Top 10 Essential Exercises for Each Muscle Group

Top 10 Exercises

In-Depth Insight into Crucial Weight Training Advice

Consider the attributes of the of the world's finest athletes for a moment, and you'll notice several common characteristics, including natural athletic talent, the ability to perform the spectacular and excellent hand-to- eye coordination. Psychological preparation is also a must, and there's seldom an absence of brutal determination. There's one factor that always separates the truly elite athletes from the many wanna-bes mastery of the fundamentals. If you don't perfect the basics, you cannot hope to approach the spectacular-regardless of your sport. Here are the big 10 fundamental exercises all bodybuilders and weightlifters should perform regularly. They range in degree from explosive, compound exercises to controlled isolation movements, and with them you can build a firm foundation on which to rest a terrific physique.

1. Squats

Despite the fact that barbell squats add beautiful sweeps to the thighs and hamstrings and fullness throughout the glutes, few athletes perform them consistently granted, squats are physically and psychologically demanding, and it takes terrific effort to complete a major set, but the rewards overshadow the temporary discomfort of performing this movement. Squats foster the type of explosive energy athletes of all kinds require, as they stimulate virtually all of the body's major muscle groups.

Power originates in the lower trunk and in the strong thigh muscles, so it follows that athletes who seek to build explosive strength-the kind that adds muscle density and thickness-will benefit from performing squats. A few days ago I was thumbing through my copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, and I came upon an interesting paragraph, in which Franco Columbu explained how bodybuilders who attack heavy weights always seem to have a harder look than those who per for less-taxing movements.

Franco was correct in his observation. It takes about two seconds to spot the difference between a veteran weightlifter-like the '81 Mr. Olympia himself-and a veteran shape trainer, who typically relies more on dieting and bizarre cable movements than 5 on the fundamentals that build great bodies. It's kind of like the genetically gifted basketball player who flies brilliantly through the air for a slam dunk at one end of the court and then gets beat back door for an easy layup at the other end. If they don't understand and perfect the fundamentals, athletes will always distinguish themselves by dubious means. Likewise, bodybuilders who ignore squats will never build the physiques achieved by competitors who have perfected them, and no matter how much bodyfat they lose or how many leg curls they perform, they'll never grace the stage with the separation and sweep of a Shawn Ray or Henderson Thorne.

When performing squats, it's imperative to execute every rep with strict technique. Begin by locking the bar into your rear deltoids. Do not wrap a towel or padded device around it for comfort, as this will only increase the risk of the bar sliding down your back and causing injury.

Now take a step back, secure your balance and tighten the major muscles of your torso. Then descend with your knees directly over your feet until your thighs are parallel to the floor. At that point explode upward from your heels to the standing position.

If the weight is too heavy for you to go to parallel, lighten the load. Athletes who can't shake their egos stand to gain nothing from this exercise, as a partial range of motion is simply an indicator of good hip leverage. Halting the motion halfway down is also highly detrimental to the knees because it takes the stress off of your muscles and puts it on your joints.

Athletes sometimes make the mistake of viewing the squat and leg press as identical exercises. The fact is, however, that you perform leg presses while sitting in a padded chair with handles on which you brace yourself to control the start and finish positions and squats while standing with a weighted bar on your shoulders and nothing between you and the floor but determination and physical strength. Leg presses train the major muscles of your lower body while squats challenge the muscles of your entire body. What's more, in performing leg presses, you take advantage of leverage-which explains why lifters who press 1,000 pounds for eight reps sometimes can't squat 225 for six. In my view the two exercises don't even warrant comparison, and I wouldn't be inclined to place leg presses anywhere near a top 10 list, unless a specific injury demands that you forgo squats.

2. Standard bench presses

The first three exercises on my list are the movements performed in power lifting competition. Because squats, bench presses and deadlifts each train a variety of muscle groups, they tend to be superior at triggering overall growth.

Too many athletes train the notorious T-shirt muscles at the expense of more powerful and athletically pivotal bodyparts. Fortunately, the standard bench press offers the best of both worlds. It promotes both strength and muscularity throughout the chest, shoulders and arms, which of course means that your polo shirt will display a more tapered physique after several months of training. You'll seldom find an exercise that lends itself so well to the needs of both the aspiring model and the aspiring bodybuilder.

When performing bench presses, lower the bar slowly to your mid- chest-just above the nipple line- and thrust it straight up to the starting position. One of the most common mistakes novice weightlifters make is to press the bar out from their chest instead of up and back in an arc. Observe a veteran bench presser and you'll notice that the bar travels in an arc from the time it touches the chest to the time it returns to the starting position. It's almost as though the lifter is preparing to rack the weight after each repetition. This technique greatly enhances the effects, primarily because it engages the pectoral muscles more directly while reducing the role of the shoulders and triceps.

