There are a lot of exercises out there in the strength training world, and for the most part, you’ll reap some benefits from performing them (with proper form, of course) as part of your strength training plan. But some exercises are just better than others you might be doing, whether that’s due to your sticking with the same outdated split or from a lack of knowledge—so strength coach and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. wants to make sure you’re doing the right moves to optimize your strength and muscle gains.
To do so, he’s shared 12 moves that he believes should be included in everyone’s training program. Importantly, these exercises aren’t a standalone workout—instead, Cavaliere hopes that exercisers will include the dependable dozen in their workouts alongside other accessory movements that might be more willing to each individual’s specific goals.
Also, he acknowledges that not every person can do every exercise—he’s a physical therapist, after all, so he understands that limitations exist. He does want all lifters who can handle these exercises to do them.
So if you’re missing any of these exercises, it’s time to start adding them in.
Exercise 1: Squat
Cavaliere calls this the “king of all lower body exercises”, since it hits the quads, glutes, adductors, and the hamstrings. He notes it’s also a key movement pattern that everyone needs to learn.
But if heavy loaded barbell squats are hard for your back, a great alternative is the Bulgarian split squat, which he notes allows you to train one leg at a time. For those with knee issues, use a box while squatting. And for those needing less impact, you can utilize a goblet or drop squat.
Exercise 2: Deadlift
This exercise is key to hitting the posterior chain, and train the “all-important hinge pattern” (i.e. letting your hips sit back as you bend over at the waist), says Cavaliere. This helps you become efficient in all your lower body exercises while also protecting your low back. But if your back does give you issues, Cavaliere suggests trying a mat-elevated variation or using a trap bar.
Exercise 3: Bench Press
Cavaliere acknowledges that bench is widely held to be one of the best ways to build your chest, but also calls it the king of all pushing exercises. It also hits your shoulders and triceps. For this move, you can use a bar or dumbbells. But if you have issues with your biceps or rotator cuff/shoulders, he suggests you slow down your reps for more stability.
Exercise 4: Pullup
According to Cavaliere, this is one of the best back exercises there is. But there’s more than just back gains to be had, since the movement requires you to maintain good core stability. If it’s too easy, he suggests trapping some weight around your waist to create overload. And if it’s too hard, use a resistance band for some assistance.
Exercise 5: Face Pull
This is one of Cavaliere’s favorite exercises for the posterior chain, as well as the upper body. You can use cables, bands, and even towels to train the upper back, rotator cuff and scapular retractors, which are often missed and undertrained areas.
Exercise 6: Banded External Rotation
This move is a corrective exercise that trains the rotator cuff, the only muscles that externally rotate the shoulder. If you don’t have access to a band, Cavaliere suggests using a dumbbell and lie on your side to get the job done.
Exercise 7: Lunge
This lower body move is the perfect compliment to the sagittal plane exercises already mentioned, since you can direct it any way you want, according to Cavaliere. It also can be done with many variations. Cavaliere is a fan of the reverse lunge for those with knee issues, and mixing up the plane of motion to hit different angles with your hips. If you lean forward, you will light up your posterior chain. And if you stay upright, you hit more of your quads.
Exercise 8: Pushup
Cavaliere says that this basic move is all about finding the right difficulty level that will help you achieve hypertrophy and challenge you. So using a variation in place of a traditional pushup, or adding in traditional pushups at the end of a set of another exercise when you’re fatigued, will help challenge you.
Exercise 9: Overhead Press
This move is the best one that hits your vertical plane, according to Cavaliere. If shoulder issues limit this, he suggests using dumbbells, and repping one at a time to better stack your joints more appropriately (wrist over elbow over shoulder), for more stability. For more of a challenge, add in a push press to get your lower body involved.
Exercise 10: The Lying Triceps Extension
Cavaliere loves this exercise because it puts the long head (medial) portion of the triceps on a great amount of stretch with every single rep. If that’s too hard, you can use the variation of the skull crusher or the JM press.
Exercise 11: Barbell Curl
Cavaliere prefers to do this with a barbell since you can load it up for eccentric overload for maximal biceps growth. Don’t have a barbell? You can use dumbbells or a resistance band (which changes the strength curve up for you, with max tension at the top part of the exercise). Take it to another level by combining both dumbbells and a band for more consistent tension.
Exercise 12: Barbell Row
This gives you a horizontal pull, which Cavaliere calls the key to having good hinge control to prevent excess pressure on your back. A good variation for those looking to level up would be a dead row, a more explosive option.
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