The Top Exercises for Each Body Part? Impossible to Say!

October 6, 2008

It is hard for anyone to predict the top exercises for an individual, because we are all built differently. An exercise that feels great to you, may do nothing for me. Take bent over barbell rows for instance: I can’t for the life of me feel it working my back at all, yet everyone recommends this as the so called – King of Back Exercises! One arm dumbbell rows on the other hand work wonders for me. Don’t just assume that any one particular exercise is what you need to do for a body part. If you don’t feel it, then move on to something else.

dreams resort puerto vallarta

[This is a picture from the resort in Mexico that me and my girlfriend stayed at this past June. We spent a lot of time in this infinity pool. All of us need to take vacations more often!]

Why It Makes Sense to Suggest the Basic Lifts to Beginners

I do understand where trainers are coming from when they suggest the standard compound lifts for each body part. These are the lifts that provide the biggest “bang for the buck” and they are also the best for functional strength. The problem is that sometimes it takes weeks or even months for the beginner to feel anything with certain exercises.

It Takes Time to Build the Mind-to-Muscle Link

The big compound exercises are great and shouldn’t be ignored, however they are the ones that take the longest to “feel”. Over time you will develop a strong mind-to-muscle link and you will really be able to milk these exercises, but until that happens I recommend that you work a little more on exercises that you can really feel.

Give Priority to Exercises that Work for You!

For my first 4 years of lifting, I did seated behind the neck military presses. I was told that this was the best exercise for building shoulder width. I was terribly weak at these and they never once felt like they were working my shoulders. My workout partner worked his way up to 185 pounds for 5 reps and I was stuck at 100 for 5 reps…for 4 years! After getting no results with this lift I decided to do seated dumbbell military presses and have stuck with these ever since. I also do a bit of nautilus military presses and these work great as well.

The Same Workout Partner Hated Barbell Curls

On the flip side, I love flat bar barbell curls but this guy didn’t feel them in his biceps. He liked concentration curls and Preacher Hammer Curls a lot better (which I get nothing out of). So the bottom line is that you need to do exercises that work for you…not ones that are “suppose” to work for you.

An Exercise You Don’t Feel Now May Improve Over Time

You may hate incline barbell presses now, but over a period of time they may become your favorite. I used to dislike flat bench dumbbell flyes and preferred cable crossovers. I only felt dumbbell flyes in my shoulders and cable crossovers really seemed to hit the chest muscles. Now it is much different…flat bench dumbbell flyes work my chest so hard that I have to be careful not to do too many!

My Suggestion…

Spend the majority of your time on exercises that feel great now and give them priority. If you do three exercises per body part, make sure at least two of them are ones that feel like they are working the target muscle group. Do those two first, and then throw in one exercise that is “suppose” to be the great for that muscle group. Over time you will develop a list of top exercises for you, which will be unique to you.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam Steer, Momentum Wellness October 6, 2008 at 8:40 pm

Interesting post. It’s true that everyone is built differently, and what works for one person won’t work for another. However, I think that while you should hone in on what works best for you as an individual, you also have to beware the trap of only doing “what you like” and perhaps missing out on “what you need.”

I also think that having a good coach can help you develop that “mind muscle” connection more quickly. Good cuing and questioning should ensure that the student is getting the right groove and developing the proprioceptive awareness.

It’s a bit of a coincidence that you bring up newbies vis à vis the “big lifts,” as I was thinking about this just tonight. I have taken to getting new clients without any lifting experience to start with component pieces of big exercises. For example, I may have them doing cable pull throughs to get a feel for glute involvement before getting them to do deadlifts. But I do still look for “bang for buck,” even with those component exercises.

Another thought provoking post. Thanks.

Cheers,
Adam

Jordan October 6, 2008 at 10:12 pm

I can totally relate to you about the single arm dumbell rows over the bent over barbell rows. But on another note ive switched flat barbell press to incline barbell press but I can never feel it working my upper chest and I see little to no results. I was wondering if you could recomend another excercise that would work this same area? Any help is appreciated thanks!

