What is the ideal exercise?

What is the best exercise that you can do in your immediate place, with the clothes you are wearing, and the goal you have in mind right now?

What is your favorite exercise?

Why do these questions matter?

First, to justify the writing of this blog, I think I should start with the last question. I think it is a good idea to choose the exercises that experts believe to be the best, and adding other exercises as supportive for these main ones. While I do not have an absolute answer that would reveal the magical exercise. But, I believe if we cannot have the best exercise, we can settle for something that comes close. Therefore, I will aim at answering the first question and no doubt, I will miss. Despite this, I hope my effort would prove to be worthwhile to end up with a list of exercises that come very close to being ideal.

Choosing the ideal exercise would depend on many things (factors), some of those things would be more important than others. By examining the factors, we can have ideas about what the perfect exercise should be like (qualities). The factors and qualities mentioned are my own ideas as a student. So keep in mind, dear reader that I am not an expert, rather I aspire to be one in the future.

To begin with, the 1st question is better put; if you can do one exercise for the rest of your life, what exercise would that be? This is something more practical now, since I don’t think anyone wants to try a movement once. Now we have introduced probably the most important factor: consistency. This simply means being able to repeat the movement on a regular basis and the repeatability of any movement is strongly linked with how much you can enjoy it. Therefore, this would reveal the answer to the question; what is your favorite exercise?

Based on the consistency factor, we can see one of the qualities we are asking for:

  1. The ideal exercise should be an exercise we can stick with.

Another relevant question that would help is: why do we exercise?

We probably have two answers: there are those who would move simply because they enjoy moving (children, dancers, athletes …etc.), if this is the case, then it will guide us back towards the 1st point: the movements we enjoy the most are the ones we will stick with. A volleyball player enjoys the sport, and would continue to play the game as long as it is enjoyed by the player.

2nd answer, we might move as a means to an end, in order to achieve something. And that simply means that the exercise has to be effective in realizing a goal. And this introduces the 2nd factor, effectiveness.

Let’s assume most people simply train to be fit. And what is that? Fitness is roughly a combination of endurance, strength, and flexibility. Obviously, it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine a single exercise that is best for developing all three, so we can choose one with a strong balance.

Now, let us see what I demand of an exercise that endeavors to be effectively ideal:

I          Recruit 3-dimentionally (length, width, depth) the largest muscle groups. The exercise simply has to move the part of our bodies that has the largest muscle groups. (muscle size)

II        Use the biggest number of muscles. We don’t want to focus on one muscle group, we want a compound exercise that will aim at using most of our bodies. (number of muscle groups)

III       A long range of motion. The longer the range, the greater the number of muscles are being used. And for the same muscles, with an increased range of motion, more parts of the same muscle are being used. (compare a full biceps curl to a partial and feel the difference) (ROM)

IIV      As we progress, the exercise should keep up with us and provide us with new challenges. This means the movement should be adjustable to our level. (adjustment or progression)

When we combine the first three points – an exercise that uses the largest muscle groups, in a compound move, across a long range of motion- we are likely draw close to an exercise of the lower body. Our legs in total account for about 34% of our entire weight, and most of that weight is muscle. In addition, the largest muscle groups are in the lower body, namely, glutes and quadriceps. Furthermore, an exercise that combines the first three points will burn the most calories, since the three points are directing us towards using most of the skeletal muscles in the body.

After combining the first three points, the movement we will find would have a strong balance between endurance, strength, and flexibility. Furthermore, we can manipulate the intensity of the movement and the weight (body or otherwise) being used to focus more on one component (say, strength) at the expense of another.

Now, from the effectiveness factor, we can assert our 2nd quality:

  1. The ideal exercise must use the largest muscles, must be compound, have a long range of motion, and adjustable to our current level of fitness.

(Compound exercises recruit many muscles, isolated ones focus on specific muscles.)

Another important factor to consider is environment. This also includes equipment. We may or may not have all the equipment we wish, even if we do, the equipment might not be available to us all the time. Consider being in office where you wish to stand up and move for a short while.

We can assert, based on the environment and equipment factor the following quality:

  1. The ideal one should require little space and simple equipment or maybe none at all!

Another factor to consider is taking into account is our current condition. Where we want to go (our goals) relies heavily on where we are now (current condition). I can imagine that being able to perform backflips seems like a great exercise, if not one of the best. But with my current condition, I might be able to backflip once every several months!

And this brings us to the 2nd question we asked from the beginning; what is the best exercise you can do right now, with what you have?

This would simplify our search for The One and allow us to further dig deeper into the practical side of the questions rather than the hypothetical one. As the search for what is best for all is way too complex, a search for what could be best for me seems like more achievable and relevant.

