In his pursuit of physical and martial arts perfection Bruce Lee incorporated resistance, body weight and cardiovascular exercises into his training regime. After much consideration and exercise experimentation he identified what he considered to be the 5 best exercises for developing both functional physicality and building strength in each of the body’s major muscle groups.
These 5 exercises formed the foundation of what he called his ‘general’ or ‘overall’ development routine which he performed three time per week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). And while ‘Lee left no exact record of the weights, sets, or repetitions he employed with this particular routine, there is ample evidence’ to suggest that he performed ‘2 sets of between 8 and 12 repetitions’ on each of the 5 exercises (Little 1998).
But, I bet you’re begging to know, what were those 5 exercises that the world’s greatest martial artist employed to forge his body in to a lean, mean, kung fu fighting machine?
Lee’s best exercises included: 1) clean and press; 2) biceps curl; 3) shoulder press; 4) squat; and 5) bent-over row.
However, a bit of investigation will show that his exercise selection was somewhat flawed. For example, why select shoulder press when the very same movement features in the clean and press? Here he would essentially be training the same muscle group twice in the same session. Arguably this is a waste of time. Not only that but it negates the opportunity to make use of better exercises.
Furthermore, biceps curl is really a vanity exercise used by aspiring Adonises to sculpt that Grecian god physique in preparation for the Baywatch-style slow-mo beach run. In Lee’s general development routine there are no exercises that target the pectorals and the majority of his picks are from the stock of stationary exercises. It perhaps would’ve made more sense to jettison the biceps curls and shoulder press and, in their place, introduce kettlebell swings and Farmer’s walk.
In his defence, Lee was drawing his training ideas from what is now outdate methodologies. Moreover, his training objective was that of augmenting physical strength. The purpose of this article is to teach the 5 best exercises for developing whole-body fitness.
But in truth, like there is no such thing as a super food, there really isn’t such a thing as the best exercise. Though, of course, it is true that some foods are better for you than others, to carry the metaphor on, some exercises are also better at building strength or improving fitness than others.
Featured in this article are what we at Hungry4Fitness believe to be the 5 best exercises. They have been selected because they are superior not only at enhancing general fitness, but also simultaneously promoting physical development in multiple components of fitness – something that cannot be said of biceps curls.
Each exercise is accompanied with an overview of the most important technique points and video tutorial. If you believe our selection to be incorrect, as we believe Bruce Lee’s to be, please leave your suggestions in the comments box below.
Best Exercise #1: Rowing
Muscles worked: primarily the cardio-respiratory (heart and diaphragm) and those of the legs, back and arms – so pretty much all of the major muscle groups. Really the only muscles that escapes unscathed from a row session are probably the pectorals and anterior deltoids.
Next to cross-country skiing rowing is one of the best cardiovascular exercise we can perform. Unlike running and cycling, which focus exertion primarily on the muscles of the leg, rowing stimulates all of the major muscle groups – legs, back and cardio-respiratory system – and everything in-between. That’s why after a 10-kilometre rowing session you feel like every sinew in your body has been recruited in the conquest.
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How to row PROPERLY!
Few people row properly and they make all manner of technical mistakes; pulling straight out the catch; slipping the legs underneath the paddle; bending the knees before shooting the arms forward; etc., etc.
I routinely made all of these mistakes as well. That was until I happened to make acquaintance with a semi-professional rower (who boasted 2000m PB of 6:20). After watching me break every technical rule in the book (as well inventing a couple of unique mistakes of my own) he showed me how I could improve my technique. Once I’d adopted the proper techniques, which took a couple of weeks of practice, my rowing performance improved noticeably.
The primary technical points passed on to me have been outlined below and demonstrated in action in the exercise tutorial video.
Before setting sail, so to speak, ensure that the rower is correctly set-up. The foot straps should lace across the knuckles of the toes and the ball of the foot should be positioned over the foot-plate grippers. The dampener, or resistance, is best set at 7 – not 10. By all accounts, 7 more closely simulates the resistance similar to that of rowing on water.
Once strapped in and dampener set, position yourself on the seat. Before removing the paddle slide the seat backwards and forwards a few times. This will enable you to feel if your feet are in the correct position and it will also expose any debris on the rails, which can impede efficiency.
Grasp the paddle and execute the stroke remembering to initiate the movement with legs then smoothly transitioning muscle groups to the back and finally the arms.
The transition between the muscle groups should be one seamless movement.
Set the rower up before rowing!
Set the dampener to 7.
Make sure there is no debris on the rail by sliding backwards and forwards few times.
Don’t fully fold your legs. Contrary to popular technical opinion the seat should not slide all the way in and touch your heels. At the inner most point there should be about a foot gap.
Don’t, in the outer most position, bend the knees until the paddle clears them.
Don’t slide your bum under the paddle when initiating the stroke. This is called ‘slipping’ and when you commit this time-honoured technical error the force exerted by the legs will not assist the row stroke.
Don’t allow the back to round excessively. Some rounding is inevitable but too much can place strain on the lumbar region of the vertebrae.