Another difference in performance between veterans and novices involves the way they position their bodies on the padded bench. Typically, novices position themselves to facilitate the heaviest lift possible. They spread their shoulder blades wide, arch their backs far too much and move their feet from one place to another. To reap the most benefit from this exercise, place your feet flat on the floor, squeeze your shoulder blades together and press them down toward your waist. This will elevate your chest and facilitate greater isolation. Then, taking a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, perform a total of eight reps over several sets, as described in the program listed at the end of this article.

3. Deadlifts

With the exception of squats, you won't find a better compound exercise for developing overall strength than the traditional dead-lift. So often young lifters are intimidated by the power movements, which they see the strongest men in the gym performing. Unable to approach the poundages used by the veterans, they stick to the machine exercises that trigger virtually no lower-body power.

The truth is that veteran weightlifters respect novices who challenge themselves with difficult exercises each week infinitely more than they respect athletes who use the entire stack of weight on every machine in the gym. Veterans remember their early days with surprising accuracy, and, consequently, they nearly always empathize with the beginners.

The fundamental principles of dead lifting are similar to those of squatting. Make sure you lower your torso on every repetition while keeping your spine as straight as possible. The best way to perfect this technique, which engages the powerful gluteus and quadriceps muscles, is to use a one-hand-over, one-hand-under grip on the Olympic bar. This makes it more difficult to hunch during the movement and helps to engage the target muscles fully, which means that you eliminate direct pressure on the spinal cord.

If you're not used to performing deadlifts, begin with a modest weight and work on perfecting your technique. For some people the 45- pound bar is enough to get them used to the new range of motion-a range that's likely to cause some muscle soreness by itself. Concentrate on lowering your buttocks with every rep and visualize your back as being as straight as the barbell you're lifting. If you begin to feel yourself hunching, stop. Hunching indicates that your lower-back muscles aren't flexed, which usually means the spinal cord is getting undue pressure. Proper flexion is imperative if you want to use this exercise safely and successfully. As with squats and bench presses, you mustn't let your ego overrule your common sense. There's too much to lose and too little to gain.

4. Lunges

The most prominent athletes always have superlative balance and remarkable agility. Clearly, much of this athletic grace is what we term "natural' or "God-given," but a lot of it has been fostered by weight-bearing exercises like the barbell lunge. I recommend lunges to athletes in every arena, for they develop balance and coordination, build terrific strength in the buttock and thighs and added deep muscle definition. Athletes who step forward and down with a weighted barbell on their shoulders will always have the physical and psychological edge over their opponents.

They'll have more confidence when performing big squats, as well as more confidence in their ability to maintain balance during erratic movements in other sports. As with deadlifts, newcomers can start with an empty Olympic ball. Keeping your back straight, step forward with your right leg, place your right foot flat on the floor in front of you and descend to the point where your right thigh is parallel to the ground. Concentrate on pushing back up with that same thigh as you return to the starting position, then step forward with your left leg to repeat on that side. Continue to alternate legs until you complete eight reps on each side.

Not only will lunges help to improve your strength, definition and balance, but they'll also make your clothes fit better over a more shapely lower body. Don't fall prey to the old gym myth that squats and lunges will overdevelop the buttocks. This piece of misinformation was originated by people who simply cannot muster the effort to perform these movements.

5. Chins

Few athletes can perform more than a couple of reps on this exercise when they begin pumping iron, as chins require terrific strength in the upper torso and arms. This is another movement that goes a step beyond its machine counterpart. For example, while the pulldown machine lets you lock your legs under a padded bar and use your lower back as a sort of hinge to move the weight from point A to point B, chins engage only the muscles that machine pulldowns were designed to target but typically do not.

One of the top fitness innovations in recent years is the all-purpose chin and dip machine, which gives you weighted resistance on both exercises via a foot bar. If you're not yet strong enough to perform three sets of 10 chins, you can make your muscles think you weigh 30 or 40 pounds less by using this machine. What's more, you avoid swinging your lower back to accommodate more weight, which is a major benefit. The range of motion is the same as it is on unassisted chins, and the contraction of the latissimus dorsi can be just as intense-provided, of course, that you reduce the assistance as your strength improves.

If your gym doesn't have this piece of equipment and your strength isn't yet to the point where you can perform several strict chins, use the pulldown machine to build the necessary power in your lats and shoulders. Just remember to avoid the rhythmic swing athletes typically use on this exercise. Concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together during each repetition and hold your body on the same vertical plane throughout the movement-just as you'd do on chins. Never place your hands wider than shoulder width, for an ultra wide grip inhibits the lat contraction and wreaks havoc on the shoulder capsules. In order to succeed in the iron game, you'll need a strong set of shoulder muscles as well as a strong, broad back.

6. Lateral raises

Performed strictly and with iron dumbbells rather than flimsy cables-this isolation movement is the perfect supplement to the upper-body compound exercises discussed above. Laterals primarily target the medial, or side, deltoids-muscles that give those who perform the exercise a decidedly broader appearance than those who don't. Consequently, lateral raises help to create a more tapered appearance while challenging your major muscle groups to handle increasing amounts of weight.

