Most authorities teach you endless ways to isolate muscles. They recommend that you use countless exercises that can harm you, recycling them if just for the sake of variety. These experts argue that you should change up your routine every 4-6 weeks or so.
Instead of isolation, I suggest that you spread the weight over as many active muscles and joints as possible. You should use only a few safe exercises. Instead of variety, you should retain the same good ones, and try your best to improve, time after time again.
Your routine should stay the same at all times regardless of your goals.
I suggest lifting only with the barbell flat bench press, the barbell low-bar back squat, and the single-armed dumbbell row. If you also include sprints for intervals, they allow you to develop complete fitness. Other exercises will both risk your safety and achieve worse results.
You may ask though, why these three exercises? Why only them? The traits that they all share provide the answer.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
– Shunryu Suzuki
- They allow you to use free weights.
Free weights bring many advantages, but most importantly, they let you to choose a path through the range of motion that feels right for you.
With the right exercises and tools, free weights work the small muscles that stabilize, yet without detracting from the work meant for the larger muscles.
Beyond the muscles, free weights also hone your body in other ways. As examples, they build up your connective tissue and improve your hormonal balance better than machines do.
- They are compound movements.
These types of movements emphasize compression over shear. Compression is the type of force your body expects when dealing with heavy weights. Even the shape of our largest bones reflect this truth.
You may not feel the burn as strongly in certain muscles due to less range of motion and localization with compound exercises. Nonetheless, they will allow you to create more tension even in the smaller muscles. Tension is the main stimulus for increasing muscle strength and size.
Compound movements allow for concurrent activation potentiation, or when muscles contract harder by working together.
The body evolved over time with synergy in mind, in that the large muscles can assist the smaller ones. For instance, you will notice that during transverse adduction, or when the chest works to push on something, this partially extends the elbow too, assisting the triceps in this function.
Their status as either an open-chain or closed-chain exercise makes no difference.
Compound movements also train the smallest muscles, such as those in the feet and hands, most naturally.
- You avoid extreme positions for the joints and muscles.
You can choose medium grips, stances, and positions with these three exercises. This distributes the load to minimize shearing forces on the joints. It allows the ideal length for more muscles, which maximizes tension. It prevents the joints from reaching their end feels, or the limits to their range of motion. This can cause the tissues to pinch together, harming you.
As examples, the overhead press and the dip both can destroy the shoulders, by each having extreme positions for the glenohumeral joints. The flat bench press instead keeps this joint close to the middle of its range of motion.
The hack squat machine damages the knees. The stiff-legged deadlift or another hip hinge exercise can harm the lower back and irritate the hips. Done right, the low-bar squat has no such problems.
The wide-grip pull-up and the upright row both cause impingement of the shoulder, while working fewer muscles. The row trains more muscles safely.
- They work all of the large muscles.
The bench press trains the chest, the back of the arms, and the front half of the shoulders at the least.
The squat works the whole lower body, while hitting the lower back and the rest of the core. The stabilizers in the inner thigh, outer hip, calves, and feet work too. They get addressed further when you sprint.
The row addresses the whole upper back, the front of the arms, the forearms, the hands, the back half of the shoulders, and the front and sides of the core.
- They allow consistent endpoints.
The barbell allows a clear endpoint for the bench press. You could wrap a pad around the barbell to maintain this yet minimize too much of a stretch at the bottom.
The row prevents too much range of motion by having the weight plate impede movement as it touches your torso.
The squat is more difficult to measure than the other two. You can pay attention though to how the motion feels to know when you have descended low enough. You only need a bit beyond 90° at the hip and knee joints the work the muscles fully.
- They have safety features.
The power rack, with the safety bars set correctly, will protect you on the bench press and the squat. The floor protects you on the row.
- They allow adequate loading.
As you grow stronger, you can keep adding weight to all three of these exercises.
A decent exercise like the push-up eventually fails since a weighted vest or backpack will reach a limit that prevents you from using more weight.
- They promote stability.
You must feel stable to use heavy weight, apply the most effort, and stay safe.
You should not use most unilateral exercises. The stabilizers overwhelm the whole motion, preventing the prime movers from working as hard as possible. These focus on balance and skill, which should never play a major role in proper lifting.
The dumbbell row remains an exception though due to the position that you adopt.
Avoid moving laterally too, such as with a side lunge. The muscles that actively work during them developed to hold positions, not to move or do so only lightly and occasionally. Bracing on the three exercises will work them as intended.
Consider too that the system taught here includes the best unilateral exercises possible: sprinting and walking.
- They feel simple to do.
An ideal level of arousal exists for any task. Think of arousal as feeling alert and ready to act.
Lifting weights should tend toward more arousal than less. This arousal gets disrupted though when the movement feels complicated. Exercises associated with Olympic weightlifting, such as power cleans, in addition to allowing poor control while overloading no specific muscles, demand too much thought.
The three exercises allow more arousal, so you will work harder and make more progress. Think about a scenario in which you had to muster your greatest strength. You would likely have to do something akin to one of the three movements, such as by pushing or pulling.
Focus on These Three Exercises
If you lived somewhere with little or no equipment, you could perform push-ups or dips, pull-ups, and single-legged squats. These would certainly build muscle but not optimally. With these free weight exercises, you remove all of their disadvantages, which include harming the joints.
Muscles often doubted as worked on this program include the upper traps, middle deltoids, and smaller muscles like those of the arms, forearms, calves, and the core. These get enough work if you train hard and do the exercises right. As mentioned, some muscles will have less range of motion though.
When trainees face issues with the three exercises, it almost always comes down to using too much range of motion.
This alone can explain the poor reputation that the bench press and the squat have in some circles. Too much range of motion will definitely harm the shoulders on the bench press and row. Too much range of motion will harm the spine, hips, and knees when you squat.
Remember that the same fibers work at all positions throughout the range of motion. Beyond getting a bit of a pre-stretch, you do not need much range of motion unless you wish to serve your ego.
However, I do not think the tools we use for the three exercises are perfect. I have spent time thinking on how to innovate them.
The option to choose a grip closer to neutral on the bench press, without having to worry about the bar rotating, would help. Some space that allows the shoulder blades to move freely without harming stability would be great.
A device that allows you to place your hands in front of your body on the squat, yet that maintains the low-bar position, would help.
A bilateral prone row with the right kind of bench, that avoids feeling too awkward and still recruits all of the active muscles well, could help too.
Perhaps a gravity chamber will emerge in the future that circumvents these dilemmas. The movements themselves though will never change as long as we continue to inhabit the same bodies that underwent evolution over millions of years. In the meantime though, done right, the tools for these exercises will allow you to achieve the utmost results.
Use these three exercises alone. You will save time, gain efficiency to recover faster, and have your joints feel better. Include intervals through sprinting for cardio. Walking and even brief jogging can fulfill the need for exercise beyond these more intense choices when you need to rest.
Follow this plan, and you will stay safe and make great progress.