I’ve been working out for the last 5 or 6 years, and one thing I’ve learnt is that there’s a lot of misinformation going around. The fact that such misinformation causes increased risk of injury at worst and reduced muscle gain at best means it’s important to try and stay educated on the subject to make your time in the gym worthwhile, and that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate some time to writing up a list of exercises I would and wouldn’t recommend alongside some general advice.
I’m an average gymgoer who hasn’t coached anybody or read any of the literature. The following information is based on what reputable people in the fitness industry have said and personal experience/opinion. You should fact check what I’m saying and do your own research.
You will almost certainly disagree with some exercise classifications. There will always be individual differences, and most exercises are not black and white good or bad. With the exception of stupid exercises, you should experiment to find what works for you in terms of enjoyment, results, and preventing injury.
If you find anything that’s factually inaccurate, please email me so it gets fixed. My opinion also does change from time to time after trying and hearing new things, so maybe come back here in the future.
Picture the person you want to look like. Chris Hemsworth? Zac Efron? The Rock? Arnold? Now scrunch up that thought and throw it in the bin. You will probably never look like any of them or completely reach your goal appearance.
Why? Because genetics are a limiting factor. If you don’t have a wide frame, you’re not going to look just like Superman. Famous people and fitness ‘influencers’ often have above average genetics whilst taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) that assist with building size and strength.
Luckily for you, genetics aren’t a big issue. If you train well and consistently, you will eventually look considerably better than the vast majority of people, regardless of your genetics. So, get over it. ‘Bad’ or ‘average’ genetics are not an excuse to avoid working out.
Get off social media, especially Instagram. The psychological literature suggests social media use is associated with worse mental health, and this is anecdotally the case too. You end up wasting time and constantly comparing yourself to other (often enhanced) people, which becomes depressing and disheartening rather than motivational. There are better ways to spend your time.
When it comes to YouTube, there are a few great channels to learn about lifting. My main recommendation would be Jeff Nippard. He knows what he’s talking about, his workouts consist of reputable exercises, and his videos are very well made. Sean Nalewanyj, Sean Nalewanyj Shorts, Geoffrey Verity Schofield, John Meadows, and Eugene Teo also provide loads of excellent information. There are others, but these are all you need.
Unfortunately, there are also lots of channels pumping out lower or inconsistent quality information. Examples include more recent Greg Doucette content, various (especially old) ATHLEAN-X content, Ryan Humiston, Jeremy Ethier, V Shred, and the list goes on. As a rule of thumb, question everything you hear and try to listen to what other YouTubers have to say on the topic.
Unless it’s some doctor prescribed physiotherapy, don’t do pilates (e.g. weightless bicep curls). The amount of people defending it for actual muscle growth is quite sad to see. It would be more beneficial curling literally any object (e.g. a rucksack) than weightless curling. These types of exercises should be reserved for people incapable of doing regular exercises. They will not meaningfully improve your muscles because there’s little to no resistance.
However, you can build muscle and strength via bodyweight exercises alone. The trouble is it’s generally more inefficient and less effective than using weights. For example, it’s more likely that you’ll be out of breath rather than reaching failure on bodyweight squats, particularly as time goes on. Of course, there are more difficult variations, but not everybody will be able to do these. You also still need some equipment really, like a bar for pull ups/chin ups. Therefore, it’s better to mix in bodyweight exercises with some weight training instead. If you have room to do bodyweight lunges, you probably have room to have a pair of dumbbells.
If you go to a commercial gym, equipment is probably not an issue. By contrast, if you lift at home, it’s important to prioritise owning certain equipment. Here’s an ordered list:
- Adjustable 1-inch dumbbells: if you can afford proper 30-40kg per dumbbell adjustable ones, go for it. Otherwise, get some metal spinlock ones, which are usually either 20kg or 30kg total. Opt for more weight if possible because 20kg only means 10kg per dumbbell, which won’t last long for some exercises.
- A bench: flat is cheaper but incline is more useful, just make sure it’s robust rather than wiggly.
- Horse stall mats: assuming you’re inside, this is to protect the floor and weights. Avoid foam flooring because it’s too flexible for proper lifting.
- A power rack: a half rack with storage on the back is probably best for most people unless you can afford a full rack with a cable extension at the back. Get one with a straight pull up bar and plate storage if possible. Get j-cups or put foam or cut up toilet rolls on the end of spotter arms for sound dampening.
- A 7ft Olympic barbell: you don’t want a smaller barbell because this is the standard size that will fit racks properly and weigh 20kg on its own. Higher quality bars will have a better grip and last you indefinitely.
