“What’s really the best full body workout?”
I asked my buddy David at the gym. It was 2003, we’d been working out for a few weeks without seeing any results. I was growing impatient. Does David even know what he’s doing? I desperately needed to drop the fat. But everyone had different answers, different full body workouts, workout routines, different everything. How can everyone have different opinions? I needed simple exercises to finally get the results I dreamed about. Does anyone know the answer? Imagine my anger when I discovered the truth about the fitness lies…
That’s when my fitness journey began.
Three years earlier in 2000, I set foot inside my first official gym. The place was intimidating. Everyone moved with purpose. I felt nervous, anxious like I didn’t belong. The junior high school dance all over again.
I was lost.
So I did what any other rational human being would do. I copied the ones that looked like they knew what they were doing. (Bad Idea #1)
I did a full body workout for over 2 hours that ill-fated day. (Bad Idea #2) Moving mindlessly from bench press to dumbells to leg extensions to seated calf raises. All while trying to read the instructions without looking like I’m reading the instructions.
The next day everything hurt. Obviously, good, right? No pain, no gain. Except it meant no more workouts. I would go for a couple of days, and then miss weeks, sometimes months.
Listening to my friend’s advice got me nowhere fast. I didn’t lose fat, but I did lose motivation.
Magazines (Bad Idea #3)
Welp, that didn’t last. Every month, “new latest and greatest total body workouts” would be released. But after a few months, the workout plans looked oddly similar. Burned again.
After two years of listening to nonsense and countless bad ideas (I stopped counting after ten.) I decided to become a certified personal trainer. Surely, I would find the answers here.
And I did.
Jeff Kryel (one of my fitness heroes) helped me learn the basics of fundamental movement. Exercise involves movement. But, exercise only benefits you if performed properly. Here’s the most valuable information from my first personal training certification.
Everything You Need to Know About Full Body Exercise
- How Our Body Moves (Motor Patterns)
- Executing the Exercise (Form)
- The Correct Number to Perform the Exercise (Repetitions)
- The Right Speed for Each Repetition (Tempo)
- Stop Using Momentum
- Correct Breathing
“Why do we need to work out the muscles anyways?” I asked in my personal training class.
Muscles are the focal point of resistance training, weight training, and core training. These are all names for the same process. Resistance training provides external resistance to the muscle being used. The ‘resistance’ is the external force added to the movement. Anything can provide external resistance: machines, barbells, dumbbells, and your own bodyweight. The added external resistance stimulates the muscle tissue. It breaks down (tears) the muscle tissue for repair.” Jeff replied.
Oh, that makes way more sense. That’s where all the different names come from.
“We tear down the muscle to rebuild it? But, how does this benefit us?”
“Resistance training tears down the muscle tissue, by overloading the muscle with added resistance (weights, bodyweight, etc.) These microtears cause some soreness. The microtears go through a repair cycle. This is when and where muscle growth occurs. The body adapts to the new demand on the muscles.”
“Do we want muscle microtears?”
“The breakdown and repair cycle make our muscles, bones, joints, and minds stronger. The inflammation triggers cell regeneration, keeping you young, fit and healthy. Resistance training forces your body to recover.”
When we don’t weight train, our muscles and bones become weak. Weight training breaks down muscle tissue, forcing it to rebuild. Once rebuilt, your muscles will be a little stronger. As we continue working, eventually your body becomes stronger.
“What’s the best full body workout?” I asked.
Not the answer I was looking for.
“First, you need to understand motor patterns or mechanics. These are a fancy way of saying how your body moves. If you do a dumbbell bench press, do you feel it in your chest? Most beginners don’t know how to “feel” an exercise in a certain spot. They remember the slogan, ‘no pain, no gain.’ Which is wrong. You need to feel the right muscle turning on at the right time (mechanics.) The correct muscles need to fire with a controlled movement.”
You lost me, Jeff.
Turning Off the Wrong Muscles
“Only the intended muscles need to work. Muscles like your neck, shoulders, etc. need to be off. When performing the exercise correctly, ONLY the intended muscle and your core activate. The rest of your muscles remain idle. Correct mechanics are difficult to develop by yourself. The ‘feel’ of the exercise is specific.”
“What do you mean by ‘feel?’”
“For example, when I perform a back row, I feel it only in my back. The intended muscle and a little in my arms (primary, secondary mover.) My neck and shoulders aren’t engaged. Most beginners feel this exercise in their arms, shoulders, and neck. They don’t feel anything in their back, nothing.”
“What if I don’t FEEL it, where I NEED it?”
