During a recent Q&A, I was asked the following question:
"If you could only choose one exercise for each major muscle/ muscle group, which particular exercises would you choose?"
I love questions like this as it forces me to really prioritize what I believe to be the most valuable when it comes to most training programs. But before I dive into selecting my favorite exercises, I think it's important to reframe how we think about movements vs. muscle groups.
Early on in my pursuit of fitness education, I was taught to categorize exercises by movement patterns instead of muscle groups, and honestly, I've never looked back.
I believe this categorization is much simpler to breakdown and therefore makes exercise programming (and understanding movement) a much easier process.
I still consider specific muscle groups when choosing from these categories, however my exercise selection is ultimately influenced by which overarching movement pattern targets those specific muscle groups.
This approach leads to prioritizing compound movements (that use multiple muscle groups at one time) over movements that isolate each muscle group.
There's a time and place for both, however, I find with most general population clients who are looking to feel better, build strength, improve body composition, and improve health, compound movements give you the most bang for your buck ("buck" in this scenario being limited time and energy to spend at the gym).
So let's break down those key movement patterns and I'll dive into which exercises I believe are the most valuable.
Most major muscle groups can be categorized into the following 6 movement patterns which they primarily contribute to:
Squat (quadriceps dominant)
Hinge (hip/hamstring dominant)
Lunge (single-leg training)
Upper Body Push (chest and tricep dominant)
Upper Body Pull (back and bicep dominant)
The Squat Pattern
The squat pattern includes exercises that mostly target the quadriceps and glutes. This category could be further broken down into hundreds of variations of this movement that can be used depending on variables such as someone's body type, fitness level, injury history, and goals (just to name a few).
My Favorite Variation: The Goblet Squat
Why I chose it: This exercise can be easily scaled to each individual's needs and is a great place to develop the squat pattern before progressing to more advanced squat variations like a barbell front squat or barbell back squat. Not saying everyone has to start here, but it is a great way to build confidence in the position and to teach core stability and control, which is why it's one of my favorites.
Coaching Cues: Begin with a dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position (held at chest). With feet roughly hip-width apart, squat down under control and return to start position. Make sure your chest stays up and knees press out for the entire squat. You can turn your toes out and adjust your stance to what is most comfortable for you.
The Hinge Pattern
The hinge pattern is an important movement pattern for everyday life. This movement occurs at your hips and targets your glutes and hamstrings. Just like the squat, there are many variations and progressions of this movement that can be used depending on someone's fitness level and movement abilities.
Some examples include the traditional barbell deadlift, romanian deadlift (RDL), glute bridge, and hip thrust.
My Favorite Variation: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Why I chose it: The hinge pattern can be a tricky one to learn at first as most confuse this with a squat pattern by bending at the knees instead of sending the hips back and folding forward.
With the Romanian deadlift, you start the movement in the standing position and your range of motion can be limited to how far down you can go while maintaining a flat back (neutral spine).
The hinge pattern, in my opinion, is much harder to learn when performing a traditional deadlift where you're pulling heavy loads from the floor. This is why the Romanian deadlift is one of my go-to exercises as it allows you to build confidence in the hinge position while preparing you for lifting heavier loads down the line.
Coaching Cues: Begin standing with soft knees and the weights at your thighs. Maintaining a flat back (shoulders pushed down and back), sit your hips back and down until the weights reach just below your knee OR until you feel a solid stretch in your hamstrings. Keep your core braced as you return to your starting position.
The Lunge Pattern
The lunge pattern can be defined as any movement done on a single leg. This is probably one of the most neglected patterns... because it's hard! But I believe it to be one of the most important for living and training pain-free for life.
Some examples include split squats, reverse and forward lunges, step-ups, and single-leg glute bridges.
My Favorite Variation: The Goblet Split Squat
Why I chose it: Single-leg training requires stability and balance and this can be very challenging at first. I prefer the split squat as it allows you to keep both feet in contact with the floor, which gives you a stronger base of support, compared to a more dynamic movement like a lunge.
Also, for more advanced trainees, you can load this movement very heavily by progressing how you choose to load it. For example, advancing from a goblet position to two dumbbells by your side, all the way up to a barbell loaded on your back. I also like to use weight vests in combination with dumbbells.
