What are the top 6 full body exercises? They are the ones that are going to give you maximal stimulation of as many muscles as possible in one exercise. There are many to choose from so, to some extent, it’s a matter of opinion. Here, we give you ours.
Why should you care about full body exercises? Because they have a lot of benefits that ‘lesser’ exercises don’t have. Read on to find out more.
What do we mean by a full body exercise?
A full body exercise is one that requires your whole body to get involved. Here are the key characteristics
Works lots of muscles
The best full body exercises work most of the muscles in your body. It’s difficult to work every muscle hard, but most of them should get a good look in. More muscles, more overall muscle stimulation, more bang for your buck.
Stimulates the nervous system more thoroughly
Nerves supply your muscles with the impetus to fire. The more muscles, the more nerves. The harder and heavier it is, the more nerves fire. With lots of muscles all working to their max, you get huge stimulation of your nervous system.
Why does that matter?
Because research has shown that testosterone and growth hormone are elevated in response to nervous system stimulation. The more your nervous system is stimulated, the better your hormonal response will be.
Testosterone and growth hormone are great hormones. They will help you with muscle growth, fat loss, metabolism, energy, vitality, clarity of thought, confidence and so on. These two hormones are one of the main reasons why weight training is so beneficial for weight loss and, in particular, body composition change.
Be sure to include full body exercises if you want to improve your body composition as well as you can.
They tend to be done standing or on the feet
… as opposed to seated or lying down. That’s important, because there will always be an element of balance and core engagement. That will help to stimulate the nervous system. Over time they will improve your balance and improve your core strength. That will translate well into your every day life.
They are more ‘functional’
Whole body exercises are exactly what you’d imagine. They not only involve most of the muscles of your body but they move most of the joints, or multiple joints. This is the way the body was designed to work. Look at most sports and you’ll note that they involve movements at all joints. Your body generates force and speed better when multiple joints are involved. You are capable of more complex movements when the whole body takes part.
In this context, ‘functional’ means it has benefits for other activities and every day life.
They’re going to make you pant!
This makes sense. If you’re firing a lot of muscles hard, you’re going to be using a lot of energy and a lot of oxygen. You’ll find the oxygen debt with full body exercises is large. You’re going to need to be able to cope with the energy demand, the demand for oxygen and the need to get rid of carbon dioxide.
It helps if you’re fit. By that I mean you need to have efficient gas exchange in the lungs, a strong heart and a vascular system that can rush blood around your body to carry gases and sugars to where they should go. This may surprise you, but the best way to strengthen the cardiovascular system and lungs is through regular cardio. For heart and vascular health, steady cardio is better because it allows for a full heart-full of blood and requires the heart’s full force to empty.
Be sure to include a variety of exercise modalities for optimum fitness and lifting ability.
They’re going to heat you up
Full body exercises are going to make you pant and make you sweat. You’ll sweat because your body is generating a lot of heat. And not only will you get hot during the workout, you’ll stay warm for quite a while afterwards, depending on how acclimatised you are to doing the exercises.
Why do you stay warm? Because your nervous system will be fatigued and your muscles will have had a strong stimulus for adaptation. Recovery and muscle growth require more energy to be expended than normal. A little more energy means a little more heat.
Being warm is a good sign. It means your body is using energy. And because it’s low level energy consumption, it tends to be in the ‘fat burning’ zone. If your physiology is well adapted to fat oxidation then you’ll enjoy favourable body composition changes, using fat reserves to build muscle. Sounds good doesn’t it?
It is, but the effect isn’t huge. You’ll still get fat if you eat too much, but weight training with full body exercises will at least provide some resilience to overeating.
The top 6 full body exercises
So, now that we’ve elaborated on the characteristics of a full body exercise, here’s the list of our favourites.
Number one on the list, and my desert island exercise, is the deadlift. You’re entire body, up to the rib cage, gets very strongly stimulated. Above that, the entire back, upper trapezius, neck muscles and grip work extremely hard.
