Here's what you need to know...
- Gains in the gym always come at a cost in time, energy, and risk of injury. So the "best" exercises are those that have a large benefit compared to their costs.
- Organizing your efforts in the gym should follow the same principles you'd use when running a business. Success is measured in income (results), not just hard work.
- Hip thrusts, sled drags and car pushes, pull-ups, deadlifts and even machines fit the bill.
One of my guiding principles in the gym is the concept of training economy. Training economy is important because, just like running a business, it's not what you earn, it's what you keep that really matters.
In other words, your gains in the gym always come at a cost – time, energy, risk of injury, impaired recovery status, psychological stress, and soreness. So the "best" exercises are those that have a large benefit compared to their costs, not necessarily those that simply have a good benefit.
My confidence in the principle of training economy is why I categorically reject the way that many people assess the value of a workout based on how much it hurts. For those of you who run your own businesses, do you define success by how hard you work, or by how much income you make? The question is obviously rhetorical but it applies to the gym just as much as it applies to the office.
Now before I share my list with you, please consider my admission that what may be economical for me, might not be economical for you. For example, although I can squat 400 pounds on a good day, it takes me quite a while to work up to that weight because my knees typically need a lot of warming up.
So squatting, while being a beneficial exercise for me, is not an economical one. With deadlifts however, I can often start my first set of pulls with 400 pounds (around 80% of my max), especially if I've squatted first. So for me, deadlifts are more economical from a time-saving perspective.
Still, the exercises on this list will tend to be the most economical for most athletes, even though there will be plenty of exceptions.
1 – Hip Thrusts
This movement works big, important muscles (glutes and hamstrings) with minimal set up, minimal need for warm-up sets, and minimal stress. Further, hip thrusts take a nominal toll on recovery.
I typically do 1-3 sets per session, 405 for 5, then up to 455 or 495 for as many I can get, and then maybe back down to 405, again for as many I can get, and I'm done. If you've never done this movement because you think it looks girly or just weird, you're missing out. There's no other movement that's as effective in training the glutes, as well as providing mobility training for the hip flexors.
2 – Sled Drags/Vehicle Pushes
It doesn't matter if you're using a Prowler or pushing/pulling your car down the street, drags and pushes are a fantastic, highly-functional way to develop both strength and cardiovascular capacity all in one drill. They require no warm-up, they're safe, they force you to work hard, and yet they leave you feeling fresh the next day.
Further, if you modify the length of the interval and/or intensity of the load, you can easily modify them to suit your specific needs. Pushes and pulls are unique in that, unlike most drills, once you generate good momentum during the early stages of pushing a car or Prowler, you don't want to lose it by slowing down. So the drill compels you to work hard. The exercise becomes your coach.
3 – Pull-Ups
Chins and pull-ups as the most under-valued resistance-training movement, relative to the benefits they provide. Whether you use a pronated, neutral, or supinated grip, chins provide direct, full range training for the lats and elbow flexors.
You suck at chins you say? Unacceptable. If your maximum capacity is 5 reps or less, just use the ladder method. On your first set, crank out a single. No big deal. Second set, two reps. Then three reps on your third set and so forth.
Do your ladders between sets of other exercises every workout, and always stay at least a rep away from failure. Before long you'll be doing casual sets of 10.
And due to your improved upper back strength, your other key lifts, such as deadlifts and bench presses, will improve along the way. This "killing two birds with one stone" effect is another important element of training economy: accomplish the most while doing the least.
4 – Deadlifts
Although deads might seem a bit "expensive" for some because they initially require a learning curve, and also because they negatively impact your recovery compared to other movements, no other single exercise provides as many benefits.
- Skillfully performed, heavy pulls provide an amazing stimulus for the entire posterior chain, the quads, lats, core musculature, traps, and grip muscles, among others. Simply put, no other lift develops so many muscles at once.
- The strength you develop performing deadlifts has significant positive transfer to almost every other lift you do in the gym. Again, killing many birds with one stone.
- Learning to pull is like earning your Ph.D. in movement mechanics, particularly core stabilization. You'll learn how to maintain a neutral spine under load, and also how to create the intra-abdominal pressure required to maintain a rigid torso on all of your heavy lifts.
- Because we have lots of powerlifting statistics on deadlift strength, you'll be able to rank yourself compared to other lifters. And, unlike the squat and bench press, the deadlift isn't artificially enhanced through lifting suits, knee wraps, etc. So when you see someone pull 800 pounds, you know you're looking at a beast.
- Deadlifts require minimal equipment. All you need is a bar, some plates, and enough space to perform the movement. And unlike the Olympic lifts, you don't even need a particularly good bar!
- The deadlift provides a sense of personal accomplishment not provided by any other lift. There's simply a raw, animalistic feel to it.
5 – Machines
This isn't an exercise per se, but a category of exercises. I confess, in the past my disdain for machines was misguided. While it's true that, across the board, free weights offer significantly more benefits (especially for athletes), what I wasn't appreciating was the low cost of machine exercises.
Exercises such as leg extensions, machine rows, leg curls, and chest presses are a quick, low-stress way to train when time and energy are at a premium. Simply set the pin, jump on, and go.
Bonus: The Most Economical Workout
To me, creating an efficient, economical workout is an appealing intellectual exercise. How can I deliver the most possible benefit for the least possible cost? Here's my best shot at tackling that question, and I'm assuming that you have minimal time, energy, and equipment.
- A. Sled Pushes
- B1. Chins
- B2. Deadlifts
Workout Notes And Rationale: Sled pushes are performed first because they provide an excellent warm up, which minimizes the need for warm-up sets on pulls and chins afterward. For most people's needs, 60-second pushes with 3 minutes of rest between repeats is ideal. Perform 3-5 pushes per workout. Each repeat requires 4 minutes, so if you do 4 pushes, you're now at the 20-minute mark.
Give yourself a 20-minute time limit to do your "B" exercises and perform them in alternating fashion – each set of chins decompresses the lumbar spine after the previous set of pulls. You'll simply perform 3 hard sets of chins, which are alternated with 3 hard sets of pulls.
Your first set of pulls should be a set of 5 with 80% of your current maximum. On your second set, do whatever you can get with 90%. Finally, do a third set with 70% of max for whatever you can get without allowing your technique to break down.
That's it, a 40-minute workout from start to finish that beats the shit out of what 98% of guys are currently doing.