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, dri