“This is common and means the primary mover, one of the biggest calorie-burning pieces of machinery isn’t working. The muscle we’re targeting isn’t turning on. Yeah, that’s a major problem. The right mechanics can be developed by understanding what muscles need to be turned on and what muscles need to be turned off.”
“How do I tell my muscles to move?”
“Muscles only move by responding to a signal from the brain (neural activation.) The brain sends a message to the muscle telling it to activate or to relax. Muscles can only squeeze or relax. Muscles attach to bones, by squeezing the muscle it pulls/pushes/rotates the bones creating movement.”
“Why am I supposed to care?”
“If you work out your back, but can’t feel your back working, then you’re NOT working out.”
“Whether you’re standing, sitting, or lying, you need to be in proper alignment. During our workout, we need our posture to be in a good soldier-like position.
Proper Posture: head back, chin tucked in, ear over the shoulder, tailbone tucked in, back perfectly flat
Having good posture is the first step in having good mechanics. It will also help avoid potential injuries.”
Jeff gave me the standard answer. And after years of field practice, I disagree. I don’t believe in a set number of repetitions. I’ve never used a number, but I have found a rep range to be most effective. Muscles respond to force and time of exertion. There is no exact number, so a rep range works best. For muscle growth, you need to be in the lower range (heavyweight.) (8-12) 3-4 sets. For most people to build muscle, 3 sets in the range of (8-12) works. Beginners need to stay in the (12-15) range.
Why, and who is a beginner?
If you think you’re a beginner, then for sure you’re a beginner. Beginners don’t have full control over exercise movements. Ex: if you’re doing a barbell chest press and the barbell shakes (quite common) then you’re a beginner. Don’t worry about being a beginner. No matter what anyone says we all started as beginners.
When I first learned about these topics, I gladly tried them all. But a lot of what I was taught didn’t apply in the “real world.”
Here’s another example where the textbooks can lead you down the wrong path.
You’re talking about tempo, which is hard to apply. Much too complicated for such little rewards. Speed only requires common sense. To maximize resistance, we need to minimize momentum. The movement needs to be a smooth, clean, and consistent movement with no jerking. It should continue smoothly throughout the repetition and the set. This should be your tempo for most of your exercises. Tempo only changes during an isometric movement (static or no movement) like a plank. Or while performing explosive movements. Great for advanced athletes. But most of us can stay in the slow, controlled tempo. Trust me, one less thing to worry about.
What the books fail to mention can hurt you. I’m talking about momentum.
When you swing the weight, it’s called momentum. It’s a way to cheat. Not only are you cheating yourself, but you’re risking injury. Common uses of momentum in the gym are performed by guys doing bicep arm curls, they’ll swing their backs to wield a heavier weight. Measuring their strength by the number on the dumbbell. But muscles don’t recognize numbers.
Muscles only respond to resistance. To maximize resistance, stop swinging or jerking the weights.
Momentum is hurting not helping you.
Anyways, back to my personal training class.
“When should I breathe?” Another trainer in the class asked.
“Always. When you perform an exercise, constant airflow maximizes results.
For maximum results. Don’t hold your breath.
Most exercises move in opposite ways (in/out or up/down.) Whether you breathe in during the up phase or during the down phase doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’re breathing. Make sure the breathing is constant,” Jeff answered.
Slowly the fitness lights turned on.
I was proud of my week-long personal training certification, I understood how and why we move. My training class taught me good form and a proper foundation. But I needed more, much more.
It was 2002, I was a rookie personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness at UC Irvine, AND I knew it all… (Don’t we all at 23 years old?)
I started working out with trainers, but I noticed a problem. The trainers picked they’re own workouts based on what they liked to do. Not what the client needs or wants
Common Personal Trainer Example:
If Sarah likes to do kettlebell workouts, then guess what? All of her clients did kettlebell workouts.
If Justin liked to clean and jerk, then all his clients clean and jerked.
I watched every single trainer train. I wondered about the training rationale. We weren’t taught any of that in class. My first real lesson in theory versus application. Why did we learn all those total body workouts anyways? My body did lose fat, but I didn’t see the results I wanted. The cover of Men’s Health still eluded me.
So many exercises, which ones do I pick?
Every trainer had a different answer, and their exercises were always the best. This was frustrating not to mention wrong.
I spent 7 years at 24 Hour Fitness, working my way from rookie personal trainer to Fitness Manager all the way up to General Manager. I worked at 6 different gyms with hundreds of personal trainers. A key part of my job was developing rookie trainers. In October 2007, I remember a rookie trainer named Kaycee asked me that same haunting question,
“What’s the best full body workout?”
After years of fitness, I still didn’t know the answer. I had an epiphany. Let’s not guess anymore, let’s measure.