Fitness Guy October 6, 2008 at 11:21 pm

I am so excited to see an article like this because so many people come up with the crap of you NEED to do 10 sets per muscle group and you NEED to do 6-10 reps per set.

I really feel that fairly quickly after starting to work out that you will be able to listen to your body and get more out of it that way.

3ller October 7, 2008 at 2:26 am

nice post,
How much do u lift for bicep curls (for reps), Rusty? (i heard you’re pretty strong with it)

btw whats the best exercise for the shoulders which dosent make you look thick?

Helder October 7, 2008 at 11:57 am

Very good advice Rusty, everyone is different and everyone should train the way it’s best for each one, some so called gurus like to talk about some absolute truths, their way is always the best way, and what’s good for them has to be for everyone. To your post i would simply add another thing, choose not only the exercises that make you feel better and progress, but also the ones that build your body the way you want, exercises are tools, be the sculptor of your body. Another note to the lazy side we all have, don’t run form hard exercises with the excuse it doesn’t suit you right lol

Once again your advice makes the difference Rusty

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later October 7, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Rusty – I get nothing from bent-over barbell rows either – I think it’s Emperor’s New Clothes! Maybe everyone who does them also does one-arm dumbell rows as a supplementary exercise afterwards and that’s where the real gains are coming from 😉

Remon van der Pol October 7, 2008 at 1:06 pm

That’s funny. I don’t feel the bent over barbell rows working where it is supposed to work as well! The only feeling I have is in my lower back (probably from bending over with weights) and in my shoulders (probably because of the rowing motion working it’s way up against gravity). I, however, DO NOT feel anything in my upper back, which should be the main target of this exercise!

Even though the information in this article is quite obvious if you think about it, it is still a great reminder that you shouldn’t stick with exercises which aren’t working for you or are just plain uncomfortable to do. There are so many different exercises to choose from, so there must at least be one exercise that does the trick for you! 🙂

I’m going to experiment with some new exercises in the weekend that will hopefully replace the annoying bent over barbell rows (I’ll certainly try the one-handed version!) and some other exercises that don’t make me feel like I’m getting 100% out of them.

Again, thanks for the eye-opener Rusty!

Rajafarhan October 7, 2008 at 5:20 pm

i dont feel bent over rows work on my back even not pump the problem is my lats are very very weak , its a genetic problem which iam trying to overcome for last 8 years now , i do a lot of chinups and pulldowns , ive tried everything but i never get the pump im supposed to get after a fiber ripping workout i dont know what should i do.

Yash October 7, 2008 at 7:41 pm

I just started a strength training regimen consisting of a few of the compound exercises you’re talking about [bent over rows, squats] i haven’t had a workout where i was really sore or feeling it the next day [except the first couple of workouts where my thighs were killing me since i’ve never done squats before] i think it might just be that every exercise started with an empty bar and i’m increasing weight slowly. hopefully in a couple weeks i’ll begin feeling it. i tihnk i’ll give it a couple months and see where it goes when the weights get heavier, it feels wrong abandoning my schedule for lack of instant results, as many people tend to do. any ideas?

my gym, i’ve noticed recently, is a breeding ground for horrible form. that could be a part of the reason you may not get the most from compound exercises, which take a little longer to master form. i know the mantra is don’t give advice unless asked, but its so hard when these guys are seriously about to blow out their back!!

Iris October 9, 2008 at 8:35 am

I agree with you that we are all differenct. What works for you maybe don’t work for me. I use only machines for my weight training routine but a few months ago, I started with free weights. I notice my muscles are more toned and I see more definition. For my abs, I used to do crunches even though they did nothing to my abs. Now , I am doing the plank five days a week, I am getting excellent results. My waist is getting slim and firm. Thank you so much for your tips and advices.

admin October 9, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Adam,

People do tend to gravitate toward their favorite lifts. Also…that is a good method of getting people to feel a muscle group to develop a mind-to-muscle link in order to feel the basic exercises better. Great addition to the post as always.

Jordan,

I like incline dumbbell presses better than incline barbell presses. It just seems to work the inner upper chest a little better, since you can bring in the weights as to press upwards. This will help develop the “line” down the center of your chest.