- 2-inch Olympic bumper plates: rubber is better for 10kg+ plates, exercises off the floor (e.g. deadlifts), and dropping the bar. Consider iron for 2x5kg plates and possibly 2x10kg plates. Whether you buy crumb, smooth, or narrow rubber plates really depends on how much you’ll be lifting and if you want shock absorption. A set of 2x2.5kg, 2x5kg, 2x10kg or 4x10kg, 2x15kg, and 2x20kg will last ages. Then buy more (e.g. 2x25kg) if needed.
- Accessories: for example, resistance bands, an EZ bar, drop pads, lifting straps, a belt, a landmine, a weighted vest, a trap bar, a safety squat bar, etc.
- Machines: if you have the space and money, a cable machine, leg press machine, leg extension machine, hack squat machine, and so on are all excellent pieces of equipment. The best leg exercises really require machines sadly.
For things you intend to use forever (e.g. a barbell and a bench), don’t go cheap. However, you also don’t need the top of the line Rogue gear either. Mirafit is a brand I’d recommend if you’re in the UK. Get some used gear if you want to save money.
Certain pieces of equipment are either very low priority or not worth buying, such as multistations, kettlebells, medicine/slam balls, push up handles, anything to do with sit ups/ab training, jump boxes, a weight sled, tricep bars, Swiss bars, and so on. Save your money.
Number of exercises
As a rough guide, pick 3-6 of the recommended exercises for each body part. I strongly recommend always having the compound lifts, in some form or another, in your workout program. The different lifts you choose should also target different muscles for each body part (e.g. you should train hamstrings as well as quads for legs). Training the calves, abs, and forearms directly is optional.
If a) you’ve sustained an injury that makes it unwise to perform the exercise, b) the exercise causes you pain (even after tweaks that may help some people), or c) you absolutely hate the exercise, then you shouldn’t do that exercise. If it’s a compound lift, I would recommend ideally doing another variation (e.g. dumbbell instead of barbell bench press) rather than avoiding the movement altogether. However, there are no ‘mandatory’ exercises.
Every so often (e.g. every 10-12 weeks), it can sometimes make sense to change one or two exercises to try something new and get more variety. This could be as simple as switching from dumbbells to a barbell or vice versa. Some lifts, like side lateral raises, should stay in your program, but you can try them standing, seated, with cables, on an incline bench, etc. Experimentation is the key to finding exercises and exercise variations that work for you.
Changing exercises too frequently or infrequently will ultimately limit your progress. In the case of the former, you won’t nail the form or progress well strength wise. In the latter case, you’ll probably lose motivation and plateau.
For the average person, I’d recommend a 3-day full body or 4-day upper/lower or push/pull split. You probably don’t want to be spending less or more time in the gym than that.
For exercise junkies and more advanced lifters, a 5-day full body or push/pull/legs split works too. 6 days a week is more like athlete level training and therefore excessive. Daily lifting would mean no rest day, which would be bad for recovery. Exercise and staying healthy should not take over your life.
The body part split, also known as the ‘bro split’, gets a lot of hate but will work if done correctly. For example, don’t just hammer out 4 or 5 exercises that train the same body part in the same way. However, the other splits are generally regarded as more optimal and help train each muscle group at least twice a week.
Compound lifts and larger muscle groups should come first in your workouts, followed by isolation exercises for smaller muscle groups and abs/calves/forearms last if you’re training those.
Aim for 10-20 sets per muscle group a week. If the goal is growth rather than pure strength, the number of reps I’d roughly recommend depends on the exercise:
- Compound lifts (e.g. deadlifts): 3 or 4 sets of 5-12 reps
- Most isolation movements (e.g. bicep curls): 3 or 4 sets of 8-15 reps
- Certain isolation movements (e.g. shrugs and calf raises): 3 or 4 sets of 12-20 reps
- Rest pause: as many as possible (ideally, for a weight less than 20 reps), followed by 3 or 4 minisets to failure (e.g. 4-5 reps)
- Myo reps: as many as possible (ideally, for a weight less than 20 reps), followed by 3 or 4 minisets of 3, 4, or 5 reps (the same amount each time)
The 5-12 range helps prevent sets dragging on and form breakdown on compound lifts. Use a weight that will cause you to come close to or reach failure in the recommended range. Whatever you do, don’t restrict yourself to a specific number of reps each set when you can do many more.
Avoid one rep maxes and very heavy lifting if you want to reduce your risk of injury. In most cases (e.g. calves may be an exception), it doesn’t make sense to exceed 20 or so reps for an exercise because other factors will likely prevent you reaching failure. If you do this high of a rep range, you should up the intensity.
People don’t like to hear this because it makes working out actually challenging, but the most important thing for growth is that you either train to failure or within 1-3 reps of failure. If you’re stopping an exercise with 10 reps in the tank, you’re largely wasting your time. To maximise muscle growth, you should be really pushing yourself to or near the limit on each set for every exercise.
