A personal trainers exercise library can span several hundreds of exercises and variations. In addition, there’s many ways to adapt and modify those exercises to hit the body differently.
Truth is, we rely on a much smaller number than that program after program. In ideal situations, these lifts listed below are my favourites – the one’s that keep coming back every couple months – some more than others.
Keep in mind, in some cases a client may come to me prepared to do very few of these exercises, so I provide some alternatives that will help you progress to them. The more asterisks beside them, the tougher the exercise.
1. Trap Bar Deadlift
If I had just one exercise to choose from for anyone, it’d be the trap bar deadlift. No doubt. No lift in the book combines training the entire leg, hips, back and grip – all things pretty much everyone needs a lot more of – while also being the safest deadlift variation for the lower back. You’ll also be hard pressed to find a lift you can put more weight on.
The trap bar is also nice because you can choose where to put more emphasis, whether it be the quads or the hamstrings. You do this by letting your knees slide forward more, dropping your hips and taking a more upright torso position (quads), OR keeping a more vertical shin, leaving your hips a little higher and taking a more angled torso position (hips/hamstrings).
Because the Trap Bar is so much easier on the back than deadlifting with a straight barbell, it’s a good choice for higher rep work as well. So whether it’s strength OR conditioning you’re after, it’s a great one.
Don’t have a trap bar? The modified sumo deadlift is your next best bet.
For strength: Anywhere from 3-4 set of 3-5 reps.
For conditioning: Anywhere from 3-4 sets of 20+. Here’s me doing a set of 30 on my 30th birthday.
2. Bulgarian Split Squat*
Potentially the most hated lower body lift among, well, anyone who’s ever done it. I don’t think any lower body lift in existence is more laughably hated than the BGSS. For me, if one lift could be credited for changing my life, it’d be this one. Not kidding either – when my hip was broken to bits and completely out of balance, I think this one saved me.
This exercise is the number #1 reason I couldn’t make room for a true two-legged squat.
Some will be confused by this but I just think the BGSS covers your thighs just as well, with less loads, and better transfer to your daily life.
And I make it no secret, every client I ever get is either getting this one, or is on a path to it, unless there’s a really good reason not too.
For putting lean muscle on the thighs and improving the power of your stride, I don’t believe any lower body lift to be as effective. I could go on and on. Whether you’re a runner, recreational or competitive athlete, just wanting to feel better or you’re just looking for nicer legs, this is one of your big answers.
What if you’re not ready for it? Start with Split Squats. And if you can’t Split Squat, start with a Goblet Squat.
Sets and reps usually hang around 3 or 4 sets for anywhere from 5 to 8 for strength and can go to 10+ for building muscle and building endurance.
3. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift**
My love affair with the Bulgarian Split Squat is rivalled closely by the Single Leg Romanian Deadlift. For me, it’s either 2 or 3 on my list of lower body exercises for those looking to feel and move better and also for crafting a better pair of thighs. This one focuses right on the hamstrings and the hips and really hits the side butt area, much like the BGSS, because their single leg moves and that muscle is turned on to help stabilize and balance you.
Along with the BGSS, I don’t think any two lift’s benefits are felt more clearly throughout daily life – I call them “stride builders”. You’ll be walking and running more easily after you’ve spent some time with #2 and #3 on this list.
What if you’re not ready for it? The Split Stance Romanian Deadlift is your best option.
I also find the BGSS itself acts as a pretty good way to progress people to the SLRDL. Consider working on that one first.
Sets and reps typically stick between 3 and 4 and about 8-12 reps per side.
Or here with some actual weights.
4. Push Up (or hands elevated)
It would have been easy to put the bench press here – you may even be surprised it doesn’t hit my top 12. I love the bench just as much as the next guy, but there’s a lot more value in fine turning a proper push up – even better if you’ve got some tools to add loads to it like chains, vests or even other human beings.
The push up is certainly an upper body exercise, but it’s also a core move as well. Not only that but it’s also a big time shoulder health exercise. The main difference between the push up and the bench press is that in a bench press the shoulder blades are supposed to be locked back together – not a bad thing per se, just that the push up encouraged more movement at the shoulder blade, especially in a reaching fashion to finish the move. Most people lack that reach and some of the muscles stop working, which can lead to shoulder issues.