3ller,

I can always bang out strict sets of 5 with 115 pounds, no matter how long I’ve gone without doing barbell curls. I like using a full size olympic bar because the handle is thicker than those pre-set straight barbells. If I work at it a while I can do sets of 3 without swinging or using momentum with 135 pounds (an olympic bar with 45’s on each side). That being said…I will normally just stick around 95, because it feels best.

Helder,

People should take the “shopping cart” approach to advice online. Although, they may like a lot of what one person says it doesn’t make sense to follow just one person 100%. Kind of like shopping. I buy 70% of my casual clothes at a store called Buckle, but 30% at a dozen other stores.

Methuselah,

Bent over barbell rows are great for people without better equiptment. I think you said it best…the real results probably do come from other back exercises. These are terribly overated.

Remon,

Yeah…this is certainly one of the more basic posts I’ve put up in a long time. It was something I was thinking about when I was working out in the gym the other day. Replace that bent over barbell row…you will be glad you did.

Rajafarhan,

You may want to incorporate an isolation movement for your back that doesn’t rely on bicep strength. Try various versions of pullovers at the start of your workout and do the pullowns and rows after that. It will help over a period of time.

Yash,

Good point…give these exercise a chance. There is a break in time while you are building a mind-to-muscle link…just don’t stick with something for too long if you aren’t seeing results. As far as form goes…bad form is pretty common in every gym I have ever been a member of.

Iris,

I love planks…to be honest I didn’t feel this exercise in my abs at first, but after 2 months of doing them I won’t go near another ab exercise. The best part is that they don’t just develop the 6 pack…they develop all of the detail muscles in the mid section.

Good stuff!

Rusty

Mike OD - IF life October 11, 2008 at 12:44 am

Great read…I remember the days of behind the neck presses too. Ha. I personally like barbell exercises because I can do more in little time and tend to have more weight in total to lift. My favorite chest exercise is actually weighted dips and I love cleans/press for shoulders. Lunges are a staple of mine now too as I find so many real world and sport applications involve using one leg at a time (and it helps to target my weaker hip stabilizers while also giving me more range of motion in my hip flexors).

Nancy R. October 12, 2008 at 12:28 pm

Awesome post. But I simply have to ask: can you disclose the name and location of that resort you were at? It looks magnificent. I must say though that I would totally understand if you wanted to keep it a secret 🙂

And by the way, thanks for taking the time to write this blog.

mark October 14, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Hey Rusty, I loved this article ! I plan to start working out soon! I can’t afford a gym membership so I’m buying a pair of dumbbells ! I wanna ask u , how much weight should I buy ? My goal physique is that of the actor gerard butler of 300 ! can you help me out ? Thanks a lot!

Rajafarhan October 14, 2008 at 4:34 pm

Rusty Thanks a lot for your reply i really appreciate that

Americo October 14, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Hi Rusty, how do you feel about whole body routines vs split routines?

Yavor October 15, 2008 at 5:28 am

Rajafarhan,

Try pullovers and also straight arm dumbbell rows – don’t go straight up, but arc backwards so at the top point, the Dumbbell is level with your hip.

Yavor

Tom Parker October 15, 2008 at 5:47 pm

I agree with quite a few of the commentors here. I don’t really like bent over barbell rows. I do feel them – I just can’t seem to master the technique enough to increase my weight. However, I don’t find the exercise ineffective. I just tend to avoid it because I don’t like it which goes back to Adam Steer’s comment. Because of this I still try to throw bent over barbell rows into my workout occassionally because I know I need to get better at it.

Helder October 16, 2008 at 2:14 pm

I like the dumbell bent over rows, it’s a very good exercise, i feel more my back than with the bar

Jon October 17, 2008 at 8:21 pm

I always recommend people to start out with just a few compound exercises, usually squats, bench press, rows and shoulder presses. Also curls for the guys. Keeping it simple is often important, as it is easy to feel overwhelmed with complex training sessions – and when people feel overwhelmed, they usually give up!

mv October 19, 2008 at 11:02 am
sandy October 19, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Great article as always Rusty!