Don’t lock you legs out in the outer most position.
Don’t cock the wrists.
Best Exercise #2: Kettlebell Swing
Muscles worked: all of them! But primarily the gluteus maximus (bum), transverse abdominus (tum), latissimus dorsi (back).
The kettlebell swing is synonymous with whole-body, functional training. And though it is arguably the best single exercise for all-round fitness it is deceptively simple – at a glance. You are, effectively, swinging a steel ball between your legs – stop tittering.
However, there’s a bit more to this exercise than meets the untrained eye. But the small investment required to master the kettlebell swing is paid back in substantial fitness rewards. So what’re you waiting for, grab a kettlebell and get mastering!
Stand directly over the kettlebell feet spaced 1.5 should widths apart.
Bending at the knee – not rounding at the lower back – grasp the bell and stand up: smoothly and under control.
To initiate the movement pull the bell back into your groin and, on contracting the glutes, drive forward through the hips – remember: you are not pulling the kettlebell up with the shoulders; you are thrusting it forward with your love-making muscles.
Keep the eyes fixed on an indefinite point in the distance as this will help stabilise your posture and reduce back rounding.
When receiving or ‘catching’ the kettlebell in the groin – sounds painful but it shouldn’t be – absorb the energy in the hips and transverse abdominus and redirect it into the next repetition.
To complete the exercise return the kettlebell back to the floor the same way you picked it up: bending at the knee, no rounding of the back.
Keep control throughout the exercise.
Relax during the movement.
Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the swing.
Fix your eyes on a point roughly head height.
Ensure the arms are slightly bent throughout.
Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved.
Do not at any point lock the legs out.
Best Exercise #3: Running
Muscles worked: those of the legs, cardio-respiratory (heart and diaphragm) and transverse abdominus. But of course a multi-dimensional exercise such as running develops a whole host of smaller muscles. Arguably, running, like rowing and skipping, is as close to a whole body exercises as you can get.
Besides being generally useful for helping us get places marginally quicker, running confers lots of health and fitness benefits. By way of example, one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that ‘running participation is associated with 27%, 30% and 23% lower risk of all-cause ... cardiovascular ... and cancer mortality.’
But this study merely scratches the tip of the iceberg. On the web and on the shelves of good bookshops there is a ton of research demonstrating the link between running and improved health and general physicality. If you make running a regular part of your training regime, you could enjoy some of the following benefits:
Improved cardiovascular and respiratory performance
Denser and thus more robust cardiac and respiratory muscles
Metabolization of superfluous non-force producing tissue (aka fat!)
Increased muscular definition mainly in the legs but also over the entire body
Increased bone density
(As a consequence of the above) reduced risk of developing osteoarthritis
Improved cognition and memory recall – basically improved brain function
Improved mobility and agility
How to get started
Some if not most all of those benefits listed above could be yours if you are prepared to make running a regular habit. But the question is, how often and for how long should we run in order to catch up with those health and fitness benefits?
There’s no hard and fast rule regarding running volume or ‘dose’. The findings of the British Journal study cited above states that running ‘regardless of its dose, would probably lead to substantial improvements’ in health and longevity and that any ‘amount of running, even just once a week, is better than no running.’
Furthermore, the frequency and duration of your running sessions will be determined by your age, present state of physicality, health and fitness goals and current lifestyle. For example, a septuagenarian, who has never strapped on a pair of trainers in his or her life, might require only two short slow runs a week. By contrast, a young whip over brimming with vitality will likely have to increase the volume and intensity of their running sessions significantly.
However, with that said, it stands to reason that the less we run the less benefit we are likely to derive from the exercise. And though running frequency is ultimately determined by physicality and circumstances, the optimum number of run sessions resides somewhere between 2 to 4 per week. Each run should last for between 20-minutes to 1-hour.
Ensure that you are correctly attired and that you have strapped to your feet a good quality pair of running trainers. For top notch attire see our other articles:
Prior to embarking on your run it is best to start loosen-up with mobility exercises and a progressive 5-10-minute warm-up, which could consist of walking at varying paces, air squats and light jogging.
Once warmed break into a slow jog.
For the first kilometre or so gradually elevate the intensity until you reach the pace that you plan to maintain for the majority of your run.
Maintain your pace ensuring to be mindful to keep relaxed throughout.
On concluding your run cool-down and stretch.
Ensure that you’re adequately attired – and if you’re road running consider wearing high visibility elements.
Warm-up prior to running.
Maintain a relaxed posture throughout.
Sustain a light to moderate pace for between 20-minutes and 1-hour.
Don’t begin your run cold – by doing so you will significantly increase your chances of sustain muscle pulls/strains/tears.
Don’t push the pace too early.
Best Exercise #4: Barbell Clean and Jerk
Muscles worked: all of them! Seriously, when performing the indomitable clean and jerk every major and minor muscle group is recruit.
When performing the clean and jerk (C&J from here on out) you will transition through multiple positions and phases which together engage all the major muscle groups. The C&J is an amalgamation of three compound exercises each of which, in its own right, is an excellent strength developer.
