For those looking to get into shape, the amount of information available online can be somewhat overwhelming. There was a time when the only way to learn about working out was to read a book or ask someone you knew. These days though, most of us will head online to get our advice and here there is such a cacophony of different voices that it can lead to information overload.
This is true for the overall training philosophies that different ‘experts’ advise (most of which are wildly different from each other) and it is also true for the different exercises. If you are looking for some exercises to perform to build strength in your pecs, then you will find that there are probably about 100 different ones for you to choose from.
How in that case do you know where to start? How can you pick the best 5 exercises for your beginner workout? Because you’d better believe that not all moves are made equal!
Even if you consider yourself a ‘pro’ in the gym, there’s a good chance you might be performing a few exercises that aren’t perhaps as effective as you believe them to be or that aren’t conducive to your specific goals. In fact, often those of us with experience are the guiltiest when it comes to using exercises without really analyzing them first – we always do them because we’ve always done them!
The following article then is designed to give you the tools necessary to appraise any given exercise. Read on and you should be able to separate the great moves from the not-so-great moves, as well as to understand which moves are specifically useful for particular goals. We’ll go over the different categories of exercise and look at some technical terms and by the end you’ll know how to best utilize each movement as part of a comprehensive gym routine.
Compound vs Isolation
One of the first ways to distinguish between exercises is to separate them into ‘compound’ and ‘isolation’ moves.
So what does this mean? Essentially, ‘compound’ means that a movement incorporates multiple different muscle groups into a single exercise, whereas ‘isolation’ means that just one or two muscle groups are targeted.
Among isolation exercises, the ‘most isolating’ are ‘single joint’ exercises that don’t allow for the involvement of any other muscles at all. The lat pullover is an example of a single-joint exercises, with the lat pull down or chin up being a multi-joint alternative for the lats (the former of which is still considered an isolation movement).
The Olympic lifts are considered compound movements, as is the bench press, most bodyweight exercise, mostly anything involving a kettlebell and the deadlift and squat.
Which is better? That all depends on your goals.
The more muscles you can target at once, the more you will tax the body and the more it will respond by releasing growth hormone and testosterone. Thus, compound movements like the squat are considered the most ‘value for money’ and many say they are essential for growth.
But don’t think that means that isolation movements are ‘useless’. Isolation exercises are actually entirely useful because they allow you to specifically trigger certain muscle groups to grow. For bodybuilders who are interested in doing whatever they can to develop the perfect physique, this is a very important consideration. It’s also the most effective way to stimulate growth in a particular area as you can stimulate the most localized microtears in the muscle fiber.
There has been a big move towards using correct form in the gym and towards becoming better at ‘movement’ in general. Simply put, there are a lot of ‘hipsters’ in the gyms these days who like to talk a lot about ‘functional’ movements.
What does this mean? Essentially, a functional movement is considered any movement that mimics the way we naturally use our body. Generally this means the movement will be compound – as the muscles in the body are designed to work together in unison. At the same time, the movements will generally be things that are functional and that crossover into ‘real world’ activities.
Thus, the functional crowd love ring dips and they love doing deadlifts. They hate tricep kickbacks and the chest press. What’s the real deal here?
Well, they’re not wrong but they also have taken things a little far. Is the deadlift an incredibly powerful move that teaches good habits? Yes. Is it really that ‘functional’? Well that all depends on how often you find yourself picking hugely heavy bars up off the floor. As much as Crossfitters protest to the contrary, deadlifting is not something we would likely have ever done in the wild. Ring dips certainly aren’t.
And, as I said already, there is also definitely a time and a place for tricep kick-backs and lat pullovers. Make sure you’re including a few exercises that will utilize multiple muscle groups and challenge your coordination – but don’t through the baby out with the bathwater and don’t get too pretentious in your workouts.
Unilateral vs Bilateral
A unilateral exercise is something like a dumbbell row or an isolation curl which you perform on one side of the body at a time. A bilateral movement is something like a barbell curl or a bench press that requires you to use both arms at once.
Neither of these is better than the other but they do each have their own advantages. The big advantage of bilateral exercise is that you train much more quickly and efficiently allowing you to get in and out of the gym faster.
Unilateral exercises though are great for correcting asymmetry in your physique (because one arm cannot ‘help’ the other) and also for increasing your focus during exercises. As a general rule, it’s more effective to train with predominantly bilateral exercises to get more done more quickly, but throwing in a couple of unilateral moves too will be beneficial on top of this.
Dynamic, Plyometric, Isometric
Plyometric exercises are exercises like clapping press-ups and box jumps that require a sudden burst of power. Olympic lifts are also generally plyometric to a degree and all these will target your fast twitch muscle fiber for power and acceleration.
