Throw reality out the window for a second and entertain a hypothetical. Imagine you can only do one exercise for the rest of your life. If you had to choose a single exercise to do for the rest of your life, right here today, what would it be? It’s a popular question with a divergent set of answers depending on who’s being asked, and for the most part I see where everyone’s coming from.
If you ask the AARP, it’s the plank, which is easy on the joints, involves every body part, strengthens the core which can help prevent falls, is very safe for seniors (the intended audience of AARP), and you can do them anywhere without equipment. I have no fault with the plank.
If you ask the NY Times to ask various experts, it’s the squat, or maybe the burpee, or maybe sprinting uphill. These are all exercises that stress the entire body, that can be performed with high intensity to elicit the highest possible training effect in the least amount of time. You could do a lot worse than squatting, doing burpees, or sprinting.
If you were to ask Mark Rippetoe, I’d imagine you’d hear “the low-bar back squat” because it supposedly elicits the greatest hormonal response, builds oft-neglected posterior chain strength, makes your entire body stronger, and simply “makes a man outta ya.”
If you ask Rich Froning (top CrossFit athlete), it’s the barbell thruster, a fairly simple to learn “two in one” exercise combining a squat with an overhead press.
Those are good candidates. A person could get and stay very strong, fit, fast, and healthy doing any one of those exercises for perpetuity, even to the exclusion of all others. But a thruster isn’t the best exercise there is, hands down. Nor are squats (of any kind), deadlifts (of any kind), or planks. Sprints are cool, but they aren’t the best.
The single best exercise there is, hands down, is the one you’ll do.
If I were giving a talk, this is where I’d pause until the eye-rolling, scoffing, and guffawing stopped. Go on, I know you’re thinking it. “The best exercise is the one you’ll stick with!” is a cheesy, cliche answer that you’ve heard a thousand times before.
But it’s true. By the most objective definition, the most effective exercise is the one you’ll do. Because heavy squats are fantastic for strength, unless you don’t do them. Because sprinting makes you lean and fast, unless you’re not sprinting. The same is true for everything. It only works if you do it.
One reason is consistency: adherence begets success. You don’t get stronger or fitter or leaner because of a single workout. You get stronger or fitter or leaner because of the cumulative effect of many, many workouts done on a consistent basis. Search the literature for research on exercise adherence and you won’t find much about the “benefits of exercise adherence” because the benefits are accepted as basic law. They’re implicit. You will instead find dozens of studies that seek to figure out the best way to promote adherence in various populations, because adherence is the most important factor in an exercise program’s effectiveness.
The key is figuring out which exercise you’ll actually do. And I don’t need scientific references for the notion that you’re more likely to do a physical activity that you actually enjoy doing. It’s a fundamental law of nature.
To me, the reason doing something you like is the best exercise isn’t only because it’ll promote consistency in your workouts. It’s also because doing things that you legitimately enjoy doing benefit you in other ways. This is called voluntary exercise – physical activity in which you willingly and readily engage. Certain animal studies confirm that voluntary exercise is more beneficial than forced exercise:
In mice with colitis, forced treadmill running exacerbates intestinal inflammation enough to kill the mice; voluntary running attenuates it and keeps them alive.
While some research has found forced exercise to be more beneficial in certain conditions like Parkinson’s disease, that’s probably because those conditions are inhibiting or preventing any meaningful amount of voluntary exercise. A mouse with Parkinson’s disease isn’t going to use the treadmill much at all unless you force him to. He needs forced exercise because voluntary exercise isn’t good enough due to his condition. In healthy people, though, without physiological impairments that directly impede the initiation of voluntary movement, doing exercise that you legitimately enjoy doing will be more beneficial.
Consequently, what many people do “voluntarily” for exercise looks pretty forced to me. Forcing a hamster to run on its wheel for a couple hours by using the threat of electric zaps isn’t so different from willing yourself to the gym, the influence of those break room donuts on your waistline hanging over your head. Most animals (and certainly not lab rats) can’t and won’t perform unpleasant tasks unless they absolutely have to; they won’t decide to do them because “it’s good for them.” Humans however can act as authoritative enforcers looming over their meat bodies, directly overriding the natural inclinations for the “greater good” of the organism.
When you’re summoning the willpower to grimace your way through a miserable workout routine, you’re not doing “voluntary exercise.”
When you dread your workout and feel physically ill at the prospect of going to the gym, you’re not doing voluntary exercise.
When you either love what you’re doing or feel a powerful calling to it – even if it’s physically grueling and not exactly “pleasurable” – you are doing voluntary exercise and the benefits will likely be greater than if the reverse were true.
There’s just something about fully committing to an activity with every fiber of your being that elevates it above other activities and even makes it more effective.
You see this in the Olympic weight lifter that lives and bleeds for the sport, who’s really only at home and at peace with a cloud of gym chalk dust swirling around his head. You see it in the dancer making the immaterial material, the basketball player pulling off impossible moves even she didn’t see coming to weave through the lane, and the cyclist reaching the summit just as the sun comes up. You see it in the bodybuilder who can trigger and engage specific muscle fibers by angling the weights a little differently and who likens the post-workout pump to really good sex. And you see it in the elderly but sprightly woman you see walking her elderly but sprightly dog every morning, noon, and night like clockwork by your house.
Would the cyclist be better off in a spin class doing intervals set to Lady Gaga songs (that happens, right?)?
Should the bodybuilder lay off the isolation exercises and focus on “real strength”?
Would I be better off doing CrossFit instead of playing Ultimate on the weekend?
No. These are people doing their thing. These are people who have chosen wisely, who’ve found it. And it doesn’t matter what it looks like, or what it involves, as long as you’re doing the thing. Even if, according to gym lore or the latest research, the exercise isn’t quite as “effective” as another one.
Of course, this is a hypothetical. A thought experiment to help you take stock of your fitness life. Are you currently mired in an involuntary workout routine that you read about on a legitimate training blog? If so, consider switching gears. Try something else, something fun, something you’ve always wanted to do or maybe once did but for various reasons (“growing up”?) stopped doing. Try it for a month and deemphasize your previous routine. Find your thing.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.