Sandy

Lysa October 22, 2008 at 12:20 am

hi Rusty,

I’m so thrilled that someone is finally speaking out against the “one size fits all” exercise routines that seem to dominate the fitness world! Every exercise routine for women seems geared towards giving us these massive amazon-woman thighs!
Doing the traditional sets of arm exercises left me with huge biceps and forearms (really not attractive for a female) and the slightest thing like a cardio workout at an incline will bulk up my calves. I’ve been so discouraged by what happens to my body when I exercise that I have almost given it up completely except for hot vinyasa/ashtanga yoga classes here and there. I hate this because I really love the feeling after a really good gym workout, it really is therapy.
So my question is, what do you suggest for someone who doesn’t need to lose much weight (I’m 5’6 and 110 pounds, I prefer to be around 107-108 it just looks better) but would like to drop a couple of inches off the thighs and hips and gain some tone without sacrificing slender limbs?

Jennifer October 29, 2008 at 10:38 am

Hi Rusty…its been a while since I’ve commented because I have a new job and things are crazy. With the economy in the gutter, it is the best time to get in shape (eat less!) and focus on things that really matter…health and happiness. Its so true that stating one exercise is better than another is impossible to do since everyones body is different (and responds differently). I am going clubbing for Halloween, and my friends and I are all dressing in sexy costumes…why not? All the hard work we put into getting into good shape pays off when you’re trying on next to nothing and all the “lazy people” standing around staring are somewhat envious. I hope it motivates them to get on the bike, treadmill, whatever and work up a sweat because not only is it good for confidence, but also health.

Yavor October 29, 2008 at 10:58 am

Hey Lisa, I train several girls and what I’m going to offer you are real world tips. For the upper body it is enough to do 3 sets of 5 reps of shoulder presses and shoulder width grip overhand pulldowns to the chest.

For the lower body and for losing fat – find an eating plan that allows you to eat less. You can go low carb. Personally, my favorite plan eating plan is Eat Stop Eat.

For the legs – if Barbell Squats bulk your thighs too much, try bulgarian squats, wall squats… For losing fat with exercsise – follow Rusty’s tried plan – http://fitnessblackbook.com/low-body-fat-percentage/

Good Luck!

Yavor

Mobs January 28, 2010 at 1:23 am

Hey Rusty,

Been reading the blog for a while and just purchased your new book. Interesting stuff. I had a questions re the Incline barbell press. I have decent lower chest def but light upper and have been trying to do incline presses to work on the section but dont feel the impact on the upper pecs when I’m lifting. Is this improper technique/bench angle or is it just a matter of time and I should stick with it?

Thanks,
Mobs

Alex Miller January 30, 2010 at 9:40 am

Hi – I used to just do jogging and single-joint exercises and certainly lost some weight (about 14 pounds) but I just couldn’t shift the last 10-12 pounds of weight. I then started doing high intensity exercises and multi-join exercises and everything changed. Building up my largest muscles (and therefore metabolism) in a high intensity fashion has stripped about 10 pounds more of fat off (obviously you’ve gotta eat well) but I thought this tip might help others!

Adonis April 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

Everybody has a different body, and need different exercises to reach their goal of having ideal body. You cannot go on crunching to build biceps. This is a nice article, and also thanks to commenters, really nice and usefull comments here.

Flights to Paphos April 10, 2010 at 9:55 am

I was once told for muscle building it is 50% weights & 50% nutrition

physical therapy los angeles November 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Great suggestions! Every body is different and needs to be worked differently to get desired results!

Kettlebell Workouts February 25, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Discovered kettlebells today. Well, knew about them for a while, but finally ordered one and my 16kg (35 pound) iron kettlebell arrived today. Did a workout – and wow! Intensive. Really good. Definitely a way to burn fat and build some lean and athletic muscle.

david March 5, 2011 at 3:09 pm

You have to change your routine every 3 months, so your workout is more effective.

Darren April 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Doing any exercises that makes you feel better and as long as you are enjoying it, will do some good to your body. Then whether it be dancing, riding your bike or yoga. I hope that makes sense.

nathanielbrody January 30, 2013 at 9:32 pm

The largest amount of glucose present in the form bound in the form of glycogen stored in liver and muscle cells.

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