Why do they work so hard? After all you’re just picking a weight up. It’s because it’s possible to build up to very substantial weights. That means you’re switching on the most high threshold motor units over most of the body. That results in massive nervous system stimulation and a superb hormonal response.
I also like the deadlift because it’s the perfect antidote to prolonged sitting, working primarily the ‘standing up’ muscles.
In the link above you’ll see me pulling 180kg for 6 in the days before my arthritic hip curtailed my ability to deadlift with any meaningful weight. That’s just over twice my bodyweight at the time and not far off the gold standard of 2.5 x body weight for one rep max. I was pretty chuffed with that.
In this video you’ll see client Dave pulling 150 for 7 on the hex bar. You’ll note the effort that is going into his lifting. Dave has built good amounts of muscle and seen excellent body composition changes. That’s largely because he puts everything into his lifting.
In this second deadlift video you’ll see client Sara lifting good weight. We try to get all our clients deadlifting. As long as they can get into the right position and keep their shape, our clients deadlift.
Unless you’ve done a heavy sled push, you won’t appreciate just how many muscles get involved and how utterly draining it is. Push a lighter sled over more distance and you’ll get a bit of a lactic acid burn in the legs and you’ll puff hard. But push a heavy sled and your whole body has to work to the max. Everything. Your chest and back are strongly stimulated. Your triceps. Shoulders. Core. Legs. Probably the only muscle that isn’t being taxed is your biceps.
To me this comes a close second to the deadlift. The oxygen debt with this exercise is supreme and I feel it stimulates the nervous system and muscles like no other.
So why isn’t it number one? Partly because it is less accessible than the deadlift. There’s barely a gym in the world where you you won’t be able to do some kind of deadlift. That’s not the case with the sled push. Second, I feel it’s less effective at building leg muscles than some of the more traditional weight training exercises. That’s because there is no negative portion of the rep. The negative is unweighted, the positive is weighted. Negative reps are effective at building muscle and, without that, the stimulus for hypertrophy is reduced.
That doesn’t mean you won’t build big strong legs with the sled push. You will. But, if size is your goal, you may have better results – for legs – with other exercises.
Two more reasons why I love the sled push
I also love this exercise because it’s very functional. The body is doing what it is designed to do very well, and that’s to stride in a bipedal fashion. Pushing stuff is a very natural movement for us humans and we are well adapted to it.
Finally, this is a great exercise for anyone who has movement or postural challenges. I have clients who can’t deadlift because they don’t have the flexibility to address the bar in the correct shape. And nor can they squat. But they can push a sled. I haven’t had a client yet who couldn’t push a sled, even one with fused bones in his feet.
In this video, you’ll see client Lucy working hard on her sled push. As with the deadlift, we’ll try and get everyone pushing a sled if they are able.
Clean and jerk
Oh wow, what a fabulous exercise. I say with some confidence that there isn’t a muscle in your body that doesn’t get worked. Every single muscle plays a part.
Even a light set of these will have you puffing hard. If you’re going heavier, one or two reps will do! It’s a complex move that requires a lot of technique. After two heavy reps you’re better off having a rest than trying to get more reps with dodgy form – the risk of injury is too great.
You might be thinking this exercise is a bit of a cheat because it’s effectively more than one exercise. It’s a clean followed by a jerk. You might even argue it’s a deadlift, a front squat and a jerk. It doesn’t really matter because each of those components on their own are great full body exercises. Put them together into one lift and you can see why it would be challenging and make you puff.
This is a video of me just getting back into lifting after an absence of a year or so. It’s a little rough round the edges, but you’ll recognise the lift as being one of the Olympic lifts. I’m now off Olympic lifting again, but hoping if I can get my hip sorted I’ll be back on it!
My only real issue with this exercise is that it’s very technical. Ideally you’ll be coached, but at the very least you should find good video tuition and practise a lot. It requires a lot of practice and building up weights gradually.
