Now that we’ve covered all of what I consider to be the Exercise Essentials, let’s talk about how to put them together into an effective program. Many of the concepts in this post have already been covered in my Strength Training Basics post, but it never hurts to go over it again.
The exercise essentials are all considered compound exercises, which means that they have two features in common:
- Action at multiple joints – Compound exercises force you to move at more than one joint at one time. The squat for instance requires flexion and extension of the hip as well as the knee. The overhead press requires movement at the shoulder and the elbow.
- Multiple muscle groups as prime movers – Compound exercises require the use of multiple muscle groups. The squat requires the use of the hamstrings and glutes to extend the hip as well as the quadriceps to extend the knee. The overhead press requires the use of the deltoids to abduct/flex the shoulder and the triceps to extend the elbow. Compound exercises also tend to require the use of a much larger number of stabilizing muscles.
Due to these factors, compound exercises are very time and energy efficient. By stimulating multiple muscles groups with each exercise, we are able to perform fewer total exercises to cover all of the major muscle groups.
Major Muscle/Movement Groups
For the purposes of this program, I divide the body into three major functional muscle/movement groups.
- Legs - I’m almost mad at myself for only making the legs one muscle group, but the truth is that most full-fledged lower body exercises (squats, deadlifts) recruit the entire leg musculature, so I feel comfortable lumping them together. Roughly – quadriceps (front of thigh), glutes (butt), hamstrings (back of thigh), adductors (inside of thigh), gastrocnemius and soleus (both calf muscles).
- Upper Body Push – An entire complex of muscles is involved in a “pushing” motion of the upper body – notably the pectorals (chest), anterior deltoids (front shoulders), and triceps (back of upper arms).
- Upper Body Pull – Not surprisingly, the “opposite” muscle complex to the above is responsible for upper body “pulling” motions – the back musculature, the posterior deltoids (rear shoulders), and biceps (front of upper arms).
That pretty much covers the whole body. That’s right, we can basically stimulate every muscle from neck to feet with only three major movement types.
Two different total-body workouts of three exercises each performed in alternating fashion with at least 48 hours of rest in between each exercise. Simple. Perform 3 sets (groups) of 12-15 repetitions of each exercise with 60 seconds of rest in between each set. Complete all 3 sets of each exercise before moving to the next exercise.
Goblet Squats (Legs)
- Basics – Squat performed with a dumbbell held at the chest by one end with both hands, as if you were holding a goblet.
- Coaching Cues – Initiate the movement at the hips, not the knees. Sit back, as if sitting down into a chair. Envision a rope tied around your waist pulling your butt back behind you to initiate the movement. Keep your back in a straight line from tail-bone to skull (no rounding over). Squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or until you cannot keep your back from rounding. Keep your weight on your heels throughout, not on your toes (center of gravity should be over the heels due to sitting back). Push through the heels. Contract glutes to stand tall at the top of the movement.
- Major Muscle Groups – Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves
Seated Cable Rows (Upper Body Pull)
- Basics – Sit at cable station (or cable row machine) with feet braced and row with either a straight bar handle or a neutral grip (palms facing each other) V-shaped handle.
- Coaching Cues – Keep your back in a straight line from pelvis to skull at a 90 degree angle to the floor (sit up straight). Never lean forward or backward from this position during the movement. Do not allow your head to protrude forward (head up). Maintain some knee bend. Begin with your shoulder blades and elbows fully extended. Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back, together, and downwards towards your but (retract and depress). As your shoulder blades retract, initiate the rest of the pull from the elbows. Pull through the elbows until the handle reaches your chest (or nearly so). Pause for a second at the chest before returning to the starting position.
- Major Muscle Groups – Upper and middle back, posterior deltoids, biceps
Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press (Upper Body Push)
- Basics – Stand straight, core braced, with dumbbells at shoulder level. Grip may be pronated (palms facing forward) or neutral (palms facing your head). Press overhead to full extension.
- Coaching Cues – Keep core/abdominals tight throughout. Do not allow yourself to lean back or arch excessively at the low back. Do not “shrug” your shoulders upward toward your ears during the press.
- Major Muscle Groups – Anterior deltoids, triceps
Dumbbell Split Squat (Legs)
- Basics – Stand, dumbbells in hands by sides at arms length. Place one foot forward of the other, in a “lunge” position. Squat until rear knee brushes the ground (do put weight on grounded knee). Return to starting position (feet still split). Repeat all 8 reps for one forward leg without moving your feet, then switch foot positions and perform 8 for the other leg.
- Coaching Cues – Maintain vertical torso with straight back from pelvis to skull (stay tall). Keep your chest up, shoulder blades back, and chin tucked as if you were standing at attention throughout. Do not lean forward during the squat. Squat straight down, rather than forward onto the front foot. Keep the weight on the heel of the forward foot and the toe of the rear foot.
- Major Muscle Groups – Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves
Chin-Up, assisted if necessary (Upper Body Pull)
- Basics – Grasp bar in a supinated (palms toward your face) grip. From a dead hang (fully extended arms and shoulders), pull yourself until your chin is over the bar. Use a form of assistance if you cannot perform the 12-15 reps with your bodyweight.
- Coaching Cues – Initiate the movement by retracting and depressing your shoulder blades (just like the cable row). Pull through your elbows. Keep your core tight and do not swing or “buck” to get over the bar.
- Major Muscle Groups – Back, biceps, posterior deltoids
Dumbbell Bench Press (flat bench, supinated grip)
- Basics – Lie back on flat bench with dumbbells in hands at shoulder level. Press dumbbells.
- Coaching Cues – As you lie back on the bench, retract and depress your shoulder blades to create a strong base out of your upper back. Maintain this tension throughout the exercise. Keep feet flat on the floor, pulled up towards your head as far as possible to create tension in the legs and lower back arch.
- Major Muscle Groups – Pectorals (chest), anterior deltoids, triceps
Wrap it up
This wraps up the exercise essentials series. Hope everyone learned something. If so, put it to good use!