5 Exercises To Perfect and 5 Exercises To Forget

12 03 2013

The title here is self-explanatory- I’m going to list 5 exercises that you should include in your life on a regular basis and 5 exercises that you should completely forget about. The criteria for these exercises is based on my personal opinion, but the exercises to perfect are safe, efficient and will get you the most out of your time at the gym, whereas the exercises to forget are potentially unsafe and have superior alternatives.

5 Exercises to perfect:

Squat variations: back squats, front squats and overhead squats

Squats. I’ve explained why everyone should be doing them and I’ve explained how to execute them properly. Front squats are an incredible exercise and are especially good for quad development, but people mostly avoid them because they are a bit more uncomfortable and there are easy alternatives. Find a way to mix them in! Overhead squats are very difficult, but they elicit an incredible fat-burning effect; these will take a lot of practice, but if you have proper squat form and decent shoulder flexibility, you will eventually be able to add these to your repertoire. All-in-all, squats are arguably the one exercise that nobody should do without.

A lovely front squat

A lovely front squat

Deadlift variations: conventional, sumo and trap bar

My personal favourite exercise, and I recently wrote a piece on how to properly execute the movement. Conventional deadlifts are done with a narrow/shoulder width stance with the hands gripping the bar outside the feet, whereas sumo deadlifts are done with a wide stance and the hands gripping the bar inside the feet. The movement is basically the same, and both exercises use the entire body. I also covered trap bar deadlifts in my article last week, and these are a great way to develop your deadlift form and strength before progressing to an actual barbell. As I’ve mentioned before, this exercise needs to be performed with strict form and control, but the deadlift is a great exercise for both strength and fat loss.


Another great full body exercise (are you seeing a pattern yet?), the push-press is an overhead press, but with most of the power being generated by the lower body. Overhead pressing can be done with strict form, and with either a barbell or with dumbbells, but this primarily works the shoulders. With the push-press, the first movement is to drop the hips a few inches and then explode up, essentially jump-starting the weight (literally, your feet should leave the ground) and allowing you to overhead press more than a basic shoulder press; in a push-press, the arms merely finish the exericse, but it’s the legs that generate the majority of the power. For an added degree of difficulty, you can start with the bar on the ground and clean it up to your shoulders, but this is an entirely new movement altogether (clean and press). I would include the clean and press on this list, as it is phenomenal for fat burning, but the movement is too technical for the casual gym-goer (unless you do Crossfit, but don’t get me started on that…)

Pull-up variations: neutral grip, wide grip, arched-back

My new fav

My new fav

In my opinion, pull-ups are the ultimate upper body exercise. I won’t fight you on your choice of grip, as long as you do what you have to do to pull yourself up.  For beginners who may not be able to pull their own body weight, there are assisted pull-up machines at almost all commercial gyms. If not, you can use bands to assist you on a regular pull-up bar (just sling the band around the bar and around one of your knees and voila). Once you can pull your own body weight, you can start to try out the various grips. I prefer neutral grip because it is easier on my shoulders, but I also like the wide grip because it really hammers the lats.  I’ve recently started doing arched-back, neutral-grip pull-ups and I love them- they combine a vertical and horizontal pull into one movement, and it is amazing how quickly the muscles get fatigued. I highly recommend them to everyone.

Bench press variations: Barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, crush-grip dumbbell bench press

As much as I loathe the bench press, it is a great movement, and one that cannot be overlooked for upper body strength. I highly recommend at least including dumbbell bench press (either flat bench or incline) into your workout regimens. Barbell bench press can be taxing on the shoulders, and I can understand people being deterred from the exercise at commercial gyms- bench presses are almost always the busiest stations at the gym and people love to hover around them and spend way too much time there. Most people can get just as much bang for their buck from dumbbells; and you should mix it up with flat and incline variations, as well as crush-grip bench press- which is the same as regular pressing, except you are crushing the ends of the two dumbbells together as you press the weights up and down; this will force more time under tension, and should theoretically illicit enhanced hormonal release- just make sure you control the movement and keep the reps nice and slow.

BONUS: Complexes. If you are looking to burn some fat, add complexes to the end of your workout; or if you’re pressed for time, your entire workout can be a few different complexes. The idea, essentially, is to choose a handful of movements (usually 3-6) and perform a set number of reps for each movement (usually 5-8) one after the other and all within one minute. You then rest for one minute and go again, usually for 4 or 5 sets. Compound movements (like those listed above) are typically the movements to include, but others can be lunges, reverse lunges, good mornings, hang cleans, shoulder raises, overhead extensions, etc. You can get creative with it. The end result (if you don’t give up) will always be the same- you will be sweaty, out of breath, and if you’ve challenged yourself with enough weight, you may even find it hard to walk. FUN!

