How can you tell if there are holes in your workout program? You need to check in with yourself often, and change things up to get a full variety of exercises. To make sure you've got all your bases covered, and are challenging yourself to the fullest, I've listed my top 12. This is a complete list of the 12 movements, exercises, and methods that I think should be a part of every healthy client's exercise program. Try cycling these ideas into your program every six to eight weeks for a truly complete workout regimen.
1. Barbell Squats
The barbell squat does it all: strengthens muscles throughout the body; teaches proper use of the core (abs and lower back) for support; and trains balance and coordination. Use the right weight and proper form. Your weight should be light enough that you can get your thighs parallel to the floor at the bottom of your movement.
2. Lower Abdominal Work
The lower part of your abs is the most important in terms of support for your lower back and spine. Learning how to strengthen and use this area correctly is key to injury prevention. Your lower abdominals are defined by your transverse abdominis muscle, which forms a band or girdle across your center. To locate this muscle, place your hands on your hips and put your middle finger on the bony protrusion on the front of each hip. Now, walk your index finger right inside your hip bones and you will have found the transverse abdominis muscle. This is the muscle you should be using do your lower abdominal work.
To start working your transverse abs properly, you need to be able to isolate them. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Find the muscles from your hip as described above. Now, keeping your fingers on the muscles, take a deep breath in. As you exhale, try to flatten out your stomach and press your lower back into the floor. If you do this correctly, your hips will tilt up, laying your spine against the floor. Once you have mastered this, you can move on to bent-knee legs lifts on floor, straight-legged leg lifts on floor, flat bench leg lifts, and then hanging leg lifts.
3. Lower Back Exercises
The lower back is often neglected in weekly workout programs. But the volume of lower back work (such as Supermans and lower back extensions) in your program should be equal to the amount of abdominal work you do. If you've been overtraining your front and neglecting your back, you should correct the situation—but carefully. Start with basic floor movements for your lower back (like Supermans) to develop strength and flexibility, and plan to slowly progress to lower back extensions and finally to more intense exercises, such as stability ball reverse hyper back extensions.
4. Dead Lifts
In real life (as opposed to "gym life") we are constantly picking things up off the ground—often quite heavy things. Your back, legs, and core all need to be able to function as a strong and coherent unit to get you through this safely. So it makes sense to train your body for this repetitive action in the controlled environment of the gym. That's why the dead lift is right behind the squat as one of the most important and useful full-body strengtheners. If you want to be able to move your sofa—or pick up the newspaper off the front porch—you really need to work those dead lifts. For form advice see the video barbell Russian dead lifts.
5. Single Leg/Arm Strength Work
Most of us are dominant on one side of our body—typically the same side as our writing hand. That means imbalances in every muscle of the body, as we always try to use our more dominant and stronger side to do daily tasks. Put your body in conditions of particularly heavy loads—weight lifting or sports, for instance—and this effect is exacerbated. Some of this is unavoidable, but you want to be sure that your training isn't constantly widening the strength gap between right and left. Whenever possible, do single side work. Working only one side of the body at a time forces each leg or arm to function independently. That means that the strong side cannot "carry" the weak side through an exercise. For upper body work, dumbbells will help you to reduce the strength gap by making you stabilize the movement of the weights. For legs, lunges and step-ups are a great way to individually work each side. And even on the leg press machine, try using one leg at a time to really see how wide the strength gap is. Be honest with yourself in these comparisons. The more balanced your body, the stronger and more functional you will be.
6. Full Range Upper Abdominal Work on Stability Ball
If you are doing upper abdominal work on the floor or, worse yet, in one of those ab-roller machines with a neck support, you are working your abdominals through a reduced range of motion and adding to any hunching posture issues you may already have. Instead, try doing your upper abdominal training on a stability ball so that you can also strengthen your abs through a stretched range of motion as you lie back over the ball. One key tip: You need to strengthen your neck as you do your upper abdominal work. So, do all of your crunches with your fingers just touching your sideburns, so that your hands are used as weight rather than supporting or pulling on your head. Also, start your upward movement by tucking your chin to your chest, then follow this by flexing your upper abdominals to lift you off the ball. Keeping your neck straight prevents your neck muscles from adequately supporting your head, often causing pain in the back of your neck during the movement.
7. Reverse Flys with Cables/Tubes
Everyone is so eager to do chest work—but with more focus on shoulder retraction you will have a more balanced body and better posture. And better posture will let you show off your chest muscles. A reverse fly with either tubing or a dual cable system is one of the best basic movements for shoulder retraction. You will learn to keep your shoulders back and out of the way, giving you better form in your weight training, and more ability to isolate your chest for your pec work. You can choose your equipment here—either single-cable reverse flys or tube reverse flys. You can also do seated reverse flys with dumbbells.
