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The Best Exercises are the ones You’re not Doing
The premise of many scientific studies is often to compare two training programs or two exercises in order to find out which one is “best”.
However, scientific studies are of short-term duration, with rare exceptions. These short duration studies are in contrast to “real life”, where our involvement in training is (hopefully) long-term and measured in years.
In order to make long-term progress, we must consider the principle of accommodation. As we use even the best program, we adapt to that program and therefore it becomes less and less efficient in stimulating gains in strength and mass.
As they say in the trenches, “The best program is the one you are not using at the moment.”
As a strength coach, I never look for the “best” program or the “best” exercise. Having only one tool (exercise or program) is not enough! I need multiple extremely effective programs and exercises that can stimulate athletes/lifters bodies to move towards certain goals.
The saying above may easily be changed to: “The best EXERCISE is the one you are not using at the moment.”
However, I must give you a word of warning: Variation in exercises must be applied with a purpose. Just “mixing it up” will very likely be a waste of time. We must give the body time (reps, sets, and workouts) to adapt to a stimulus and only THEN do we change the stimulus. A key characteristic of a successful macro cycle is a carefully planned sequence of exercises specific to your level of training and your goals.
In selecting exercises for your program, a powerful strategy is to include exercises that accomplish multiple goals. The exercises shown in this article are chosen with that principle in mind.
The five exercises:
- include exercises that engage more muscle at the same time
- activate the same muscles in ways different than you are used to (different planes of motion)
- bring up a weak link that holds you back
Or, plain and simple, are probably more fun and challenging than what you’re currently doing.
1: Two Hands Anyhow.
About 100 years ago, old time strongman Arthur Saxon performed this drill with 465 pounds (210 kg) using a barbell and a kettle bell.
Benefit: Exceptional core strength, predominantly in the frontal plane (your internal obliques and quadratus lumborum)) and, to some extent, in the transverse plane (also the obliques). Additionally, the Two Hands Anyhow strengthens all heads of the deltoid as well as the rotator cuff muscles and teaches outstanding body awareness.
Requirement: Perfect hip flexibility in flexion, spinal flexibility in extension and rotation, and no back problems whatsoever. Here is a simple but important test to help you determine whether you are ready for the Two Hands Anyhow:
Position yourself with your back against a wall and your heels the distance of your own feet away from the wall. The goal is to flatten your entire spine against the wall, from the bottom of your neck down to your tailbone. If you cannot pass this test, you will overload your shoulder joint in attempting the bent press.
Execution: Pick up a kettle bell and position your feet at a 45-degree angle with the distance between your heels equal to the distance between your shoulder joints. Keep the elbow as close to the ribcage and pelvis as possible as you rotate and bend from the hips, NOT THE BACK. Focus on “getting under” the weight, rather than pressing it up. While supporting the weight over your head, bend or squat down to pick up a dumbbell (or a kettle bell) that you then curl and press.
Program example: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
In a longer training cycle, the Two Hands Anyhow may be a natural progression from the windmill or a pure bent press.
2: One-arm Barbell lifts
The “second exercise” is not one exercise only; ALL of our big lifts can be performed in the one-arm barbell fashion. What Arthur Saxon was for the bent press, German strongman Hermann Goerner was for the one-arm deadlift, and his record of 727 pounds is awe-inspiring.
Benefit: If you have ever tried any of the one-arm barbell lifts, you know that the bar tends to tilt like a see-saw, partly because it is very difficult to perfectly balance it and partly because the strength of each of your fingers may vary throughout the lift. To complete the lifts, this tilt must be stabilized, an effort that requires so-called “ulnar” and “radial” flexion strength. Furthermore, the asymmetrical loading affects your entire core, challenging you to stabilize during rotation (deadlifts, row, bench press) or side flexion (side press, bend press).
Do you see how doing one-arm barbell lifts is a way to train stabilization with “manly” exercises AND groove your motor patterns for the two-hand lifts?
Requirement: These exercises have no special requirements beyond their two-hand counterparts
Execution: In the one-arm fashion, you can perform a barbell deadlift, barbell snatch, barbell bench press, barbell side press, barbell bend press or barbell bent over row. The key to these one-arm barbell exercises is to grip the bar symmetrically; if you don’t, the bar will start tilting almost immediately.
Program example: Use a 5RM load and alternate 1 rep with your left with 1 rep with your right hand for 5 minutes straight.
In a longer training cycle, the one-arm barbell lifts (unless performance in these lifts is your key goal) may have their place in the early phases for increasing grip and core strength that will allow you to use higher poundage in later mass or strength cycles.
The video below shows a one-arm bent over row with a metal support post for some high rep grip work.
