By Craig Valency, CSCS

Variety is the spice of life! But when it comes to strength training, there are a few key movements that deserve a special place in the exercise pantheon. There are three basic exercises that everyone should do in some form or another. When it comes to real-world strength, these are the ones you MUST be doing. Of course, if you want nice biceps for beach season, go to town on the preacher curls after you have prioritized these top 3.

To make the cut, each exercise had to meet the following criteria:

  • Functional: Functional carryover to real-world activities
  • High Metabolic Cost: Compound movements utilizing multiple joints; Involves the whole body
  • Strength Carryover: Improves overall strength for other exercises and in general
  • Corrective: Addresses the most common weak areas and patterns of movement

1. Deadlift
This is the king of all exercises. What could be more useful than an exercise that teaches and strengthens the pattern of movement required to lift heavy objects? The deadlift, if done incorrectly, can wreak havoc on your low back; but done correctly, it can save your low back. I avoided it for years because of my chronic low back pain. In hindsight, I had chronic low back pain, in part, because I avoided the deadlift. This exercise emphasizes the all too forgotten posterior chain muscles (calves, hamstrings, glutes, & back). Yes, those are the muscles you can’t see in the mirror. Well, we can see you from behind, so start deadlifting!

Deadlifts come in many flavors. To do a conventional deadlift, lift a barbell off the floor, beginning with knee extension and progressing through to hip extension. John Alvino has a great video tutorial on the conventional deadlift technique.

A variation of the conventional deadlift is the Romanian deadlift. This is a totally hip dominant movement in which the knees are slightly unlocked, maintaining 10 to 20 degrees of flexion throughout the movement. The bar is lifted off the floor by extending the hips, without contribution from the knee extensors as in the conventional deadlift.

Try not to think of the movement as just bending down and coming up. Rather, move your hips backward while maintaining thoracic extension (chest up position), as if you are trying to hit an imaginary wall with your butt. Do not round your lower back. You should then return to a fully upright position. You should feel a big stretch in your hamstrings.

2. Step-ups
Don’t do step-ups in front of anyone you want to impress. Step-ups have a knack for exposing weaknesses. Not only will one leg will be weaker than the other, but you may also end up doing the worm just to get up on your good leg! Traditional bi-lateral squatting and deadlifting can hide many of the asymmetries that a simple step-up will highlight. Step-ups will reveal what you need to work on.

Essentially, doing a step-up is like coming out of the bottom part of a squat on one leg. Your body is at a mechanical disadvantage at that point in the squat. Step-ups, therefore, strengthen the weakest part of the strength curve. Your hip and knee angle is set by the height of the step, so you can’t cheat! The step-up can also be a great auxiliary exercise to help you break through a plateau you may reach on the traditional squat.

The step-up translates to the real world, which makes it a very functional exercise. I have steps leading up to my second floor apartment. I have carried heavy groceries, a gigantic TV, and my wife (the lightest of the three) up those stairs. Thank God for the years of step-ups I have put myself through! Whether you hike, hunt, or walk up the stairs to your urban oasis, you will reap the benefits of step-ups.

Start with a low step and light dumbbells. Progress to heavier dumbbells. Then move to a higher step and drop the weight. Increase the weight again when you are ready. Each time you progress to a higher step, lower the weights until you are ready for heavier ones. Pay attention to the stepping pattern, or I guarantee you will use your preferential leg to come back down every time. A good pattern to use is to step all the way up with your right foot (until your leg fully straightens), tap the step with your left foot, and return down on your left foot. Now reverse it. Step up with your left foot, tap the step with your right foot, and come back down on your right foot. Do 3 sets – first 12 reps, then 10 reps, and finally 8 reps per leg.

3. Pull-ups
The key to being able to do pull-ups is to do pull-ups! The only problem is that it is a challenge just to do one. There are many variations of hand grips. They range from the most difficult (in which the hands are pronated with a wide grip), to the easiest (in which the grip is narrow and the hands are supinated or neutral “hammer” position). A pull-up is one of the very few total body exercises that makes you real-world strong. Some people have natural mechanical advantages, depending on shoulder width, body weight, body proportions, and grip strength. Regardless of these differences, everyone can learn to maximize their ability to pull-ups.

  • First, just practice the grip hang. Go to a bar and hang for a certain amount of time. Gradually increase the time. A good goal is 3 sets of 1 minute each.
  • Next, practice doing negative pull-ups. The eccentric part of the contraction, or the lengthening of a muscle on the way down, is usually the strongest, so work on these first. Jump up and grab the bar. Lower yourself slowly with control. Do this 10 times. You can also use a step to help you can get your chin above the bar. Lift your leg off the step, hold yourself up, and slowly lower yourself.
  • You can also do superband-assisted or weight-assisted machine pull-ups. Loop an elastic band around the bar and place one knee or foot on the hanging loop of the band. This will give you maximum assistance on the hardest part of the pull-up during the first half of the movement from the bottom. You will be using more of your own strength on the last half of pull-up, as the band is less stretched and offering less assistance. Gradually advance to a thinner band as you get stronger. The band is essentially giving you a jump start. This allows your body to feel itself doing a pull-up and learn that it is possible.
  • IMG_0233Buy an Iron Gym door jam pull-up bar for you home! This is the best way to build up to the elusive pull-up. Every time you pass by the bar, do one pull-up. Eventually, you’ll do two of them, and so on. Practice your pull-ups before or after work. Over time, you’ll be doing a perfect set of 10 pull-ups.
    Christa was determined to conquer pull-ups for her 2013 New Year’s resolution. For Christmas, she requested the Iron Gym. She practiced every day. She started by just hanging and doing negative pull-ups. She then progressed to doing one full pull-up. Then, oops… she got pregnant. Pull-ups are a little challenging at the moment.
  • Once you can do 5 to 10 pull-ups, put on a weight vest or a belt with added weight and do resisted pull-ups. Now you are building up some crazy strength, and your gains will go through the roof when you go for regular bodyweight pull-ups.

These are my top three exercises. If you have time for nothing else, these power brokers will give you all you need. Each of these exercises maximally recruits big muscles, working the entire kinetic chain –from the hand grip to the toe tip. This holy trinity strengthens the knee dominant muscles, the hip dominant posterior chain, and the entire upper body. Of course, there are other exercises out there that could make the list based on my inclusion criteria; but after years of working with clients, these are really the great equalizers.

Here is a quick workout you can do. Start with a 10 –15 minute warm-up. Go through each set one time. Increase the weight on each set of deadlifts or step-ups as the number of reps decreases.

You can download and print this program by clicking here.