In those times, we used the BodyBugg (the world’s most accurate calorie tracker) Later bought by Jawbone and discontinued ☹
Calorie Burning Tests
We began the fitness tests. We tested the number of calories burned during each exercise. The trainers checked compound movements, isolated movements, and circuits. The experiment tested males, females, big and small clients. I couldn’t wait to see the results.
The data completed changed my approach to training.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was here in 2005, I discovered my future company’s Total Body Project’s Big Three.
Most clients want to lose fat. Logically, the best total body workout would be the workout burning the max number of calories in the shortest amount of time.
The data was clear, the rationale simple, target the bigger major muscles.
Two years later another rookie trainer asked me, that same question.
“What’s the most effective workout for fat loss?”
After 10 years of experience, 5 certifications, 2 degrees and success with hundreds of clients. I finally knew the correct answer.
Which Full Body Exercises to Perform
The most effective fat loss workout is a full body circuit, a total body project. This type of full body workout routine ensures our heart rate operates at the target heart rate (higher heart rate means more calories burned.) By focusing on the major muscles, we guarantee you burn the max number of calories in the shortest time. A circuit focused on the chest, back, and legs burn the greatest number of calories.
I don’t know why we complicate fitness? I really don’t. Here’s your definitive full body workout guide. These are the exercises you should do, the major muscles you should target, and the muscles to avoid. Most people fail in fitness because they aren’t consistent. They fail because they lose motivation. Keep fitness simple, focus on major compound movements, and remember most aesthetic changes come from executing your diet plans.
The Definitive Full Body Workout Guide: TBP’s Big Three
- Always Include Abs
- Nice-to-Haves vs Have-to-Haves
- Full Body Workouts – Combination Exercises
- Exercise Selection (Myth)
- Start with Machines
- Exercises to Avoid
- Muscle Pain vs Pain
- Total Body Circuits
Pectorals: A large muscle that inserts on the front of your shoulder and into your clavicle. It burns a considerable number of calories. Our total body circuit always includes a pushing exercise using the chest.
Things to Know About the Chest Muscle
Females typically have a harder time activating this muscle. Push-ups are for boys is the classic saying. But all females need to develop working chest muscles to build muscle. Females can perform push-ups even better than boys.
If you’re new to resistance training, it’s typical to feel the exercise in your shoulders and in the neck area. Corrective stretching will help you establish the correct movement patterns.
Exercises: Barbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, Chest Press Machine, Incline Dumbbell Press, Incline Barbell Press, Flys, Mountain Climbers, Assisted Push Ups, Push Ups
How To Perform
Chest Press: Make sure wrists are straight, maintain proper alignment throughout the exercise. Relax your neck and shoulders. Tighten the abs. Visualize the chest muscle lengthening and contracting.
Common Mistakes: Arching the low back, bringing the head forward.
Chest Flys: Tighten the abs, relax the neck, lock the elbows and bring the arms together in an arch. Beginners should start with flys, until they can properly feel the muscle engage (tighten/squeeze).
Common Mistakes: Arching the low back, bringing the head forward, not locking out the elbows.
Mountain Climbers: Bring the knees up, slightly touch the toes higher and return, maintain consistent tempo. This is a good beginner core exercise to help develop chest strength.
Common Mistakes: Shoulders should not go past 90 degrees, look for a right angle. If this exercise is too difficult or performed improperly, low back pain can occur.
Lattisimus Dorsi: A big muscle originating at the bottom of our spine and inserting on the front part of our arms. The back is a huge mover that approximately 70% of females and 50% of males don’t properly engage. The back muscle is a pulling muscle. This means we engage the muscle by pulling anything towards you.
Things to Know About the Back Muscle
The back is a strange muscle to use. We instinctively know how to use our arms, but our back? When we start with a barbell row or a lat pull-down we rely only on our arms. It’s only through proper mechanics that the back muscles can be engaged. A proper pull will have little feeling on your arms while most of the tension will be on the back muscles.
Exercises: Lat Pull-Down, Pull-over, Row, Standing Row, Seated Row, Bent Over Row, Barbell Row
Lat Pull-Down: Think of pulling the bar apart. Try to bring the elbow toward your ribs. Visualize the movement and think of breaking the bar apart.
Pull-Over: Arms perfectly straight. Any slight bend in the arm causes the tension to go to the triceps (back of the arm). Pull with your armpits. Under the muscle.
Row: My favorite back exercise, keeping the abs tight, pretend you’re squeezing a pencil with your shoulder blades. Pin the shoulders back. And squeeze the back muscle. The major benefit of the row exercise is it can be combined with another one of the big three movers for even more caloric expenditure. Rows are great for lunges, squats, and single-leg exercises. Making this circuit one of the biggest calories burning combinations possible.