The initial phase is a dead lift. From here the bar must be brought up into the ‘front rack’ position. To do this you will need to execute a clean. When the bar is resting securely across the anterior deltoids, the final phase of the movement is completed with a jerk – or push-press. The difference between a push-press and military press is that to initiate the former you are required to take a short dip at the knee and fire through the quads to assist the lift. In contrast, the military press is a strict controlled movement driven entirely by the deltoids.
There’s no denying it, the C&J is a complex movement that requires considerable technical development before it can be performed safely and correctly. One of the best ways to practice this movement is to break it down into the three individual exercises – deadlift, clean (which would be performed as a hang-clean), push-press. Once you’ve mastered them then you can begin to piece the C&J back together again.
However, it would, of course, be better if you could solicit the tutelage of an Olympic lifting coach. This is not an essential requirement in the mastery of this exercise, but it would certainly help. Also, if you have never performed this exercise before, start off with a very light weight. When I first learnt the C&J my coach made me practice with a wooden broom handle for weeks before he granted me permission to progress on to an Olympic bar. He also made me master each stage of the movement before progressing onto the exercise proper.
It goes without saying but, I’ll say it anyway: warm-up thoroughly before attempting this exercise.
Set up a bare bar ensuring to pop a pair of spacers either side; spacers are light-weight wooden discs that raise the bar off the floor. This is important for two reasons. 1) It gives you a realistic feel of initiating the movement from the height the bar would be at were it loaded with a pair of Olympic plates. 2) Spacers stop you from starting too low to the ground.
Before executing the exercises consider your positioning: feet under the bar spaced shoulder width; shins almost touching the bar; hands evenly spaced a little over shoulder width; grasping the bar; knees bent; back straight; looking forward; relaxed breathing; focused.
Take the strain.
Initiate by performing a deadlift.
As the bar passes over the knees the hips come into play: this is the important him extension phase.
Here you are effectively pulling the bar up to you hips where you will use a hip assist to fire the bar up into the front rack position.
In the front rack position you can take a breath or two before finishing the movement off with the push-press.
So, take a shallow dip at the knee and as you fire through the quads use that generate force to assist the shoulders as they power the bar above the head.
Traditionally the arms would be locked out and the lifter would pause before dropping the weight. It is only recommendable to drop the weight if you are using ‘bumper plates’ and are training on an appropriate surface.
Of course, it goes without saying that much of the technical intricacies have been omitted in the above outline. To include every single teaching point would double the size of the list and it’s doubtful if that would be helpful. As I said in the introduction, it is best to firstly master the three component exercises – deadlift, hang-clean, push-press – before attempting the complete movement. Also, it is helpful to watch video tutorials and Olympic lifters perform the movement. Study those videos and make notes on the technical application.
Start with a light bar – preferably a broom handle.
Build competency by mastering the three component exercises.
Watch video tutorials and study the professionals (see examples below).
Maintain control throughout – own the exercise at all times.
Don’t progress on to heavy loads – keep it nice and light and focus on technique.
Don’t initiate the movement from the lower back – a common mistake.
Don’t look down at the bar.
Best Exercise #5: Skipping
Muscles worked: all of them but primarily the heart.
Skipping, or ‘jumping rope’, is a staple of the boxer’s daily training diet. Though primarily used as a method of warming up and cooling down, skipping confers many physical benefits and is an excellent exercise to incorporate into circuits and HIIT sessions.
Bruce Lee purportedly said that ‘10 minutes of skipping rope is like 30 minutes of jogging.’ Though I’ve yet to encounter any research that supports his statement, anyone who’s vigorously skipped for ten minutes will probably agree with him. So why is such a seemingly simple and, excuse the term, old fashioned exercise so stimulating?
This probably has something to do with the way skipping works the body. When performing this exercise multiple major muscle groups are simultaneously recruited; such as the quadriceps, back and shoulders and of course the heart and lungs (diaphragm).
In addition, a plethora of ‘synergist’, or stabilising, muscles are also engaged to, well, stabilise the body during the movement. I suppose, in short, I could have just said that skipping in some way activates every muscle in your body. It’s no wonder then that ten minutes of jumping rope gets the blood pumping and the sweat pouring.
How to skip in 7 not-so-simple steps
Step 1: WARM-UP!
Step 2: While holding the rope in your hands, practice double footed jumping – you are not jumping rope yet. Spend 1 to 2 minutes doing this.
Step 3: Holding the handles loosely, the rope at rest behind you, turn it over and jump the rope –JUST ONCE!
Step 4: Congratulate yourself
Step 5: Repeat Step 3
Step 6: Again, a bit of self-praise
Step 7: Now that you’ve had a little go at getting over that wily rope it’s time to start racking up personal bests: try to count as many un-broken double footed skips as possible. Every time you clip the rope or whip your arse, stop, take a 3 second count, then back into it trying each time to better your previous PB.
Steps 1 to 7 should span the duration of about ten minutes. I would advise against exceeding this. Put the rope away and merrily go about with the rest of your session. Over the course of the week try to get two or three more practice sessions in.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.