When it comes to exercises most of us assume the more we do, the better. Sure, there are literally thousands of different exercises to choose. Some hardly look like exercise at all, take the Kegel exercises for example. Others combine so may different movements that one slip could land you in the hospital, like the clean & jerk for example (neither of which made this list). Given the sheer number of ways to exercises a muscle does that mean we should attempt to do them all? Absolutely not.
I’ve been lifting since I was 14 years old (that was the youngest age allowed in the weight room). After getting my degree in Exercise Science, I acquired my Exercise Physiologist Certification with the American College of Sports Medicine. Since then I have actively been involved in the industry for almost eight years. My total experience with strength training spans more than 15 years.
In those 15 years, I’ve learned the two most important lessons when it comes to fitness. Eat right and keep your routine simple. Note, simple, not easy.
Seriously, that’s it.
By focusing on one key exercise and performing supplemental movements to balance the routine, you can maximize your time in the gym. You don’t have to focus on hypertrophy blocks, time under tension, or any of that other BS.
While some of it does have merit, it more often than not takes away from the bigger picture. By mastering the moves below and modifying the number of repetitions to suit your goals you can avoid over-complicating your workouts.
The moves below are the basic exercises you should master and are organized by body part. I’ll also list the equipment required to perform the exercises and where you can get the best prices online. For a complete list of exercises check out The Best Exercises from fitprofree.com.
Target Muscles: Legs
Target muscles: Primary muscles are the quadriceps. You will also be engaging your core and almost every other muscle in your lower body. Including your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves.
How to perform the Squat:
Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your head up and shoulders down and back.
You can extend your hands out in front of you or place your hands on your hips.
Focus your eyes on something slightly above you to keep your head up. This will ensure your chest stays upright and out. Brace your core like someone is about to punch you in the gut.
Start the movement in your hips but don’t lean too far forward. Go down till your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.
Pause for one second then push both of your heels into the ground while driving the hips forward. Return all the way up to the starting position.
- To get good at the squat start by sitting upright in a chair. Slide your feet towards you till they are underneath you but are still flat on the ground. Shift your weight forward, drive your heels into the ground, and stand up. Practice sitting down and standing up a few times to get comfortable with the movement. Adjust your stance as needed.
- When you are at the bottom of the movement try pushing out with your feet like you are trying to split the ground beneath you. This will help engage the glutes allowing you to lift more weight.
- If your body is in the correct position with your weight on your heals you should be able to lift and wiggle your toes throughout the whole movement.
- This is the standard for the squat no matter what modification you are performing.
- Prisoner Squat: Hands behind your head
- Stability Ball Squat: With a stability ball between the wall and your back. Lean back more on this one.
- Jump Squat: Perform an explosive jumping action
- Iso-Jump Squat: Hold the down position of the squat for 2-5 secs then jump. Feel the burn!
- Barbell Squat: With a barbell on your shoulders. Keep your shoulders back and stand tall.
- Sumo Squat: Feet wide. Keep your knees in line with your toes!
- Barbell Front Squat: Elbows bent and out in front with your wrists bent back so the hands can hold the bar in front of you.
- Barbell Siff Squat: Stay on your toes the whole time.
- Overhead Barbell Squat: Arms straight overhead holdings barbell. Be sure your torso stays upright!
- Dumbbell Squat: Hold dumbbells at your side
- Goblet Squat: Hold one dumbbell out in front of you like a goblet
Do it at home:
To do the squat and all of the modifications listed above you will need the following equipment:
Target muscles: Glutes and hamstrings. Deadlifts also activate your quadriceps, core, back, and shoulders.
This is arguably The Best Exercise you can do. It activates heaps of upper and lower body muscles. Although it’s important to do this one correctly and maintain good posture!
How to perform the Barbell/Dumbbell Deadlift:
With weights loaded onto a barbell move close enough to where it is touching your shins. Standing straight with good posture bend your knees and lean forward and grab the bar just wider than shoulder-width. Do not lose the natural arch of your back!
You will have to round your shoulders a little bit to reach the bar, but your feet should be planted, butt out, and thighs parallel to the floor.
Begin the movement by pressing your heels into the ground and driving your hips forward. Keep the bar as close to your shins and body as possible. Squeeze your glutes as you stand all the way up. Reverse the movement keeping the bar as close to your body as possible.
