On my computer I have a “client programs” folder where I keep all the workout routines I design. Out of curiosity, I checked to see how many files this folder contained. It has over 1,600 different workout programs. Holy cow! I didn’t realize I had designed that many workouts through the years.
With that many programs, there are certain exercises that I like to repeat more than others. Yes, I play favorites. Some exercises I am in love with and some I just love to hate. But my favorite exercises all have certain things in common:
My Top Six. Here is my list of favorite exercises, both for your upper body and your lower body. You won’t see a single biceps curl, crunch or calf raise here! This is just good, solid functional strength training.
Rear foot elevated split squat
Why I love it: This one is at the very top of my list, for both lower and upper body. It is hands-down my all-time favorite exercise. There is no better unilateral (one-legged) lower body exercise. The potential to develop leg strength here is unrivaled by any other exercise. It challenges your balance like crazy, and when you load it up heavy, your core has to work overtime.
It’s also very sneaky. You will feel your quads burning while you do the exercise but the next day your glutes will be talking. It works your entire leg.
Tips to do it well: Lay your back foot flat so you can sink deeper into the movement, attempting to touch your back knee to the floor. Lean forward slightly with your torso to prevent any unnecessary back strains. Start without weights, then add one or two weights and keep going up from there.
Single leg dead lift
Why I love it: Mad glute strength! Once you get your balance figured out, you can start challenging your glutes and hamstrings by increasing the weight. This exercise also requires a tremendous amount of core strength to keep your torso rigid. So when your weights get really heavy (20#’s-40#’s), your abs will be working just as much as your legs.
Tips to do it well: Keep your standing knee slightly bent and then picture yourself as a ballerina, hinging forward from the hips. Your hip bones should be level. Your goal is not to reach down to the floor, but to simply get your torso and back leg parallel with the floor.
Why I love it: The majority of the movements we do as humans are forward and back, so it’s paramount that you train in a lateral plain of motion to stay balanced. This one does that. It’s similar to a side split squat or side lunge, but it goes deeper. The hip mobility you can achieve when you master this exercise is incredible. It has taken me a while to do these well, but they feel amazing when you get it.
Tips to do it well: Spread your feet wide with your toes angled outward at 45 degrees. Sink to one hip and just keep on sinking. You will be able to go deeper if you rock up onto the heel of the opposite foot as shown above. Picture yourself sitting on the back of your ankle. These are very advanced so if you feel extremely hunched forward when you try it, stick with side split squats instead.
Why I love it: Are you kidding me?! Push-ups are the all-time best upper body exercise! They improve your shoulder and arm strength, but they will also build your core strength. When you do a push-up perfectly, you will recruit just about every muscle on your body. I’d say it’s the number one exercise to try and master.
Tips to do it well: Picture your push-ups as moving planks. Your body should be absolutely stiff as you descend and ascend through a push-up. Squeeze your abs and push your heels back to stiffen your body. Position your hands so they are slightly wider than your shoulders with your elbows pointing backwards a bit. Inhale as you go down, then forcefully exhale a split second before you rise up. This will create even more stiffness.
If it’s too hard on the floor, start with your hands on a chair or a countertop. Never-ever do “girlie” push-ups. Just don’t.
Two point rows
Why I love it: It’s all the goodness of a row (strengthening your posture and upper back muscles) with some definite bonuses. Doing a row in a two point position will challenge your balance, leg strength and core strength all at the same time. These look like the single leg dead lifts, although you’re rowing with one arm. Even though this looks unsteady, you should still have the capacity to load this up pretty heavy.
Tips to do it well: Keep your standing knee slightly bent and place the opposite hand on a chair or bench. Keep your body perfectly rigid with your torso lifted into a good posture. Hips should always be level while you row.
Why I love it: This is an overhead push made easier with momentum. Pushing weight overhead is one of the hardest movements to do. By adding a bit of “umph” to the exercise, you can push even more weight and also turn it into a power-building exercise. I always walk away from this exercise feeling ridiculously strong.
Tips to do it well: Choose weights that are slightly heavier than you could normally push overhead. Set them at your shoulders and begin with a quick dip into a half squat. Don’t pause at the bottom of the squat at all, but quickly stand up and use that momentum to thrust the weights overhead. You might even end up on your tippy-toes at the top. Pause when the weights get to the top, then slowly lower them back to your shoulders.
Unlimited potential. If I could only use these six exercises for program design, I would still be a happy camper. Each of these exercises has the potential to make someone incredibly strong, and there really is no upper limit. Just use a heavier weight!
It's easy to create a good workout routine using this list by combining it all together into one circuit. I would recommend alternating between a lower body move and then an upper body move.
With over 1,600 workout programs designed, I still go back to these moves time and time again. Add these into your routine and tell me what you think!
Interested in watching some exercise video tutorials? Click here to learn how to do these and many other exercises well.
Did you know that I have a YouTube channel with over 200 individual exercise demonstrations? Click here to check it out!
Are you a fitness nerd like me? Read more about how I design workout programs here.
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Megan P. Dahlman
Hi friend! I'm a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Wife to Scott, and Mom to two crazy boys, Calvin & Peter. I train hard, eat well, rest just enough to keep going, and do my best to maintain a heavenly perspective. I'd love to coach you to do the same. Cheers!
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