Honestly, if you ensure that these exercises are the core of your training program, you will be very happy with the results. These exercises are the key to both upper and lower body strength, and will also help you burn the most fat.

5 Exercises to forget:

Behind the head shoulder press

Sure, this exercise may effectively the anterior deltoids and other shoulder muscles, but it is absolutely killer for the health of your shoulder joint. Behind-the-neck pressing puts your shoulder joint in a compromising position at the very end of its range of motion. The glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint) may be one of the most mobile joints in the body, but it’s also incredibly unstable- this is why so many people have shoulder injuries!  Just because you can get a barbell behind your head doesn’t mean that you should do repetitive, stressful movements with it.

I can hear his shoulders screaming.

I can hear his shoulders screaming.

It’s much safer to press overhead with the bar in front of your body. Stick to the push press, strict military press, or dumbbell shoulder press- your shoulders will thank you.

Barbell upright rows

Much like the previous exercise, upright rows do a good job of targeting certain muscles, like the traps and deltoids. Unfortunately, they are also good at targeting shoulder impingement. What is shoulder impingement you ask? This occurs when one of the rotator cuff tendons becomes inflamed from being repeatedly dragged across bone.  It’s no coincidence that if a doctor thinks you have a shoulder impingement, he’ll get you mimic the exact movement of an upright row to see if you wince in pain. It’s a crap movement, and the reward does not even come close to outweighing the risk.

If you must do upright rows, please at least use dumbbells. Better yet, forget the movement completely, and use a combination of deadlifts and dumbbell shoulder raises to target your traps and deltoids.


Ab exercises without additional weight are mostly useless. There, I said it. Here are a few facts:

1) It is impossible to spot reduce fat on the human body. Doing crunches will not make you lose belly fat, much like curls will not make you lose arm fat.

2) I’ve read that it can take up to 250,000 crunches to burn a pound of fat. I’m not entirely sure how you’d even determine this, but I’m inclined to believe that it probably takes more.

3) Unless your body fat is already extremely low, the definition created by repetitive unweighted ab exercises is completely lost.

NOTE: Especially avoid sit-ups with a twist at the top- sit-ups put the spine into flexion, and adding rotation to this flexion pushes your intervertebral discs to the side and back of your spine, which is where they are susceptible to herniation. There is simply no reason to put yourself in this compromising position.

I wouldn’t call sit-ups or crunches dangerous, but they are extremely inefficient on all accounts. If you are going to do a sit-up, do it with some weight behind your head. Better yet, do planks, ab roll-outs and ab pull-downs (from a high pulley)- these exercises will strengthen your core and help you burn more fat. Please note though, ab exercises are an accessory movement, and should be down towards the end of your workouts!

Anything involving a Bosu ball

Feel the burn.

Feel the burn.

Most people have a hard enough time perfecting movements like the squat and deadlift on flat ground, let alone a wobbly piece of equipment. I’m not sure whose idea the Bosu ball was, but I would like to strike them. Want to work on your stability? Do single-leg deadlifts and squats. Poor balance? Try yoga. If you want to capitalize on your time at the gym- whether it be for strength gains or fat loss- concentrate on the compound movements listed in the top section of this article and leave silly, dangerous toys like the Bosu ball in the corner.

Hip Abduction/Adduction Machine

Otherwise known as the “I’m tired and unmotivated so I’m going to use the machine that takes the least amount of effort” machine, or the “I’m feeling provocative and want to make all the men stare and women uncomfortable” machine. Seriously though, does anyone even know what this piece of equipment is supposed to do? Has anyone ever used it and then woken up the next day and thought, “Damn, I really overdid it on the adduction machine yesterday.”? Do any other leg exercise. Do some side lunges. Jump up and down for 30 seconds straight. You can accomplish more by doing basically anything else… Unless your goal is to show your crotch to as many people as possible. Then feel free to use this machine all day.

I'm tired... oh, here's my crotch.

I’m tired… oh, here’s my crotch.

BONUS: Almost anything involving a partial range of motion (unless you are specifically training for this movement). Exercises include: half-squats, quarter-squats, half-bench, half-shoulder press, half-pull-ups, half-dips, etc. You are cheating yourself if you are not going through the full range of motion. I will probably write a separate piece on this in the future, as there is too much to write here. Long story short- use the full range of motion for every exercise you perform and you’ll get better results.