Based on the individual’s current condition factor, we can assert another quality:

  1. I must be able to perform the exercise, in order for it to be ideal for me.

There are probably other factors that are relevant. If so, I wish the reader would add it in the comment section.

The qualities mentioned are what I wish for in an ideal exercise, therefore, they are not based on expert opinions. Next, I will mention some nominees given by experts for the ideal exercise and I would like to test them to see if they can meet the qualities I have listed above.

The experts would probably have more demanding qualities than the ones that I have listed, and so they would be more rigorous. Which is probably why they will not give us any definitive answers to our simple questions about complex subjects. Instead, they will tell us which exercises are one of the best. Let’s check several opinions: My own opinion on the exercises based on the qualities I want will be written in Italic.

Burpees (1)

It combines upper and lower body, builds muscle and endurance. Disadvantages: 1) consistency! It is hard to imagine people enjoying it, says the same expert who nominates burpees. 2) Progression: unless you can add weights (such as a weighted vest), when you can perform + 15 burpees, the more repetitions that can be added to any exercise, the more it moves towards endurance and away from strength. And the problem with that, if people simply want to build endurance, there are more enjoyable ways to do so. For example, running, cycling, walking …etc. almost all are preferred over burpees. Regarding strength, doing squats + push-ups * 10 repetitions each will probably build more strength than 20 burpees.

Brisk walking (1)

Michael Joyner, M.D., says, “I personally think that brisk walking is far and away the single best exercise,” He is a leading researcher in the field of endurance exercises.

Brisk walking is the one thing that I probably do every day. It is a very convincing nominee, especially for elderly. Personally, if I have to choose one movement as an exercise for the rest of my life, it would be this.

Squat (1)

Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology, nominates the squat. It uses the body’s largest muscle groups which are in the legs, buttocks, and back. Squat for 25 repetitions, and it is a powerful exercise. If it becomes easy, you can use a barbell.

Before I read about brisk walking, I was going to say squats. I think the ideas about the qualities that I wished for in the desired ideal exercise came reading Mark Rippetoe’s book – Starting Strength (2nd edition). I tried to learn why it is considered among the best exercises. Progression does not have to require a barbell; you can slowly learn other versions that are more challenging: squat jump, pistol squat, plyometric pistol squat, etc.

HIT (high- intensity interval) (2)

Dr. Martin Gibala believes HIT is a strong nominee. This is a training method that can be applied to certain movements. It involves short periods of intense activity with long periods of rest, and repeat several times.

For example: intense cycling for 30-60 seconds / up to 4 minutes of active rest * 4-6 times.

Another example: sprint 30-60 seconds / 4 minutes of active rest (jogging or running with average speed) * 4-6 times

Gibala also mentions sprinting uphill will enhance the strength component of the exercise. I believe, uphill sprinting might be, just might be, the best exercise there is!

There are other nominees besides these:

Deadlift: there are many who would say that deadlift is even better than squats. It could be because of the more involved lower back and the upper body (4).

Push-up: a classic exercise with so many variables (highly adjustable to current level), and variables help target different upper body muscles. While mainly an upper body workout, it also engages your back and core (3).

Weighted lunges: I personally think that lunge can challenge squat and deadlift as it adds the upper body recruitment as the deadlift. Furthermore, it trains one leg at a time; therefore, both sides train equally rather than relying on your dominant side more. It also feels safer than the squat, as we could simply drop the weights to the sides, that would mean we can use heavy weights and challenge ourselves safely more so than with squats.


The main point of this blog was to find the perfect exercise. I do not think that I have certainly found it, though I hope I have brought you, dear reader, closer to an answer than when you started reading this blog. Moreover. A discussion about what an ideal exercise would be like helps move us closer towards finding a second best.

I would also like to add that the exercises suggested to be close to ideal by the experts have several points in common:

–          The main component of each exercise is the lower body.

–          The range of motion is usually long.

–          They are compound exercises, since they recruit a great number of muscles.

–          They require simple or often no equipment at all.

–          They are exercises we have known about for quite some time. So, to train well, we don’t need to know more exercises, perhaps we need to master the ones we already knew.

Finally, I want to say if the exercise you enjoy the most is far from the ones mentioned, then choosing that, as the best for you is still very much respectable, as any exercise performed is better than none and the one you would stick with is better than any movement mentioned here if you cannot be consistent with it.

Thank you for reading!


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17exercise-t.html

  2. http://evolutionsofar.com/health/gibala-method-a-more-moderate-hiit-for-all-audiences/

  3. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-spector-md/what-is-the-single-best-e_b_5032542.html

  4. https://www.washingtonian.com/2012/08/16/what-is-the-single-best-exercise-to-do/

  5. https://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-best-exercise-there-is-hands-down/

  6. http://www.exrx.net/Kinesiology/Segments.html

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