Coaching Cues: Begin in a half-kneeling position with your right knee touching the floor and your left foot out in front of you. Your right knee should be directly under your right hip and your left heel directly below your left knee. Stand up, driving your left heel into the ground, and slowly lower back to the starting position.
The Push Pattern
The push pattern includes upper body pushing movements. These "push" movements can also be further broken down into horizontal pushing exercises like the bench press and the pushup, as well as vertical pushing exercises like the overhead press.
These movements target the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
My Favorite Variation: The Pushup
Why I chose it: I love pushups. For one, they can be easily scaled depending on fitness level (see a common theme here lol?) by elevating the hands (easier) or the feet (harder). Also, they don't require equipment and can be done anywhere!
I also think they're a great exercise to teach the "pillar" position, which learning how to create full-body tension so that you can maximize the amount of force you can produce. This skill translates very well into a lot of other exercises like pull-ups, bench press, and rows.
Coaching Cues: Begin in a high plank position (on hands) with a straight line from your shoulders, hips, and knees. You want to form an “A” shape with your elbows, not a “T” (elbows flared out) or an “I” (elbows tucked in). Create full-body tension (like you would for a plank) and lower your chest to the floor and return to the starting position. You can use an object 3-4” from the ground as a depth marker to keep yourself honest with using the full range of motion.
The Pull Pattern
The pull pattern includes upper body pulling movements. These "pull" movements can also be further broken down into horizontal pulling exercises like rows, as well as vertical pulling exercises like pull-ups.
These movements target the muscles of the back and biceps.
My Favorite Variation: The Single-Arm Row
Why I chose it: Getting into the 3-point stance, with one hand on the bench and both feet set outside the shoulders, provides a wide base of support, and reduces the amount of momentum one can use to cheat the movement.
Hinging the hips backward and folding forward towards the bench, also gets the glutes going and core engaged, turning this into a full-body exercise (that happens to be great for building single-arm pulling strength.
Coaching Cues: Begin in an athletic position with knees slightly bent and hips back like you’re reaching to pick something off the floor. With the dumbbell in one hand, place the opposite hand on a chair or weight bench, maintaining a flat back. Row the dumbbell towards your hip, pulling your elbow towards your back pocket. Return slowly to starting position.
Core muscles are responsible for stabilizing the spine and pelvis as well as generating and transferring energy from the center of the body to our arms and legs.
The primary function of our core musculature is to resist unwanted motion and therefore responsible for creating stability throughout our entire body. The more stable we are, the more force we can then generate.
There are many categories of exercises that make up core movements, but I'll stick to the one that I find to be the most valuable...
My Favorite Variation: The Plank
Why I chose it: Planks often get overlooked. However, to get the full benefits, proper setup and position is crucial. Getting into a proper plank position is more than flopping down on your elbows and holding your body weight off the floor.
If done properly, planks teach you how to create full-body tension. Which as I mentioned previously, helps us to resist force but also easily transfers to other exercises like the push-up, when we need to produce force. If done properly, holding this position for as little as 15-20 seconds can be brutal.
Coaching Cues: With hands flat on the floor and elbows stacked under shoulders, create a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. From here, pull your belt buckle towards your ribs. This might create a slight rounding of the back (as seen in the video below), but give it a try and feel those abs light up.
Keep your hips from sinking down and squeeze your glutes to feel that full-body tension.
Putting It All Together
Here's an example of a quick workout combining all of these exercises from each of the major movement patterns:
Goblet Squats x 10
Pushup x 10
Romanian Deadlift x 10
Single-Arm Row x 10 each side
Split Squats x 10 each side
Plank x :20-30s
Repeat for 3-4 rounds.
Note: If you're looking for a bodyweight variation, just omit the single-arm row or sub for pull-ups if you have access to a pull-up bar.
6 Moves For Life-Long Strength
There you have it folks, 6 movements that you can use to build life-long strength. As you progress you can add weight, work in different rep ranges, change the tempos, and progress to more challenging variations of these movements.
While you can't go wrong with these fundamental exercises, just remember that exercise variation and selection is also goal and skill dependant. Meaning that you should always choose exercises that you can perform under control, using a full range of motion, and that you can safely load.
If you're unable to maintain proper form or struggle with a movement, I encourage you to seek the guidance of a professional to help with your exercise selection and movement quality.
By Ryan Stec
Founder and Head Coach
True Grit Strength
Looking for a customized training program? Schedule a free call to get started by clicking the link below or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.