Forget bicep curls in the squat rack. Get more bang for your buck with the moves that hit more muscles in less time
Elevating a good workout to a great one isn’t just about getting the right amount of sleep and picking out your favourite gym outfit before the sun rises (although neither hurts). It’s all about nailing the right exercises for your goals and understanding what movements will get you closer to your objective. But whatever your desired result, there are certain moves that, when performed correctly, are unbeatable when it comes to bang-for-your buck results.
You won’t find bicep curls here. Nor any of the weird multi-part moves that the guy in the too-tight vest always seems to be attempting in a dark corner of the gym. Because we’ve recruited Third Space gym’s elite trainer and education coordinator, Tom Hall, to offer a few handy coaching cues.
“Generally speaking, we teach 12 movement patterns, so here there’s a vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, horizontal pull, core and carries,” explains Hall. “Then we’ve got lunging, split squatting, glute bridge work and deadlifting.” Get ready to sweat.
It’s no secret that the conventional barbell deadlift is often labelled as the king of all exercises. But its close cousin, the trap bar deadlift, could well steal its throne. “It’s a cross between a normal squat pattern and a traditional barbell deadlift,” explains Hall. The trap bar looks a little like a car axle – a square in the centre where you stand, two suitcase-like handles to grip, and the weight plates at each end.
“The elevated handles sit on the side of you and you’re able to lift five to 10 per cent more load, helping you get more stimulus with a more natural movement,” says Hall. “It lays into performance and strength more and has more of an effect on recreational sport, including football and athletics. You can progress to trap bar jumps for explosive power, elevate it off blocks, or even use it as a carry.” It’s also good if a bad back means that normal deadlifts are off-limits.
Switching to upper-body, the pull-up is “the best pulling movement we can do,” says Hall. “It’s using every single muscle in your back and you’re going to get your biceps and your arms involved too. By pulling your own bodyweight, you can do it anywhere and it’s always going to be quite a bit of load.”
If, like many, you have a fluctuating relationship with your pull-ups, you can make certain regressions and progressions to make the bodyweight movement either more accessible, or a greater challenge. “We can do eccentrics, focusing on the negative phase of the rep, or paused pull-ups to hold the isometric contraction.” Too easy? Throw on a weighted vest or a dip belt for added resistance.
As basic as exercise gets: find two heavy things, pick them up, walk as far as you can with them. But Hall’s an elite trainer, which means he’s here to make your farmer’s carry work harder: “You get to spread your lats and will have everything in your upper back and your shoulders recruited into the move.” To perform the move successfully, you’ll be testing your core strength, your grip and your ability to maintain form and posture over a long distance. “Your torso will be fighting anti-lateral flexion, wobbling side to side, and you get to walk with posture and it could be used as a corrective exercise.”
Explosive power – the ability to shift a load quickly – it’s often forgotten in the quest for a new PB. But medicine ball slams, throws and chest passes are ideal “to elicit power and create a stimulus to move something at high velocity.” It’s a skill that will build biological longevity, too. “The ability to transmit force quickly is the quickest thing to leave as we age, so putting medicine ball work into your workout will keep us feeling younger, more powerful and fresher as we’re recruiting different muscle fibres.”
One for brains and braun, “the single-arm dumbbell bench press is all about stability as well as pure strength and isometric contractions,” Hall says. The bench press might offer more bragging rights in terms of pure weight shifted, but shifting the load onto one side of your body makes the move tougher because you don’t have a great big bar holding your torso flat against bench.
“The anti-rotational element of keeping your hips and your torso down is used across the board in the NFL as a test of strength,” says Hall. “You’re using your core and anti-rotational power with your press — it’s a big bang-for-buck dumbbell exercise for pushing power.”
As you’ve surmised by now, some of the most effective exercises out there are the ones that incorporate multiple muscle groups. The half-kneeling cable chop is no different. It’s what Hall calls a “glue exercise” because it incorporates lots of different muscle groups that help your body work efficiently together.
“It’s working across your torso and you’re relaying each hip to your shoulder. It’s holding you together, using your limbs to pull across your body whilst your pelvis and your torso anti-rotate and anti-flex.” Not only this, but the exercise will help you get stronger in your squats and deadlifts. ”It’s one of the essential things you need to do.”
Lastly, let’s hit legs. Rear-foot elevated (RFE, to the initiated) split squats are an ideal unilateral move with direct carry-over to sports including running and cycling. “We need to train single legs, but one hip is in extension and one hip is in flexion, so we have control over our pelvis,” says Hall. “It’s also sheer agony for your quads and your glutes. Plus, you don’t have to have great ankle flexibility and you can overload it to hell.”
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