If you try to incorporate the advice of every online fitness guru, you will end up exercising, well, never mind, it's impossible. One Instagram guru will praise lateral raises and high volume, scroll a little further and you will find another condemn both strategies. Across all platforms, you will find lists of the top three exercises everyone needs for a bigger back or arms.
Some of this content is valuable and founded in current research, making the application near-universal — depending on the population involved in the study. Other recommendations are purely anecdotal and border on nonsense.
We are terrible judges of causation. That’s why we need research to determine cause and effect. We are blinded by our experiences, biases, and perspective.
You won’t hear instagurus and magazine cover models celebrate winning the genetic lottery or give a thank you speeches to the pharmacology industry, rather they will give one training variable, such as supersets, all of the credit.
My goal with this article is to help you sift through the overpromising and absolutes to better understand how to apply exercise content to your life.
Is the information credible?
There are two things you have to figure out before applying any exercise advice to your own life.
First, determine if the information is credible. There should be some level of research backing it. If don’t care how big someone's muscles are, if they claim they ballooned up after implementing cryotherapy they are either lying to you or ignorant to how the body builds muscle.
Check for references to research, not another blog post, within the article. If not, consult the author, do your own homework, or apply a heavy dose of skepticism.
Science doesn’t explain everything but it serves as a foundation. Experience, including trial and error, helps us fill gaps science hasn’t answered yet, but there should be a scientific theoretical foundation to those trials.
Second, determine how the information applies to you personally. As I mentioned with the research populations earlier, you need to know if you are comparing apples to apples, or at least comparing foods, not apples to Labradoodles.
Research shows elderly individuals (over the age of 75) can build muscle, however, that does not mean elderly individuals should hit the gym 2+ hours a day for six days a week. The same goes for individuals who have never formally exercised and are deconditioned.
Those may be extreme examples but they underline the main point I want to explain here: There is no best exercise.
We don’t know what the best exercise is
It doesn’t matter if you are trying to build muscle, endurance, speed, power, or a body resembling a Michelangelo statue, there is no universal, ideal approach.
I have spent the first seven years of my career as a physical therapist trying to determine the best ways to exercise my patients to achieve the outcomes above — minus the Michelangelo thing — and eliminate their pain. After reading mounds of research, gathering experience with thousands of patients, and consulting other therapists I have come to realize some techniques generally work better than others, but nothing is absolute in its effectiveness.
Sure, exercise is medicine and it leads to a wealth of health benefits, but if someone is fearful of movement, forcing them under a barbell or onto a treadmill won’t help them. Again, an extreme example for the fitness industry but the point remains — you must individualize an exercise approach.
Let’s look at the research behind some of the strategies you will find recommended as the missing link to wild success.
A superset with when you perform two or more exercises in succession with limited or no rest between them (see below).
This is a bodybuilder favorite. It is effective, but again, not the pinnacle of training methods.
Rest-pause and drop sets
These are great tools to speed up a session, but they may not be any better at building muscles compared to traditional lifting
This is when you build mini-rest periods within a set. You pick a weight and number of reps and keep going until you hit the rep number. Instead of 3 sets of 6 repetitions with 80% of 1 rep max with 2–3 minutes of rest between sets, you perform one set to failure (also 80% of 1 rep max load) with a 20 s interset rest interval until a total of 18 reps is reached.
To perform drop sets, start with a traditional set, then reduce the load (often 20–25%) and immediately perform another 1–3 sets. Each drop set is performed to failure.
Rest-pause may be the best option of the three for building strength (how much force you can produce) but more research is needed.
High Intensity Interval Training
Also known as HIIT, this training method is a favorite of trainers and coaches looking to maximize time efficiency and quickly spike the heart rate. If you want to become exhausted quickly, it is a great training method. If you play basketball, tennis, or other similar sports that involve quick, intense bursts of activity, HIIT is a great option.
If you want to get in shape and lose weight, HIIT isn’t superior to traditional moderate-intensity, long-duration training. You can get great results with both.
Just because someone gets great results with one method doesn’t mean that method trumps all others.
What is most important to you?
Exercise has many health benefits.
Improve cardiovascular health and reduce all-cause mortality
Improve strength and power
Reduce fall risk
Improved performance in a sport or activity
Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
Some of these can be achieved with the same form of exercise while others cannot. Many posts online relate to building muscle. That may not be important to you. If it is, a couple of key exercises is not enough to be a fitness model.
Maximizing muscle growth requires high volume training, a good diet with substantial protein, and a lot high-quality of sleep. You can build muscle on a poor diet and mediocre protein intake, but it will be harder. Furthermore, anyone online with their shirt off showcasing their muscles has won the genetic lottery. Many use performance enhancers as well.
If you just want to be healthy but be efficient with your time, there are many strategies you can employ. You can find more within this research article or my summary of it (all research-backed with links).
You can still accomplish a lot when time is short. If you are in a season of life in which exercise time is short, you can employ maintenance strategies, which require less volume of training.
It largely comes down to your fitness goals — both short and long-term.
One last consideration. If you don’t find value in an exercise, you won’t do it. You don’t have to enjoy exercise to stick with it (although it helps) but you do have to believe in the exercise you are performing.
It works vs. it is the best thing for me
In physical therapy, we strive for professional autonomy. There are many ways to help a patient. The key is whether a particular approach is founded in good research and has patient buy-in.
Clinicians and trainers need to avoid the “it works” mentality and strive for the best option. That differs for every patient and client.
Take another look across your social feed and preferred exercise resources. Note that most of the instagurus and authors are large, strong, lean humans. What they are doing is clearly working for them. There is a lot of variety amongst all of the influencers and writers. That alone should show you there is no “best” strategy.
What Arnold and Ronnie Coleman did cannot be replicated by many humans ever. They have genetics few will ever possess. That paired with an insatiable work ethic and narrow focus led to their success.
I have no desire to ever look like Arnold or Ronnie. Just because they were two of the greatest ever at building muscle does not mean they designed the greatest universal muscle-building programs. They found the right mix that maximized their personal development.
Whenever you come across a “never do this” or “must include these exercises” in your routine, take note of the recommendations as to potential options for your routine. They are never absolutes. Most of the “never dos” have no research to support their harm (form is overrated and lifting with a rounded back is safe and effective) and the “must includes” can be skipped.
Some foundational movements are universally beneficial for people — with few exceptions, such as the fear-avoidance issue previously mentioned — such as the squat and deadlift. But the exact rep scheme and loading schedule are not universal.
There is no such thing as a best exercise plan.