No matter what kind of lifter you are or how your training is organized – full body workouts, push-pull, single body part splits – these are the most effective exercises, and you should try to get them in.
1 – The Deadlift
The deadlift is first on the list for a reason. It not only works your back from top to bottom – from the upper traps down to the spinal erectors in your lower back – it also works your quads, glutes, forearms, biceps, and rhomboids, just to name a few.
After years of competing in and judging bodybuilding competitions, I've come to the conclusion that if you want to maximize that thick, three-dimensional look of your back, you have to deadlift.
Although I'm a big fan of time-tested barbell deadlifts, using trap bars makes them even better.
Trap bars were initially used as a more natural way to target your upper traps via shrugs. Not only is this type of bar generally better for shrugs, but it's also more comfortable for doing deadlifts.
Whether 8 or 88, just about everyone should do deadlifts, but NEVER at the expense of good form. Perfect your form by holding a broomstick or a couple of soup cans, then slowly go from there. Yes, seriously.
The deadlift is like dynamite; it can do wonders when used properly, and it can wreak havoc when used improperly.
2 – The Clean & Press
It's a great exercise to increase power, strength, and size. Heck, this exercise is so good you could easily argue that it's the single best exercise, and I probably wouldn't argue back.
The barbell starts on the floor with your hands in a hook grip around it. As you begin to explode and pull the bar upward you're using a slew of muscles at one time, and in a powerful way.
Beginning with your lower body, you're using your quads to extend your knees, your glutes to extend your hips, and eventually your calves to plantarflex your feet, lifting your heels off the ground and the barbell as high as possible.
Your spinal erectors are working to extend your spine, and practically your entire upper back is working to pull the bar up to its highest point. Even your delts and rotator cuff are working during the clean phase. We're talking about a lot of muscles working in unison, and I haven't even mentioned your forearms, biceps, and core muscles!
Whether you do the true Olympic version (dropping your butt down into a deep squat when catching the bar), or the modified, shallower-squatting version, the overhead-pressing portion of the clean and press again works the glutes and quads, as well as the delts, upper chest, triceps, and rectus abdominis among others.
I could go on and on about the benefits of the clean and press (like how it improves overall power and athleticism, how it'll promote upper back and shoulder size, etc.), but I'll stop and summarize: for those who want to look good and perform well, the clean and press is probably the single best lift around.
3 – The Squat
Just about anyone's list of best overall exercises would include the barbell squat. It works a lot of muscles at once, and works them well.
Squats stress the quads better than any other exercise around, period. They also hit the glutes really well, especially when they're stretched by squatting down nice and deep. The spinal erectors along your spine are also well-targeted, particularly those in the lower back.
Because squats involve so many large muscles, they're also good at stimulating the cardiovascular system. This is especially the case when done in a higher rep range. If you happen to think 20 reps can't stimulate muscle growth, try doing your 20 rep max with barbell squats over two or three months and see if you still think 20 reps is for people who are only interested in "toning."
Whether you go heavy or light, and whether you use a barbell, hold a weight up by your upper chest, or just use your body weight for resistance, as long as you're physically able, do squats.
4 – The Chin-Up
Most people expect to see the overhand pull-up on this list, not its underhand cousin, the chin-up.
As indicated in my article The Best Lift for Each Body Part, I'm obviously a big fan of pull-ups, but as far as the best overall exercises, I lean more toward chin-ups than pull-ups.
Chin-ups can hit the back muscles just as well as pull-ups (albeit differently), and they also hit the biceps extremely well. Of course you'll still be targeting the forearms and improving your grip strength with them, too.
Remember, to make chins maximally effective, extend your thoracic spine on the way up, aiming to touch the lower half of your chest to the bar.
Although I did give the nod here to chin-ups over pull-ups, don't kick the latter to the curb. You should ideally be doing both on a regular basis. While you're at it, throw in some neutral-grip pull-ups as well.
