We hear all the time about the importance of exercise in a healthy lifestyle. But there are so many different exercises and so many training styles how do you know what the best exercises are? This will be informed by a number of factors; your health history, your activity levels, your weight, your personal interests, your sport, your age, etc. Here I intend to give you a convincing argument for three exercises (and variations) that EVERYONE should include in their healthy lifestyle regardless of goal. But before I give you the exercises, let me establish some context.
You only get one body
We are the most incredible organisms living on this tiny planet, the most intelligent, sentient biomechanically complex creatures alive. I mean, yeah, some people seem to do their best to challenge that statement and a quick glance at the comments section of any politically motivated social media post instantly makes you want them all to get in the sea, but still. Let dickheads be dickheads and move along.
The human body is a complex machine that requires energy and nutrients from food to operate correctly and, yes, energy is energy regardless of the food delivering it or the activity burning it. But we need exercise to keep the body healthy and running optimally. According to the British Heart Foundation (1) men are more active than women but more than half of adults meet minimum physical activity levels, with that percentage declining as people age.
As you can see the survey shows that sport and exercise in particular declines as we get older.
But in most cases, I would argue that the reason for that is choice. As we get older we simply prioritise other things over our physical health. I get it, you have a family, your children’s wellbeing is now more important than your own and the pressure to constantly keep making money just to earn the right to live on this planet is huge. But it’s fair to say you don’t become unfit because you get old, you get old because you become unfit. At least in as far as how you feel physically.
Osteoporosis and Sarcopenia are big risk factors in ageing populations. But, as a 2018 study published in Endocrinology and Metabolism (2) stated;
” Weight-bearing impact exercise such as hopping and jumping, and/or progressive resistance exercise (RE), alone or in combination can improve the bone health in adults “
It’s also long been held that an increased risk of falls in ageing populations is directly correlated with an increased risk of death, but that progressive strength training can significantly reduce that risk (3).
This isn’t new information, we have known this for a while now. But resistance training doesn’t just improve bone-mineral density. It can help you to lose bodyfat while dieting. How? Because when in a Calorie deficit you are literally atrophying cells and that includes muscle fibres. The bigger the deficit, the more lean mass you lose. Therefore, resistance training can help to maintain lean mass. How? Well, it improves Muscle Protein Synthesis. MPS is an anabolic mechanism that promotes the anabolic processes in the body. A 2018 study by the ISSN (4) performed on postmenopausal women showed that diet alone resulted in a significant decrease in muscle mass. While groups that included resistance exercise or resistance exercise plus a Macro-nutrient appropriate nutrition intervention (3.1g of protein per kg) showed much better outcomes in relation to retention of lean body mass during dieting.
We also know that progressive resistance training is an effective defence against chronic back-pain. This makes perfect sense, because if you have stronger muscles in your torso you will have better dynamic stability for your spine. But a 2009 paper by Kell et al (5) concluded that although aerobic exercise is useful at reducing pain, resistance training is far superior at rehabbing chronic low back pain and improved more than just strength with subjects seeing improvements in strength, flexibility and peak power production. In fact resistance training is beneficial for many types of chronic pain and, although you may need to moderate the frequency and intensity to match your symptoms (6), if you aren’t doing any kind of muscle strengthening exercise you are missing the damn point.
OK, enough of the boring sciencey stuff. What are those three exercises, and why only three? Bruce Less once said “I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks, I fear the man who has practiced one kcik 10,000 times.” In other words, keep it simple and master things that really matter. Technically, you could say these are movement patterns more than specific exercises because there are many variations of each pattern that could be employed. The importance of these particular exercises is because they are what’s known as compound exercises, which means they use multiple joints and muscle groups so you get more bang for your buck. They are also the main competition lifts in powerlifting, but that doesn’t mean that only powerlifters should be doing them.
To be clear I am not saying you should ONLY do these exercises or that you shouldn’t do other forms of exercise. I believe that it’s important to do a variety of exercise to develop the various energy systems and different muscle fibre types. But these three should be a primary focus and if you did just these three your health would improve immeasurably, based on the evidence already provided. I’ll attempt to list a few variations too but here we go.
The deadlift is the most common hip hinge pattern. It can be done using heavy barbells, like my mate Tommy is demonstrating above. Or you can use dumbbells or kettlebells. You could just do a bodyweight single leg deadlift if lifting weights isn’t your thing. The hip hinge is a prime movement and one that a lot of people who experience lower back pain should perfect. Everyone should be able to work up to a 2x bodyweight deadlift in some variation and if you can’t at least pull your own weight off the floor and you don’t have a medical reason for not being able to do so, you need to get out of your chair a bit more often.
