A common concept with a lot of exercises done in the gym is that they’re either just for physique development and have little benefit for athletic performance, or they’re only beneficial for athletes and don’t deliver favourable results for looking awesome naked. While there are some exercises that could fall into either category, there are also those which would provide benefits to each goal, whether it’s tearing up the field or making everyone want to buy you dinner and breakfast, in that order.
In this post, we wanted to break down a couple of coaches thoughts on some exercises that would work well to enhance physique development as well as improved performance in many athletic dimensions. Some of the exercises could be used for one dimension more than another, but could also benefit for individuals looking to recover from injury, which showcases how the exercise is merely a tool to help you achieve the specific goals you’re after if used properly.
Starting off the list:
Dean’s #1 - Barbell squat:
The amount of documented research on the back squat alone puts it head and shoulders above most other exercises as far as evidence-based results. They have shown systemic, endocrinological, bone density, muscle volume and cross section hypertrophy, and many other benefits to taking a loaded bar for a ride on your back while you dip it low.
In terms of performance, the ability to press into the floor and drive a heavy weight leads to increased leg strength, which is one of the main quantifiable improvements that can translate to improved sport performance and can affect qualities like max strength, strength endurance (ability to generate repeated bouts of strength) and even speed of contractions. Many squat programs have shown improvements in vertical jump performance and sprint speed, meaning the carry over is huge.
For physique goals, there’s considering half of your body muscle is below your waist, it’s a hugely imperative consideration to train legs consistently. Plus, everyone can appreciate some well sculpted thighs and buns.
James’ #1 - Glute Bridg
Over the last 50 years, one body part has gained a ton of notoriety for both men and women, gaining both sexes an entry into the world of fitness idolism. The glutes are the staple of any well-rounded body, both in performance and physique. There is even a category in fitness competition judged almost completely on the quality of the competitor’s glute shape and size.
Gargantuan amounts of research in recent years has brought forward the importance of having respectably strong and powerful glutes with new measures to help reduce the number of unnecessary injury and aid in the performance of almost every sport including the lower body. So, all of them.
Dean’s #2 - Cable Pallof Press:
While mainly a performance based exercise, most exercises also have a huge carry over to physique, especially if the person has appreciably low levels of body fat.
The main goals of the pallof press is to control rotation and lateral flexion of the spine while being loaded at the hands. The changing leverage of the movement makes it challenging and especially so if the goal is to stay stable and strong, not lean or twist in response to the weight, and to simply rise to the challenge it’s giving. This is a great movement to use with everyone from very elite athletes to recovering spinal surgery clients, if warranted.
James’ #2 - Turkish Get Up
Serving primarily for increased body awareness and overall movement control, the Turkish Get Up can also work in favor for those looking to create jacked, swole, and insanely strong boulders that bode well for any movement involving shoulders. You guessed it, all of them.
Load up a 100lb kettlebell in one hand and try to finish one full rep of these and your shoulder will be feeling saucy in no time flat. Add on top of those some presses between each segment of the movement and you’ve got yourself a recipe for some gains. A healthy shoulder pump will ultimately help you fill out those uber tight shirts you bought last summer but never got to fill out. Until now.
Dean’s #3 - Pushups:
A classic staple, the pushup does a lot of things well when done well. Whereas a bench press allows you to support your upper body and spine on a bench, a pushup is a free floating version where you have to control the movement of your upper body, spine and hips all while shoving the ground away.
For performance benefits, treat this like a moving plank, where the goal is to brace the abs and lock the ribs and pelvis together to limit secondary movement, and explode off the floor with a strong upper body push. You can load a push up easily beyond body weight by throwing some chains or bands around your back, or by having someone assist in balancing a weight plate or dumbbell on your back. You can also vary tempos, timing and reps to see different results.
For physique goals, a big factor is time under tension. Try to alternate between slow eccentrics (lower to the ground) and slow concentrics (press away from the ground). Doing one set where you lower for 5 seconds per rep and then blast up from the floor as fast as possible, and then lowering quickly and pressing up for 5 seconds can make a huge difference in muscle stimulation and hypertrophy.
James’ #3 - Carries
Nothing creates strong and healthy shoulders, along with a ridiculously strong midsection like a set of heavy carries. Most have likely tried to “Farmers Carry” and found after several rounds of grip straining, shoulder aching, sweat pouring fun, their performance. Coaches use these between exercises as a filler or supplementary exercise or sometimes as the primary exercise if they’re going really heavy.
A favourite of mine to add into a client’s program is the “Suitcase Carry”. Essentially the exercise is the same, just one sided. This purposely helps create more strain on one side of the body to create more tension on the opposing side of the weight, forcing the obliques and low back muscles to work more efficiently for the trainee. Just remember that when you’re carrying one, create so much tension in both hands that it actually feels like you’re carrying two.
Dean’s #4 - Deadlift:
Not many other exercises can match up to deadlifts in terms of performance benefits and also aesthetic improvements. While very technique-heavy to avoid becoming injured, the benefits to a deadlift are massive and translate in similar ways that the squat does for performance. The aesthetic benefits to having more dense hamstrings, rounder glutes, and strong erector spinae muscles is definitely a plus for this one as well.
James’ #4 - Nordic Hamstring Curl
Nordic Curls have been researched intensively throughout the last decade and have shown to work extremely well to prevent injury, develop monstrous hamstring, and increase strength for weight lifters and athletes alike.
Dean’s #5 - Bicep curls:
Because biceps. When someone has very well built and defined biceps, it’s incredibly telling that they work out regularly and have some level of strength to them not visible if they didn’t do some direct arm work. While running is fantastic as a form of exercise, it’s not as immediately visible that someone is a runner as seeing some biceps peaks under the short-sleeved shirts can be.
James’ #5 - Any Kind of Calf Work:
Fairly obvious. Too many people are walking around the gym with huge upper bodies and decent upper leg physique, but far too many yield any kind of second look in the gym with a pair of calves that resemble the bone end of a chicken leg. I’m sure there is also some kind of performance or injury prevention related benefit, but the cold hard truth is: We’re not all blessed with huge calves, so some of us need to be doing that little bit extra to avoid looking like an actual chicken in the gym.
These exercises all offer something different than the last. Some are geared more towards physique and some, towards performance and injury prevention. Ultimately, they all have one thing in common, they are all an integral piece of a fully functional and aesthetically beneficial routine. You, all of you, should be adding these to your workouts.
For the gains. The sweet, sweet gains.
Dean Somerset is a world renowned personal trainer, speaker, and educator. His workshops educates trainers and the public about how to work with their bodies in mobility, strength training, and post-rehabilitation.
You can find out more about Dean by clicking on his picture.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.
You can find out more about James by clicking on his picture.