And now for something a little bit non-nerdy. Also note these are things that apply to me, me body, my fitness goals. Consult a doctor, trainer, etc. and form your own ideas and goals.
I’ve been working out in a gym for about 8 months now. In that time I’ve gained quite a bit of strength, a little bit of size, and now (finally) some “good” weight. In that amount of time, I’ve tried, seen, heard, etc. a lot of things. My goal in the gym is a healthy mix of size and strength, what I like to call “functional strength”.
Compound > isolation movements
The fact is most of us don’t have enough time or money to spend hours in the gym each day. I like going to the gym, it helps me forget the stresses of work, but I don’t want to spend hours in there trying to do sets for every single muscle in my body. This is why I love compound movements: maximum returns on minimal investments. That’s investment of time, not effort; if you’re new to compound movements you’ll be horrified how out of breath and energy you’ll be at the end of the set.
Deadlifts: the movement that gets a bad rep because of bad form; do it wrong and you wreck your lower back. Do it right, and your glutes and hamstrings do the majority of the work, with still a good involvement of the lower back. I started out already being able to deadlift alot of weight, so I really like doing these.
Squats: while I haven’t written off barbell squats entirely as I have for bench press (see below), this exercise is still on my “to be determined” list due to shoulder inflexibility. I love barbell squats due to having the weight loaded on the back, which greatly emphasizes the glutes and hip flexors, while goblet and in-facing hack squats target the quads far greater. Out-facing hack squats do help, however having to rest my back against a pad does prevent me from keeping a proper back angle throughout the whole movement.
Rows: oh I love rows. I would literally give up any other exercise before rows. There are a few different varieties I use (bent-over barbell, pad and no-pad machine), and they all work the entire back (erector spinae, lats, rhomboids, all 3 traps) along with rear delts, biceps and forearms.
Ladies: stop doing the “dirty girl” machine. Squats will work all the hip flexor muscles, as well as help get that booty rounded. Rawr!
One of the most worthless machines in the gym is the butt kick machine. Do squats, deadlifts and lunges. You’ll work more muscles, burn more calories, and build that “functional strength”. The one isolation exercise I will recommend to go along with those is the hamstring curl. Get those hammies plump!
Let’s also address the “curl monkeys” that infest every gym in existence. These guys have never done a row in their life (though perhaps they’re smart enough to try pulldowns). They may get that one arm muscle to grow (that’s right, technically unless you do preacher/concentration curls as well you’re not working the full bicep group!), but ask them to pull their bodyweight on a chin-/pullup and they’ll either fail or have to use nothing but arms to do it. Back strength? Who needs to build that?
At my gym there are plenty who spend way too much time at the cable pulldown machine. Some can do a respectable amount of weight, while most pull down with the worst forms and shortest ROMs I’ve ever seen. I can do alot of weight on the selectorized machine, but nothing can compare to doing pull-/chinups. I’m still on the assist machine (slowly reducing the weight needed), but after 3 sets I can definitely feel it more both in my lats and biceps. Again, less time I need to worry about curls (or even hammer curls) as it’s already incorporated into this compound movement.
If there’s one compound movement I will actually come out against, it’s the bench press. While I’ve improved my form and learned to actively engage my pecs, the fact is this one movement just isn’t compatible with my rotator cuffs. I’ve hardly made any gains in how much weight I’ve benched, and my shoulders continue to hurt more and more. This is true even for dumbbell presses, as it’s easier for me to come down too far. Instead I’ve turned to dips (both on the assist machine and selectorized machine) and pushups; these are both still compound movements, providing excellent contributions to the front delts and triceps. With dips, you do need to be careful not to come down too far or else those rotator cuffs can still be destroyed.
Flys, Extensions and Raises Are Pretty Much Worthless
My trainer wouldn’t like to hear me saying that. Unless you’re a full-time bodybuilder or someone who feels they need to “sculpt” or “shape” their muscles, these exercises are pretty much completely useless. Chest flies? Your body is at a huge mechanical dis-advantage with its arms straight out and bearing weight. It’s like trying to do a crunch with your arms straight out, or a barbell pulldown with straight instead of bent arms. Yeah you could do it and be stronger if so, but again what’s the point? Name a real-life application for it. Talking about “functional strength”, AGAIN.
And leg extensions? Do you like intense burning and knee abuse? Because that’s what you get, without any strength. Full-depth squats on the other hand will NOT hurt your knees (unless you never train your hamstrings, then you’re screwed either way).
