People today are busier than ever. While pro athletes and bodybuilders might get paid to train, and the golden era may have glamorized workouts lasting 2-3 hours or more, most regular folks just can’t train that long – and this likely includes you. Instead of these marathon sessions, you need efficient exercises and workouts that will let you “get in and get out” of the gym. Below is a list of three efficient exercises per body part, including tips on how to best utilize them.
A Note on Exercise Selection
Each body part below will list three efficient exercises in numerical order. Exercise #1 should take top priority, then #2, and finally #3. This means that if you’re going to perform all three movements in the same workout, perform them in that order. However, if you only have time for one or two exercises, then perform them accordingly. In other words, if you only have time for one movement, do #1 or if you’re only going to use two movements, then do #1 and #2, leaving off #3.
Exercises to Choose From Listed by Body Part
As discussed above, please find three efficient exercises per body part listed below. These movements have been chosen because they provide the best all around combinations of:
- Muscle stimulation to build size
- Weight that can be used to build strength
- Specific angles/ways of working the muscle for best aesthetics
You’ll also find noteworthy bits of information and advice for each exercise.
- Dumbbell press – preferably do these seated with your back supported; do 3-5 sets x 6-8 reps for strength-based hypertrophy; try to get a good stretch at the bottom.
- Behind the neck barbell press – use lighter weight for shoulder safety; can be performed seated or standing; do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps to get a good pump throughout the shoulders and traps; use a full range of motion, touching the bar to your traps (why you’re using lighter weight).
- Lateral raises – a great way to finish off your shoulders; hold your arms such that your elbows are bent 90-degrees in an “L” position, raise your upper arms to horizontal, then finish the rep with an external rotation; do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps.
- Incline press – incline your bench to 30-45 degrees for best all round pec development; do 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps for strength-based hypertrophy; targets the upper chest for better aesthetics.
- Dips – use extra weight if possible; do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps; lean forward to emphasize the chest rather than the triceps; get a good stretch at the bottom, but take care to not overextend the shoulders (when in doubt, don’t lower past the point of the elbows being at 90 degrees).
- Dumbbell bench press – get a good stretch at the bottom; supinate the hands at the top of each rep as if you wanted to touch your pinky fingers together; do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Pull ups – use extra weight if possible; if you can’t do good pull ups, then swap in pulldowns; do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps; feel free to vary your grip (overhand/underhand/palms facing each other, different widths, etc) as often as you like for more well-rounded development.
- Dumbbell rows – support your free hand (and knee if you like) on a rack or bench; do 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps each side for strength-based hypertrophy; try to minimize rotation of the torso and keep the shoulders square to the ground to keep emphasis on the back; pull your elbows close to your torso (instead of flaring outward) for shoulder safety.
- Rear delt flies – can be interchanged with banded pull aparts and/or face pulls; do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps; not a huge mass builder, but can round out back development; also useful for minimizing muscular imbalances and keeping the shoulder joints healthy.
- Barbell curl – can use a straight bar or EZ curl bar; do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps; feel free to cheat your form a little (but not too much) to use more weight.
- Preacher curls – use either an EZ curl bar or dumbbells (one arm at a time); do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps per arm; focus on the stretch at the bottom and hold the contraction at the top for a second.
- Incline dumbbell curls – can either supinate the wrists, have the palms facing forward the entire time, or do them “hammer” style with the palms facing each other; can alternate reps back and forth each side or curl both hands at once; do 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps per side.
- Skull crushers – use an EZ curl bar as it’s easier on the wrists; lower the bar to around the eyebrow level to keep emphasis on the triceps (lowering the bar out past your head can give the movement a pullover-like effect, shifting emphasis to the lats); minimize your elbows flaring outward; do 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps.
- French presses (overhead dumbbell triceps extensions) – do these with two hands holding one dumbbell; keep your upper arms as vertical as possible (don’t let them lean forward), bending only at the elbow; minimize your elbows flaring outward; do 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps.
- Pushdowns – keep your elbows planted at your sides; do 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps; feel free to switch grips/handles as often as you like for more well-rounded development.
- Squats – do these “bodybuilder” style with a stance about shoulder-width, heels slightly elevated, and lowering to just below parallel; do 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps for strength-based hypertrophy.
- Split squats – elevate the rear foot to around knee height; keep the front lower leg vertical; emphasize the stretch at the bottom; do 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps per side; is a very athletic exercise; effectively targets the “teardrop” shaped muscles just over the knee for better aesthetics.
- Leg press – only lower to the point that your knees bend just past 90 degrees; do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
- Romanian deadlift – keep a slight bend in the knee to minimize potential injury to the lower back; emphasize the stretch at the bottom, but don’t risk hyperextending the knees or pulling a hamstring; do 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Leg curls – can be done either lying or standing; hold the contracted position for a second; do 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.
- Swings – can be done with a kettlebell (both hands holding one kettlebell) or a dumbbell (one hand holding a dumbbell, done one side at a time); keep the lower leg vertical, bend at the knees, and “hinge” backward with the hips so as to not pull with the lower back; thrust/drive hard with the hips, contracting the hamstrings; do 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps.
A Word on Programming
It bears mentioning that programming can play a huge role in workout efficiency. The above efficient exercises were all listed as if the body parts were individual of one another. However, your approach could change depending on your training split and if specific variations of exercises were used.
For example, if you performed back and biceps together, starting with wide grip, overhand pulldowns, then you may still want to do all three biceps exercises. Conversely, if you’d instead done pulldowns or weighted pull ups with a shoulder-width, underhand grip, the biceps would have been indirectly worked pretty hard already. In this case, you may only need biceps exercises #1 and #2.
Alternatively, say you were training arms by themselves. In this case, you’d likely want to go ahead and do all three exercises for both biceps and triceps since the two muscle groups don’t overlap, and training one doesn’t result in indirect stimulation of the other.
Now say you were doing a fairly truncated or athletic, strength-based session for the entire upper body as a whole. If you already did both incline press and (weighted) dips, that’s already a fair amount of pressing. The shoulders will be indirectly worked with both exercises, meaning that dumbbell presses and press behind the neck may not be necessary. Instead you could just skip directly to laterals.
There are too many different workout splits to discuss every possible option. For the most part, you’ll be fine using the initial instructions of going with the exercises in #1, #2, and #3 order. Just know that there can be a little bit of wiggle room depending on your program layout, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
How to Do Efficient Cardio
A discussion on efficient exercises and workouts wouldn’t be complete unless time-economical cardio was discussed. Though the benefits of both old school, traditional cardio and intense intervals are desirable, chances are you don’t have time to do both. If nothing else, long slow cardio alone can easily eat up your allotted training time for the week.
An effective way to get adequate benefits of both old school cardio and intervals would be to mix them into the same session. On your favorite cardio machine, start off with an easy 5-minute warmup. Then repeat 10 hard intervals of 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. Finish up with another 15-20 minutes of moderate-paced, steady state cardio. This will have your session done in 30-35 minutes total, and need only be done a couple times per week.
All in all, it’s more than possible to still get great results when you’re budgeting for time. Use exercises that allow you to use a lot of weight, hit the muscles hard, and get the most bang for your buck. This can not only build strength, but improve aesthetics, too.