What are the best exercises?
written by Philip Stefanov | NOVEMBER 8, 2022
Every once in a while, I get some variation of the question, “What are the best exercises?”
Some people are interested in exercises for a specific muscle group. “Hey Phil, what are the best chest movements?” In other cases, it relates to a goal. “What are the best exercises to build strength?”
This week’s newsletter will cover that very question and all of its variations.
The Problem With “What Are The Best Exercises?”
The primary issue with asking such questions is that people hope for some secret or shortcut that will help them make twice the progress with half the effort.
Folks aren’t interested in the best theoretical exercises. They simply hope to learn a secret or training approach to finally get somewhere with their fitness.
Unfortunately, there are no best exercises. There are only good exercises based on a trainee’s situation and goals.
Whenever someone asks me to recommend exercises, I typically follow up with questions like:
- What are your training preferences?
- What goals are you trying to achieve?
- How experienced are you?
Part of why people often look for some ‘best’ solution is that such ideas get presented to us daily. From the “Only exercise you’ll need for big biceps.” to “6 amazing movements to shed belly fat and get ripped abs.” the internet is littered with lists of the best.
What Makes An Exercise ‘Best’ For You
1. You Can Do it With Great Form
The first thing to examine when picking exercises is your technique. A good movement is one that fits your anatomy and mobility, allowing you to perform it safely through a full range of motion.
As you can imagine, that will vary from person to person. One common example is the deadlift and the endless debate on whether conventional is better than sumo.
The truth is that neither version is necessarily better than the other. You should do the one that fits your natural abilities and allows you to get into the correct starting position.
2. It Activates the Right Muscles
Another way to determine if an exercise is good for you is if it activates the correct muscles on every repetition.
Take the barbell bench press as an example. Many people consider it the best chest exercise, but what if you cannot activate your pectorals despite training with proper form? In that case, it would be better to go for alternatives:
- Dumbbell press
- Push-up variations
- Incline press
You should always give exercises a chance to work for you, but don’t be afraid to make swaps.
3. It Gets You Closer to Your Goals
The next thing to consider when picking exercises is asking yourself, “Will the movement get me closer to my goal?”
This is a more subjective aspect of exercise selection but still carries weight. For example, a powerlifter needs to ask that question repeatedly because their main objective is to get strong on three exercises: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Aside from doing these movements, the powerlifter needs to pick useful variations and alternatives for accumulating enough training volume in a varied enough way to avoid overuse injuries.
In contrast, more vague goals like getting fit or building muscle allows for more leeway because numerous activities can get you there.
For example, let’s take muscle gain as an example. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to evaluate the value of an exercise:
- Does it activate the right muscles?
- Can I do it with proper form for ten or more reps?
- Does it lead to at least some muscle soreness following my workouts?
- Do I feel a good muscle pump after a few high-rep sets?
4. You Enjoy Doing It
Last but not least, we have enjoyability. At least some of the exercises you pick should be activities you genuinely enjoy doing. That is necessary to look forward to upcoming workouts, train hard, and reach your goals.
You won’t always get to do fun movements when working toward a goal, but too much tedious training can cause you to lose your enthusiasm and give up.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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