Not all exercises are created equal. Some are better than others, but it’s easy to fall into one of two traps in selecting your exercises.
First, while you can and should start with bodyweight exercises, they’ll only get you so far.
“We start people with bodyweight-only workouts," Sam Stauffer, Spartan's Director of Training, said. "Once a solid base of training is built, we add weights.”
Second, if you do get into weights, it's not uncommon to fall into the bodybuilder trap of doing the best-known movements: bench presses, deadlifts, and yes, bicep curls.
Many popular exercises have room for improvement, and here’s what to trade them out for.
Swap Out the Military Press For the Arnold Press
The military press — also known as the barbell overhead press — is a great exercise. I still do it sometimes, just for variety. That said, it has three shortcomings.
1. Your head gets in the way.
2. Your shoulders can’t rotate.
Think about how your shoulders move when you throw a punch, chest pass a basketball, or just stretch your arms overhead. They want to rotate internally as you reach your hands away from your body.
3. The bottom of the movement typically isn’t quite to the bottom of the shoulders’ range of motion.
The Arnold press, a variant of the dumbbell shoulder press, solves all of these issues. Your head naturally isn’t in the way when you use dumbbells, and by allowing your shoulders to rotate naturally, you work with your muscle’s natural range of motion while reducing the stress on your joints.
Perform Butterfly Lateral Raises Instead of Regular Lateral Raises
The lateral raise is the main isolation movement people use to build their medial deltoids, or the outside of the shoulder. Like the military press, it doesn’t use the full range of motion of the targeted muscle, but in this case the problem is much worse — the exercise doesn’t go far enough, both at the bottom and top of the motion.
In addition, isolation movements are just plain less productive than compound movements.
The butterfly lateral raise is somewhat compounded while still mostly focusing on the medial deltoids, and has about twice the range of motion. And like the Arnold press, it achieves this by adding shoulder rotation.
Swap Out Bodyweight Squats For Kettlebell Swings
To be clear, squats are a great exercise. Barbell squats are great for building maximal strength, and bodyweight squats are important for building a base of fitness. However, many people continue doing bodyweight squats long after they’re too strong to benefit from them.
If you can do 50 or more bodyweight squats, it’s basically cardio at that point. Barbell squats and kettlebell swings are both great alternatives, but we’ll focus on kettlebell swings as the high-rep option, and also the one you’re probably better able to do at home.
Kettlebell swings are performed at high speed and generally for moderately high reps, so they combine aspects of strength, power, and endurance. Unlike squats, they secondarily work the arms and back — essentially the entire posterior chain. That means that all on their own, kettlebell swings work about half your body, and combine resistance training AND cardio.
Push-Ups For Push-Ups From a Deficit (Weights Optional)
Push-ups are a great exercise from a movement pattern perspective, notwithstanding that — like bodyweight squats — you may at some point get too strong for them. Once again, the range of motion has room for improvement.
The problem is your face — you could go lower if it wasn’t hitting the floor. The solution is to elevate your hands on a pair of objects. Foam blocks are common, but any two stable objects of equal height can work.
Note that you can also add weight to push-ups by wearing a weighted vest. I recommend this if you can do 20 or more push-ups. If you can’t do push-ups, knee push-ups are still good, and a deficit will still make them more effective.
Do One-Armed Rows Instead of Bicep Curls
Bicep curls are the ultimate vanity exercise. Once again, they have a poor range of motion. (Plus, they’re isolation movements.) On top of that, the curved path that the dumbbell takes means that the resistance's effectiveness changes throughout the movement. At the top and bottom, you’re almost moving the dumbbell horizontally, so there’s very little resistance.
Rows are better bicep exercises, and they also work your back. One-armed rows benefit from bilateral deficit, the phenomenon wherein you can exert more strength if you only have to move one limb at a time.
One-armed rows can be done with a dumbbell or a kettlebell, such as the Spartan Helmet Kettlebell.
Swap In Bicycle Crunches For Sit-Ups
If you’ve done sit-ups with your feet held in place, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that they seem to be more of a quad exercise than an ab exercise. That’s obviously a problem, but less obvious is that they focus exclusively on your abdominals, leaving the obliques out completely.
Related: 3 Things You Don’t Know About Your Core
You’ve probably done bicycle crunches before too. They can be good, but the key is — once again — to utilize the full range of motion. That means both coming up to work your rectus abdominus, and twisting all the way to each side to work the obliques. Resist the temptation to truncate the movement so you can do them faster.