Barbell back squat
There are so many types of squats but the barbell back squat reigns supreme. That’s really for two reasons
- You can lift a lot of weight and maximally stimulate the legs and nervous system
- Because the bar sits across the back of the shoulders, it forces you to lean forward at the hips. That angle helps to involve more muscles – the glutes, hamstrings and entire back get a good workout from the back squat.
Again, as with the clean and jerk, this is not as accessible an exercise as some of the others. That’s because a lot of people can’t get into the right position. Either the chest drops, risking the lower back, or the lower back rounds, or the knees buckle or…. well, you name it. If there are short and tight lines of tension, postural challenges or movement restrictions, then the back squat will expose them.
We tend to introduce people to squatting with the safety bar. It loads you like a front squat, so you can sit back more. That means your tail won’t tuck under so early in the move and you can keep your torso more upright, especially by raising the handles. The problem with the safety bar squat is that it won’t stimulate your glutes, hamstrings and back as well as the back squat. That said, your core works harder. I’ve often had sore abs after returning to front squats after a layoff.
Here’s client Dave observing good form in the safety bar squat. You’ll note he’s putting in a lot of effort. That’s because it’s whole body!
This is a real strongman exercise. If you ever watch ‘World’s Strongest Man’ or similar strength competitions, you’ll have seen them do this kind of thing from time to time.
You’re in a squat position, so the legs are working hard to stabilise, but the prime movers are the back, biceps, forearms and muscles that rotate the torso, such as the obliques. It’ll have you panting hard, especially if you have to push the sled back to the starting position afterwards!
There’s something primal about this exercise, and there’s a very definite finishing point that’ll keep you working hard all the way to the end. With traditional weight training exercises you can stop lifting when you think you’re done. With the sled pull, there’s almost a sense of shame at not pulling it all the way to your feet, so you keep pulling until it arrives. You’ll never pull out of the set early!
Here’s client Lewis making short work of a 60kg sled pull. We have some clients who can pull 90kg. I’m not quite sure how they do it, if I’m honest, it’s more than I can manage!
Landmine push press
I’m not sure if this has an official name but it has similarities with the landmine and push press exercises. With clients, I call it a rugby press because it’s the sort of drill done by rugby players. They’re attempting to mimic some of the forces and positions they find themselves in on the rugby field.
Unusually for a full body movement, this hits the chest quite hard. It’ll work your legs, core, chest, shoulders and triceps very hard. There’s a lot of core rotational stability and power required, so it’s also good for sports that have a strong upper body rotational component.
There are different ways to do this. You can do it standing with just a slight leg bend, or from a squat position as you see in the video, or even from a split squat position, which is much harder. Whichever you choose, you’ll find this is hard work and has you heating up pretty quickly. Be sure to load it up and make it challenging for maximum nervous system stimulation.
The runners up
- Push ups – excluded because the legs a not worked.
- Military press – a great exercise but, again, no legs.
- Overhead squat – wow, fabulous exercise, but very challenging for most and not one you can load up without a LOT of practice and considerable strength gains.
- Burpees – if you do this with a push up then it’s very full body and very quickly fatiguing. It’s not going to help you build muscle particularly, but it’ll definitely get rid of some calories and heat you up.
- Bulgarian split squat – This is only really full body when weighted, especially with a barbell across the shoulders. It has a curiously huge oxygen debt, presumably because of the balance and core stability that is required.
It’s also worth pointing out that these full body exercises, on their own, won’t necessarily give you good overall balanced strength. You may need to supplement with, for example, the bench press. If your goal is to attain a particular look for bodybuilding competition or modelling, then you’ll definitely need other exercises to sculpt your physique the way you want it. This is what I do, as a bodybuilding competitor. But, I still include these full body exercises either as a mainstay or as great HIIT cardio drills to preserve muscle whilst achieving a good calorie burn in a limited time.
If you want to burn a lot of calories in a short space of time, stimulate maximum muscle growth, heat your metabolism up and promote favourable body composition changes, then full body exercises are the way to go. They’re not easy though. You need to be prepared to knuckle down to business, take lifting seriously and endure the discomfort and breathlessness associated with these exercises. But learn to love them and you’ll reap the rewards.