My Top Three Strength Exercises (In No Particular Order)

If you were told you could only do 3 exercises for the rest of your life, what would be your top picks?

This is something I often think about. Exercise selection is such a key feature of program writing, that this kind of stuff just seeps into my brain even when there’s no need for it.

But I digress.

To answer the question, we need to have a set of criteria to help us make appropriate decisions.

The following are mine:

  1. Exercises that offer the most bang-for-your-buck, in terms of strength and hypertrophy development, time management and equipment availability.
  2. The exercise must be modifiable in case injuries happen.
  3. The exercise must be at least somewhat enjoyable.
  4. There should be room for progressions and regressions as needed.

These are the selections I have made and refined over the years:

Deadlift

The deadlift is, without a doubt, one of the most efficient exercises you could do in the gym. Not only does it target pretty much every major muscle group in your body, from your upper back, to your posterior chain, your quads, to your entire torso, it also helps build a strong and resilient physique.

With a plethora of variations to choose from, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more versatile movement. 

Although I’m a huge fan of conventional deadlifts, the trap bar deadlift is usually a better choice for most of the training population. Though barbell deadlifts are more popular, many trainees struggle with positioning due to flexibility and mobility limitations, which ultimately leads to very questionable technique.

To keep it transparent, I must say deadlifts done from the ground aren’t exactly great mass builders. The focus on the concentric with a rapid eccentric contraction means there’s very little time under tension, and most supporting muscles actually act isometrically (which means they do not change in length during the movement).

With that said, building greater full-body strength will facilitate going heavier on other hypertrophy-focused movements.

If you want to get crazy strong while bullet-proofing your body against injuries, consider making the trap bar deadlift a staple in your routine.

In summary:

– Requires some equipment, but nothing you can’t find at your local commercial gym

– Easy to regress/progress based on training experience, injury history and goals

– Hits every major muscle group at once

Front-loaded Squat

Although this may come as a surprise to some people, choosing the front squat over its back-loaded counterpart is an easy decision. Here’s why:

The anterior load of the front-squat and its variations allows most people to squat with full range of motion.

The upright posture also makes this a more lower-back friendly squat, while still enabling you to smash your quads to oblivion in the process. As a bonus, you also get to work on your anterior core and upper back strength. Need I say more?

Don’t get me wrong, I love back squats as much as anyone else and their grandma. But if I can still get a desired training effect without having to beat up my shoulders, elbows and wrists in the process… I’ll take it.

You can read more about front squats in this neat little post.

In summary:

– Generally easier to learn than the back squat

– Many variations to choose from, which can suit beginner to more advanced lifters

– Great for those dealing with lower back, shoulder or knee injuries

– Absolutely fun, if you’re slightly sadistic but also crazy for gains

Push-up

Push-ups are one of the best zero-equipment exercises you could perform, and here’s why.

As discussed in this article, the push-up is essentially a moving plank, combined with an upper body push. This anti-extension movement will strengthen your anterior core, shoulders, chest and triceps, in a much more friendly manner than other horizontal pressing movements such as the bench press which locks your scapulae in place.

Because your shoulder blades are free to move during the movement, the push-up makes for a much safer (and more beneficial) exercise for the shoulders. Ask anyone who’s benched heavy for years on end how their shoulders are doing, and you’ll likely just hear a grunt in response. That should tell you something.

Push-ups are also the most minimalistic exercise you could possibly do. I don’t know about you, but if I can challenge myself with nothing more than just my bodyweight and the ground I stand on, I’m going for it!

While most new lifters struggle with the movement due to a lack of core and upper body strength, it can easily be regressed to suit the abilities and limitations of any individual.

In summary:

– Better for the shoulders compared to traditional horizontal pressing movements (ie. bench press)

– No equipment needed

– Can be easily regressed or progressed based on training experience

– If I say push-ups are fun, will you believe me?

Just Missed the Cut

Loaded Carries

If this article had been titled My Top 4 Strength Exercises, you would’ve seen loaded carries included in the list.

Unfortunately for me, it isn’t, which means I was forced to make a tough decision with this one.

Loaded carries are as simple and effective as you can get. Pick up something heavy and walk, crawl or sprint with it. Do it for time, do it for distances. Go far and test your endurance, or go heavy and test your strength and stability.

Weak grip? Pick it up and walk.

Poor posture and weak upper back? Pick it up and walk.

Tired of feeling feeble and frail? Well… you get what I mean.

So, what’s the reason for not quite making it up there? I wish I could give you a good one, but the truth is, I just value the other three exercises more.

NEXT.

Pull-ups

Pull-ups are simply phenomenal for building upper body pulling strength. When done properly, they effectively target the back and bicep muscles while also developing strength and stability through the scapulae.

Although they’re incredibly powerful, they failed to make my top three for the following reasons:

First, many trainees, especially beginners, lack the appropriate strength or mobility to perform them correctly. Like any other exercise, its rewards rely on proper execution.

Doing something poorly just for the sake of having done it isn’t something I believe in. Many lifters who are chasing their first unassisted rep often neglect proper technique and full range of motion to satisfy their ego.

There’s simply no room for ego in building strength.

For that reason alone…

In addition, too much vertical pulling will only reinforce strength in the internal rotators of the shoulder, specifically the latissimus dorsi. Since most of us spend a great deal of time in a hunched over, caved-chest, internally-rotated position, it’d be wise to try to at least minimize the damage in the gym.

Of course, this isn’t that big of a deal so long as you’re actively targeting external rotation through exercises like face-pulls, and balancing out vertical with horizontal pulling in a 1:2 ratio, but it’s a point worth mentioning.

Bulgarian Split-squats

The Bulgarian split-squat (or rear-foot elevated split-squat, if you will) is the advanced cousin of a traditional split-squat done with both feet on the ground.

The main difference is in load distribution: in the Bulgarian SS, the front leg does much more of the work compared to the back leg. It also provides a greater range of motion, which means more work is being done in general.

However, those who lack the mobility or stability prerequisites for this movement may have a hard time performing it correctly.

Though split-squats are great for strengthening the hip, knee and ankle stabilizers, that can be a disadvantage when the goal is increased muscle mass or muscular endurance. The weakest link in the chain will always be the limiting factor to heavier loads, more reps and ultimately, more strength.

Overhead Press

The overhead or military press is an absolute game changer for shoulder and core strength. They’re extremely humbling, and any limitations in flexibility, scapular stability or thoracic mobility will be brought to light in this simple exercise.

With that said, much of the general population has the upper back mobility of a door frame, which turns strict overhead pressing into an aberration of a movement pattern.

Instead, landmine presses offer virtually the same benefits as overhead pressing, including improved scapular mobility, stability and strength, with a much better risk to reward ratio.

To your strength,

Coach B 

About The Author

Barbara M.

Since 2013, Barbara has helped women of all fitness backgrounds get stronger, leaner and more confident, both inside and outside the gym.

Her passion lies in educating, empowering and encouraging women to find out what they’re capable of, and more.

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