Most gym-goers have a general idea of what a push-up looks like or how to use the leg press machine, but what they may need advice on is deciding which exercise will make the most impact toward achieving their specific goals. To help make deciding a bit easier, we've put together a list of exercise favorites from top fitness professionals, which are all context-based and outcome-specific. So, remove the guesswork from your training and start making progress.
1. Best Exercise for Bigger Arms = Biceps Curl
New York City-based fitness expert John Romaniello, (or as most know him, "Roman"), states the obvious when he says that bicep curls are the way to go for anyone looking to increase arm size. He adds that curls are an isolation exercise that should be used in conjunction with a compound exercise, like chin-ups. More weight can be used when performing a chin-up compared to a curl, and more weight leads to more growth. Try the parallel grip chin-up, because this move puts the biceps in the strongest mechanical position. HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight, holding a dumbbell in each hand at hip level. Without rounding your shoulders forward or throwing your back into it, contract your biceps and lift the weight to shoulder height. Lower back down to the start with control. Perform eight to 12 reps in a set for three to four sets.
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2. Best Exercise for Explosive Power = Russian Kettlebell Swing
Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California, recommends the Russian kettlebell swing, as an exercise the builds explosive power. Cosgrove says this move works the entire body, which burns a ton of calories and develops athleticism and power. HOW TO DO IT: Place a kettlebell in front of you and bend at the hips, maintaining a neutral spine. Your hips should be just higher than your knees. Grab the kettlebell, and hike it back between your legs. Using the power of your hips extending forward, swing the kettlebell out in front of you to a point where it is weightless and you are standing tall with good posture, core engaged. Let the bell swing back between your legs again as you bend at the hips repeating the swing.
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3. Best Exercise for Upper Body Power = Clap Push-Up
For those who want to develop upper body power, trainer Tim Henriques, based in Tyson's Corner, VA, recommends clap push-ups. Henriques says that this version of the push-up "builds a lot of power, as you have to overcome significant force as you fall." According to Henriques, this move also hits your core hard as it challenges you to prevent your lumbar curve from moving into excessive extension. HOW TO DO IT: Start in a plank position, keeping your body rigid and maintaining a straight line from your feet to your head. Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor. Explosively push yourself off the ground and into the air, clapping your hands in front of your chest as you do. "You need to be able to do at least 20 good push-ups to be successful with this," says Henriques. Sets of three to five can be performed when focusing on power, whereas, higher rep sets are acceptable when working on conditioning.
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4. Best Exercise for Lower Body Strength = Deadlift
Hudson, Massachusetts-based trainer Tony Gentilcore recommends deadlifts. "You'd be hard pressed to find a better exercise that trains the entire body," he says. HOW TO DO THEM: Set up with your hips back and chest up making sure to maintain a neutral spine. Grab the bar with both hands. Keeping your arms fully extended, press yourself away from the floor through the heels until you're standing. Finish by squeezing your glutes at the top. On the descent, make sure to maintain a neutral spine -- no rounding. Push your hips back and keep sitting back until the weights reach the ground. Pause, re-establish proper positioning and repeat.