8. Lateral/Side Leg Exercises/Movements
When most guys do leg work, it's all front-to-back. Even the best exercises—lunges, squats—put an emphasis on the sagittal plane of the body, and front to back movement. Worse yet, most guys work laterally (or side to side) only by using the adduction/abduction leg machines. Those machines neglect major muscle groups, and won't give you any functional lateral training. They're a waste of time.
Instead, try mixing in some lateral lunges, first without any weight, then adding dumbbells as necessary. For example, you can do alternate side lunges with shoe taps, building to dumbbells-high alternating side lunge and shoulder press. Also try changing up your squats by stepping them sideways down the floor, making sure to make complete "laps" to train both sides evenly. For cardio, try quick, shuffling side steps, like a side gallop, again going back and forth in complete laps. You can also try karioka, a series of side steps in which you travel sideways by alternately crossing your foot in front of you and then behind you, twisting your trunk with each step. The best of all the in-the-gym options is the slide board. All of these, of course, replicate the effects of real-life activities like skiing, rollerblading, or ice skating. Don't be afraid to use sports as training.
9. Program Changes Every Month/Quarter (Tempo, Rest Period, Etc.)
To grow your muscles you don't just need to do exercises, you need to make your body react to them. That isn't going to happen if you never change things around. Your body's goal is minimum expenditure of energy, and it will reach perfect efficiency very, very quickly. You stop getting the benefits of your exercises, and you get frustrated. Ideally, you should change your program every two to three weeks. If possible, get out a calendar and look three months into the future, writing down a focus for each week, and planning how you can change your program to suit that focus.
As you do this, try to think creatively—you don't want to just change the exercises, you want to change your methodology. So do an entire week of training totally focused on power and speed movements. Or carefully time your recoveries between exercises, and force yourself to shorten these for full week. Change the order of the exercises even on weeks where the exercises themselves remain the same. And give yourself challenges within your strength training. For instance, do a week of slow and heavy dumbbell chest work followed by a week of push-up supersets, doing as many push-ups as possible after every chest exercise. All of these types of modifications represent a huge change in how your body's nervous system and muscular system react to your training.
10. Muscle Stretching and Testing for Imbalances and Tight/Weak Areas
No one is perfectly balanced and evenly strong. But because we compensate for them, imbalances are hard to identify and change over time. Therefore, make a weekly habit of testing your body and joints for tight/weak areas. First, go through all your extremities and check to see where tight areas are. Both your hamstrings may be tight, but is the right one more so? Will your left shoulder not reach back on a stretch as far as your right? As you locate these differences, use your training program as a way to correct imbalances in order to help you reach your goals more efficiently. (See also above for Single Leg/Arm Strength Work.)
11. Functional Exercises
Before personal trainers became a common sight in gyms, people often learned how to workout by talking to the few guys in the gyms who looked good and seemed to know what they were doing. In a word, the bodybuilders. But often the bodybuilders were just genetically gifted with the ability to build muscle—they didn't necessarily come armed with great information. And body builder movements are often completely non-functional for the way most of us move and use our bodies every day in normal living, sports or leisure activities.
Luckily most fitness professionals have realized this was a problem and started training people with their functionality in mind, as well as their physical appearance. But bodybuilding myths and practices still linger—for example, in the form of the leg extension and hamstring curl machines. These machines are easy to use and really make your legs burn, but unfortunately they are much less effective than functional exercises like barbell squats, barbell Russian dead lifts, and seated leg presses. If you think about it, squats are like sitting; dead lifts are the same as lifting a heavy object; leg presses are the movement of standing up. These exercises are functional, defined by the fact that they both build mass and do it using your muscles in a way you really use them in your life. As a rule of thumb, think about whether the muscles you use for an exercise are being worked in a way you typically experience in daily life, or your favorite sport. If the answer is no, then try to come up with functional exercises to work the same muscle, but in a smarter way. More often than not, simply not using machines will help head you in the right direction!
12. Outside the Gym Exercise or Sports
Ok, gym rats. It's time to see daylight again. If you're that guy inside running on the treadmill on the prettiest day of the year, you need to rethink things. Running on the road will give you more variety and more stimulation than you can get on a treadmill. If running on pavement hurts your knees, change things up and go on a power hike in the hills, or go biking. If your addiction is to the routine of the gym—the social aspect, the sauna, whatever—then go to the gym, change into your gear and run from there. This won't happen by accident—you need to plan. Again, use the calendar and map out new outdoor activities at least one to two weekends per month. You will be shocked at how much better you feel from the change of scene. And giving your body a rest from the weight training and challenging it in a different format will keep your body guessing and muscles growing.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.