the gym is undeniably a valuable commodity to any athletes training schedule, but what are the best exercises if you want functional strength?
The Squat is quite possibly the ‘Mac-daddy’ (i.e. the best) of all resistance training exercises. It uses all the major muscles in the lower leg, thighs and hips and when performed correctly uses numerous muscles in the upper body to help protect the spine when load is rested on the upper back and/or shoulders. As it uses lots of muscle it is great as a calorie burner to help weight loss and toning, and when progressively heavier loads and greater training volumes are used it is possibly the best exercise for building strength and size in the lower body muscles.
Squats replicate a primary movement pattern that most people use variations of everyday whether it’s getting in and out of a chair, using the toilet, or picking items off the ground. There is a version of squats available to suit every client – whether its supported bodyweight squats for the beginner or heavy barbell squats for the more advanced client – the movement is the same, the only variance is the way the movement is loaded and the depth which is safe for each client.
Using the same muscles as the squat, the lunge also replicates a primary movement pattern – whenever you walk up and down stairs, up and down hills or even if you’ve just simply walked you’ve used a version of the lunge.
Like squats, there is a version of the lunge that is suitable for most clients, limited depth supported lunges for beginners and full depth lunges loaded with dumbbells or barbells for more advanced clients. Lunges can be used to help burn calories and firm or tone muscles, or they are also a great exercise to build strength and size in the lower body.
One point with lunges though – as they are essentially squats being performed on one leg you should be very weary about adding too much load too soon with your clients. As the majority of the clients weight goes through one leg during the lunge, as opposed to both legs with the squat then there is much more loading with a lunge than with an equivalently loaded squat.
Along with squats, the deadlift is a serious contender for the ‘Mac-daddy’ of all resistance exercises award. The deadlift actually combines two primary movement patterns – the squat and the pull, as a weight is pulled into the body, and lowered at the same time as a squat is performed.
When appropriately loaded the deadlift uses more muscles than any other resistance exercise – all the lower body muscles, and the majority of the upper body muscles. As such it is great for burning calories, firming, toning and developing muscles, building strength and size and losing weight – all depending on how it is performed.
The deadlift is certainly more complex than the squat and as such may make it unsuitable for beginners, but nevertheless it can be modified to suit different clients – for beginners the bar can be raised off the ground to lessen the depth the client needs to squat down to reach the bar, and for more advanced lifters progressively more load can be added to full range deadlifts.
4. Chin Ups / Pull Ups
Using all the big pulling muscles of the body – all the back muscles, the shoulders and the arms, the chin or pull up is a great exercise for firming, toning, building and strengthening all these muscle groups.
As chins also use a lot of muscle then they are a great exercise for burning calories and assisting weight loss. And like the previous exercises the chin or pull up can be modified to suit most clients’ abilities. Stronger or more experienced clients can perform full chins as shown above and weight can be added to make the exercise even harder. Less experienced clients can perform pull ups onto a lower bar and shown here, keeping their feet on the ground and thus minimizing the total amount of bodyweight they have pull directly upwards.
5. Lat Pulldown
A great alternative to the chin or pull up is the lateral pulldown which works all the same pulling muscles, and is probably more suited to beginners as the load is easily adjusted.
The lat pulldown is known as an ‘open chain’ exercise as opposed to all the previous exercises which are known as ‘closed chain’. Closed chain exercises are exercises where you push or pull against a fixed or immovable object, whereas open chain exercises are when the resistance that is being pushed or pulled against actually moves.
Closed chain exercises have the edge over open chain exercises in terms of effectiveness – as the body cannot overcome the fixed object in closed chain exercises the neuromuscular system actually works a little harder to try to overcome it than it does with open chain exercises, and by working a little harder there is quite simply more benefit.