I get asked to list my top [insert random number here] exercises all the time. I’m also endlessly bombarded with the, ‘if you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life what would it be?’ question. The first question is good. It allows for the explanation of my training philosophy and what exercises appear most often as a result of my coaching thought process. But the second question reeks like a four day old crap filled baby diaper wrapped in feta cheese and dipped in sewer water. It’s simplistic, narrow and if you know me at all you already know my answer (no, I’m not going to tell you now). But there is no need dwelling on the negative. Let’s work with the first question.
A list of my top four exercises overall would be broad. There are so many physical qualities to train for and so many exercises that apply to each, why, it would take me the better part of a fortnight to narrow it down to just five. But if we talk about the best of all qualities–strength–I can produce a list for you in two shakes of a lambs tail!
(Yep, I just used the terms ‘fortnight’ and ‘two shakes of a lambs tail’ in a two sentence sequence. That makes me a baller!)
So what are my five favorite exercises for lumberjack-esque strength? Some might surprise you, but for the most part you’ll be right on point. Here are my top five favorite strength exercises–in count down form–with a little info on why they made the list.
4) 1 Arm Row: A lot of folks scoff at heavy unilateral training, I don’t. After making one arm rows a staple in my training programs I have seen both the strength and mass of my upper-back increase dramatically. And if I ever need to aggressively start a lawn mower, I’ll be more than prepared.
Not only are one arm rows great for strength and mass–because you can load the bejesus out of them–but they are also great as an anti-rotation exercise; as one knee and hand are posted on a bench a heavy dumbbell is pulling your opposite arm toward the ground. A tremendous amount of core stability is built as the result of a hard brace of the abs and holding the spine in a neutral position.
The video below features Elitefts sponsored lifter Matt Kroczaleski and his version of the one arm row–the “Kroc” Row. I think we can agree that Kroc appears super-human in the video. What mere mortal could one arm row 225 pounds (abou the average weight of an NFL running back) even once, let alone twenty-five times? But Kroc is just a man that works at a maniac intensity, and it allows him to achieve beyond what most would see as their potential.
Our big take-home message from the video is that the one arm row can be used to develop a high degree of strength endurance in the upper-back and lats. No matter if you are a powerlifter, baseball player or soccer mom looking to improve your figure–a strong upper-back with a high level endurance will protect your shoulders and keep you performing at the highest level during the rest of your training.
3) Strict Overhead Press: I’m betting you expected the bench press to occupy the #3 spot on the list. With me being a powerlifter, and benching being the international favorite upper-body exercise (blast those pecs!), it’s a logical thought. But, for a lot of reasons, I think that the overhead press is a superior exercise–the biggest reason being the fact that is done standing rather than lying down.
Zach Even-Esh talks a great deal about real strength being built on our feet–and I agree with him. Sports, and most of the best things in life, involve moving in an erect position and, consequently, I believe that we need to train that way. Is that to say that benching is useless and shouldn’t be included in strength programs? Absolutely not. There is some form of the bench press in almost every program I write–especially my own. But the overhead press can be loaded heavily to build upper-body strength while also having a greater training effect on core stability, upper-back and shoulder mobility and total body strength. There aren’t a lot of things more awesome than hoisting the equivalent of your body weight over your dome and trusting that your strong enough to not let it crack your cranium.
2) Squat: There aren’t a lot of exercises that are as frustrating and productive as the squat. Having the strength and mobility to put a loaded barbell on your back, sit down below parallell and then stand back up can take years of focused training. Your ankles have to have good mobility while your hips have a delicate blend of mobility and stiffness. Let’s also keep in mind that the thoracic spine must extend proficiently or the whole works is a wash. Being able to squat with good form takes a lot of work. But the work is worth it.
Beyond being one of the first movement patterns we learn as babies (check the picture), squatting can build incredible levels of strength while improving athleticism. Adapting to the demands of squatting increases the strength of the legs, back and core–not to mention improves balance and proprioception. But for all the greatness of the squat there is a downfall.
Squatting with a barbell involves axial loading–resulting in compression forces on the spine. I don’t think this is as big a deal as some coaches make it out to be, but it has to be accounted for. Cycling squats with front squats while training for thoracic mobility and core stability can limit the amount and the effect of axial loading during squatting. You’ll stay healthy while you turn yourself into Quadzilla. But this article isn’t about mass and aesthetics, it’s about strength.
Heavy squat training improves strength by increasing the levels of intra- and inter-muscle coordination, rate coding and muscle cross-sectional area– AKA you get bigger and stronger. That’s the sciencey stuff, now here is a video of a dude crushing plates!
1) Deadlift: All hail the king of strength!
From the ground up–calves to traps, no other exercise builds strength like the deadlift, and while the squat and the deadlift are similar in the total amount of muscle mass recruited, the deadlift allows us to activate a lot of muscle mass without a large learning curve. Be it in a partial range of motion variation or the full-range pull from the earth, the deadlift can be easily used by almost any healthy person.
Deadlifting also emphasizes training the back of the body over the front, and strong people will tell you that the front is for show and the back is for go. Real work is done with the hamstrings, glutes, lats and spinal erectors–deadlifting trains them all to be thick, dense and strong. Like Bill Kazmaier once said, “Strong back, strong man.”
The science of getting stronger that we talked about during the squat also applies to the deadlift–better nervous system, bigger muscles, stronger person. There’s no sense in beating a dead horse so let’s move on to some videos of really strong people picking up heavy shit.
Andy Bolton deadlifts 1008 pounds. That’s real.
Konstantinovs pulls 836 pounds for a set of four, without a belt. Boom!
Use these movements in your programming regularly and you’ll build strength that would turn Paul Bunyan green with envy.