With compound lifts (e.g. bench press), it’s often not safe to go to complete failure, so you should go until you’re confident that you’re about to fail, unless you’re on a smith machine or something where you could go to failure. By contrast, with isolation exercises (e.g. bicep curls), you can safely go to failure. Nobody manages to go to failure all the time, and it’s arguably unnecessary if you’re going close to failure (1-3 reps in reserve), but it provides some challenge to your workouts and helps track progress in terms of additional reps completed.
Another important and related concept is that of progressive overload, which involves increasing the stress placed upon the body. Adding weight to the bar isn’t the only way to progressive overload; you can increase the number of reps/sets, slow down more on the eccentric, do half reps/partials, do pauses/holds, do drop sets, do supersets, and so on. A lot of these techniques are really for intermediate to advanced lifters, but even as a beginner, you should be overloading in some way, typically by gradually adding weight to the bar to build up strength.
You should be resting in-between sets for ‘as little time as it takes to recover’. That’s not helpful though, so here’s what I’d recommend:
- Supersets (e.g. bicep curls then tricep pushdowns): no rest
- Rest pause or myo reps (only for isolation movements): ~15 seconds
- Isolation movements (e.g. side lateral raises): ~1 minute
- Compound lifts (e.g. bench press): ~2-3 minutes
You obviously don’t need to time your rests, but it can be helpful to keep your workouts shorter and more focused. I suggest resting 3-5 minutes between different exercises. You should probably be at the gym for somewhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours, with rests taking up a lot of that time. Supersets and rest pause are great ways to speed up a workout.
Unless exercise is your profession, it shouldn’t be taking over your life. However, you should remain consistent if you want results, meaning going to the gym at roughly the same time every workout and only taking time off when you’re too ill or injured to train, on holiday, or when you need a break after about 10-12 weeks (~3 months) of training. Skipping a workout leads to a downward spiral in gym attendance for some.
Generally, use a full range of motion, control the weight, don’t overextend things like your back on deadlifts, and avoid excessively explosive movements (e.g. locking your legs out) because it probably won’t be great for your joints. Ensure that you learn and practise the proper form for each exercise you’re doing, especially for the compound lifts, which may require recording yourself and assessing the footage every so often. You don’t need to be ridiculously strict on most exercises (e.g. bicep curls), but you shouldn’t let momentum take over either.
If you want to gain weight, you should aim for ~200-400 calories above maintenance, which you must figure out. This will lead to putting on less body fat than ‘dirty’ bulking whilst ensuring you make more progress than staying at maintenance.
If you want to lose weight, you should aim for ~300-500 calories below maintenance. Avoid unsustainable dieting and crash dieting because you will just put the weight back on and increase your chances of developing an eating disorder. Instead, you need to find lower calorie foods that you enjoy and find filling/can eat a lot of without gaining weight. The best way of doing this is by eating more fruit and veg and having less processed foods, takeaways/restaurant meals, high calorie snacks, etc.
In terms of general advice, try to eat lots of protein every meal (~1.6+ g/kg bodyweight per day) and get in your 5 a day (e.g. a portion per main meal and with/as snacks or puddings). A portion is more than you expect for certain fruit/veg (e.g. tomatoes), so look up the amount for what you eat. Have a balanced diet that doesn’t consist of too much processed food rather than restricting yourself to specific food groups unless you have a medical or moral reason for avoiding certain foods. Eating should be enjoyable rather than sickening or a chore, so don’t stuff or starve yourself. Having a snack in the morning and afternoon is a great way to increase your calories and protein whilst decreasing hunger. Try not to skip meals; it has a psychological and physical impact.
You don’t need supplements. Many supplements are a complete waste of money (e.g. BCAAs and testosterone boosters), and many brands produce low quality products in terms of ingredients and ingredient amounts. The only two worth considering are protein powder if you can’t get enough protein from food and creatine monohydrate for potentially a slight performance boost and fuller look. Both are well researched and safe supplements, but neither are needed by any means.
Lastly, try to drink at least 2 litres of water a day, but obviously don’t try to drink insane amounts because people do die (e.g. in marathons). I’d personally recommend avoiding everything else because drinks are a common source of extra calories which people ignore and sugar, which may harm your teeth. Alcohol in particular has a long list of cons, with many of them interfering with improving your health, physique, and wellbeing. Obviously, for the same reason, don’t do things like smoking and drugs either. Caffeine is debatable as it may be beneficial, but people do get dependent on it, and too much will again cause problems like trouble sleeping.
Best and worst exercises
- Flat bench press: a fundamental compound lift for strength and size. Both the barbell and dumbbell variations are effective, with a barbell allowing you to move more weight but dumbbells giving you a greater range of motion. Use the spotter arms with a barbell you fool of a took. You should do whichever you have access to and find more comfortable. Use a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width overhand grip, avoid flaring your arms out, avoid bouncing the bar off your chest, keep your wrists straight, drive your feet into the ground, and make sure you arch your back a bit, with your shoulders back and keeping your butt on the bench. Use a shoulder width grip if you get shoulder pain.