Common Mistakes: Sometimes I see females performing a bent over row with a light dumbbell. This may look like a good move. But the problem is the back muscle is too strong for the light dumbbell. The movement works but with more weight. The back muscle is quite strong and if you only use five pounds, it doesn’t really benefit you.
Quadriceps/Biceps Femoris: Huge muscles consisting of the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The front of the leg, the back of the leg and the butt.
The final and biggest muscle of the Big Three. We need to work all of these muscles to get results. Yes, guys you also must work the legs and no…walking doesn’t count. The movements need to provide external resistance. Legs are crucial because they’re a versatile muscle requiring large amounts of blood and oxygen to perform exercises. You can combine leg movements with any muscle. You’ll burn more calories exercising your legs. Legs are a great way to add some of the nice-to-have muscles, arms (front of the arms, back of the arms, biceps triceps)
Things to Know About the Leg Muscles
Lunges and squats are incredibly versatile exercises. Be careful with knees, ankles, and position. Be extra careful with plate loaded exercises. Exercises with a heavy bar across your neck increase the pressure on the joints. Any error in the movement and you can hurt your fragile back. You probably want to keep your back healthy for things like walking, living, and stuff.
Squats: The correct form on a squat is the most difficult movement to master: tailbone tucked in, abs tight, keep the back straight, chin tucked in, head aligned with the body, don’t bend past 90, and feet hip joint apart.
Exercises: Ball Squat, Wall Sit, Front Squat, Leg Extensions, Leg Curls, Hamstring Curls, Leg Press
Lunges: Push through the ground, through the ground like you pushing the ground away from you. Foot flat and driving through the heel activating your butt.
Variations and Progressions: Lunge to 1–leg Balance, Box Lunges, Jump Lunges, Push Back Lunges
“But what about my abs?”
Abs are the sexy muscle everyone gravitates to. How can I get my abs of steel? Sadly, crunches won’t do it, trust me, I’ve tried. Abs are a smaller muscle group perfect to use with all movements. But, there’s no magic ab exercise to flatten your tummy, sorry. To achieve a perfect waistline, focus on removing the body fat covering your abs. This can ONLY happen by lowering your body fat percentage enough for the abs to be seen.
But which ab exercises are the best?
Fine, there’s basically two: crunches and planks.
Crunch: The floor crunch. Back perfectly flat, tuck your tail bone under you, and activate your abs. Hold your neck for support and keep the abs tight on the way up and down.
Plank: Best exercise for abs, but be careful when performing exercise. Make sure you are in the correct position, spine parallel to the ground, feet hip joint apart, Don’t let your low back drop. Squeeze your abs and your butt, elbows 90 degrees, chin tucked in, aligned with ear. You shouldn’t feel any pain in your low back.
The best way to work your abs is by combining core-training or functional training with your program. By using core-training, you will engage your abs and work a bigger muscle giving you more bang for your buck. Bodyweight workouts can give you great fullbody workouts using only your body weight and emphasizing the core with no need for equipment.
“What about the other muscles, like arms, back of my arms?” Jessica my client asked me.
The best way I know how to explain our solution is by grouping the exercises into nice-to-haves and have-to-haves.
The nice-to-have exercises consist of muscle groups not yielding as great results as the Big Three. The Big Three’s Have-To-Have Movements also use the secondary, nice-to-have muscles. The have-to-haves get you the results, the nice-to-haves make you feel good about your workout, but aren’t as beneficial. Most exercises have primary and secondary movers involved. So working the have-to-have muscles naturally, include the nice-to-have muscles.
The chest (have-to-have) also uses the triceps(nice-to-have) and the shoulders (nice-to-have.)
The back(have-to-have) also uses biceps(nice-to-have.)
The legs use your quads (have-to-have)hamstrings (have-to-have) and glutes(nice-to-have.)
Focusing on the have-to-have muscles also works the nice-to-have muscles. But with a focus on the bigger, more productive muscles with more muscle mass, you can achieve your goals faster.
Alright now for the good stuff. For maximum fat loss perform full body workouts.
In resistance training, the bigger muscle groups burn 3-4 times the calories as the smaller groups. Don’t waste your time with biceps triceps or calve raises. Training smaller muscle groups is a giant waste of time. It’s hard enough to work out. Working out with no results is a recipe for disaster. Motivation waivers, if you don’t see results, you’ll quit…again. Don’t quit again, focus on a full body, core-training circuit to see the most benefits.
