Which Exercises Will Make Me Look Jacked Most Quickly?
Do you wonder what the best way is to count sets and reps? Why you shouldn't skip leg day? We have answers. This is #Gains, Explained, a space for you to ask any and every question about fitness. The Men's Health team (and other experts) are here for you.
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Which single exercise will get me the most visual results the most quickly?
YOU KNOW THE DEAL by now: Achieving your fitness goals is a marathon, not a sprint. So no, four or five (or even six) sets of a single exercise won’t instantly transform you into the next Incredible Hulk.
But there are actually a handful of exercises that can give you ultra-fast visual benefits. Their results aren’t permanent, and they can’t replace hours upon hours of hard gym work. If you’re chasing a Friday night pre-party pump-up, however, they get the job done. The key in your pursuit of some magical one-hit wonder workout is understanding exactly what you can accomplish with a single exercise. And there are two main points to focus on when searching for instant return, says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
First off, says Samuel, you’ll want to focus on the “pump.” And no, this isn’t a bro-science term invented to excuse an obsession with biceps curls. It’s a sensation you get when targeted muscles become engorged with blood—and it’s an underrated key to building muscle. “It’s something you can feel,” says Samuel, “which is key to any quick-fix exercise.”
Your second goal in any instant-results exercise is more subtle. “You want it to address your postural muscles,” Samuel says. Exercises that address your mid-back muscles, glutes, and abs can instantly help you stand taller, a dramatic effect if it’s not typically something you train to address.
My go-to maximum return move is the kettlebell swing. The exercise hits the two major points that Samuel outlined—my forearms feel pumped by the last rep of a set of swings, and the glutes, abs, and back are essential for good swing form—along with one additional benefit: I’m able to work with (relatively) heavy weight.
I do three quick sets of 20 reps, and that makes me feel like I’ve condensed a whole strength training session into just a few minutes. I’m standing taller after putting my glutes on blast, and the moment I roll up my sleeves, the veins in my forearms pop.
Samuel has a different pick: the renegade row. He says the hybrid push-pull exercise hits the arms (biceps and forearms), mid-back, and provides valuable stability and postural benefits.
Samuel recommends doing three sets of 10 reps (one rep is a row with both the right and left arm). “Try to pause a little bit when you get to the top of every single rep—that will give you that good mid-back squeeze,” he says. “It's gonna let our chest stand proud. And then on top of that, your abs are firing, and you really have to squeeze your glutes in order to keep your hips stable.”
Men’s Health Next Top Trainer winner and Harlem Kettlebell Club owner Jah Washington takes a simple approach, opting for the pushup. “They hit your chest, your triceps, [you’ll] get a little bit of anterior delt,” he says. “Those are ‘show muscles’ on the front of the body that're gonna be more visible and get a quick pump immediately.”
There’s a low barrier of entry for pushups, too since you’ll need only your bodyweight. More advanced exercisers can also scale this exercise up (think: archer pushups and feet-elevated pushups), which Washington says ratchet up the core burn too. Washington suggests doing two to three sets of as many good-form reps as you can; regardless of the variation, you’ll get a healthy chest pump (and don’t sleep on the postural work you’ll get from owning the plank, either).
Not that every quick-fix move needs to hone your posture. Trainer David Otey, C.S.C.S. suggests the old-school dumbbell biceps curl, which can instantly leave your shirt-sleeves feeling extra-tight. “The fact of the matter is, when it comes to looking fit, there's only going to be a certain amount of areas that will immediately be an eye-draw,” says Otey. “There's a reason why all the twenty-somethings go to the gym to do arm day Friday night before going to the club.”
And no, don’t worry if you don’t have a ton of weight for these: Otey recommends focusing on volume, not weight during quick-pump curls (think: three sets of 15 to 20 reps), or slowing the tempo of every rep so you’re taking three to four seconds to lower the dumbbells. No dumbbells? Try curling a backpack full of books or a heavy grocery bag instead.
Any of these exercises will serve you well, so long as you remember to keep your expectations under control for what you’ll get out of short-term gains. Once you’re able to commit more time and effort to your training, you’ll be at a better baseline to start instead of jamming as much as you can into one brief moment. Still, we won’t judge you for knocking out a few pushups, swings, or curls before you hit the town. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a little preemptive pump.
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