- Incline dumbbell bench press: use an incline of 15-30 degrees to target the upper chest. Larger inclines make this more of a front delt (shoulder) exercise. The information above still applies aside from an arch.
- Machine chest presses: the bench press but without the stabilisation or risk of being crushed. This is a good substitute to the bench press if you can’t perform it due to injury.
- Smith machine flat bench press: this is useful if you want to go to failure or if there are no spotter arms on the rack at the gym.
- Floor press: potentially awkward to set up but can be performed almost anywhere with dumbbells. It’s easier on the shoulders than the regular bench press, helps with the lock out, and can allow you to lift more weight.
- Dips: typically regarded as a tricep exercise, but if you lean forwards, then it targets the entire chest, particularly the lower chest. Lower yourself until you reach about a 90-degree bend in your arm. If they’re too easy, do them weighted. Some people find this movement uncomfortable on the shoulders, sternum, and/or collarbone. If you do, avoid this exercise.
- Push ups: don’t bother with all the fancy variations, just stick to regular, shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width push ups without flaring your arms out. If you find push ups to be on the easier side, do them weighted. Make sure you go as low as possible, fully extend your arms at the top, and squeeze your chest.
- Press flyes: a combination of the dumbbell bench press and dumbbell flyes by using a neutral grip and keeping a 90-degree bend in your elbows at the bottom. This is easier on the shoulders.
- Cable crossovers: these are more of a finisher. Instead of having your hands meet in the middle, cross your arms over so they make an X to get an extra stretch. This can be done with bands, but I’ve never found it to be as good.
- Anything with a bosu/stability ball: this is a dreadful gimmick that needs to crash and burn. All this does is make performing exercises more difficult because you have to balance. That doesn’t help with progressive overload; it limits what you can lift and how good your form can be during the exercise.
- Guillotine press: a) it’s dangerous to lower a heavy amount of weight above your neck, and b) it’s bad to have your arms excessively flared out when pressing, which is exactly what happens.
- One-arm/alternating dumbbell bench press: this creates instability and will probably cause you to fatigue sooner.
- Dumbbell flyes: this comes with a greater risk of injury compared to using cables, and you get less time under tension. If you’re going to do these, don’t go heavy.
- Dumbbell pullovers: despite what some people claim, this is primarily a back exercise that works the lats.
- Dumbbell squeeze press: this is not a popular exercise from what I’ve seen. It just sounds like a hassle trying to keep the dumbbells squeezed together. Stick to a normal dumbbell bench press, and perhaps use a neutral grip if you find that helps with shoulder pain.
- Plate/pinch press: nobody does this, and that’s because a) it’s bad and b) there’s no need to if you do the bench press. It’s more of a tricep exercise due to the arm positioning at your sides, grip will be a serious problem, and you can’t target the ‘inner’ section of your chest.
- Landmine press: this works the shoulders and triceps considerably more than the upper chest. The alignment of the weight and lack of stretch at the bottom make this an overrated chest exercise.
- Decline bench press: this shortens the range of motion and makes it harder to unrack and rack the weight. There’s little reason to do this over the flat bench press unless it helps prevent pain.
- Incline barbell bench press: it’s significantly easier and safer to set up the dumbbell variation, and you get more of a stretch at the top due to a greater range of motion.
- Fancy push up variations: a lot of them just overcomplicate the exercise. If you find push ups too easy, you’re probably either not doing them properly or should be doing them weighted.
- Standing bicep curls: these can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, or an EZ bar to reduce the strain on your wrists. An EZ bar is best if you want to go heavier (e.g. cheat curls) or avoid wrist pain. Keep your elbows against your sides, don’t lean back or swing the weight up, and use a full range of motion, squeezing at the top. If you’re doing this with dumbbells, supinated or pronated to supinated works, and lift both dumbbells at the same time so the exercise doesn’t take twice as long.
- Incline dumbbell curls: use a 45-degree angle on an incline bench to get an extra stretch at the bottom. This is great for the long head and makes the bottom/middle of the curl hardest.
- Spider curls: an underrated exercise to build the short head of the biceps. It makes the top of the curl hardest. Keep your elbows locked against the bench and squeeze at the top. Put the dumbbells on a block to make them easier to grab.
- Hammer curls: these target the brachialis, which is undertrained.
- Cable curls: these result in greater tension throughout the lift as the cables pull your arms backward, meaning a good contraction at the bottom.
- Preacher curls: I prefer spider curls, but this prevents you from swinging the weight and provides a good contraction at the top. Don’t go too heavy though to avoid a bicep tear.