There are thousands of exercises in the world, wait, let me clarify, there are thousands of VARIATIONS of the same exercises. This is crucial to understand; the actual movement of the muscle doesn’t change. Think about it, muscle connects to the bone, connects to another bone and can only contract (squeeze) or relax. This means you’ll hear a lot of exercise noise. There’s little variation in this area, don’t get caught up in the latest trends (Crossfit, boot camps, kettlebell workouts, butt workouts.) The fundamentals of resistance training have always remained the same. If you look at the arm muscle, you can only squeeze it, or relax it, that’s it. Do you think it matters if you’re sitting, standing or lying down while doing a biceps curl?
Exercises are like screwdrivers.
A screwdriver only works a certain way. Even if you use it facing up, facing down, under a sink, in the car, the screwdriver still works exactly the same way. The function of the tool doesn’t change because you change the position of the movement.
Don’t fall for the hype, muscles only move in a limited number of ways. Keeping the movement simple ensures a safe, proper, muscle building workout. The most important element in resistance training is feeling the exercise in the proper spot.
Feel It Where You Need It
Without this feeling, you’re not getting any benefit from working out.
There will always be a new fad, a new butt workout, a new whatever. These “new” exercises are nothing new, they’re merely variations of the same exercise for the same muscle. Simplify before you complicate. Is it really the lack of knowing thousands of exercises that’s keeping you from achieving the body of your dreams?
Machines are best to learn correct movements because they force you to move in one direction. It’s harder to mess up the exercise. Machines help a beginner develop the proper movement, it can also help seasoned users add more weight without adding potential injury.
Once you have mastered machines, start using cables, bosus, balls, TRX, etc. No one ever failed in fitness because their workout wasn’t complicated, no one. I’ve personally helped many achieve incredible success. We succeeded because of discipline and consistency. Keep it simple, basic, and consistent.
Please don’t do sit-ups, it’s an old-school exercise that’s bad for your back. Perform crunches instead. The have the same benefit but won’t destroy your lower back. Not all pain is good, and some id very bad.
Be careful with leg raises. Most people I see trying to do this movement, shouldn’t. They arch their back, causing pain to their lower back.
Pro Tip: If your low back hurts during ANY ab exercise, you’re doing it wrong, or more likely, your body isn’t ready for that movement.
No pain, no gain?
Wrong. Pain sucks.
Pain isn’t needed in your exercise routine. A crucial difference exists between muscle pain and pain. Proper pain is muscular. It will be on the muscle. The muscle is anything you can squeeze (contract.) So, if your arm hurts, it should be the muscle part, where you can flex. And not the elbow, wrist, or anything that isn’t muscular. Tendons, ligaments don’t “squeeze” so they should NEVER hurt during a workout. The same goes for ankles, low back, and shoulder joints.
Problems with Low Back Pain
Anytime your core is placed in a compromising position: ie plank or leg raises. The muscles holding you up are the abs and butt. But if you’re too tired, or if the muscles aren’t strong enough, your core gives up and your low back jumps in. You’ll feel excruciating pain. There should never be any low back pain when working out…ever. Avoid all exercises causing low back pain immediately. Movements causing your low back to be sore are wrong. The low back (erector spinae) is a delicate muscle used to support your body, don’t hurt it, you’ll regret it.
Pick 3 Exercises: a pushing (chest) exercise, a pulling (back) exercise, and a leg exercise
Combine Into a Circuit: Do a set of each with no rest in between
And Ta-Dah! You’re done.
Depending on your goals and fitness level, you can perform a full body workout two to three days per week, with at least a rest day in between. These fundamentals will help you gain muscle, but to really change how your body looks you’ll need to drop fat by understanding meal planning an incorporating a fitness tracker. Weight loss always changes the body the most. Here’s the ONLY way to get a flat belly.
Why does the fitness industry make it so complicated?
It’s just what we do ☹
Total Body Project
In 2009, I left 24 Hour Fitness and started Total Body Project. The pressure was on. Going from a comfortable living to making zero dollars can force major changes. Although I knew the formula for exercising, I never really buckled down on the nutrition. Good enough, wasn’t good enough when you’re the face of the brand.
Even though I knew the exercises, it wasn’t until I mastered the mind that I finally achieved the body of my dreams. Now, you know the exercises, a part of the answer, but only a part. You need to learn the MAD Plan to master your mind. Don’t waste 19 years looking for answers, I’ve found them. Learn from my mistakes, and get that body you deserve.
NASM Master Trainer
Best Selling Author, Get Me Skinny
PS: Don’t forget your FREE WORKOUT GUIDE
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- Merriam-Webster. “Definition of Momentum.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/momentum
- Merriam-Webster. “Definition of Pectoral.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pectorals
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