March 31, 2016 Zhou Jia

Choosing the right exercises

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What defines a great workout? Of course to answer this question properly, one would need to define the workout objective, list any limiting factors such as health conditions, prior injuries, etc. But assuming our readers are in basically sound physical health and have a general objective of ‘losing weight and toning up’, then defining a great workout really comes down to ensuring you get the basic principles right – exercise selection, intensity, and technique. In this article, we will focus on exercise selection.

The bedrock of any workout should be based on performing compound, functional exercises. Compound exercises are multi-joint exercises that work several muscles at the same time. An example would be a squat, which uses pretty much all the major muscles in the legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and calf muscles) to create movement at the ankle, knee, and hip joints, as well as the core muscles, which act to stabilize the pelvis. Other examples of compound exercises would be push-ups (chest, shoulders, triceps), and pull-ups (back, biceps, abdominals). Compound exercises contrast with isolated exercises which produce movement at a single joint and focus on individual muscle groups like bicep curls, lateral raises, hip adduction, and hip abduction exercises.

Compound exercises are way more effective than isolated exercises because they allow you to lift heavier loads, elicit a greater hormonal response, and promote greater joint stability and strength. But perhaps most importantly, compound exercises are also more functional than isolated exercises.

Functional exercises are those which closely mimic the actions which we need to do in real life like climbing, jumping, picking things up off the ground, pushing things, etc. So, for example, a deadlift, which involves lifting a bar off the ground to waist-height is an example of a functional exercise since it mimics the activity of picking up a heavy object like a box. This contrasts with dysfunctional exercises like using a leg extension machine, which bears no relation to any action we might do in our daily lives.

Unsurprisingly, when you train the body in a way which is more akin to our natural body movements, the results are a lot better. Resistance machines which isolate individual muscle groups may look impressive and give you a concentrated burn in a muscle you are trying to target. But do not be fooled into thinking that these fancy machines are necessary or even particularly useful if your goal is to lose weight and tone up. Some of the best workouts can be done using nothing more complex than a single kettlebell or set of dumbbells.