It strengthens the posterior chain – most notably the hips and Hamstrings and also recruits upper torso stabilisers like the Rectus Abdominis, Erectus Spinae, Latissimus Dorsi and Trapezius.
The main deadlift variations are:
- traditional deadlift (pulling a bar off the floor)
- rack pull (pulling a bar from elevated pegs in a squat rack)
- Sumo (wide stance)
- Romanian or Stiff leg (start in an upright position)
- Single leg (obvs)
In addition to the deadlift you could use kettlebell swings or the Goodmorning as ably demonstrated by my friend Polly below, follow her on Instagram.
If the deadlift is a hip hinge pattern, the squat is a knee flexion exercise. The squat is probably a little more familiar to most people. I mean, we literally do it multiple times per day getting in and out of chairs and the day after a dodgy pizza (sorry but nothing gives me the trots like a Pizza Hut deep pan).
A barbell back squat, like the one shown here is something to work up to. Being far more than just a leg exercise, a weighted squat requires activation of the abs and upper back and, actually, you could probably randomly list any number of muscles and you could almost certainly guarantee that they are involved in a squat. Some other squat variations include:
- front squats (holding the bar across the top of your chest)
- goblet squats (holding a kettlebell or dumbbell to your chest)
- split squats (a bit like a standing lunge)
- box squats (sitting back onto a box to reduce depth)
- air squats (using bodyweight only)
In addition to squats you could use some of the following variations which use the same pattern:
- Lunges (stepping one foot forwards or backwards in an alternating fashion)
- Leg press (a seated machine exercise)
- Step ups (stepping up onto a bench or box and back down)
The bench press is a favourite of many gym bros the world over. Considered in many circles a ‘manly’ exercise because it develops the Pecs which looks good when you are flexing your muscles in the gym mirror instead of actually training. It’s also one of only three exercise done by teenage boys but the only one of those three on this list (the other two being biceps curls and sit ups because girls aren’t interested in your quads apparently).
A horizontal push pattern, the bench press is a great measure of upper body strength and requires strong Triceps and Serratus Anterior muscles. The Serratus is a shoulder stabiliser muscle that runs under your armpit and wraps around under the scapulae. For this reason, if you can’t do at least 20 reps of full bodyweight press ups with strict form you should probably work up to the bench press. See this blog for more of an explanation on that.
Here are some variations you could consider:
- incline bench press (your back is supported by an angled back rest)
- dumbbell press (like the bench press but using smaller dumbbells instead of a barbell)
- seated chest press (a machine assisted exercise)
- press ups
- TRX chest press (like a press up but using a suspension trainer)
How to include them
The compound lifts are your main lifts and should be the primary focus of your workouts. If you are currently unconditioned – maybe you’re a novice or coming back from injury – you should start light and work your way up in volume, intensity and frequency. But, at the very least do at least 2 resistance-based workouts per week, even if it’s just for 15 minutes at a time. Form and technique are important so if you really don’t know what you are doing then get yourself a coach or PT. Word of warning, not all PTs are created equal, make sure they know what they are doing and if their social media is full of selfies, move along until you find someone with a less inflated sense of self-importance.
If you already have a decent idea of what you are doing then use this template:
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- PHYSICAL ACTIVITY STATISTICS 2015 BRITISH HEART FOUNDATION CENTRE ON POPULATION APPROACHES FOR NON‑COMMUNICABLE DISEASE PREVENTION Nick Townsend, Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Julianne Williams, Prachi Bhatnagar and Mike Rayner. Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford
- Resistance Training and Bone Mass Heidi M. Weingart, M.A. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.Hong AR, Kim SW. Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health. Endocrinol Metab (Seoul). 2018;33(4):435–444. doi:10.3803/EnM.2018.33.4.435
- Maddalozzo, G.F., and Snow, C.M. 2000. High intensity resistance training: Effects on bone in older men and women. Calcified Tissue International, 66, 399-404.
- Miller, T., Mull, S., Aragon, A., Krieger, J., & Schoenfeld, B. (2018). Resistance Training Combined With Diet Decreases Body Fat While Preserving Lean Mass Independent of Resting Metabolic Rate: A Randomized Trial, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(1), 46-54. Retrieved Oct 2, 2019, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/28/1/article-p46.xml
- Kell, R. T., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2009). A Comparison of Two Forms of Periodized Exercise Rehabilitation Programs in the Management of Chronic Nonspecific Low-Back Pain. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(2), 513–523. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181918a6e
- Strength Training Surprises; Why building muscle is easier, better, and more important than you thought, and its vital role in injury rehabilitation Paul Ingraham, PainScience.com updated Aug 31, 2018