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5. Best Exercise for Toning Glutes = Hip Thrust
Phoenix-based fitness professional Bret Contreras recommends the hip thrust for building up the rear. "It's the only full range of movement where I feel that my glutes give out before anything else," he says. Other glute exercises can be limited by the back or quads, according to Contreras: "The hip thrust makes my glutes burn like crazy." HOW TO DO IT: Start by lying down with your back elevated against a bench, a barbell centered across your hips and your feet flat on the ground. Then, bridge upward, squeezing the glutes. Make sure to move at the hips while keeping the spine in a neutral position. Rise to full hip extension, pause for a brief moment, and then return to starting position. Perform three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
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6 Best Exercise for Hip and Leg Strength = Romanian Deadlift
Trainer to the trainers, Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University in Fort Lauderdale, recommends the Romanian deadlift (RDL) for building functional strength in the hips and legs. According to Tumminello, the RDL has high functional carry over to common everyday tasks like lifting your kids or picking something up off the floor. HOW TO DO IT: Stand tall holding a barbell or dumbbells against the front of your thighs. With a slight bend in your knees, keep your back straight and hinge at your hips, slowly lowering the weights toward the floor. Stop when your torso is parallel with the floor. Reverse the motion by exploding your hips forward, hinging back up to the starting position. Keep the weights as close to your body as possible. Keep your hips high, unlike in the conventional deadlift. Keep your back flat at all times during the exercise. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
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7. Best Lower Body Toning Move for Women = Hill Sprint
Tennessee-based trainer and fitness blogger Nia Shanks knows a thing or two about getting females strong. Shanks recommends hill sprints to improve lower body strength in females because this type of exercise doesn't load the spine. Plus, running hill sprints forces trainees to get outside, and it increases mental toughness. HOW TO DO IT: Find a nearby hill, and after a good warm-up, sprint up the hill. Walk slowly down the hill in a zig-zag fashion. Rest as long as needed and sprint again. The number of sprints you perform depends on your strength and conditioning level and the distance and incline of your hill. Shanks generally recommends a hill that allows you to sprint for five to 20 seconds.
8. Best Exercise to Build Back Muscle = Bent-Over Barbell Row
Rog Law from All-Access Fitness Academy in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, recommends the bent-over dumbbell row for creating a stronger back. Law prefers this exercise because low-back fatigue is minimized, improving the size gaining effects of the exercise. He adds that explosive pulling will also help to build strength. HOW TO DO IT: Start with a loaded barbell on the floor. Bend your knees while pushing your butt back, hinging forward from the hips so that your torso is parallel with the floor in the starting position. Pull your shoulders back and row the bar to your stomach without moving either your hips or knees. Return the bar to the floor for each rep. Perform three to four sets of eight to 12 reps.
9. Best Calorie-Blasting Exercise = Russian Twist With Sandbag
Scottsdale-based trainer Josh Henkin, creator of the Dynamic Variable Resistance Training System, recommends using a sandbag in place of traditional weights to kick up calorie burn. "Our work has shown that this exercise stimulates higher heart rates and caloric outputs, even when compared to fat-burning exercises such as the kettlebell swing, with only half the weight," says Henkin. Not only do you challenge you body in multiple planes of motion, you challenge your hip and core stability as well. HOW TO DO IT: Started seated with your legs bent in front of you, holding a sandbag by the neutral grip handles. Lean back slightly and twist from side to side without allowing your back to arch. To make it easier, hold the sandbag closer to your. To make it harder, hold the sandbag further away from you.
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10. Best Exercise for Building Calf Muscles = Farmer’s Walk
When asked for the best exercise to build up muscles in skinny calves, trainer Jason Ferruggia, owner of Renegade Strength and Conditioning in Watchung, New Jersey, was frank. "Unfortunately, you get big calves from your parents," he says. But if Ferruggia had to pick one exercise to help increase what genetics gave you, he recommends the farmer's walk. "Walking with a few hundred pounds in your hands is far more functional and will do more for your calves than any kind of calf raise ever could," he says. "Follow that up with some heavy sled pushing, and you've really got a winner." HOW TO DO IT: Grab the heaviest dumbbells you can hold and walk. Ferruggia recommends that you exaggerate the heel lift and get up on the ball of your foot. Do four to five sets of 60-second walks twice a week.
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11. Best Exercise for Single Leg Strength = Barbell Split Squat
Trainer and fitness writer, Ben Bruno of Woburn, Massachusetts, writes about new exercise variations on his blog each week. When asked about the best way to build single-leg strength, Bruno went with a classic: the barbell split squat. "This is a great exercise to overload the legs without overloading the spine," he says. "It's also a great way to test for imbalances between sides." HOW TO DO IT: Stand in a split stance with one leg in front and the other back behind you. Hold a dumbbell in each hand beside your hips or balance a barbell across your back. Descend slowly and under control until your back knee is hovering above the floor. Make sure to keep your torso upright as you stand back up to the starting position.
