Setting a New Year’s resolution means changing an undesired trait or starting a new personal goal to improve one’s life. Improving one’s life for the better is logical and helpful, yet only 16% of people stick to ‘some’ of their resolutions, and 4% of people stick to all of their resolutions (1). So what are the most common New Year’s resolutions? Well, 60% of people want to exercise more; 55% want to eat healthier; almost 50% want to lose weight (3). However, 93% of millennials and 84% of baby boomers said they think that they would keep to the resolutions they made (2). What a discrepancy. Talk about delusional!
Most people want to get leaner and have better shape to their body. Today I’ll talk about how to stick to your goals by choosing which exercises to do. When you know which exercises are best to perform, you form a road map of targets, which means you’ll make good use of your time and effort, which helps you to consistently improve, which helps you to become consistently motivated, and the positive feedback loop continues so you don’t become another one of these dire statistics.
My cycle of positive feedback loop from knowing which exercises you need to do.
Build a road map
The key to achieving your goals with exercise (or anything for that matter) is to be, as I call it, ‘consistently consistent’. Set a main goal, but make sure you set smaller goals along the way so that you have a road map that clearly defines where you’re going. In terms of applying this to exercise, it helps by firstly choosing which exercises you need to do to start improving in the most efficient manner possible over the long term.
My criteria to know if an exercise is useful or not
To stick to your New Year’s resolutions you need to make better choices in which exercises to do. I have 4 criteria when it comes to deciding if an exercise is useful or not.
- The exercise incorporates a lot of muscles at once:
Incorporating lots of muscles simultaneously during an exercise means performing multi-joint movements. Multi-joint (or compound) exercises (i.e., exercises that use one or more large muscles and involves two or more joints (7) put muscle on your frame faster than single-joint (or isolation) exercises (i.e., exercises that use smaller muscles and involves only one joint (7).
People often think that if they want to adequately develop strength, shape and size of smaller muscles, then it’s necessary to add isolation exercises to their training programme because the multi-joint exercises won’t be stimulating enough. However, research has shown that there are no additional benefits such as muscle size or strength gains when single-joint exercises are included in a multi-joint exercise programme (8, 9). Therefore, you can design your road map with no or little isolation exercises; this will take you less time to complete a session, which is an important point because a lack of time is the most frequently cited barrier to exercise adoption (9). Therefore, it’s important to find strategies that reduce the time commitment without negatively affecting your results (8).
If you’re training a tiny muscle individually from other muscles, such as isolating just the biceps or triceps or just the side of your shoulders, you’re not going to increase your metabolic or cardiovascular rate much as the movement doesn’t use up many calories or get the heart pumping. If you use an exercise that uses a lot of muscles together, you burn more calories per unit of time of effort, and your body requires more oxygenated blood to reach all the muscles so your heart has to pump harder and faster to supply the demand. Multi-joint exercises overshadow single-joint exercises by increasing hormonal and metabolic responses (9). Multi-joint resistance training in comparison to single-joint training is more efficient for improving muscle strength and maximal oxygen consumption (i.e., providing adequate stimuli to increase cardiorespiratory fitness) (10, 11).
Also, when you perform an exercise that uses lots of muscles at the same time, you improve your athleticism because at the same time you are:
- Improving co-ordination between muscle groups
- Improving balance and co-ordination from performing complex movement patterns
- Lifting more weight which makes your muscles stronger
- Increasing fatigue management and physical and mental tolerance to work-load because you’re getting the whole body in an oxygen debt which means your heart and lungs have to work harder (9, 10, 11) which means forcing your body to develop more capillaries (tiny blood vessels between arterioles and veins that exchange nutrients and wastes)
A very simplified illustration of capillary networking
- The exercise has you primarily standing on your feet:
Exercises that have you standing allow you to:
- Work a lot more muscle than exercises that have you sitting or lying down
- Test and improve your balance a lot more than lying or sitting
- Be more functional to everyday life as you move on your feet (unless you’re a worm)
When your balance is tested standing up while trying to move a weight, you reduce the chances of falling over as you get older (this is just common sense when you think about it and holding yoga positions, lying on the floor doing Pilates exercises, and standing on a Bosu ball just doesn’t cut it). Again, standing exercises build more muscle mass because you use more muscles and you can also lift more weight by utilising your whole body as a unit on your feet than if you were sitting or lying, and you burn more calories standing.