So there you have it. 5 exercises to perfect and 5 to forget. For more information on how to incorporate or eliminate these exercises from your current workout program, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

Happy training!



Workout Tempo; Strength Gain vs. Fat Loss

1 03 2013


I came across this succinct little video over on the Muscle & Fitness website (which, in my opinion, is one of the better strength/fitness magazines on the market) and I wanted to share it for a few reasons. Take 3 minutes out of your day to give it a watch, and take note of the following:

1) Slow tempo = strength gains. Fast tempo = fat loss (notice how out of breath he becomes after the 4 fast reps; this is what I’m talking about!)

2) Notice his squat. This is what you want your squat to look like.

3) His lack of sleeves. Someone must have stolen them. Poor guy.

That’s all for now. Happy lifting!


How to measure the intensity of your lifts: Determining your 1RM

1 02 2013

I seem to mention the term intensity a lot, and this is due exclusively to the fact that intense workouts lead to nothing but great things for the human body. As you know by now, intense workouts are the best way to burn fat during your workout, the best way to increase your metabolism outside of the gym, and are the key to increased athletic performance as well. So what does intensity truly mean? As I laid out in a previous post:

In most cases, intensity can be described as one’s perceived effort, but for anaerobic lifting in the gym, intensity directly correlates to the amount of weight lifted. Increase the weight, increase the intensity. It’s as simple as that. In regards to aerobic exercise where there are no weights involved to determine the intensity (I’ll use running as an example), sprinting is far more intense than jogging. Doing as much as possible, as close to the maximum exertion you can put out, is intense.

The beautiful thing about weight training is that everything is quantifiable. Progress can be seen through increases in weight or number of repetitions. The numbers don’t lie.  This is where the term “1-repetition max” or 1 RM comes into play. This is the maximum amount of weight that you can theoretically lift for 1 repetition for a given exercise.  Determining this number is a difficult game to play for intermediate lifters, and a very difficult game for beginners.  Prior to assessing a 1 RM, you must first master the movement at hand. If you are not squatting correctly, there is no way to accurately determine the amount that you can actually lift; without the proper technique, weight is irrelevant. Attempting to lift heavy weights with poor form is a very risky proposition.

Don't be THAT guy.

Don’t be THAT guy.

So where do you start?

Beginners should start by perfecting their form. Until you can do an exercise safely, please do not attempt to add a lot of weight. Lift within your means and eventually you’ll get to a point where you can start looking into your theoretical maxes.  When you arrive at this stage, I recommend working up to a 5 repetition maximum, ie) the heaviest weight that you can lift for 5 reps.  Unless you are an advanced lifter, it is dangerous to actually attempt a true 1 RM. By working up to a 5 RM, you ensure your safety and can thereafter calculate your theoretical 1 RM.

Here’s the protocol:

1) Warm-up with a light weight that you can very easily lift for 10 repetitions. Rest for a minute.

2) Estimate your second warm-up weight by adding 5-10% more weight for upper body exercises or 10-20% more weight for lower body exercises. Be conservative. You will lift this weight for 5 repetitions. Rest for 2 minutes.

3) Based on the degree of difficulty of the previous lift, again estimate your third weight by adding 5-10% more weight for upper body exercises or 10-20% more weight for lower body exercises. Rest for 2-4 minutes.

4) Continue this process until you reach a weight that is very difficult to lift properly* for 5 reps. Ideally, you will reach your 5-rep max within 3-5 testing sets.

* If your form starts to break down, you have reached your 5 RM. Do not add more weight. Do not collect 200 dollars. Do not go to the hospital.

Once you have determined your 5 RM, you can use the following chart to calculate your theoretical 1 RM:

%1RM-Repetition Relationship

%1RM-Repetition Relationship

For example, if you are squatting and can successfully lift 135 lbs for 5 repetitions, you can estimate that your 1 RM is about 155 lbs (135/155=87%). With this same logic, 145 lbs would roughly be your 3 RM, and so on and so forth. Now, this is far from an exact science (this chart, for example, is linear and the relationship between percentage and repetitions often because more curvilinear as percentage decreases), but it is a safe and fairly accurate way to determine the amount of weight that you can actually lift for a given exercise.

How to apply this to real life

– Intensity is good. The closer you lift to your 1 RM, the more intense you are lifting.

– Beginners should start by perfecting their lifts with light weights before attempting to measure a 1 RM or worry about intensity percentages. Lift within your means, work as hard as you can, and eventually you will develop the confidence needed to start thinking about RMs.