- Chin ups: this is a good bodyweight exercise, and you can wear a weighted vest or belt to make it harder. Use a shoulder width grip and go all the way down before bringing your chin completely above the bar.
- Reverse curls: this is a forearm exercise.
- Zottman curls: these works the forearms on the way down, which will probably fatigue curls on the way up for biceps. However, they’re time efficient for training both muscle groups.
- Pull ups and rows: these are back exercises where you should try to minimise bicep involvement.
- Concentration curls: unnecessary if you’re doing the curls I’ve recommended above properly, and these train one arm at a time, slowing down your workout and increasing boredom.
- Overhead cable curls: just an embarrassing variant of the cable curl that takes up a lot of room.
- Drag curls: they don’t feel very effective, and you might just shrug the weight up.
- Resistance band curls: if you can’t use cables, then stick to dumbbells and/or an EZ bar.
- Waiter curls: more awkward and uncomfortable on the wrists than regular bicep curls.
- Cable pushdowns: using two ropes helps you bring your arms behind the body, which is what you want. Lean forward, keep your elbows at your sides, lock out your arms at the back, and then bring your arms back to chest level. You can also add a twist of the wrist at the bottom of each rep.
- Lying dumbbell tricep extensions: the dumbbell version of skull crushers. This is easier on your elbows. Don’t raise the dumbbells straight above your head; your arms should be leaning back so the top position is just behind forehead level to keep the triceps engaged. Then bring the dumbbells down behind/to the sides of your head.
- Close-grip barbell bench press: probably don’t bother if you’re already doing barbell bench press with a non-wide grip. Use a shoulder width grip and make sure you lock out. Using a smith machine is a safe way to reach failure.
- Close-grip barbell floor press: close-grip bench press but on the floor, meaning you can lift more weight due to the decreased range of motion.
- Overhead cable extensions: this isn’t great for some people’s elbows. Lean forward with a staggered stance, keep your elbows close to your sides, and go from slightly behind the head to straight arms.
- Shoulder width push ups: if you can only do a bodyweight exercise, this isn’t bad. Keep your arms close to your sides and go as close to the floor as possible before fully extending your arms.
- Dips: if you’re already doing them for chest, don’t bother. Try to keep your body slightly more upright than when doing dips for chest. This can be uncomfortable on the shoulders, sternum, and/or collarbone for some people, but using a dip machine can help.
- Barbell/EZ bar skull crushers: these will probably ruin your elbows and are rarely performed correctly. Stick to lying dumbbell tricep extensions performed behind the head.
- Pin press: feels harsher on the joints.
- Overhead dumbbell tricep extensions: these can hurt your shoulders and elbows. Using a cable is a much safer option, or you can perform this on an incline bench.
- One-arm overhead tricep extensions: one-arm exercises are slow and boring.
- French press: uncomfortable on the wrists and elbows. There are safer options.
- Bench dips: this is fine if you’re restricted to bodyweight only, but it’s often performed incorrectly and is generally worse than regular dips. Keep your hands facing out from your sides and your shoulders down and back.
- JM press: if you do this with a barbell, you’re lowering a heavy weight over your neck, which is never a good idea. With dumbbells, it’s a great way to hit yourself in the face.
- Diamond push ups: harsher on the shoulders and elbows than regular shoulder width push ups.
- Dumbbell or cable kickbacks: generally ineffective with a dumbbell due to the awful resistance curve and the fact it can’t be loaded well, meaning you either go too light or so heavy that you’re just swinging the weight around. Then using a cable is normally a one-arm exercise, which is slow and boring.
- Banded lying dumbbell tricep extensions: this is unnecessary, difficult to set up, and outright can’t be set up in certain places.
- Tate press: easy to hit yourself in the face, and it needs to be a one-arm exercise with a kettlebell to get the best stretch.
- One-arm kettlebell press: why use a kettlebell? It just knocks into your wrist and forearm. Furthermore, one-arm exercises are slow and boring.
- Landmine press: whilst this does work the triceps when using two hands, it doesn’t as a one-arm exercise. Both hit the front delts a lot.
- Barbell squats: the go-to quad exercise that builds strength. Generally, use a high bar position (you can lift more with a low bar position, but it’s more similar to the deadlift), use a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width stance (this increases glute activation), keep your feet pointing slightly outwards, breathe in and brace your core before going down and breathe out at the top, don’t let your knees cave in (sort of push outwards), and go to parallel if possible but lower is unnecessary and will probably lead to butt wink. The bar should remain directly above the centre of your feet throughout the lift. Squat shoes (e.g. Adidas Powerlifts) or standing on small plates can help keep you more upright.
- Barbell box squats: if you get knee pain or want to make squatting feel safer, then box squats are a great idea. Instead of tapping the box, sit on it without relaxing before pushing yourself back up.