5 – The Walking Lunge
We have Ronnie Coleman to thank for taking walking lunges from the wimpy, toning exercise category and putting them right where they should be: among the great overall exercises, appropriate for practically everyone from grandmas to 8-time Olympia winners.
I'd never say they're better than the sacred barbell squat, lest I be stoned to death. But done with a barbell they're probably better for athletes or people who spend any significant time on one leg (like MMA fighters, ball players of all types, tennis players, and the list goes on).
They're particularly effective when you avoid pausing at the half-step point when both feet are together and you're in a standing position. Many will do this to regain balance, make their quads stop burning, and take a rest. Instead, do full strides by taking the trailing foot and bringing it forward into the next, long step before lunging down.
Lunges smoke the quads. And much like squats, when done nice and deep the stretch placed on the glutes will force them to work hard as well. Plus the hip flexors get a nice stretch, too.
Walking lunges obviously challenge your balance and the muscles involved in it. This includes the glute medius and the lateral core muscles like the obliques, multifidus, and spinal erectors. Likewise, various muscles in the lower leg, like the peroneal muscles, are also getting worked.
Tip: If possible, use an appropriately-weighted barbell on your upper back as opposed to holding dumbbells. For one, this raises the center of gravity, which will challenge the balance-related muscles to a greater degree.
The dumbbell walking lunge is still a great exercise. In fact, holding dumbbells will stimulate your forearms and your upper traps. Plus the dumbbell version is easier if you're just starting out, due to the lower center of gravity.
6 – The Push-Up
There's a valid reason why each branch of the US Armed Forces uses the push-up as a measure of physical fitness – it's a great exercise for the chest, triceps, anterior deltoids, core stability muscles, and lots of others.
I entered Army basic training soon after competing in my first bodybuilding competition. I obviously appeared super fit, yet I could only manage to do about 30 push-ups before needing to rest. By the end I could do 100 consecutive, strict push-ups without a break.
More interesting was that my chest, anterior delts, and triceps not only hadn't lost any size, but had improved, despite not lifting a single weight! We did, however, do lots and lots of push-ups of varying grip-widths. Generally speaking, the closer together your hands are, the more you're emphasizing your triceps.
Besides being a great exercise for the pushing muscles (and requiring absolutely zero equipment), another huge plus is how the push-up stimulates the serratus anterior – those finger-like muscles that appear up by the lats when a lean, muscular guy hits a front double biceps pose.
More important than seeing that portion of the serratus is having it strong enough to keep the shoulder blades (scapulae) flat against the posterior rib cage when pressing, throwing, etc. A strong, healthy serratus anterior is of utmost importance when it comes to shoulder health. If all of your horizontal pressing is done with your back on a bench, you're not likely challenging your serratus on the regular and will eventually wish you had, Mr. Winged Scapula.
Tip: No Don't flare your elbows straight out to the side when pushing up. Keep them slightly tucked into your sides. Your shoulder health and chest development will thank you.
Bonus Tip: Don't be Mr. Swayback. Keep your spine rigid during the entire movement by keeping your abs and glutes tight. This is not only safer but also works on your core stability.
7 – The Dip
It works the chest, anterior shoulders, and triceps so dang well I had to include it. Dips are similar to push-ups in regards to the primary muscles trained. They're also similar in that the grip-width affects the muscles worked. The narrower the grip, the more the triceps become the prime mover.
One big difference between dips and push-ups is how much more taxing dips are to the chest, shoulders, and triceps, likewise it's easy to add resistance to dips.
Once you can do enough bodyweight dips to necessitate adding weight, you can either hold a dumbbell between your crossed lower legs, or you can add weight to a chain hanging from a dip belt (which is the best option since it's more natural). Another, more modern option is to wear a weighted vest. I suppose you could put rocks in your pockets, too – whatever you need to do to make your body heavier and get into the proper rep-range.
Two Reasons This List Is Awesome
If you look back over this list, you should notice two things:
- Even if you could only do these seven exercises, you could still build an impressive physique and respectable performance.
- It takes very little equipment at all to do these exercises. So even if you train at home, you have no reason not to build a bad-ass physique.