– Your first exercise(s) should be the most intense. These should be multi-articulated exercises (think: squats, deadlifts, upper body presses, etc.), and you should lift as intensely as safety permits. For these first lifts you ideally want to work up to a weight that is above 90% of your 1 RM, ie) a weight that you can maximally lift for no more than 5 reps.

– Again, I need to stress, beginners should NOT attempt to lift anything heavier than an 8-12 RM. Safety first!

– After your first exercise or two, you should move onto accessory exercises using a higher rep scheme (6-15 reps, depending on the exercises chosen and your personal goals). To follow the same track, these lifts should also be as heavy as possible for your given rep scheme. Just because you’ve finished your “main” lift, don’t slack-off for the rest of your workout. If you are lifting a weight for 12 reps, make sure you’re using a weight that makes those last few reps pretty challenging. The goal, as always, is to keep the intensity as high as possible!

– For a more specific idea of how to apply all this to real life, please consult yesterday’s post on the ideal workout template for intermediate lifters.

That’s it for today! My last two posts tie together nicely and should give intermediate lifters a good idea of what to shoot for in the gym.  If you have any questions, you know how to reach me!



Weight Lifting 101: A Simple Template for Casual Gym-goers

1 02 2013

We all have our own fitness objectives, but I wanted to set forth a general weight lifting template for my casual gym-going readers. This isn’t a guide that you’ll get in any textbook, but it’s based on my knowledge and personal lifting experience. There are a million caveats and precise details that are going to be overlooked, but it’s in the spirit of keeping things as simple as possible.

Note: Athletes and advanced lifters, feel free to ignore this post. You know what works for you.

Below is a table that lays out how the number of repetitions performed in an exercise affects your muscles. More intense, lower repetition lifts, will lead to power and strength gains. Mid-range repetition schemes will lead to muscle hypertrophy (increased size). High-range repetition schemes will lead to increased muscular endurance. You can refer to this table to plan the repetition scheme your lifts, according to your fitness goals.


Note: Hypertrophy is just a fancy word for “muscle growth”

Regardless of your objective- whether it be fat-loss, increased strength, increased mass, etc., I truly believe that this is the best way for intermediate lifters to organize their time in the gym:

Before beginning to lift, don’t forget to start with a dynamic warm-up. Seriously, this is very important if you want to lift sustainably. When I neglect this, I get injured. Period.

First lift: Multi-articulated, in the strength repetition range. This is your most intense lift. You should aim for 3-5 work sets (non-warmup sets). Your rest between sets will be longest here (2-4 minutes)

Second lift: Multi-articulated, in either the strength or hypertrophy repetition range (depending on your goals). Again, ensure to use a weight that is challenging for every repetition. Again, aim for 3-5 work sets. Rest between sets should be slightly shorter.

Accessory lifts: Depending on your goals, you will keep these accessory lifts in the 8-20 repetition region. I recommend performing 3-4 of these lifts, each of 3-4 work sets. Rest periods should be as short as possible.

That’s it. That’s as simple as I can make it. You’ll keep your intensity high, you’ll get in high-quality work, and you’ll reap the benefits of getting stronger, losing fat, and either gaining muscle size or endurance (depending on your personalized plan). Of course, you also have to keep your nutrition in check.

If this seems too complex, just do what Cressey recommends.

This has nothing to do with the content of this article.

A few notes

– People who are brand new to lifting weights should not follow this template. When getting started at the gym it is absolutely paramount to learn proper technique before worrying about intensity, repetitions maximums, etc. Weight lifting is extremely beneficial, but performing lifts incorrectly will prevent you from reaping these benefits and could also lead to injury, which will prevent you from doing anything productive. Be patient, practice diligently, and you’ll achieve your results as quickly as possible.

– You’ll notice that the 5-6 repetition range is in the sweet spot for getting bigger and stronger (strength + hypertrophy). For intermediate lifters, there is no better program than the 5×5 template (5 sets of 5 reps). Perform 5×5 of your two main lifts (squat/deadlift, bench/row, shoulder press/pull-ups, etc.) and then crush 3-4 accessory exercises with the highest intensity for the giving rep range and you’ll undoubtably see impressive gains.

– Ladies! this template applies to you too! Trust me, lifting weights will not turn you into a masculine beast. Lifting weights will make you more confident, healthier, and (in the eyes of most men) sexier. Don’t believe me? Read this!

If you’d like to discuss how to tailor this type of program to your specific goals, don’t hesitate to contact me! As always, post your questions below if anything is unclear.