it has on the muscular system (as well as the cardiovascular). It is therefore the most practical and requires far less time than any other form of exercise for weight management.
Muscle is fueled by the oxidation of fats and carbohydrates (two energy sources) which in turn increases your metabolism.
In Layman’s terms – for your body to maintain muscle it will need to burn a lot of energy!
That is not to suggest a fat loss regimen ought to exclusively consist of strength training and nor am I suggesting it is the only option. The idea is to use it to the point at which the return on investment starts diminishing (after about 2 or 3 strength workouts per week).
When all 639 skeletal muscles in the human body make a marginal increase in size you will begin to burn a lot of energy. And the fastest way to develop all 639 skeletal muscle is to use the exercises that stimulate a lot of muscle.
Isolated exercises such as tricep extensions and cable cross overs target far less muscle, you will need many isolation exercises to stimulate all 639.
Free Weights vs Gym Machines
You would get a better workout if you wrapped a chain around a gym machine and dragged it than what you would if you were to sit on it and perform whatever exercise it is supposedly for.
Machines are carefully calibrated to move in a specific plane of direction so you yourself are not controlling the weight. A number of stabilization muscles are activated when you control and balance a weight that is freely moving.
This is why those tools I spoke about before – dumbbells and barbells etc. etc. are highly recommended. They are classed as free weights, free meaning free motion.
When using a machine you are often seated on your ass and we all already do this far too much.
With free weights your body is required to work as a unit – the force exerted is channeled throughout your body’s skeleton stimulating a lot of musculature to assist and stabilize your body.
When I performed this pull up back in February, 2011 everything was tensing!
Pull ups target the back and biceps but my neck, forearms and core were all being stimulated too.
Strength Training for Building Lean Muscle
The amount of muscle you gain depends on how strong you are.
A program utilizing many isolation exercises and gym machines would not be the most efficient approach for increasing lean muscle, at least not without first achieving a high level of strength through weightlifting.
Maximal strength training promotes fast twitch muscle fibers (greatest potential for growth) due to the force exerted during a lift.
When you pick up a pencil the nervous system recruits few fibers to lift the load (a muscle is made up of fibers) whereas if you were to pick up something heavy, more fibers would be recruited. Recruiting fibers stimulates them and therefore repair and growth will follow. Light loads grow and develop much less muscle because there is a lack of stimulation.
Lifting heavy trains your body to form pathways to more muscle fibers.
I suggest working on increasing your max strength first and thereafter you will be able to lift heavy weights for many repetitions. You could then use a heavier weight for circuit training to get better results with these muscular endurance workouts. Once a high level of strength is attained your body keeps the muscle memory and it becomes easier to maintain with less time spent hitting the weights.
You will not need to strength train a lot once you achieve a high level of strength, you can maintain it with less strength training.
Once your base is formed you will only need 2 strength workouts per week and an additional circuit workout.
How long until results appear for building lean muscle? In the first 3 months of strength training minimal lean muscle development will be associated with increases in strength, meaning the initial improvement is a result of your nervous system learning to recruit more muscle fibers. After 3 months, with more fibers being utilized and thus stimulated you start observing changes to your physique.
In layman’s terms – you must first train your body to unlock and utilize hidden muscle in order to grow and see them, tone them, and place your body in a fat burning state.
“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning as the correctly performed full squat.”
Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength, pg. 19
Strength Training for Females
Both males and females benefit equally from strength training.
Strength training will not give women bulky muscles. Their glands produce significantly less testosterone than males. Testosterone is a steroid hormone responsible for driving increases in muscle and bone mass upon many other roles.
Hormones act by signaling changes to be made within a cell (in this case muscle cell) and because females produce much less testosterone than males minimal muscle mass can be added whether the individual has intention of it or not.
There too are many other gender differences that affect muscle aesthetics and therefore prevent females from achieving a masculine body like males. Males have larger frames and broader shoulders therefore a greater foundation to pack on muscle (as well as the naturally leaner physique making the muscle visible and cut).
It is also worth noting large muscles is not easily attained even for a young and healthy adult male engaging in strength training.
Fortunately however, both males and females benefit from strength and power training through an improved physique, but more importantly – health and athletic performance.
Conditioning is important for both fitness and aesthetics as it also helps with fat loss.
If you perform strength training with high intensity and lighter loads (as with circuit training) it can also deliver a challenging conditioning workout that will really get you sweating in as little as 20 minutes.
Other great conditioning options I highly recommend include kick / boxing, swimming, running, skipping, rowing and burpees. I have a list of many more great options in my training programs.
These cardio options promote strength and power gains because they are athletic activities that stimulate a lot of muscle. You can see how competitive swimmers, sprinters, rowers and fighters are built and how they perform.
Actions that stimulate a lot of muscle uses more oxygen, increasing your heart rate. A boxing punch uses a lot of muscle when performed correctly and it can also be executed rapidly in succession (boxing combo) making it a great cardio option. Sprinters take long forceful strides that recruit the large gluteal and hamstring muscle groups (as well as the core) which results in their lean, muscular physique.
A gym based option would be kettlebell swings – when performed for many repetitions it gets the heart pumping.
The small, slow muscle actions from many of these aerobic classes and cross trainer cardio machines will do great to prevent you from dyeing of heart disease but will offer limited fitness results.