If you were to take a survey of 100 experienced fitness coaches, personal trainers and strength experts and we asked them “what are the top 4 best and most effective muscle building and strength building exercises known to man?” the majority would list barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses as the best. Those exercises simply produce the best results for most people regardless of goals. In fact, you probably would have guessed those movements yourself because it’s becoming common knowledge.
Great. You already know the best exercises, but this isn’t enough. If you want to be able to have a full routine that is effective now and long term you need a larger arsenal of movements to pick from. The human body thrives on a mix of familiarity AND novelty. You need to practice and train with the same exercises enough so that you have time to develop skill, strength and stability around them, but you also need some novelty to trigger strong muscle building and adaptation responses in the body. Recently I realized that although most people were familiar with the absolute best exercises they weren’t that familiar with the second or third best ones. In this article I am going to list some incredibly effective movements that need to be in your routine now.
Split Stance Squat and Variations for Legs
Split stance squats refer to movements like lunges, Bulgarian Split Stance Squats and all their variations. Just like traditional barbell squats, lunges and their variations are phenomenal muscle and strength builders. They actually have a lot in common with squats. The front leg in these movements is essentially doing a squat hence the term “split stance squats". The back leg is assisting the lift in these movements but is largely playing a strong supporting role. These exercises more closely mimic the most fundamental of all human movements, bipedal locomotion. Some coaches even say that split stance movements are MORE important than squats for this reason. I won’t go that far, but in my experience these movements come pretty damn close to squats. All of my clients incorporate some form of split stance squatting in their routine between 1-3 times a week.
Supinated Grip Pull Ups for Back and Biceps
Pulling your body up works your shoulder joints in a uniquely full range of motion. Our ability to hang and pull ourselves up might pale in comparison to our primate ancestors and our close cousins the monkeys, but we still do pretty good. With practice most average men can usually get to the point of being able to do 25 or more pull ups and most average women 10 or more. Pull Ups work the muscles of the back and the pulling muscles of the arms with special emphasis on the large wing like muscles of the back and the biceps. When you supinate your grip and do pull ups you are working the biceps through a long range of motion WITH heavier resistance than you would with curls. In fact, in a head to head competition for bicep building my money would go to supinated grip pull ups over curls all day long. Practice these often (2-3 times a week) for lat building and arm building results.
Dips for Shoulders and Pecs
Dips are an excellent way to work the pushing muscles of the upper body. They work the chest, shoulders and triceps and they help develop shoulder stability and strength in extreme ranges of motion. Although they aren’t as effective for building the upper body as a bench press they definitely come close. I have yet to meet someone who can perform 30 controlled full range of motion solid reps of dips who didn’t have impressive chest, shoulder and tricep development. Do these once or twice a week.
Windmills for the core
Windmills with resistance used to be a staple movement among strong men back in the late 1800’s. In those times strongmen often would lift weights into the air with one arm to demonstrate their strength but they would do so with a side bent technique to maximize leverage. Eugene Sandow was actually able to do this with a 300lbs dumbbell in one hand!! The windmill was used to prep the sides of the core for the load. This movement, when done properly, is amazing for the obliques and the quadratus lumborum muscles, both of which stabilize the body and are heavily involved in heavy lifts like deadlifts and squats. Start slow with these if you’ve never done them. Eventually you should practice windmills 1-2 times a week in your core workouts.
Good Mornings for Glutes and Hamstrings
This exercise works the hip hinging movement pattern that is massively important in deadlifts and squats. The huge muscles of the glutes, hamstrings and the stabilizing ability of the core muscles are worked to their max with well executed good mornings. I consider Good Mornings to be one of the best butt builders out there. Although they look similar to stiff legged deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts, they differ in the placement of the weight. Good Mornings require a tall upright shoulder back posture. The weight is also loaded differently and allows for more direct tension on the muscles of the back of your legs and hips. Do these at least once a week.
Zercher Squats for Glutes and Mid Back
The ability to lift things is inherently functional. If we lift anything heavy, its usually something that is being held close to our bodies with our arms. The Zercher Squat mimics this nicely. It also encourages a bit of rounding of the upper back, or to put it differently, it spreads the scapula (shoulder blades) more than other front loaded squats. This position strengthens the mid back differently than other exercises. Although Zerchers are front loaded they also encourage more hip flexion than other front loaded squats which calls upon the glutes much more. Many of my clients love this exercise for their butt development and others for the way it builds and strengthens their mid upper backs. Do these once a week.