The push up’s a moving plank. I think it’s also important for people to realize that for an exercise you performed for the first in grade school, or an exercise that’s seen as “basic”, it is rarely performed well. Pretty much never.
Can’t do it perfectly from the floor? Most can’t. Use a rack or bench and learn from there and progress downwards.
I like to keep sets and reps between 3 and 4 sets for anywhere from 6-20 reps, but you can definitely go higher.
5. Chin Up/Pull Up*
Often labelled “the squat of the upper body”, the chin up, if possible, would be my #1 upper body lift. There’s just way too much emphasis out there on “mirror muscles” and too much neglecting from the lats and mid back muscles. Not to mention, anyone that’s performed chin ups for the first time in a while felt their abs the next day – the abs are working big time to keep your body stable. The better the abs do, the easier the lift is.
And yeah, biceps too.
As far as grips go I leave it up to you. The most ideal is rings as their the easiest on the elbow. Neutral grip (hands facing forward), palms facing you (bicep emphasis) and palms away are other choices. If you don’t have rings, best to rotate grips ever month or two to give the elbows – and your body – a different feel. The wider the grip, the more you involve the lats.
Sets and reps generally stick around 3 and 4 sets from singles (1 rep sets) to as many as you can do.
6. 3 Point Dumbbell Row
The 3 Point Row (like all “rows”) work the mid back, the rear shoulders and the lats. Chances are, you need more “pulling” exercise for better posture, shoulder health and developing a more well-rounded physique. In addition, because it’s a single limb move the core kicks in to prevent the torso from rotating – you may even start to feel your obliques fire if you’re in good position and using proper form.
Everyone needs some good rowing variations in their plan and I tend to rotate this one in and out of people’s programs for no other reason that it’s a pretty simple move that pretty much anyone can do, and it adds in some core work while not taking away from how much it hits the upper back.
As with all rowing variations:
- Pull through your elbow
- Pull your shoulder backward, don’t just move your arm
- Flat/neutral spine posture
- Eyes on the bench
Mostly stick sets and reps at about 3 or 4 sets for 8-12 reps.
7. Bent Over Row*
Much like the 3 Point Row, the Bent Over Row hits a low of the same muscle groups – the lats, middle back and rear shoulders. The difference is in the positioning, in the bent over row – as you’ll see in the video – my torso is angled roughly parallel to the floor. For some people, they actually have to learn that movement – for others, it’s tiring enough just to hold it without weights. This is why for many trainees, I don’t teach the bent over row until they’ve learned the Romanian Deadlift. The bottom of the RDL is the position you must hold throughout the entire set of Bent Over Rows – many need time before this becomes practical.
Still, plenty of value in working your upper back while demonstrating significant amounts of hip stability and balance. And more people need that stability in their hips. This is an exercise that not only puts muscle and tone where you want it, but you’ll also feel it make daily activities (like bending over) easier.
For those that can do it, it’s a very big bang for your buck exercise.
Sets and reps stick around 3 or 4 sets from anywhere from 5-12, most of the time.
8. Yoga Plex*
Not that it surprises me completely considering I just turned 30, but I’m getting more questions about mobility and flexibility. “Can I have some stretches? Got any good mobility drills?”. I’m glad for it too because this stuff’s important.
The “stretching” question is a little bit more complicated as not every muscle that feels tight needs to be – or should be – stretched. I won’t dig into this much here, but your hamstrings are the best example. If you can’t touch your toes, there’s about a 1% chance stretching your hamstrings will do anything good. Maybe even less than 1%. I pulled that stat out of thin air, but I’m just making a point.
The Yoga Plex hits just about everything. Hip mobility (hip flexors, glutes), upper spine and shoulders in every way possible. Lots of coordination and balance going on as well. Not everyone’s ready for it, but those people can usually benefit from just doing the push up to downward dog portion and using other hip mobility drills to bridge the gap.
Even then, many who are ready for it watch me do it and think “yeah right” and then surprise themselves on the first try. It’ll feel a little stiff and uncomfortable for the first week or two, but it starts to feel nice. In my experience, just like yoga.
I either do about 4 or 5 per side during the warm up or pair them with a lower body exercise in the actual strength portion of the workout.
9. Turkish Get Up**
Moving on from a move inspired by yoga, we move on to what I’d the intersection between yoga and strength training. This is basically yoga with weights (if you’re ready for weights).