On the other hand, you also have isometric exercises that involve static holds. These require you to simply hold the movement in place. You can further break these down into ‘overcoming isometric’ and ‘yielding’ isometrics. The latter involve holding weights in position for as long as you can, while the former involves pushing or pulling against an immovable force. Overcoming isometrics involve things like trying to bend iron bars and are excellent for increasing muscle fiber recruitment and thus increasing your overall strength. Meanwhile, yielding isometrics can be useful for training muscle endurance while at the same time removing momentum from your workouts. Yielding isometrics can often be used in the middle of normal exercises – as is the case in a ‘rest pause’ bench press. They can also be used on their own – when performing plank for example.
Most exercises are not isometric nor particularly plyometric and can instead be described as simply ‘dynamic’.
Closely related to this concept is the idea of cadence or tempo. How quickly are you moving upward through the movement and how quickly are you moving down? How long do you spend resting at the top of the exercise?
The cadence of an exercise can be written as three numbers: 3-1-3 for instance. Here, you are taking three seconds on the first portion of the movement (normally the concentric portion where the muscle contracts), pausing for one second and then taking 3 seconds on the returning ‘eccentric’ portion.
Often it is said that we are strongest in the eccentric phase of any movement. Thus if you want to stimulate the best strength games, slowing down your cadence to 3-1-5 might be preferable. On the other hand, a rapid concentric movement will likely stimulate greater muscle fiber recruitment if your aim is pure strength. Going slower throughout is also often considered superior for hypertrophy as it increases the ‘time under tension’.
As mentioned, this idea is closely related to plyometrics because all a plyometric is, is an exercise with a 1-0-1 tempo (or faster).
When performing any exercise, ask yourself: what is the best tempo for this movement and my goals? How long are you spending under tension and how could you increase this metric for superior hypertrophy?
Range of Motion
An important factor to examine for any exercise is the precise range of motion being worked. Are you moving the muscle through its entire range of motion?
Sometimes exercises are designed intentionally not to move through the entire range. An example of this is the ‘partial rep’. Here though, you need to combine the exercise with other moves that will ensure the muscle is trained in its entirety.
You also need to think about the range of motion from a health and safety perspective. Ask yourself: is the movement going further than that muscle/joint is supposed to go? Likewise, ask yourself whether the pressure is being applied in the line of the joint. Moving your shoulder to a weak position for instance and then applying weight is a surefire way to lead yourself to injury. Behind the neck shoulder press? Leave them out! Your shoulders will naturally face about 30 degrees forward and when you perform the behind the neck press, you are using the arm in an external rotation that it isn’t really designed for and the rotator cuff muscle is going to get crushed by the roof of the joint (the acromion). Obviously we can’t go through the safety of every exercise, so just take some time to think about how natural each of the movements you’re performing feels.
Note as well that even if an exercise is harmless when done correctly, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t risky.
Take the deadlift for instance. This is a very good move in terms of encouraging good habits and stimulating growth. But at the same time, it should also be considered something of an ‘advanced’ move and there is a high risk involved. Get the deadlift wrong and you risk seriously injuring your back and knees, or dropping a lot of weight on your toes. This is certainly a goal to chase after but it’s not an exercise to take lightly. So in every case, weigh up the risk vs reward and decide whether you’re ready to give that movement a try yet. Don’t be ashamed to shy away from the more dangerous movements.
We’ve looked at a lot of different technical factors here so far but another important consideration is your enjoyment. In other words: do you like this exercise? Do you get a rewarding feeling from it?
If the answer is no, then you need to realistically think about whether it’s something that belongs in your routine. If you dread the thought of bicep curls so much that you’re putting off going to the gym, then ultimately they’re doing more harm than good. Swap them for something more fun like hammer curls or chin ups.
Which Muscles Are You Working?
Finally, ask yourself which muscles precisely are involved in each exercise. Specifically, are you targeting the muscles you’re meant to be targeting or are others taking over?
Often exercises will be perfectly good for helping us to target the desired muscle group until we start performing them incorrectly. Take the leg raise for instance or the crunch. Are you sitting up in such a way that your body ‘rolls’ up at the abs, or are you sitting up in such a way that it folds up. The difference may sound fairly arbitrary but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If your body is ‘folding’ in half when you perform sit ups, leg raises and crunches, then actually you’re probably using your hip flexors much more than your rectus abdominis. No surprise then that you aren’t getting the six pack abs you want!
During every exercise pay close attention to where you can ‘feel’ it working and whether or not this is the area where it’s supposed to be working.
So there you go – a ton of different things to consider when assessing every exercise. Instead of just looking up movements on the web and then trying to copy them, yourself, ask yourself: how could you increase the time under tension? Which muscles are supposed to be working? How quickly should you be performing each repetition? Is this exercise likely to injure you? Is it efficient in terms of how long it takes?
While this might seem like its only adding to all the confusion, taking some time out to assess these different elements will help you to ensure that your regime is actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing and that you’re not just spinning your wheels – or worse, injuring yourself.