As a personal trainer, I often get asked what my favourite exercises are. Truth be told, that is a bit like asking a doctor what his favourite medications would be. I will never get tired of saying that fitness is a very individual thing.
Without taking you through an individual assessment I’m unable to determine exactly what type of training programme is right for you. Some of the exercises I love might hurt you if you have certain issues or there could be better options for your particular needs.
The bottom line here is that you should work with a trainer to find what the best exercises for you are. But still, to answer the question, here is my personal top five. These are all moves that I use myself, performed correctly, I am sure they will benefit you a lot!
The Overhead Squat
Woman doing ovehead squat
This is a slightly intimidating version of the traditional squat but trust me, it truly is for everyone. More than a simple leg exercise, this one is perfect for mobility training. It’s a great exercise for your legs, but more importantly, the overhead squat trains stability and mobility in the core and shoulders.
It is one of my favourite exercises to use as an assesment tool. When a new client comes into my studios the overhead squat is one of the first things I have them do. Simply performing this movement will show me any tension or restrictions that exist in the hips, shoulders, and back.
Hunched back, rounded shoulders, rigid spine, and weak core are just some of the issues that you can notice. The overhead squat can also help you correct them.
Here is what I love to do. Start without any weight and simply extend your arms over your head. Watch yourself in the mirror while you perform the squat. Be mindful of any tension or pain you feel in your body. Do ten slow and controlled reps and notice what feels uncomfortable.
Is it difficult to keep your arms extended?
Does it create tension in your upper back? Are the fronts of your shoulders feeling really tight?
Or is your lower back taking too much stress?
How is your balance?
Are you able to perform a deep squat or does the tension in your hips, knees or ankles prevent this?
Is your right side tighter than your left in any of your joints?
Everyone will be different. Use this movement to find out more about your own body. Work on the overhead squat focusing on that weak link. Once this has been addressed you can gradually progress things by adding a small amount of weight each time. This way you can improve any issues you have with your posture, prevent back pain, and strengthen your core and lower body all at the same time.
How do you build lean legs, a sculpted butt plus some solid core? Deadlift. It belongs in everyone´s list of favourite exercises. The deadlift builds upper and lower body strength like no other exercise. It is the quintessential compund exercise. One thing I particularly love about deadlifts is they build strength around ligaments and tendons. Over time this will really protect you from injury.
The flipside here is that technique is crucial. Here are a few tricks to perfecting your deadlift (a.k.a. not wrecking your back):
Keep your back strong and flat, learn to flex forwards from the hips don’t round your back. If you can’t help but round it then you need to lower the weight.
Push, don’t pull. Yes, your upper body will be engaged in the movement but don’t think about lifting with your arms, your glutes and hamstrings should be doing most of the work.
Your feet should always stay flat on the floor, find a position where they are as stable as possible.
Move in time. Make sure your shoulders and hamstrings ascend together. If either lags it means you are using your lower back.
Going fancy on equipment is not always the way to go. I believe bodyweight exercises are the true measure of strength. The pull-up in particular is a great benchmark for overall athletic ability.
Learning to use your body is truly empowering. The pull-up is challenging, yes, but it is also very rewarding. Most clients I work with hate it, I admit. At least they hate it at first because it seems impossible. But in fact anyone can progress to a pull-up. Here are the steps that have helped even complete beginners to achieve it:
Start with a row.
Move on to bodyweight row (in an upside down pushup position).
Go for band-assisted pull-ups.
Attempt the real deal.
Progress your training by working with a partner have them assist you to top of the movement and lower yourself down. This eccentric development will turbocharged your pull-up goals!
Yet another bodyweight move. The plank belongs in my all-time favourite exerices as the king of abdominal work. Much like the deadlift, the plank is compound, it builds strength to protect you from injury, and it improves your posture big time.
There are studies that show planks to be the single best exercise for abs. They provide 100% activation of your abdominal muscles. Crunches only give you around 60% depending on your technique and the type of crunch.
I recommend planking every day and you will see a serious boost in fitness level in no time.
My secret tip for holding a plank longer is to relax the upper body, draw your belly button in and really focus on the core. When you tighten your abs your entire body becomes more stable. Less shaking means you can stay in the plank for longer. Of course, you have got to start small. 30 seconds to a minute is a good bench mark for a first timer but try to increase that by 10 seconds every other day. You will be surprised at the difference this makes! The goal of a serious “planker” is to achieve a 3 minute hold.
The Kettle Bell Swing
You can`t have a full list of my favourite exercises without mentioning Kettlebells. There are so many options, infinite modifications, ways to target every single muscle on your body. In my opinion, though, nothing can beat the simple, well-executed Kettlebell swing. It is a full-body workout in a single exercise.
What makes the Kettlebell better than other weights? The design. With the handle on top and the weight concentrated in the bottom, the center of gravity is significantly lower. You are forced to use muscles which builds strength and mobility.
The swing is mostly a hip movement, not a shoulder exercise so my biggest advice for you is to loosen up your upper body. If you grip too tight you put unnecessary tension in the back and shoulders. Hold the Kettlebell as you hold the remote control. Strong enough not to drop it but no additional clenching. Focus on the rhythm and really activating your glutes with every swing.
Do you have any favourite exercises of your own? Which of these do you think everybody should include in their workout routine? I would love to hear from you in the comments!