12. Best Exercise for Fat Loss = Sprinting
When clients are looking for fat loss, trainer and "Training for Warriors" author Martin Rooney, of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, recommends sprinting. He calls sprinting "the best exercise that everyone has forgotten to do." It stimulates the entire body and maintains the power in your muscles and nervous system. "This is one of the secrets of how I have stayed the same weight for over 20 years," he says. HOW TO DO IT: After a good 15-minute warm-up, run eight 40- to 60-yard sprints three days per week. After each sprint, walk back and perform 20 push-ups and 20 V-ups. Any body-weight exercise can be added, but you can be sure that this combination (sprinting and body-weight exercises) is anything but easy. To go easier on your joints, trying sprinting on a turf or grass field and only sprint as hard as you feel comfortable based on your current fitness level.
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13. Best Exercise for Core Stabilization = Single-Leg Lifts
Edmonton-based rainer Dean Somerset says single-leg lifts are some of the most challenging and versatile core stabilization exercises you can do. Plus, they're appropriate for a wide variety of trainees -- from those suffering from acute spinal injuries to elite athletes in any sport. HOW TO DO THEM: Lying on your back, raise your legs up to the ceiling. Tense your core like you're bracing for someone to punch you in the gut, making sure you don't wind up pushing your lower back down into the ground. Your arms should be along your side. Lower one leg out so that your knee touches the floor, without letting your hips roll or your lower back curve further off the floor or press down into the floor. Return to the starting position and switch legs, breathing normally throughout. Perform three to five sets of 12 to 15 reps per leg or 30 seconds alternating sides.
14. Best Exercise for Lower Body Power = Heavy Deadlift
Neurophysiologist, author and trainer, Chad Waterbury, of Santa Monica, California, recommends a heavy deadlift for those who are looking to increase lower-body power. "The deadlift has the greatest carryover to greater sprint speed - an accurate measure of lower body power," he says. As maximal deadlift pounds go up, sprint times go down. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet eight to 10 inches apart, slightly behind a loaded barbell. With an overhand grip, grab the bar just beyond the width of your legs. Stick out your butt and chest, and find a neutral spine. Take a belly breath of air, and brace your abs. Squeeze the bar tightly, and drive the floor away from you, while simultaneously extending your knees and hips. Keep the bar as close to your body at all times. Lock your hips into the bar, and finish with your shoulders behind the bar with your chin tucked. Pull a heavy deadlift twice per week with no belt, straps or lifting suit. Drop the bar between reps to eliminate the lowering phase, minimize injury risk and enhance recovery. Perform five sets of one to two reps.
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15. Best Bench Press Variation = Incline Dumbbell Press
Jon Goodman, owner of the Personal Trainer Development Center in Toronto, recommends the incline dumbbell press, as it allows him to press pain-free, even though he has a tight shoulder area. This move allows Goodman to stay safe, while still lifting heavy. HOW TO DO IT: Adjust the bench to a slight incline and hold two dumbbells with a neutral grip; palms facing inward. Squeeze the weights as hard as you can and press them above your head. Lower the weights down beside your body, concentrating on the stretch in your chest. Without losing tension, press back up. To build strength, perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
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16. Best Full-Body Exercise = The Thruster
The thruster (aka dumbbell front squat to overhead press) is one of the best full-body exercises that also cranks up your metabolism not only during your workout, but afterward as well, thanks to the EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) phenomenon. Almost every single muscle in the body is turned on, firing your cardiovascular system into overdrive. HOW TO DO IT: Hold a barbell in front of your chest with your elbows pointing down and your palms facing in. Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart. Squat as low as possible. The deepest you should reach is hip crease below knee crease (butt below knees). Keep your chest up -- don't fall forward due to the pull of the weight. Stand up powerfully, transferring momentum into the weights. Push the barbell overhead, and fully extend your elbows. Your arms should finish two to three inches away from your ears. Return the weight back to chest level and perform the next squat. Perform as many clean reps as possible in 20 seconds. Rest for 20 seconds, and repeat for six to eight sets in a row.
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