No. You now have permission from His Royal Highness to stop being one of these people
Exercising while standing builds more bone strength than lying or sitting. As an extreme example, one week of bed rest results in 40% loss of strength (particularly of the anti-gravity muscles: back, thighs and calf’s) (4), 1.4kg loss of lean tissue, over 3% decline in thigh cross section area, 30% decrease in whole-body insulin sensitivity (with a 30% decline in glucose disposal, i.e., your body not using insulin effectively to dispose of sugar) (5), and also losses in neural, hormonal and cellular processes, and increase in heart rate (4). Even five days of disuse can lead to a 4% decline in muscle mass and 9% decline in muscle strength (5). There can also be a 1% reduction in bone density within the spine after one week of bed rest (4). It has been suggested that the accumulation of short periods of bed rests throughout life may largely be responsible for the loss of muscle mass and metabolic decline throughout the life span (5). In shocking comparison, we can lose as much muscle in one week of bed rest as we can gain by 12 weeks of intense resistance training exercise (5).
Get off the sofa, floor, or seat to save your muscle and bone
More stabilising muscles are involved to help the main muscles control the weight when standing compared to sitting or lying down exercises. The ‘core’ muscles of the waist (including ‘abs’), hips and low back have to work very hard to stabilise the trunk which connects to the legs and arms during standing exercises, and they get almost no work with sitting or lying exercises. If you’ve got a job that involves sitting all day, the last thing you want to do is choose exercises where you’re sitting or lying some more.
- The exercise moves your body through space:
Exercises that move your body through space tend to be more superior to exercises that only move one leg, one elbow, or sitting exercises. When you’re moving your body through space, balancing a weight in your hands or on your back, you are forced to increase your balance, co-ordination, speed, strength, power, and overall athleticism, and these components have to continually improve as you get incrementally stronger.
When you move your body through space, you also increase your proprioception, i.e., your ability and awareness to consciously and subconsciously enhance joint position sense, and move your body and limbs through space in a co-ordinated manner with function, balance, stability and grace over your centre of gravity (6). Increased proprioception also helps speed up your ability to recover from injury (6).
- The exercise allows you to use/move the most amount of weight:
You want exercises that allow for easy loading of weight, and progressive overload, i.e., equipment and associated exercise that allows you to incrementally increase weight over the long term. Sitting machine exercises don’t allow you to do this as the weight plates are fixed and jump up in weight increments that don’t allow gradual muscle/strength adaptation. Remember: you want to select exercises that allow you to gradually improve over the long term to keep you motivated. In addition, multi-joint exercises allow you to use the most amount of weight, which means you’re using the most amount of muscle, which will cause the most amount of shape change and fitness to your body.
The king of all exercise equipment to address all my criteria
Barbells are the superior exercise equipment when it comes to shaping your body and getting it lean and fit. Dumbbells would be a good second choice but they are inferior to barbells as the exercises usually result in moving less weight, meaning there is less workload, less muscle mass used, less scalable in weight increments, and ultimately lead to less long term progress which affects your overall motivation of sustainability and consistency. Dumbbells can also be clumsy to use. In addition, kettlebells and dumbbells often rely on the stabiliser muscles (the muscles not contributing to the main movement) being used beyond their means and takes the onus off the prime muscles being used because the smaller muscles can get tired way before the prime movers get fatigued enough to adapt to the stress. An example would be during the flat dumbbell bench press where the muscles inside the shoulder (rotator cuff) are not able to control the dumbbell adequately enough for the prime movers (chest muscles) to work, or the triceps fail and your elbow collapses.
Barbells are more easily programmable long term as you can fine-tune the weight on the bar. Your body adapts to stress gradually, but with large jumps in stress (i.e., suddenly lifting too much weight) you’ll find you can’t progress regularly over the long term, your results will plateau, and you may become demotivated. Dumbbells and particularly machines jump up in weight that is often too much to progressively adapt to, thus increasing injury risk, increasing frustration with training, and increasing the risk of not sticking to your road map (targets).
Barbells allow you to work your muscles and joints through safe full ranges of motion whereas machines tend to limit range of motion as you can’t always set the angles or levers to suit your anthropometry (i.e., measurements and proportions of your human body). When you work through a full range of motion, you can track progression easily because you know that as weight gets heavier you don’t shorten the range of movement with a barbell because they allow you to move to the same joint angles through the longest, effective, safe range of movement. Also, range of motion is consistent with barbell training as the bar always touches a part of your body, or moves from and to the floor, or with straight and closed joints with each rep.