If you can do this with perfect technique, making it look all pretty, we can pretty much conclude your movement is outstanding. I admit, the first time I was coached through this it took me several tries to do anything but flop around on the floor. And now, even more than the yoga plex, it’s the one clients give the ole “what the..” stare as I demonstrate it in front of them.
It’s a 6step move up AND down (1st and 4th being the toughest for most) and takes a little while to learn. No word of a lie, after the first time I was taught this one I went home and started learning it on my own on the floor beside my computer using nothing more than youtube videos. Of course, always best to learn from someone who’s really got these down, but it got me on my way and you can start that way too.
Because my greatest interests lie not just in helping people lose fat and build muscle but also on developing athleticism and movement quality – the Turkish Get Up would probably fit into my top 5. It’s hard to list all it does, it kinda does everything from a movement standpoint.
How to learn it: If you feel pretty decent about your body awareness, you can start like I did and use youtube videos. Here are a few:
Or you can see a trainer because there is a lot of nuance to this one.
Because I don’t have a video of me handy, here’s someone that does it better.
Sets and reps can go anywhere from 1 per side to 3 or 4. They can also be used for conditioning for time – for example, I’ve put a timer at 10 minutes and done them continuously for 10 minutes.
10. Ab Wheel Rollout**
You know the Ab Wheel? It’s sitting in your gym. It’s rarely picked up and if it is it’s usually the wrong person using it. An Ab Wheel Rollout is the king of exercises for your abs. It’ll tone and harden them up while providing some benefit to helping protect your spine and making you more resilient to injury.
That said, done improperly, it poses you nothing but a risk. In this article, I outline a lengthy list of exercises for the core that leads to the ability to do the Ab Wheel Rollout. Unless you were a freak athlete with an extensive background from childhood – I’m looking at the dancers, martial artists and gymnasts first – you probably won’t be starting here if you plan to do it well. Be careful.
On top of being great for abs it’ll also challenge seemingly unrelated muscles like the lats and triceps.
Progress to this move and for the cheap price of an Ab Wheel you can maintain that hard and toned feeling in your abs from the comfort of your own home.
If you can nail down 20 of these in a set, you’ve got a rock solid core.
11. Suitcase Carry
Unless you belong to a gym and happen to be there when I workout – or you happen to be one of my clients – chances are you’re completely unfamiliar with this exercise. You’ve done it plenty of times though.
You’ve carried grocery bags in one hand, leaving the other empty.
You’ve carried luggage in one arm, leaving the other empty.
Standing upright and walking with a heavy load engages many of the same muscles that a side plank does – so it’s a walking side plank that you can get much, much stronger at. And eventually those times when you find yourself maneuvering or carrying loads with more on one side than the other becomes much easier.
It’ll also add a little tone up your obliques and up the side of your stomach and works really well into circuits for better conditioning and upping your metabolism.
If you haven’t tested this one out, I suggest you give it a go. Just stay tall, pick up your feet and pull the dumbbell or kettlebell off your hip just a bit.
Sets and reps anywhere from 3 or 4 for 40-100 foot sets per arm.
12. Reverse Lunge
There’s a few places I could have gone with this one – bench press, overhead press, plank body saw, romanian deadlift – but it was the reverse lunge and suitcase carry that made me go to 12 instead of 10. I definitely have a preference for exercises that only help put muscle and tone in the areas you want, but also exercises that you feel the benefits to while making you healthier. The reverse lunge does both beautifully.
Done properly, the reverse lunge hits the glutes, hamstrings and quads with a ton of intensity while developing strength and power in your stride. And don’t get me wrong, while the forward lunge is a great exercise I prefer the Reverse Lunge as it’s easier on your joints and you feel the benefits a little more as you come out of a set.
The key really is to make as much use of the front foot as possible – you don’t want to over-stride forcing yourself to rely on the back foot. Let your front knee come over your shoe laces a bit and slightly lean your torso forward and work that front leg.
Sets and reps go for 3 or 4 sets, usually, and anywhere from 5 reps to 12 reps per side.
There it is – my top 12. Many exercises could have made it in but I settled on these 12 because they offer, in my opinion, the most benefit toward not only making you look better, but feel and perform better as well.
If you have any questions, you can reach me here anytime.
Thanks for reading.