A couple of weeks ago, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking my fellow fitness enthusiasts if they had to pick just one, what single exercise would they do for the rest of their lives. I received a lot of interesting responses including popular movements like squat, deadlift and push-ups. The fact of the matter is any exercise is good for the body so from that perspective any exercise is better than no exercise at all. But lets say, hypothetically, we could only perform one exercise for the rest of our lives, which one would take precedence? Are there certain movements that are more impactful on the body than others?
Without a doubt!
Compound movements will obviously be favored because of their multi-joint actions. But as all-encompassing as compound movements are, they don’t engage all muscle groups. Regardless, a few muscles will be left unworked. So how does one select the ideal exercise to perform for the rest of their lives?
I can make a case for 4.
1) A Case For The Deadlift: If you deadlift on a regular basis, you know it is one of the most whole-body engaging movements. Its functional impact on the body also makes it a staple in every workout program. The entire posterior chain gets worked from the upper trapezius muscles to the lats, erector spinae, gluteus muscle group and hamstrings. There’s also emphasis on the anterior core, quads, biceps, forearms and grip enhancement. Very few movements offer a barometer for strength like the deadlift due to its biomechincal physiology. The term ‘dead’ in deadlift essentially means picking up a dead weight from the ground which requires a great deal of effort and precision. It is why so many people hurt their backs when picking up items from the floor because their kinetic chain isn’t mechanically aware and alert enough. The deadlift corrects and addresses the problem while strengthening the body over time.
Although the chest, triceps and shoulders don’t get a lot of work, the fact that two-thirds of the body is engaged during this movement makes it an ideal exercise to perform for life.
2) A Case For The Squat: Widely considered as the premier exercise, the barbell back squat remains an essential component for weight loss, strength and lean muscle. It remains an assessment tool for many fitness professionals. Though I’d argue that the deadlift can and should replace the squat in assessment protocols due to the fact that preexisting knee and back ailments can affect a person trying to perform the latter. But I digress. The squat and deadlift are by far the two most functional movements in fitness, partly due to to their hip-hinging similarities and identical muscle groups that are used. There are over 600 muscles in the body and squat is known to work about half of them! That alone is a good incentive to pick the squat as the ideal exercise to perform. Glutes, quads hamstrings, anterior core and upper back are some of the engaged muscles.
The only drawback, which I mentioned earlier, is knee and back pain can make back squatting difficult and unable to perform. Compressive forces from a loaded barbell on a weak lumbar spine could discourage an exerciser from doing squat. Although variations like the front squat (an ideal replacement for those with knee and back pain) and single-leg squat exist, they require near-perfect precision and execution and can take a while to master (the Bulgarian Split Squat being the exception). All things considered, the squat remains a great exercise and in my estimation, one of the two most important exercises (the deadlift being the other).
3). A Case For The Push-Up: By far the most popular exercise and best for working the upper body, the push-up is as ancient as Greek gods and is here to stay. Simply put, no exercise targets the pecs, anterior core, shoulders and triceps like the push-up. Keep in mind that the traditional bench press is a derivative of the push-up so both exercises are essentially the same. But unlike the bench press, the push-up requires no equipment and no set-up and can be done virtually anywhere so from that standpoint, it is more advantageous to many exercisers. Variations like the one-hand push-up, feet elevated push-ups, plyo push-ups, T-push-ups, atomic push-ups and band push-ups make for unique and interesting challenges, one disadvantage with the bench press.
There is little to no engagement of the lower body during a push-up which could come as a detriment later in life to someone who choses to make it their only exercise. That’s the only case against the push-up. Aside from that, it is the ultimate upper body builder.
4). A Case For Walking: As impactful and popular as the push-up is, not many people can perform it well or do enough of them. Walking is the one activity everyone can relate to. Barring any chronic knee or ankle condition, walking is the simplest and easiest physical activity to do. It is why so many health experts and professionals recommend it as part of an exercise regimen to lose weight, lower blood pressure and high cholesterol and promote a healthy lifestyle because all it requires is for you to just get up and move. Simple! So many people enjoy walking and have reaped benefits via weight loss, mood and overall positive state of mind. Believe it or not, walking can also be made challenging and walking programs do exist for its lovers. For an in-depth look at these programs, take a look at this blog post I wrote a while back.
As ubiquitous as it is, walking just fails to address many of the musculoskeletal needs of the body. While fat loss can occur via walking, so can lean muscle. Power, muscle mass and raw strength cannot be achieved through walking, regardless of the distance covered. On a more encouraging note, walking is the only activity that has the lowest risk for injury and can be done by people of all ages.