3: Harness Sled Drag
If you want to excel in any activity that involves horizontal projection of your body (sprinting, soccer, etc.), this exercise should be your main lower body exercise.
Squat, deadlifts and Olympic lifts are amazing exercises. They recruit the hip extensors, knee extensors, and plantar flexors. However, in these “big lifts”, the accentuated force region occurs at the bottom of the lifts and the action force is directed downwards. When you are sprinting, the accentuated force region is much closer to a position with zero hip and knee flexion and the action force is directed backward.
Muscles fire 100% specifically to all characteristics of a given movement. Thus, to improve sprinting, look for an exercise with an action force directed backward.
Benefit: The Harness Sled Drag strengthens hip and knee extensors, hamstrings, calves, and core. Harness Sled Dragging is a great way to maintain and improve leg strength if you cannot load your back. As mentioned in the introduction above, the sled drag should be your main leg exercise if your goal is to project your body horizontally.
Requirements: Basic range of motion in your hip joint, no foot or Achilles tendon issues.
Execution: Load up a dragging sled. Put on a harness and attach the sled. Start by performing walking lunges for distance. The harness keeps your hands free, so you can CARRY something while you lunge (any sufficiently heavy object will do).
You can get your harness here:
Program example: 5-10 x 40 yards
In a longer training cycle, sled dragging could be preceded by step-ups and followed by horizontal bounding.
Harness Sled Drag with a Tire in place of a Sled
4: Loaded Glute Bridge in the Knee Extension Machine.
Glute Bridges have been around for ages, both in the loaded and unloaded versions. I must admit, I see little use for the knee extension machine except for athletes who kick or competitive bodybuilders. I have also seen physiotherapists rehab supra patellar tendon pain using eccentric accentuated knee extensions.
Benefit: Loaded Glute Bridges strengthen your glutes at near full hip extension. The pad does not dig into your thighs the way a bar would. Glute Bridges in the knee extension machine is easy to set as a finishing exercise, and the loaded Glute Bridge is also a great exercise to strengthen your hip extension for running (if running is your goal, you will experience the greatest benefits by performing the exercise one leg at a time).
Requirement: Don’t be too tall or you won’t fit into the machine!
Execution: Set the pad in the knee extension machine at a relatively low position (15-20 degrees below parallel). Position yourself with your back against the edge of the seat of the machine and the top of your thighs against the pad. Raise your hips as high as possible and hold for a count of two.
Program Example: 1 set of 30 as a finisher after any leg workout.
In longer training cycles, the loaded Glute Bridge could follow an unloaded Glute Bridge.
5: Strongman Swing
I originally learned of this great exercise from an article by Jeff Martone, who learned it from weightlifting legend Mark Berry. You can check the article out here.
Benefit: Strengthens hip and knee extensors. This great movement challenges the core in all three cardinal planes and builds shoulder stability in the sagittal plane.
Requirements: Perfect form in your squat and deadlift patterns, normal range of motion of your thoracic spine (extension) and shoulder (flexion).
Execution: Grab a dumbbell. The exercise begins with a single-hand dumbbell swing. During the concentric phase, the dumbbell is kept close to the body as you dip down to catch it in an overhead squat. Stand up. Lower the weight and repeat.
Program Example: Use a 10 RM load. Perform sets of 5 reps with each hand with no rest in between. Perform 2 minute intervals in this fashion with 40-60 seconds of rest between each interval repetition.
In a long-term cycle, the strongman swing could follow a regular dumbbell or kettle bell swing and/or an overhead squat.
You now have five powerful exercises to try, but remember, to make them work for you, they must be optimally placed in your long-term cycle.
As you can see, great lifters from the past have inspired some of these exercises. I believe that the future of strength training combines the wisdom from the past with the best from today’s scientists, coaches, and lifters. We have yet to see the best performances.
Written by Karsten Jensen
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - The Best Exercises are the ones You’re not Doing discussion thread.
About Karsten Jensen
As a Strength and Conditioning Expert Karsten Jensen has helped World Class and Olympic Athletes and coaches from 13 different sports since 1993, including seven years with the Danish National Elite Sports Institution. He believes in the unlimited potential of the human being and shares his viewpoints as an international speaker, author of several books and educator with Certified Professional Trainers Network.
He currently works as a high performance trainer at the University of Toronto and also shares “Insider Principles of World Class Strength and Conditioning Methods” through his website www.yestostrength.com. He holds a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology as well as several other certifications.
Karsten’s newest book “The Flexible Periodization Method” – How to Create Super Individualized Long Term Training Programs for any client/athlete is available may 15th.