As a personal trainer, I am constantly asked what exercises people should do to get stronger or faster or lose weight more quickly. When I answer that question, I focus on quality of life. In other words, what types of activities are you going to do on a daily basis? I talk to the person, find out what activities they like to do, and go from there.
If I wanted to boil that question down and find the five best exercises, I would think of them in terms of overall fitness. What actions will I need to do at any time, with or without warning? I want to pick the exercises that will not only increase my overall fitness level but have me ready for anything at any time. I picked the following five exercises for these reasons and because I can continually modify them so that they never get easy or boring.
Running is a basic human movement and a great way to stay in shape. I focus on sprints because jogging will help improve endurance but it will not provide all of the benefits that sprinting does. Sprints are a great way to increase anaerobic capacity, burn fat and even build strength when done properly. Sprinting can be done over shorter or longer distances and up or down hills. Walter Payton, one of the best football players of all time, used to sprint up sandy hills as a key part of his training regimen.
Squats are the undisputed “king” of exercises if strength is the only goal. Squats do not really have a particular usage in daily life though. Deadlifts serve a more functional purpose in that they provide the perfect form for picking objects off the floor. Deadlifts strengthen the legs and lower back. They also require good balance. They can be done with a barbell or dumbbells and with a narrow or wide (sumo) stance. The form can be altered by moving the weights to one side of the body or both (or “suitcase” style). Carrying the weight for a short distance after deadlifting adds an extra element to the challenge.
Push-ups are must in any exercise program. They are a great exercise for the upper body, as they work the chest, shoulders and triceps. Even better, good push-up form requires a strong core to keep the body in position. They are also highly customizable. They can be done with arms out wide or in tight. Clapping hands at the top of the movement is a great way to build explosion. Another great option for push-ups is to do “crocodile walks,” which keeps the body nice and low while moving around the training space using the same form that a crocodile does when they walk along the ground.
Pull-ups are another “must” for any workout regimen. They strengthen the upper back and biceps. Just as with push-ups, pull-ups can be done in a number of ways. They can be done with overhand grips, underhand grips (chin-ups) or alternated grips. Effective variations include raising the chest all the way to the bar, moving the body from once side of the bar to the other in the “up” position and hold the body in the “up” position for some seconds. For the ultimate in pull-ups, forcefully pull the body up so that the waist comes up to the bar (known as a “muscle up”). This requires a swinging of the body to build the momentum necessary to get the body that high.
One of the most overlooked aspects of any training regimen is footwork. Proper footwork, regardless of the activity of choice, requires balance and mobility. The best way to acquire these attributes in my experience is through agility drills. Agility drills require precision and efficiency of movement. Agility drills can be as simple as playing hopscotch and take as many forms as the imagination allows. All that is needed to do agility drills is an agility ladder or ropes that can be tied into blocks big enough for feet to fit into. Alternate foot motions, including in and out and side to side. Using high knees to move through the ladder is a great way to increase anaerobic capacity as well.