Next are rear delt flys. Just like the 2 previously mentioned exercises, you’re not gonna be able to do nearly any weight for this. Why not just do barbell rear delt rows, which will also work the mid and lower traps and rhomboids? Boom! Just to give you my perspective: for rear delt flys I can barely do 3 sets of 10 using 12-lb dumbbells, while for barbell rear delt row I’m currently on a 70-lb barbell. Yeah. As mentioned above, any row work will also help out those rear delts, along with mid and rear traps and rhomboids, therefore contributing to greater overall back strength. Functional strength coming up again, AWW YYYIIIISSSS!
To go along with rear delt flys, 2 other hallmark shoulder exercises are the front and lateral dumbbell raises. I hate doing these. Again I can only use a fraction of the weight I use for barbell work, and I feel burning rather than any “pump”, and it kills my rotator cuffs. Lateral raises, yeah I get a little trap and supraspinatus work going, but a barbell upright row does as well. Another personal perspective: lateral dumbbell raise I’m currently at 15s, while barbell upright row is currently at 50- or 60-lb barbell. Now just like with dips, it’s possible to kill your rotator cuffs with upright rows if your grip is too narrow and you come up too far. Front shoulder raises are a little better, as I can raise them pretty high above horizontal without any shoulder pain, but it’s still a lot of burn with not much strength or size gain. A much better exercise is the barbell overhead press. I had to start out lifting the bar only, but now I’m slowly adding weight, and it works the lateral delts a little bit as well.
While Barbell is King, Dumbbells Will Also Humble You
One of my biggest wake-up calls to incorporate more dumbbell work was when I first tried arnold presses. Even though I’d been doing barbell overhead presses for awhile, I had to step way down on weight in order to finish a set. Functional strength, meet stabilizer muscles. The two of you can’t live without each other. Even more so than overhead presses, arnold presses utilize the lateral delts, and the anterior delts spend more time under tension for each rep compared to a plain overhead press. Drop the weight, try them out, join the “AHHHnnuld” club!
Of course, dumbbells will also gladly show you which muscles of yours are off-balance. Curls, presses, raises, etc.: any exercise will force you to use each muscle independently, no help from the other muscle being on the bar as well. I really like using dumbbells during de-loads, checking my form and showing what I really need to work on.
The Small Muscles Deserve Attention Too
While I may advocate the compound movements for being able to move a lot of weight using as many muscles as possible, in order to have a complete fitness plan, as well as to prevent injuries, there are still a few areas of the body that deserve attention.
Rotator Cuffs: I’ve already mentioned how easy it is to injure the rotator cuffs. So what can be done to help them out, besides common sense about how much weight to lift and correct form? First, review what the actual rotator cuff muscles are: there’s the supraspinatus, Infraspinatus & Teres Minor, and Subscapularis. These are naturally used in movements such as upright rows, but these can all be trained as well, albeit with very light dumbbells. Try out “goalposts” and front lateral raises, using very light weight. These will burn, hard, but your shoulders will thank you.
Traps: While the mid and lower traps are used in rows and pull-/chinups, and upper traps don’t get quite as much. They’re used a bit in deadlifts and lateral delt work, but it still doesn’t hurt to throw in a few sets of barbell and/or dumbbell shrugs.
Calves: Yes I’m including calves as a “small area”, although in a way they’re not. Typically under-trained (if at all) by most, these muscles are literally the foundation that the rest of your body rests on. No compound movements really utilize the calves, and unless you’re an avid runner or biker you’re not using these too much anyways. There are some machines that target them, but my favorite has become using the hack squat for them; simply hang your feet off the platform and use that edge to fully flex and release the calves.
Forearms: while rows and pull-/chinups will work forearms a little bit, it’s still good to give them a little extra work. Most of your forearm muscles, the wrist flexors and extensors, will get enough work if you use a correct and firm grip on your barbell work; as the weight increases, these muscles (along with abs, lower back, etc.) will naturally gain strength to help stabilize and move that weight. The other muscle in the forearm, the brachioradialis, will benefit from barbell and/or cable reverse curls.
Of course, just as I have so far I will continue to learn new things, learn from mistakes, and change/adjust my plan as my needs do. Nothing is set in stone, because your body is always changing. Never be afraid to admit if something isn’t working, hurting or just not right. Always seek the advice of a trainer, doctor or dietician if you feel the need.