Exercise selection is the foundation of any strength training program. One question I’m frequently asked is, “What exercises do you recommend?” My stock reply is, “Choose a compound movement that targets the muscle groups you want to improve.” A compound movement involves two or more joints in motion simultaneously. Four lower body multi joint exercises are squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step ups. Each exercise requires the use of the hip and knee joints and to a lesser degree, the ankle joint. Consequently, the hips, lower back, abdominals, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves are all utilized. To work the same muscle groups, with single joint movements, more than eight individual exercises would be needed. Three upper body multi-joint exercises are overhead presses, pull-ups, and bench presses. Employing free weights to perform multi joint exercises also recruits stabilizing muscles that are often neglected, like adductors [inner thighs/groin] and abductors [outer thighs/hips]. Full body compound movements also strengthen the entire skeletal system by increasing bone density. As a result, when compound exercises are performed correctly with free weights, one can be safe and efficient.
Exercise safety is germane to the individual and therefore critical to reaching fitness and wellness goals. Attempting a max clean and jerk is considered safe to a seasoned Olympic weightlifter. A similar exertion would be hazardous to the typical golfer. If injury occurs because one executes exercises incorrectly, does not warm up sufficiently, or does not devote appropriate rest periods between sets and training sessions, becoming fit can be a long and tortuous road. Exercise safety, combined with brief, consistent and efficient strength training programs, provides the highest results.
Powerlifting involves the performance of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These compound exercises define a lifter’s total body strength. Competitive powerlifting is not for everyone. By advocating the inclusion of these compound movements in your routine, you are not being called into the competitive arena. However, you will enhance your physique via increases in lean body mass, increased metabolism, and decreases in body fat percentage. Your health will also benefit from improved circulation, a more restful sleep, and prevention of chronic lower back pain. Women get extra benefits from the regular use of multi joint movements such as a reduced risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Current statistics report approximately 70% of all deaths in the United States are caused by cardiovascular disease and cancer. A sustained wellness program of compound exercises, combined with appropriate eating habits, can help prevent death from these causes.
My female clients often say: “I want to look like I train but I don’t want to bulk up.” The male athletes in my practice want more muscle and increased strength. The best approach is to pick a compound movement using barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells that focuses on the areas you want to improve. If it’s improvement in body composition that you desire, compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, and overhead press elicit a profound neuroendocrine response. They change you hormonally and neurologically. The minds behind the CrossFit methodology say it best, “Curls, lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, flyes and other bodybuilding movements have no place in a serious strength and conditioning program primarily because they have a blunted neuroendocrine response. A distinctive feature of these relatively worthless movements is that they have no functional analog in everyday life and they work only one joint at a time. Compare this to the deadlift, clean, squat, and jerk which are functional and multi-joint movements.” (1)
Machines make good coat racks. If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. The pulley was invented by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they invent the pulley? To make things easier. If you want easy, go lay on the beach somewhere and work on your tan.
Most gyms and training facilities have mirrors seemingly everywhere. Mirrors are the enemy. They’re only useful when you want to see how your new bench shirt or squat suit looks, otherwise avoid them. I never have anyone perform an exercise in front of a mirror. It’s imperative that we all learn kinesthetic awareness and understand how and where our bodies move through space. The visual feedback that the mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all movements are performed facing away from mirrors.
A full body routine would include squats, bench presses, pull-ups, military presses, and deadlifts. If your lower back and hamstrings are weak, do Romanian deadlifts, arched back good mornings, and squatting pull throughs. If you want to build your shoulders, utilize military presses, upright rows, and push presses. Every multi joint movement for the upper body works the arms, so the biceps and triceps benefit as well.
In today’s fast paced society, exercise safety and efficiency have been sacrificed on the altar of speed. It’s the exercise selection that counts. Pick an exercise that targets your particular weakness. Use the exercise until it becomes ineffective and then choose a new one for that area. This concept of rotating exercises is known as the conjugate method. The variety keeps you interested and different exercises build new types of strength. Don’t get caught up in doing an exercise that is popular or familiar if it does little for you.
Three of my clients have been instantly successful using compound movements in their strength training programs. Sylvia Ramos performs squats with the safety squat bar, pull-ups, and lunges to build strength for cycling events and marathons. Consequently, she has significantly decreased her times. Catherine Meloy could not lift a suitcase overhead into an airline compartment and now does forty pound military presses with ease. Tim Gill does deadlifts off a 2″ plate. On February 24 of this year, at the USAPL Navy Open, he made a 457-pound personal record deadlift, proof that he does well in selecting his exercises. Choose wisely and good luck.
(1) The CrossFit Journal, p. 7, October 2002.