Barbell exercises are predominantly bilateral exercises (using both sides of your body at the same time), allowing you to use more weight, which in turn uses more muscle mass, which in turn increases your strength and lean mass gains, which in turn changes your body composition (less fat and more muscle per kg of body weight), which in turn improves your shape, which in turn improves your motivation. Therefore most of your work should be performed with a barbell.
Some examples of multi-joint exercises that you should spend most of your time doing
- Barbell snatches (shoulders, elbows, wrists, back, hips, knees, ankles, core)
- Barbell clean and jerk (shoulders, elbows, wrists, back, hips, knees, ankles, core)
- Barbell squats (back, hips, knees, ankles, core)
- Barbell deadlifts (back, hips, knees, ankles, core)
- Barbell bench press (shoulders, elbows)
- Barbell shoulder press (shoulders, elbows, core)
- Barbell row (shoulders, back, hips, knees, core)
- Chin ups (shoulders, elbows, back, core)
Some examples of single-joint exercises you should avoid or hardly spend your time doing
- Dumbbell chest flyes (shoulders)
- Preacher curls (elbows)
- Dumbbell concentration curls (elbows)
- Dumbbell/cable shoulder raises (shoulders)
- Machine seated leg extension (knees)
- Machine seated chest press (shoulders, elbows)
- Machine seated calf raise (ankles)
- Machine triceps extension (elbow)
The bottom line
Single-joint exercises are easier to learn than complex multi-joint barbell exercises so it may be best to get a really good personal trainer who can show you the details and techniques (there I go, plugging away)! This can be done via online coaching or face to face. There are also nuances to this article as it focuses on the average healthy adult male and female (11) population and doesn’t take into account pain, rehab, or sport-related goals.
Overall, your training should primarily compose of say, 95%+ multi-joint exercises, and <5% single-joint exercises, or none at all, in order to get the fittest and leanest you can get, while at the same time saving you time, effort, and helping you to stick to your God damn New Year’s resolutions by choosing long term progressive exercise.
- Statista (2018) Share of Americans who stuck to their 2018 New Year’s resolutions. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/953562/share-of-americans-who-stuck-to-their-new-year-s-resolutions/ (Accessed 12 February 2019).
- Statista (2018) Keeping of New Year’s resolution for 2018, by generation. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/261014/keeping-of-last-years-new-years-resolution/ (Accessed 12 February 2019).
- Statista (2018) New Year’s resolution of Americans for 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/953560/new-years-resolution-us/ (Accessed 12 February 2019).
- Parry, SM., and Puthucheary, ZA. (2015) ‘The impact of extended bed rest on the musculoskeletal system in the critical care environment’, Extreme Physiology and Medicine, 4(16), pp. 1-8.
- Dirks, ML., Wall, BT., van de Valk, B., Holloway, TM., Holloway, GP., Chabowski, A., Goossens, GH., and van Loon, LJC. (2016) ‘One week of bed rest leads to substantial muscle atrophy and induces whole-body insulin resistance in the absence of skeletal muscle lipid accumulation’, Diabetes, 65(10), pp. 2862-2875.
- Aman, JE., Elangovan, N., Yeh, IL., and Konczak, J. (2015) ‘The effectiveness of proprioceptive training for improving motor function: a systematic review’, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(1075), pp. 1-18.
- Baechle, TR., and Earle, RW. (2008) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd ed. Champaign, USA: Human Kinetics.
- Gentil, P., Fisher, J., and Steele, J. (2017) ‘A review of the acute effects and long-term adaptations of single- and multi-joint exercises during resistance training’, Sports Medicine, 47(5), pp. 843-855.
- Gentil, P., Soares, SRS., Pereira, MC., da Cunha, RR., Martorelli, SS., Martorelli, AS., and Bottaro, M. (2013) ‘Effect of adding single-joint exercises to a multi-joint exercise resistance-training program on strength and hypertrophy in untrained subjects’, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 38(1), pp. 341-344.
- Paoli, A., Gentil, P., Moro, T., Marcolin, G., and Bianco, A. (2017) ‘Resistance training with single- vs. multi-joint exercises at equal total load volume: effects on body composition, cardiorespiratory fitness, and muscle strength’, Frontiers in Physiology, 8(1105), pp. 1-6.
- Barbalho, M., Coswig, VS., Raiol, R., Steele, J., Fisher, J., Paoli, A., and Gentil, P. (2018) ‘Effects of adding single joint exercises to a resistance training programme in trained women’, Sports, 6(160), pp. 1-9.