Whether you’re a hardcore gym rat or just enjoy staying healthy and active, muscular resistance exercise should be nothing new to you. Increasing muscular mass goes hand in hand with a healthy metabolism, improved posture and an increase in bone density, all of which stand you in good stead deep into middle age and later life. That’s on top of the obvious immediate benefits, such as an increase in endorphin levels, burning pesky calories and keeping your body in a healthy balance both mentally and physically.
There some impressive exercises out there, but half are good for isolating specific muscle groups – known as isolation exercises would you believe. Others are good for involving multiple groups in one movement – known as compound exercises. Now it’s compound exercises that I want to focus on in this post, if you haven’t got time to spend hours in the gym every day or are wondering what could make the difference when it comes to putting on a bit more mass, these are the exercises that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
The squat is a great leveler, judged more heavily on technique than it is on weight. A well executed squat earns the respect of everyone that is experienced enough to appreciate it. These are the key to a great ass, flatter stomach, bragging rights and extra gains. So whether you like it or not, they should be part of your routine at least once a week.
A properly executed squat primarily engages the quads and glutes but it also engages the calves, hamstrings and core muscles. On top of that, due to being so shocking to the body they trigger the release of HGH (human growth hormone) and testosterone, two hormones that will aid muscle growth in other areas as well.
It can take a bit of practice to get the technique right but it’s worth it, one of the best ways to learn is to ask a fellow gym member to watch your form and point you in the right direction. Remember it’s important to warm up and stretch though, going in cold won’t only leave you walking in a manner that raises a few eyebrows, you can do real damage that can take months to heal.
No exercise utilises as many muscle groups as the deadlift, this means that out of everything you do while working out, you’ll be able to shift the most weight right here. This is important because using almost every muscle in the entire body to maximum potential sparks growth, which is why deadlifts are well known for adding plenty of muscle mass and should be part of everyone’s routine.
Again this is one that may take a little bit of getting used to, remember to keep your back straight at all times to avoid a serious injury, one sure way to make onlookers feel queasy is to attempt double your bodyweight with a bent back. There are a few variations on how to position your legs, sumo stance for example is exactly what it sounds like and Romanian deadlifts focus on the hamstrings by keeping the legs only slightly bent for the whole movement.
Regardless of the minor details though, the deadlift offers boat loads of functional strength and real world applications. I mean there’s nothing more real-world than bending over and picking something up. Similar to squats, the involvement of the core and legs builds better balance, the heavy weight increases bone density as well over long periods of time, which could reduce the risk of injury in later life. Nothing’s cooler than an 80 year old that’s never “had a fall”… *sunglasses face*.
Ah the good old bench press, almost synonymous with lifting itself. If there’s one question that every lifter has been asked about their training it’s “what do you bench mate?”. This isn’t actually a stupid question, it’s a good way to gauge overall upper body strength due to the fact that pretty much every muscle in the upper body is working during the bench press if done correctly. That’s right, even your lats.
The problem occurs when it’s not done properly. There should be no squirming and your back should be arched, bringing the weight down to your lower chest almost in line with your nipples. Any higher and you will be putting excess strain on your shoulders by not pushing in the direction in which you are most powerful.
If this is new to you it’s best to start with the weight low to make sure you’re comfortable, then work up over the course of a few sessions to the point where you eventually work out what your one rep max weight is. You’ll need a spotter really, more than anything to give you the confidence to lift such a weight above your face and neck when taking it off the rack, and to ensure you don’t get stuck in a painful and embarrassing position if you can’t get it back up off your chest.
Once you’ve determined your one rep max, it’s commonly accepted that to make decent progress it’s best to work at about 80% of that. If you get to the point where you can only manage about four reps then drop the weight to the point where you’re getting at least 6 for the remainder of your sets. If you’re consistently getting low reps during your sets, it makes a lot of sense to increase the number of sets that you’re doing to compensate.
This exercise is surprisingly uncommon for how effective it is, considering it’s the best way to build up a decent set of shoulders at the same time as working your core and stabiliser muscles, I rarely see people doing it in its true form.
To be done correctly, the military press needs to be done standing up using a barbell and strict form. You’ll notice that your core will be working overtime keeping the weight balanced above your head, one of the reasons it’s a good idea to start off with just the bar until you’ve established just how much control you have doing this movement.
Another good tip is to use a rack so that you can start off with the weight at chest/shoulder height, this saves the awkwardness of having to pick up and put down the weight from floor level and means that you can start in the press position straight off the bat. It’s easy to lean back too far and strain your back if this is new to you as well, due to the fact that your stabiliser muscles will be made of jelly, standing up really does add a new dimension to the overhead press – and the dimension is hard.
We’ve been told this is a good exercise by everyone but most of us still don’t rate it very highly as a priority, that’s a mistake and here’s why. Planking works the whole core, front, back and all the way around which means that it’s a compound exercise, getting a lot of muscles to work together. Rather than just training your abs by hammering out a billion sit-ups the plank builds up a solid core which is where a lot of real strength for other exercises comes from.
Not only will this help you in your quest for abs but in pretty much everything else that involves stabilising yourself. Furthermore you will also feel the burn in your upper legs, a large muscle group key for the release of hormones that play a role in aiding your mood and supporting muscle growth.
A useful tip for getting the most out of the plank is to pull in your stomach and focus on looking down towards your feet, this will put a lot of strain on your abs meaning you get to say hello to them a lot sooner. Once your stomach starts to drop and put pressure on your lower back it’s time to accept defeat though, this kind of strain is not beneficial and can lead to back problems. It’s better to do more sets in strict form than to try and go for too long and injure yourself.