- Squat machines (e.g. the hack squat): these are an excellent accessory to or replacement for the free weight squat.
- Leg press: this can be loaded more than the squat, focuses on the legs rather than also training the lower back, and it allows you to do forced and partial reps more safely. Grip the handles, pull yourself into the seat, use a low seat angle, and keep a slight bend in your knees rather than locking them out. Use a low, shoulder width foot position to train quads and a high (still shoulder width) position to target the glutes. You cannot target ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ quads by moving your feet around.
- Sumo deadlifts: these provide a great stretch in the hamstrings, put less strain on the lower back compared to other deadlifts, and allow many people to lift more weight. It’s not cheating.
- Walking or reverse lunges: these are great for the quads and glutes. Do walking if you have the room and it doesn’t hurt your knees. Reverse lunges are easier on the knees. Don’t step too far or too short, keep your chest up rather than leaning, keep your knees and hips straight/square, and let your knee get close to the floor. The biggest problem with reverse lunges especially is that it often becomes cardio, causing you to stop before you reach failure.
- Leg extensions: another quad exercise if you can access the machine. This is an exercise to warm up with or leave until last. Grip the handles and pull yourself into the seat. Pause at the top and slowly go down.
- Lying hamstring curls: a great exercise for the hamstrings. Position the pad around ankle level, keep your body flat on the seat, and go slower when lowering.
- Bulgarian split squats: one of the most unenjoyable exercises. It’s a single leg exercise that’s difficult to go close to failure on because of how slow and uncomfortable it is. Probably best done with one heavy dumbbell whilst holding onto something with the other arm. It’s very effective for the quads if you can bare it and avoid cramp in your calf.
- Romanian deadlifts: good for a hamstring stretch but regularly performed incorrectly and can be uncomfortable on the lower back. Don’t go too heavy and use lifting straps if possible. Stand feet shoulder width apart, toes pointing slightly outwards, maintain a straight back, set your hips back but not down, keep a slight bend in the knees but don’t let them travel forwards, lower the bar until just below the knees, and don’t overextend when squeezing the glutes at the top.
- Glute ham raises: requires the machine, awkward to get in position for, and very difficult; therefore, lying hamstring curls are preferable. However, if you can perform enough reps correctly, then it’s effective. Hinge forward at the hips, control your body the whole time, don’t go completely to the bottom, and go slower on the way up.
- Leg press calf raises: keep your legs relatively straight, toes at the bottom, and go to full extension, hold for 1-2 seconds, slowly lower the weight, hold for 1-2 seconds, and repeat. Bouncing/quickly going up and down takes the load off your calves. Go to failure. This may require a high rep range.
- Seated calf raises: don’t do this without the machine or a smith machine because it’s considerably worse with free weights. Follow the instructions above to keep the load on your calves.
- Single leg standing calf raises: if you don’t have access to a leg press machine, this helps speed up the bodyweight version of the exercise. Stand on a bumper plate or step, hold onto something vertical (e.g. your rack) without pulling yourself up, and follow the above instructions. Rest pause sets are great for this.
- Donkey calf raises: another bodyweight version of calf raises, but it involves leaning forwards onto something like a barbell in a rack. Stand relatively far away, keep your feet close together, go to full extension, hold for 1-2 seconds, slowly lower yourself, hold for 1-2 seconds, and then repeat.
- Bosu ball squats: these turn the exercise into a balancing act for no good reason. You want stability to maximise tension and strength.
- Step ups and box jumps: these are boring and will not build much muscle. Furthermore, box jumps are often done stupidly high to the point that people get injured.
- Banded side steps: these provide a completely inconsistent load on the glutes.
- Glute kickbacks: these are awkward, and you won’t load the glutes maximally if done with bodyweight.
- Glute bridge: this is probably quite good with a machine, but that’s rarely available from what I’ve seen, so you’re stuck with bodyweight.
- Sled/prowler push: this requires a massive amount of room, meaning it’s not available in lots of gyms and not possible for most home gyms. It’s also more of an athletic full body exercise, although it could make sense as a finisher.
- Farmer’s walk/carry: boring, requires lots of room, needs heavy dumbbells, and is normally done as a grip strength/forearm exercise.
- Thrusters: these take away the leg focus by combining the squat with an overhead press for shoulders.
- Kettlebell swings: momentum takes over. There are way more effective exercises.
- Goblet squats: good for learning the form for barbell squats but can’t be loaded as heavily and can cause lower back pain.
- Single leg deadlifts: these are slow because only one leg is trained at a time and become a balancing act if you don’t hold onto something.
- Barbell hip thrusts: extremely uncomfortable and awkward to set up. Furthermore, most people swing the weight rather than controlling it and/or start arching their back at the top.
