It would be nice if time weren’t an issue and the only thing we had to worry about is working out. Unfortunately, time IS a consideration for most people. Some days you might have an hour to work out but on others, you barely have twenty minutes. If you’re trying to stay in shape, maintain muscle mass and strength or even build size and strength, you need exercises that give you the most “bang for your buck” on those busy days. If you could only choose three exercises, due to time constraints, which would you choose? Here are three of the most time-efficient ways to build muscle and get stronger.
Fewer exercises work your lower body more effectively than squats. Each time you squat you’re targeting your hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, as well as your hip flexors – all at the same time. Compare that to isolation exercises like leg extensions that only work your quads. Plus, squats also give your core a workout as they activate your abs and the muscles that stabilize your spine. Because you’re working so many muscle groups at once, it’s a time – expedient exercise and one that burns more calories than isolation movements.
One caveat: squats are arguably the best lower body exercise but, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t the BEST exercise for your glutes. A study carried out by the American Council on Exercise that measured glute muscle activation during a variety of exercises found hip extensions, lunges, and step-ups were better than squats for activating the glute muscles. Still, when it comes to targeting your entire lower body in the least amount of time, squats are a winner.
Another benefit of squats is doing them regularly helps protect your knees against injury when you play sports. They also boost power in the lower body.
Deadlifts work even more muscle groups than squats, making them one of the most time expedient and effective ways to build muscle. When you deadlift, you’re working all the muscles in your lower body, your back and core, and even your biceps and forearms. Few exercises work so many muscle groups at simultaneously – it really is a full body exercise.
Like squats, deadlifts are compound exercises, ones that burn more calories and boost your metabolism more than isolation exercises that work single muscle groups. A classic example of an isolation exercise is biceps curls, an exercise that specifically targets the smaller, biceps muscles. Plus, deadlifts work the muscles that hold you upright and help you maintain healthy posture. Most of us could use a little posture work.
Some people shy away from deadlifts, believing they’re hard on the back and the risk of injury is high. If you start with lighter weight and advance the weight slowly, deadlifts can actually lower your risk for back injury by strengthening the paraspinal muscles that support your spine and protect it against injury. Assuming you have a healthy spine and back, deadlifts are a safe and effective exercise as long as you use proper form.
So far, the exercises we’ve mentioned mainly work the muscles in your lower body and core, although deadlifts work your biceps to some degree too. What’s the fastest way to show your upper body some love and hit a number of muscles at the same time? Push-ups, of course. There’s a reason the military makes new recruits do lots of push-ups – they work. How many push-ups a person can do is sometimes used as an indicator of how fit they are, although push-ups mainly measure muscle endurance rather than raw strength.
How many push-ups can you do? Would you believe a woman named Maria Tobar did 300 push-ups in a row in Sacramento California in 2013? Pretty impressive, but that doesn’t come close to the world record holder for females, Alicia Weber. This amazing lady did 829 push-ups in 30 minutes. Fortunately, you don’t need to do THAT many to get stronger and more defined. Anyone can learn to do a push-up. Start on your knees, gradually work up to doing them on your toes. Then, make them even more challenging by doing push-up variations, like decline push-ups where your feet are higher than your hands.
Push-ups are arguably the best bodyweight exercise you can do for your upper body. They work your triceps, biceps, chest, and shoulders, and, depending on how you place your hands, you can emphasize one muscle group over another. For example, diamond push-ups are the most effective variation for targeting your triceps while incline push-ups, where your arms are higher than your feet, shifts the focus to your shoulders.
Push-ups aren’t just for your upper body, they work your core and upper back muscles too, making it a “must do” exercise if you’re trying to hit your entire body in the shortest time possible. Don’t forget about the many push-up variations we haven’t mentioned, including dive bomber push-ups, pike push-ups, reptile push-ups, plyo push-ups, single-handed push-ups, T-push-ups and more. It’s hard to get bored or reach a plateau when you have so many push-up options to choose from.
The Bottom Line
Workouts thrive on variety, so you don’t necessarily want “the big three” to be the only resistance exercises you do, but when you’re pressed for time, you can get an effective workout cycling through a few circuits of these three exercises.
Another bonus of doing these exercises is they improve functional strength by mimicking the movements you do in everyday life, like squatting to pick something up or carrying something heavy, in the case of deadlifts. These exercises also help you build greater resistance to injury. However you look at it, these movements belong in your workout – but talk to your doctor before doing them if you’ve had a recent back or knee injury.
ACE Fitness. “Glutes to the Max: Exclusive ACE Research Gets to the Bottom of the Most Effective Glutes Exercises”
Strength and Conditioning Research. “Deadlifts”
ExRX.net. “Squat Analysis”
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