Hold the dumbbells in front of your pelvis with your palms facing each other. Raise your arms out to your sides, with your palms facing down and slightly inward. Perhaps the most important part of this exercise involves holding your shoulder girdle stationary throughout the set. When the weight is too heavy, the shoulder girdle tends to go up with the arms to assist in the movement. Fifteen-pound dumbbells are more than enough for beginners to use to develop flawless technique and build strength.

As an isolation movement the lateral raise requires excellent technique for optimum benefit. Never raise your arms past parallel to the floor, as the tension on the muscles doesn't remain as concentrated once you pass that point. Four sets of 10 repetitions performed frequently can greatly enhance the width of your shoulders and also keep the many secondary muscles in that area strong and injury-free.

7. Parallel bar dips

By now you should be starting to understand why traditional free-weight exercises are superior to high-tech machine movements. With a machine exercise you typically sit in a chair and work one or maybe two muscle groups. With most of the above exercises, however, you en- gage several major muscle groups and create an explosion of power that machines will never produce. You don't have to be a veteran bodybuilder or seasoned power- lifter to perform these exercises. You do need intestinal fortitude and great concentration.

If you concentrate when performing parallel bar dips, you'll create a terrific pump in your pectoral and triceps muscles. By relying on your own bodyweight as resistance, you'll develop a brand of strength and confidence that cable crossovers and machine incline presses just can't give you. With a machine you can simply set the weight down when it feels uncomfortable-and that's what most people do.

One of the keys to a successful set of dips is a slow, controlled motion from start to finish. Lower your body deliberately to the point where you feel the pectoral muscles begin to stretch. Then lean slightly into the stretch and press back to the starting position. This will challenge the outer pecs and begin to add depth and breadth to your primary chest muscles, which ultimately means increased upper-torso strength and pleasing lines being etched across your lower chest.

8. Incline dumbbell presses

To build additional strength in your upper pecs and front delts, you have to perform presses at approximately a 35 degree incline. The upper pecs, which are routinely one of the body's most difficult areas to build up, get more work when you're on an incline than they do when you're lying on a flat bench, with your body parallel to the floor. Dumbbells let you get a better stretch at the bottom of each repetition, and they require a strong push back to the starting position. They also enable people who have shoulder problems to keep the rotation of their upper-arm bones in the shoulder sockets as internal as possible. When you perform incline barbell presses at an angle greater than 35 degrees, you create tremendous stress in your shoulder capsules by using perilous amounts of external rotation. With dumbbells it's easier to keep your elbows tucked in, which means your shoulders will be less vulnerable to injury.

Make sure you feel the muscles contact on each repetition, always keeping the motion controlled and avoiding positions in which you can't possibly execute the movement safely. Try to avoid benches on which the angle is greater than 35 degrees, as you want to isolate the upper pecs as much as possible and reduce the front delts' natural inclination to take over the movement. Performing three to four sets of eight repetitions develops power with endurance and helps to create thickness throughout the pectorals-just don't expect to look like Franco Columbu right away.

9. Dumbbell rows

Although dumbbell rows generally don't come to mind when we think of compound movements, they're excellent for building strength in the major back muscles. I prefer dumbbells to the more traditional barbell rows because of the terrific isolation they offer Barbell rows don't lend themselves to subtle changes in motion the way the dumbbell variety does. For example, you must pull the barbell directly to your abdomen with both arms extended and contracted at identical angles, but with dumbbells you can develop an arcing motion and thus get a greater stretch in your lats and a stronger contraction at the top.

When you perform dumbbell rows, make sure to keep your back flat, or parallel to the ceiling, with your lower-back muscles held tight. This will relieve the spinal cord of undue strain and put the tension where it belongs-on the larger latissimus and teres muscles. As you lift the dumbbell from the floor, pull it to your abdomen-not your chest-and lower it back to the floor in a forward arc. You should feel the dumbbell pull the lat outward at this point. In contrast, when you set the dumbbell directly down from the abdomen and don't move it slightly forward, you inhibit the natural range of motion. This isn't to suggest that you should extend the dumbbell forward at an exaggerated or unnatural angle, but it's important to let the muscles stretch at the bottom of each rep.

10. Alternate hammer curls

A strong pair of arms is essential for performing pulling exercises such as deadlifts, chins and dumbbell rows, and one of the best overall movements for building impressive guns is the hammer curl. I prefer this exercise to the more traditional alternate dumbbell and standing barbell curls for at least two reasons. To begin with, because you don't twist your palms as you curl upward, the movement is less taxing on the shoulder structures. The humeri aren't pulled to the edge of the shoulder sockets as they are with other biceps exercises. In other words, the rotation of the upper arm is less external.

Second, the exercise builds powerful forearms as well as large, symmetrical biceps. There's less strain on the muscle attachment, which means that heavy dumbbells are less likely to cause injury and more likely to trigger growth.

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