There are literally thousands of exercises you could do in the gym, but how many of them are effectively helping you reach your goals? This article is going to show you the 10 most effective movements that you can perform in the gym, and many of them require minimal equipment. In fact many of you may never need another exercise besides the 10 in this article. Performing the 10 exercises below can help anyone reach their strength and fitness goals, as well as help you make the most of your time in the gym.
There are many different ways to evaluate the effectiveness of an exercise and here is how I evaluated the 10 movements in this article. Keep in mind some of them are pure strength movements, while others are accessory, or conditioning movements, but here is how I evaluated them.
Strength Training Movements
1. Can you load it?
To get stronger you have to be able to progressively add weight to a movement. For example a deadlift has a MUCH larger loading potential than a 45 degree hyper extension, even though they train similar muscle groups.
2. How much muscle does it use?
For instance a back squat utilizes the low back, quads, hamstrings, glutes, abs, and upper back (probably more). The leg extension machine uses the quads, that’s it. The more muscle an exercise uses, the more effective and efficient it is.
3. How large is the range of motion?
I will use the squat as an example again here. In the squat you will start from standing position, squat down until the crease of your hip is below the top of your knee, then stand back up. Think about how much further you have to move to perform a squat when compared to a leg curl.
1. Do they support our strength movements?
The number one goal of an accessory movement is to support and improve our gains in strength movements. For instance a one arm dumbbell row will develop our lats which will help us improve our bench press.
2. Does the movement keep us healthy?
Some accessory exercises are chosen only to keep us healthy so that we can continue training injury free. To gain strength we often utilize a lot of pressing movements, we need to incorporate certain movements like the face pull to counteract all of the pressing that we do.
3. Can you load it?
The reason I put this last in the evaluation of accessory movements is because we don’t always need to load them heavy to accomplish our goal. Some accessory movements such as the Pendlay Row can be loaded very heavy while others like the face pull will not, but they both help us accomplish our goals.
1. Is it flexible?
Is it flexible means can the movement be used for different types of workouts. Can it be used for shorter high intensity workouts, and for longer low intensity workouts?
2. Can nearly everyone perform the movement safely?
When people perform conditioning it shouldn’t leave their joints in pain. They need to be able to perform the movement safely, effectively, and with minimal pain to their joints.
3. How much does it interfere with our strength movements?
This kind of goes hand in hand with number two. Conditioning should have minimal interference with our ability to perform strength movements. For example if we performed conditioning on Wednesday it shouldn’t affect our ability to squat on Friday.
The 10 Most Effective Movements for the Gym
1. Back Squat (strength movement)
The back squat is obviously a strength movement which has a great loading potential, uses a large amount of muscle, and will have very large range of motion, because of this it is the most effective movement you can do in the gym. If you were to only perform one movement for the rest of your life, it should be the squat.
2. Deadlift (strength movement)
The deadlift has an even greater loading capacity than the squat and also uses a large amount of muscle, but the range of motion is shorter which is why it is second on the list. If you train the back squat and the deadlift you’d be hard pressed to EVER need another movement to train your lower body effectively.
3. Bench Press (strength movement)
The bench press after all these years is still the king of all upper body exercises, because it has a greater loading potential than any other upper body movement. It also utilizes nearly every muscle in the upper body, if your goal is to gain size and strength, you should be bench pressing.
4. Overhead Press (strength movement)
When I say overhead press I mean the standing overhead press. The standing overhead press is much more effective than a seated press because it utilizes MUCH more muscle than the seated version. The overhead press comes in behind the bench press simply due to its loading potential; you just can’t use as much weight as the bench press.
5. Pull-Up (accessory movement)
The pull-up really could have been placed before the overhead press because the range of motion is the same, it utilizes large amounts of muscle, and might have an even greater loading potential than the overhead press. The only reason it comes in behind the overhead press is that not everyone can do a pull-up. The pull-up trains the opposite movement pattern of the press so it also helps keep us healthy. If you can’t perform a pull-up the next best thing is the inverted row. For more on training the pull-up check out my article, The 4 Levels of Pull-Up Power, at T-nation.
6. Pendlay Row (accessory movement)
The Pendlay row is a very underutilized, but improved version of the barbell row. The reason this is an improvement on the regular barbell row is because the weight is de-loaded onto the ground after each rep. This allows you to use more weight, while still using good form, and places less stress on the lower back, because instead of supporting the weight at the bottom you deload the weight onto the ground. The Pendlay row helps build our lats and trains the opposite movement pattern of the bench press so it supports our strength movements, helps us stay healthy, and has a great loading capacity.
7. One Arm DB Row (accessory movement)
The dumbbell row is a great movement to train the upper back and lats which help support our strength movements as well as keep us healthy. It is best performed very strictly with a pause at the top of the movement, especially if we are already utilizing the Pendlay row. With the pause it obviously will not be loaded as heavy as the Pendlay row or the pull-up, which is why it comes in behind those two movements.
8. Face Pull (accessory movement)
The face pull has a very limited loading capacity and your main goal with this movement is not to continue adding weight all the time. The goal is to train the smaller upper back and shoulder muscles like the external rotators, rhomboids, and lower traps that may get neglected with other movements. This helps to us stay healthy so we can continue pressing and pulling heavy weights with the bench press, press, pull-up and Pendlay row. The face pull is by far my number one go to movement for shoulder health.
9. Airdyne Bike (conditioning movement)
The Airdyne Bike is my favorite conditioning movement, because it is the most flexible as far as its ability to train different energy systems, I also have yet to meet a person that can’t perform it safely and effectively. There are definitely other exercise bikes out there, but non hold a candle to the Airdyne. The Airdyne Bike can be used for those short, make you want to puke intervals or on the other end, very long, low intensity recovery work.
The Airdyne Bike is also an entirely concentric movement, which makes it low impact and therefore has very minimal interference with strength movements. A concentric only movement means that it doesn’t involve a portion of the movement where the muscles need to absorb force, like the landing when you jump down from a box jump. If you are looking to purchase a piece of conditioning equipment for your home, purchase an Airdyne Bike, not a treadmill.
10. Concept 2 Rower (conditioning movement)
The only reason that the rower is placed after the Airdyne Bike is that the bottom portion of the rowing movement places your knees in a great degree of flexion (or very bent), and people with knee problems or may feel uncomfortable in this position. Rowing is also a slightly more difficult movement to perform efficiently. That being said rowing can also be used to train nearly every energy system and it is also an entirely concentric movement, so it is very flexible and has minimal interference with our strength movements.
Bonus: Prowler Sprints
I wanted to include this movement because it is one of my favorite movements for conditioning, but it didn’t make my top 10 due to the fact that it’s not quite as flexible in its ability to train multiple energy systems. The reason it’s not as flexible is because it’s freaking hard, which makes it great for short, fast, and heavy intervals. If you are short on time, but need a great conditioning workout, grab a partner and take turns sprinting with the prowler for a distance of about 50 feet and I promise you will be torched!
When we are looking for results in the gym, we need to have a system of how to evaluate the effectiveness of a movement. You must always think, how is this movement going to help me reach my goals? If you don’t know the answer to that question, you are likely wasting your time and could be using another movement that is more effective. Are there other good movements out there besides the 10 I listed in this article? Sure there are, but if your goal is to gain strength, gain muscle, lose fat, and be in great shape, the movements listed above are by far the most effective at helping you reach your goals.