OK, of course there is no best exercise.
And there is no reason to do just one exercise, as no one movement really is going to do everything for you. So the question is a bit silly, but given that something like 80% of the population isn’t getting the necessary amount of exercise, it is a worthwhile endeavor to figure out what gives the most “bang for the buck”. That is what led me to sled training. (And if you want the quick answer to the best exercise, scroll to the bottom.)
First, let’s look at what most people put out there as the best exercises. Most will list the squat and deadlift at the top. These are great movement patterns, but traditional squats and deadlifts can be very hard on the back, shoulders and knees. I did both movements for many years and I got tired of constantly having aching joints and frequent visits to the chiropractor (I do highly recommend regular, if not frequent, visits to the chiropractor). Some other issues are that they are vertical in nature, while most of our movement, especially in sports or life, is horizontal, and they are bilateral (two-footed) when most of our movement is on one-foot (unilateral).
The other candidates that get thrown out are the Olympic lifts (clean, jerk, snatch) and their variations. Now I love these, and have been a certified Olympic weightlifting coach for more than 12 years – before it was cool. To date that, when I was taking my course, I worked out on a platform with a high school age Mat Fraser (he was really strong even as a 15 year old).
But to really learn Olympic lifts, you should have a coach and spend a lot of time on them. I have seen Olympic athletes, who were coaches themselves, butchering power cleans (picture evidence somewhere on my site). I also know of one extremely popular coach who posts videos of awful power cleans on a regular basis. They are hard to learn and can be very dangerous. They are also of potentially limited application, as again, they are vertical in nature. Some studies have shown they are no better – or are even worse – than weighted jumps. That is not a lot of bang-for-your-buck.
I have even seen burpess thrown into this discussion as the best exercise. But as I heard someone describe them, a burpee is just a bad jump combined with a bad pushup.
So what are the criteria for a “best” exercise?
Let’s start with the foundation. The exercise should work. It should make you stronger and faster. It should develop power. It should be safe. It should be easy to learn. It would be great if it had both horizontal as well as vertical force components. It would also be great if it had both bilateral as well as unilateral work, and it should be a full body movement.
Let me introduce (because I have never seen it anywhere else), the sled snatch.
The sled snatch starts in a great bilateral squat/deadlift position.
It includes the power and triple extension that you want from an Olympic lift. And it includes both horizontal and vertical force production.
And it finishes in a very athletic split squat position (unilateral).
It is safe, as there is no bar to smack you in the head or to secure overhead. It uses your entire body. If you “miss” the “lift” there are no repercussions, no dropped bars. If the weight is too heavy, you simply won’t be able to finish the movement and you will end up with a sled “clean” – with your hands by your armpits as opposed to overhead.
But wait… there’s more!
As you can see, this is outside, in the snow! No gym necessary. Studies have shown that training outside is better for your brain and body.
And it is being done with a tire filled with cider blocks! No expensive bars with fancy bearings and no expensive bumper plates. This setup literally cost $10.
Give it a try. You might like it. If you don’t, I would love to hear from you!