- Stiff leg deadlifts: these are done off the floor, whereas Romanian deadlifts are from midair/taken off a rack. They’re uncomfortable on the lower back, and people often incorrectly lock their knees when there should be a slight bend. Doing lots of deadlift variations is overkill, and sumo deadlifts won’t hit the lower back as heavily.
- Good mornings: you increase the risk of injuring your back. Stick to alternatives.
- Snatch and power clean: likely to lead to injury without appropriate training.
- Pistol squats: most people can’t do these, and they can hurt the knees.
- Military/overhead press: mainly done for strength purposes but hits the front delts. Standing with a barbell will allow you to lift more weight but standing or seated with dumbbells may provide a more natural movement. Avoid arching your back, go from clavicle level to arms fully extended with the head coming forwards when using a barbell, and use a neutral grip with dumbbells for a nicer lifting position, lowering the dumbbells to shoulder level.
- Side lateral raises: these are for the side delts. Use lighter weights, lean forward a bit with a slight bend in the knees and elbows, keep your shoulders down and back, keep your core tight, and focus on pulling the weight up with your elbows. The thumb end of the dumbbells should be level or marginally pointing up to avoid internally rotating the shoulder. Stop lifting at shoulder level because going any higher will use the traps. Try them standing, seated, with cables, and leaning on an incline bench when you need variety.
- Reverse pec deck: if this machine is available, it’s probably the most effective way of targeting the rear delts.
- Any barbell/dumbbell row: these will help work the rear delts. I’ve not found any decent rear delt isolation movements.
- Landmine press: easier on the shoulders than the regular overhead press if you get pain. Perform it using both hands if you want to speed it up, although that probably leads to more tricep involvement.
- Wide-grip seated rows: perhaps a more effective alternative to the rear delt fly because it allows your arm to move behind your body and enables you to move more weight. Keep your arms out wide so your elbows are high rather than against your sides, back straight, chest up, and drive your elbows backwards as far as possible, squeezing at the end.
- Wide-grip inverted rows: a bodyweight exercise for the rear delts. Pause and squeeze at the top. The angle you use affects the difficulty.
- Front raise: the front delts are already overdeveloped in most people since they’re trained during exercises like the bench press, and this activates the front delts less than the overhead press. The overhead press should probably be the only front delt exercise you do because it’s a compound lift for strength.
- Standing upright rows: causes shoulder pain for lots of people. If it doesn’t, go ahead. Cables may be worth a try, but I wasn’t a fan.
- Rear delt flyes: uncomfortable and limits you to using light weights. If you want to do this, try it seated, leaning far forward, and raise your arms behind you at a 45-degree angle. Cables are worth a shot too.
- Face pulls: they feel awkward, are boring, and are rarely done correctly. However, they’re good mechanically if you can endure them.
- Bent over rear delt rows: leaning that far forward is uncomfortable to the point that it can become a limiting factor in whether you can reach close to failure.
- Arnold press: arguably an overcomplicated version of the overhead dumbbell press that will limit how much you can lift. Perhaps worth a try for variety.
- Bottoms-up kettlebell press: a single arm exercise that resembles bosu ball squats in that it turns into a balancing act. You’ll be so focused on keeping the kettlebell upright that the rest of your form may breakdown, and it won’t allow you to lift as much weight.
- Kettlebell halos: I’ve never seen anybody do these.
- Half-kneeling archer row: I’ve never seen anybody do these either. It looks like more of a warmup.
- Handstand push ups: too difficult for most people and hard to get in position for.
- Incline bench press: this should be for targeting the upper chest, not focusing on the shoulders.
- Shrugs: a traps exercise.
- Pull ups or lat pulldowns: pull ups require engaging the core, leading with the chest, and driving your elbows back. Use a wider than shoulder width grip to reduce bicep involvement. Pull up until at least your chin goes over the bar and control the descent. If you really struggle or dislike pull ups, you may be better off doing pulldowns. In which case, the knee pad should be tight to your leg, keep your feet planted on the floor, use an overhand 1.5 times shoulder width grip, keep your chest up, pull the bar to your upper chest, don’t use excessive momentum or be overly strict, and control the negative. Avoid doing anything behind the neck because it’s riskier for your shoulders and provides no benefit.
- Sumo, trap bar, or conventional deadlifts: the sumo deadlift is easier on the spine and lower back but will still train the back, whereas conventional deadlifts will very much be felt in your lower back. The trap bar deadlift is a compromise between the two. Try all of them over time to find out which you prefer. There’s no need to do a different deadlift for back and legs, just deadlift once for both.
- Seated rows: use an overhand grip to reduce bicep involvement, keep your chest up, ensure your elbows are close to your body, and focus on pulling your elbows behind the body. Avoid too much momentum, and don’t jerk the weight when getting into position/pulling.
- Chest supported T-bar rows: using a support helps take strain off your lower back and control the weight rather than jerking it around.