Ensure good posture with this movement. Don’t allow your knees to straighten before your hips have the chance to pull the weight. Your knees and hips should straighten at the same rate.
- Wide-Grip Deadlift: Hands well outside of shoulder-width
- Single-Leg Deadlift: Rest one foot on a bench behind you
- Sumo Deadlift: Feet wide with toes out. Grab the bar with hands inside the legs about 12 inches apart.
- Dumbbell Deadlift: Perform the same movement with a pair of dumbbells as opposed to a barbell.
- Single-Arm Deadlift: Holding a dumbbell in one hand to your side. This offsets the lift making your core work harder
Do it at home:
All you need to perform the Deadlift and the modifications above is the following equipment:
Target Muscles: Chest
Target muscles: pectoralis major, front deltoid, and tricep. To some extent the core muscles as well.
When performing a pushup you are lifting 75% of your body weight according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
How to perform the Pushup:
From the floor, place your hands shoulder width or a little wider apart on the floor.
Straighten your knees and hips to assume a plank position. Brace your core and glutes to stabilize the spine and keep your body rigid.
Your arms should be straight but not locked and your body should form a straight line from the top of your head to your ankles.
Bend your elbows and lower your chest until it almost touches the floor. Your feet should act as a pivot point for the rest of your body.
Keep your core and glutes rigid as you lower to the ground. Never let your hips drop or sag at any point.
Your arms should form a 45-degree angle with your body when at the bottom of the movement.
Pause at the bottom and then quickly return to the starting position.
Remember to always brace your abs. A neat little trick is to cough. When you feel your abs squeeze while coughing that’s what you want to hold throughout the exercises. Also, be sure to exhale on exertion. This means as you go down breath in and go up breath out. Never hold your breath!
- Modified Pushup: On the knees
- Incline Pushup: Feet on a Bench
- Decline Pushup: Hands on a Bench
- Incline Stability Ball Pushup: Feet on Stability Ball
- Decline Stability Ball Pushups: Hands on Stability Ball
- Medicine Ball Pushup: Medicine ball under one hand.
- Weighted Pushup: Weight plate on your back
- Close-Hands Pushup: Hands close together with elbows in
- T-Pushup: Raise one hand lateral in the air after each pushup
- Plyometric Pushup: Pushup explosively so both hands lift off the ground simultaneously
- Crossover Plyometric Pushup: Keeping feet in the place pushup explosively as you move your body side to side.
- BOSU Pushup: Hands on a BOSU Ball (either side)
- Suspended Pushup (See TRX Suspension Trainer)
- Pushup Row: Holding a set of dumbbells in your hands pushup and then perform a rowing action while maintaining the pushup position.
Do it at home:
The best thing about the pushup is you don’t need any equipment! That being said you can certainly spice it up with some of the above modifications using the equipment listed below
Barbell Bench Press
Target muscles: pectoralis major, front deltoid, and tricep.
The Bench Press is the standard go-to when it comes to chest exercises. There is actually more to consider than just moving the bar up and down. There are also a few tricks you can use to activate as much muscle as possible helping you lift more than you thought possible.
At all costs, avoid performing this exercise on a smith machine. The proper path of the bar (as with most exercises) is not a straight line. This forces your shoulders and elbows to move in an unnatural motion. Repetitively performing this motion will cause damage.
How to perform the Barbell Bench Press:
With an overhand grip on the barbell just wider than shoulder-width hold the barbell with straight arms. Make sure your arms are perpendicular to the floor.
There should be three points of contact on the bench; your head, shoulder blades, and butt.
Drive your heels into the ground and to begin the movement with your shoulder blades. Squeeze them together and begin to lower the bar to your sternum.
Bring the bar all the way to your sternum to where it barely touches. The bar should be about two inches below your nipples.
Maintain the three points of contact. Do your best not to lift your hips off the bench.
Don’t lift your feet. This will take away the emphasis on the pecs and shift it to the core muscles limiting the amount of weight you can lift. When you push the bar up try to imagine bending the bar. This will trigger more muscle fibers helping you lift more weight.
- Close-grip: Targets the triceps. Keep elbows in.
- Reverse-grip: Palms facing behind you.
