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There are exercises and there are exercises. In any gym, anywhere in the world, you will see the difference. One person will be doing a round of the resistance machines, peddling half-arsed on an upright cycle, calling it a day, going home, and making no progress at all as the weeks tick on by. Read on to find GymNation's top 5 tips to get well fit!
Then there will be the person performing heavy compound movements, explosive bodyweight exercises, full body HIIT sessions, coming out drenched with sweat, making gains like nobody’s difference.
There is, of course, a difference of effort and drive, here. The latter will be working harder in part because they are willing to push themselves harder. However, exercise selection is also key. It is fundamental to getting a good workout in.
Realistically, if you want to increase your strength and fitness, you should be looking to perform large, high resistance, high stimulus compound movements.
Compound movements will work your muscles under heavy load, in concert with one another, and they will rely on stabilising and antagonistic muscle groups to work through their correct ranges of motion. Most importantly, they will elicit a hormonal response tailor made to create new muscle: the release of human growth hormone (HGH) and the increased production of testosterone they bring about is crucial for hypertrophy.
There are five exercises I always rely on to get any clients fit and strong as fast as possible – mostly barbell work, with a sneaky bit of explosive cardio at the end.
My top five
The following five exercises are some of the best going for packing on muscle, burning through fat, and ensuring that your cardiovascular system gets a hell of a workout. They will provide far more stimulation and greater hormonal release than any amount of resistance machine work and steady state cardio ever could. Doing all of them on a regular basis will make sure that no muscle group is left behind.
Dips in general develop your pecs, anterior delts and triceps. However, I also like to use dips as a measure of what your body is capable of doing. It works the back muscles and the biceps as antagonists, require a lot of core strength, puts a lot of pressure into your core as you brace through the movement, and has you moving your full body through space, through a variety of ranges and planes of motion.
You can scale them back by using resistance bands for assisted dips, or up, by performing weighted dips with a weighted vest, ankle weights, a weight belt, or by simply holding a dumbbell between your feet.
Dips really are a complete torso builder. Forget the bench press – for me, no upper body routine is complete with them.
If we have dips, so too do we need pull ups. They focus as intensively on your back, biceps and core as dips do on your chest, triceps, shoulders and core. No other exercise will develop your back as much as the pull up. Your lats will grow thick and wide, your biceps will peak, your forearms and grip strength will grow, and your core will need to work continuously as it fights to keep your body under control through every rep.
As with dip, you can scale them back by using resistance bands for assisted pull ups, or up, by performing them with a weighted vest, ankle weights, a weight belt, or by, again, by simply holding a dumbbell between your feet.
The stimulation from the pull up is intense. You cannot replicate it with any other exercise.
That’s enough for the upper body. Realistically, if all you ever do is pull ups and dips, and you scale them properly for progressive overload, you will see adaptation and continuous growth.
But what about the legs? Well, it has to be squats – preferably barbell squats. They are vital for building big legs, having been proven to be the best mass gainers for your lower body. You will engage your quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors and abductors in any squat variation.
However, squats work so much more than just your legs. Back loaded squats rely on your posterior chain and core to keep you stable, your back to help you move the weight, and your entire upper body to keep the bar steady. Front loaded squats rely on shoulder mobility and strength, as well as core stability and strength, working all fantastically.
The stimulation involved in regularly squatting heavy weights will also bring about exactly the hormonal and growth responses you want to build muscle.
As with the squat, the deadlift uses pretty much the full body.
You will engage your legs under heavy load as you press up through the movement, with your hips and glutes giving you a lot of the initial power in each pull. Your upper back will also be involved in hefting the bar upwards, your lower back in straightening through the posterior chain, and your traps and shoulders will keep everything steady at the top. Core strength is key, as is grip.
Again, as with the squat, the amount of muscle mass used- and the amount of trauma caused to that mass- will spike your production of HGH and testosterone. Hypertrophy will be improved, and your posterior chain, upper back and legs will be stronger than ever.
That’s enough of lifts for the moment. Do all of the above and you’ll have all the resistance work you could ever possibly need to grow big and strong.
What about cardiovascular fitness and explosive power?
For this, I always turn to sprints. You can either schedule them as some form of HIIT – my preferred method, hitting a sprint at the top of every minute for ten minutes, for example, or keeping to Tabata timings – or as sets, taking longer recovery periods.
I have three favourite types of sprints – rowing, running and cycling. Cycling is best done on a spin bike, where you can really let loose and work up some speed. Running is best done on a track (treadmills are not great for them as they are slow to respond to speed changes). Rowing works best on a hydro-rower, if you can get one, though any machine will do.
Sprinting, you should be able to get your heartrate up to the 90% region, perfect for fat burning and cardiovascular adaptation.