- Chest supported neutral grip rows: instead of T-bar rows, use an incline bench and dumbbells to have a more comfortable and stable version of the bent over row.
- Meadows rows: tough on the lower back and a single arm landmine exercise, so it’s slow to set up and carry out. However, you can feel it working.
- Shrugs: using a barbell leaning forwards slightly or dumbbells works. Don’t jerk the weight around or ego lift; move the weight in a controlled manner. Use at least a shoulder width grip, squeeze at the top, and then get a stretch at the bottom.
- Standing cable pullovers: a better version of dumbbell pullovers. Use a straight bar or EZ bar with a shoulder width overhand grip, keep a bend in your elbows, arch your lower back slightly, lean forwards but keep the chest up, focus on driving the bar down using your elbows, and then raise the bar overhead more slowly.
- Inverted rows: an easier version of the pull up that can be made more difficult by adjusting the angle of your body or height of the bar. Use an overhand, shoulder width grip.
- Good mornings: an unnecessary injury risk.
- Kettlebell swings: momentum takes over. There are more effective exercises.
- Kettlebell snatch: a one-arm exercise that’s not focused on the back.
- Bear row to gorilla rows, elevated plank rows, renegade dumbbell rows, planks, and other silly movements: focus on the back and don’t overcomplicate things.
- Farmer’s walk/carry: this is more of a grip strength/forearm exercise and requires lots of room.
- Pendlay rows: uncomfortable, just like the bent-over row.
- Hyperextensions: stick with deadlifts to train the lower back. You don’t need multiple lower back exercises when it gets trained from squats as well.
- Dumbbell pullovers: requires being in not the most comfortable position, problematic if you have shoulder issues, and the resistance drops off for half the movement.
- One-arm rows: requires heavy dumbbells, and it’s a single arm exercise, so it’s slow.
- Bent-over rows: uncomfortable compared to T-bar rows because of the positioning. If you can bare them, they’re great.
The abs are trained in other lifts and can be engaged whilst moving weights around. However, it does make sense to train them for added definition and to help with compound lifts especially. Having a low enough body fat percentage is important for them being visible.
- Hanging knee/leg raises: these target the whole six pack. Grab the pull up bar with a shoulder width or slightly wider grip, keep your feet together, tense/crunch the abs, roll your hips forward and up, and don’t swing your legs (aka use control up and down). Consider using lifting straps if grip is a limiting factor, although not using straps gets some extra grip/forearm training in.
- Cable crunches: these target the whole six pack. Don’t go heavy. Grab the rope with an overhand grip above the handles, keep the rope just above your head, squeeze your glutes, tense the abs, crunch down and inwards so your head is near the floor, and avoid moving your head around. Your back should round.
- Bicycle crunches: these will involve the obliques. Lie on the floor, put your hands up next to but not touching your head, and bring one elbow to the opposite knee whilst twisting and tensing/crunching the abs.
- Most other ab exercises (e.g. YouTube ab workouts): most of these will largely waste your time (aka be time inefficient and less effective than the above). The abs are not a special muscle group that needs daily circuit training on the floor to develop. You should do normal amounts of rest, reps, and sets. A lot of it is related to diet and being lean because otherwise the abs will either be less or not visible. These ab workouts will not thin your midsection.
You don’t necessarily need to train forearms directly since they’re trained in other lifts, but it might be worth it if you’re lacking in that area. Unfortunately, they’re not going to be massive if there’s a genetic limitation.
- Reverse curls: perform bicep curls but with an overhand thumbless grip. This is best done with an EZ bar for less wrist strain. Keep your elbows pinned to your sides and go slower on the eccentric.
- Hammer curls: you can really feel them working the forearms.
- Fat Gripz reverse curls: these make it harder to grip the bar/dumbbells, which should result in more forearm activation. Maybe don’t use them for bicep curls because that might prioritise the forearms.
- Towel pull ups or bar holds: these carry over to exercises like the deadlift. Increase the weight and/or time gradually.
- Wrist rolling: stand on something, keep your elbows close by your sides to avoid front delt fatigue, and rotate the handles towards you to raise the plate before rotating them away from you to go back down. Repeat this until you can’t keep going. This requires light weight and can be boring but is effective if you can hold out.
- Crab walk: you’ll look like a right idiot.
- Bottoms-up kettlebell carry: a balancing act.
- Plate pinches: easy for your hands to slip.
- Zottman curls: doing bicep curls and reverse curls separately will be more effective.
- Wrist curls: it takes ages to reach failure.
- Gripper squeezes: a single arm exercise. Overtraining will probably damage your nerves.
- Dead hangs, chin up/pull up holds, etc: extremely uncomfortable and difficult to reach failure on.
- Farmer’s walk/carry: requires lots of room, a trap bar or heavy dumbbells are needed, and it’s hard to reach failure on.