03/27/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

What Is the Single Best Exercise?

This is a question I get asked with some regularity. It belongs to a class of queries that include such standards as if you were imprisoned in a 4x8 cell, what would be the one best exercise to stay in shape? Or, if you were stranded on a deserted island, what one piece of music or literature would you want to possess to maintain your sanity?

These questions have always struck me as simultaneously bizarre and intriguing. Some 99 percent of us will never be in the hypothesized situation. And yet there's something about the answer to such a question that affords it a status miles above an answer that includes a variety of choices. Perhaps it's a vestige of our childhood when big people seemed to know everything and we knew so little. There's something magical there that we all want to tap into, whether we admit it or not.

The exercise question is usually answered with a reasonable hedge. Well, it depends on your goals, your condition, your time, your access to equipment. Blah, blah, blah. Nothing like such reasonable responses to kill any magic.

At the end of the day, it is a reasonable question that deserves a thoughtful response. So here goes.

The pushup.

And here's why.

1. All you need is a floor.
2. It takes very little time to knock you out.
3. There are a million variations that allow a wide variety of body parts and skill sets to work hard.
4. Cardio vs. muscle conditioning is a false dichotomy and we can get both, even with push ups alone.
5. You want plyometric? I'll give you plyometric.
6. You don't want plyometric? I won't give you plyometric.
7. You say where's the balance component? I'll show you.


Let me give you a series of push up variations that can be used in a progressive program that will address all of the above and more.

If you can blow through a few sets of these every day, you'll be in good shape in anyone's book.

And remember that form is everything. The easiest way to get injured is to sacrifice form in order to finish the set. The back must be protected from lapsing into hyperextension with these exercises. This is harder to avoid when the core is weak.

If you want to work to failure, work to form failure.

Push up Types:

1. Classic

2. Playing with pacing
• Medium speed
• Fast
• Slow
• Fast up/Slow down

3. Playing with base of support
• Hand position variations
o Stability variations - floor-chair-ball-chair on wheels...
• Foot position variation
o Stability variations (as above)
• Dynamic variations
o slide hands/feet in/out laterally on towels) between each push up
o slide hands and feet (toward/away from each other from pike to plank) between each push up

4. Flexibility and Balance
• open arm up pointing it to ceiling and move into 1 arm plank with chest facing laterally, alternate sides between each push up
• bring alt knee into same side elbow on descent and back out on ascent, again alternate sides
• move leg under body and through to other side out to 45 degrees alternating while raising opposite arm to ceiling

5. "Cardio"
• mountain climber between each push up (can do sliding with feet on towels or without towels springing feet back and forth
• jumping jack legs (lateral in-out with jumps or slide on towels) with each push up
• Burpee -- push up with squat thrust and jump up

6. Plyo
• Clap push up (explode out of down position to raise hands and clap on top)
• Progress by increasing height and number of claps

(Some pictures illustrating these maneuvers and more will follow in next entry.)

What I hope this illustrates is that you can take almost any classical whole body exercise and create endless variations. The way to progress these exercises is to play with the base of support, stability, body position, pace and focus. The idea is to work as many muscles in as many ways and planes as possible.


That's what makes muscle strong, flexible and functional.

So if somebody happens to ask you what the best single exercise is, give him a piece of your mind.