- Incline Bench Press
- Decline Bench Press
Do it at home:
To perform the bench press and all the modifications you will need:
Dumbbell Bench Press
Target muscles: pectoralis major, front deltoid, and tricep
Dumbbell bench press is great for changing up the standard bench press. Having the weights separate requires more balance, therefore making it more difficult.
How to perform the Dumbbell Press:
Same as with the bench press maintain three points of contact. With your arms perpendicular to the floor turn your wrists in slightly.
To begin the movement brace your core and glutes. Utilize your back muscles by keeping you shoulder blades tight. This will help you stabilize your arms and allow you to lift more weight.
Slowly lower the weights till about even with your nipples. It’s not necessary to rotate the wrists but do keep them straight.
Pause at the bottom and return to the starting point.
Take your time performing this exercise. Two to three seconds down one second up and don’t bang the weights together. Ensure you are going through the full range of motion; all the way down and all the way up.
Do it at home:
To do this exercise at home and all of its modifications you don’t need much:
Target Muscles: Back
This is a fantastic exercise. It is essentially a pushup in reverse. Just like the pushup works the chest this will work the upper back. It will also engage the erector spinae and the glutes to keep your hip stationary throughout the movement.
How to perform the Invert Row:
Grab the bar with an overhand grip and your hands shoulder width apart
With your arms completely straight your body should make a straight line from the top of your head to your ankles.
Begin the movement by engaging the shoulder blades first. As you squeeze your shoulder blades together then begin bending your elbows.
Keep your body stiff and don’t allow your hips to move. Pull your chest to the bar. Pause for one second and lower back down to the starting point.
When you are performing the invert-row imagine you are driving your elbows back as opposed to pulling your body up. At the top of the movement squeeze your shoulder blade together to get the most benefit out of the exercise. If you cannot keep your wrists straight it means your upper back and biceps are weak. You should try the Modified Invert Row below.
- Modified Invert-Row: Bend your knees and place your feet flat on floor
- Underhand Invert-Row
- Elevated Feet Invert-Row
- Stability Ball Invert-Row: With feet elevated on a stability ball
- Single-Arm Invert-Row: With feet flat on floor pull your body up with one arm
- Towel-Grip Invert-Row
Do it at home:
To perform the invert-row, you will need a bar at about waist high. You can set up a power rack or smith machine very easily for this exercise. Check out my Power Rack Review for a good option. You can also use a Bench or a Stability Ball for the elevated feet modification.
Target muscles: Middle & lower traps, rhomboid major & minor. To some extent the biceps, upper traps, rear deltoids, and rotator cuff muscles. Also, the bent-over position engages the hamstrings and glutes.
How to perform the Bent-over Row:
In a bent-over position grasp a barbell with an overhand grip about shoulder width apart. Feet should also be shoulder width apart.
Brace your core and keep your back naturally arched. Slightly bend your knees to keep to take some of the pressure off your lower back.
Just as with the invert-row begin the movement by bringing your shoulder blades together and the drive your elbows back.
bring the bar all the way to your chest, pause for one second and then lower it back to the starting point.
To ensure your back is not rounded grab the bar and stand all the way up. Stand tall and with good posture. Pivot at your hips while bracing your core and bending your knees slightly. Once your upper body is nearly parallel to the floor, stop. If done correctly it should be the perfect position for the barbell row.
- Dumbbell Row
- Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Row
- Reverse-Grip Dumbbell Row
- Elbows-Out Supported Dumbbell Row: Chest up against an incline bench
- Kneeling Supported Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: One knee and one hand on a bench
Do it at home:
Equipment required for the barbell row and all the modifications
Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, teres major, and biceps. To some extent the core and middle to upper back are also utilized.
How to perform the Chinup:
Grab a chinup/pullup bar with an underhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width. for the pullup use an overhand grip. Hang with arms fully extended. This is the “dead hang” position and is the starting point for each rep.
With your knees bent and feet crossed behind you pull your chest to the bar.
Pause for one second at the top and lower back down to the dead hang position.
- To get full muscle fiber activation try bringing your chest to the bar as opposed to getting your chin over the top.
- It also helps to imagine driving your elbows down as opposed to pulling your body up.
- The chinup is great for building up your arms as it relies heavily on not just your lats but you bi’s to complete each rep. This is also why the chinup is a little easier.
- Close-Grip Chinup
- Neutral-Grip Chinup
- Wide-Grip Pullup
- Alternating Grip Chinup: Hands facing opposite directions
- Towel-Grip Pullup: Drape two towels over the bar and use them to pull yourself up
Do it at home:
There are a few options when it comes to equipment check out my reviews below:
Target Muscles: Shoulders
Target muscles: Middle and front deltoid and triceps. To some extent your upper traps, rotator cuff, and serratus anterior.
How to perform the Barbell Shoulder Press:
Standing up, hold a barbell with an overhand grip and your hands just outside shoulder-width. The bar should be even with your shoulders and your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and stand tall.
Press the bar straight up overhead leaning back slightly. Once your arms are straight, pause, then return the bar back down to the starting position.
Make sure your core is tight and you aren’t leaning back to far. Don’t cheat and do this one too fast. Take your time and go down in weight if you can’t go all the way up. Avoid using a backrest. You will be able to lift more weight, but it can be too much stress for the shoulder joint which can lead to injury. If you can’t do the weight while standing then your need to decrease the amount of weight. All the exercises below can be performed with either a barbell or dumbbell unless otherwise specified.
- Push Press: Start in the same position. Bend the knees slightly and then drive the hips forward explosively as you move the bar or dumbbell straight overhead. Great for lifting heavier weights.
- Seated Shoulder Press: Seated on a bench without a backrest
- Seated Stability Ball Shoulder Press: Seated on a stability ball
- Alternating Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Alternate arms to work the core more.
- Dumbbell Alternating Shoulder Press and Twist: Rotate as you press one dumbbell up at a time. If you press the left arm up rotate to the right.
Do it at home:
To do this exercise and all the modifications at home you will need:
Target Muscles: Core
Target muscles: Primary muscles are the core muscles. You will also be working your front deltoids and glutes.
How to perform the Plank/Side Plank:
Get in the pushup position but instead of arms straight keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the ground and directly under your shoulders.
Your body should be in a straight line from your ankles all the way to the top of your head. Keep your core and glutes braced to prevent your hips from dropping. Breathe normally while holding this position.
Hold for 30 seconds or as long as prescribed.
Work slowly up to the prescribed amount of time by taking short breaks. Make sure you hold the plank for the recommended amount of time not counting the breaks.
- 45-Degree Plank: Arms on a bench
- Kneeling Plank: On your knees. Ensure your hips are in line with your shoulders and knees.
- Elevated-Feet Plank: Feet elevated on a bench or stability ball
- Single-Leg Elevated Plank: Feet on a bench or stability ball while holding one foot up a few inches.
- Pushup Position Plank: On your hands in the pushup position.
- Plank with Leg Lift: Holding one foot up a few inches from the floor
- Plank with Arm Lift: Holding one arm straight directly overhead.
- Plank with Opposite Leg/Arm Lift: One arm raised overhead with the opposing foot elevated a few inches off the ground
- Stability-Ball Plank: Arms on a stability ball
- Stability-Ball Plank with Feet on Bench: Place your feet on a bench and your arms on a stability ball.
Do it at home:
Kneeling/Standing Rotational Chops
Target muscles: Along with the core you will also be working the rear and front deltoids as well as the chest muscles.
How to perform the Kneeling Rotational Chops:
Kneeling with your right side facing a high cable pulley use a rope attachment pulled all the way through to one side. Hold the rope with an overhand grip with your arms about 18 inches apart. Your arms should be straight with your right arm out and up to your side and your left arm should cross in front of your body.
Brace your core and bring your right arm down and across your body diagonally. Keep the rope taut and your arms straight throughout the entire movement.
Pause for one second and then slowly return to the starting position.
Start with a lighter weight to get the feel of the exercise. The weight should not pull you across the floor. Position yourself back slightly and don’t hold your breath.
- Half-Kneeling Stability Chop: Your knee closest to the weight stack is up at a 90-degree bend with your foot flat on the floor.
- Standing Stability Chop: Stand with feet staggered. Your leg closest to the weight stack should be forward and your other leg should be back.
Do it at home:
To do this exercise at home, you will need a Cable Station with a Rope attachment.
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