When I first started training with weights about 10 years ago, I remember walking into the  gym thinking “okay, what’ll it be today, legs and shoulders or chest and arms”? This is a relatively common view on how to train, and it’s generally associated with bodybuilding or physique training.

After many years of trial and error (mainly error if I’m being honest) I came to the conclusion that I really hadn’t achieved any serious gains in overall strength. The best bodybuilders have an impressive foundation of strength.  I had discovered that I couldn’t really lift any more, which was alarming to say the least.

So what was missing?

When your focus shifts from pure aesthetics to increasing strength, the way you approach your training needs changes too. Instead of figuring out how to train body parts, you have to think about training movements. This has a much greater carry over to activities you’d perform in every day life, so you won’t end up like this guy.

The movements are referred to as compound movements because they work multiple muscle groups instead of just one. (Since they’re more complicated, you may want an experienced personal trainer to show you how they’re done properly.)

These movement patterns fall into seven main categories: hinge, squat, push, pull, twist, lunge and loaded carry. Each of these movements should have a place in any good general strength-training program. 

In my own training, I have identified one major exercise for each movement pattern. Each of these “best bang for buck” exercises has been chosen for specific reasons, so let’s dive in.

The Movements

Hinge – The barbell deadlift

The barbell deadlift in my opinion is hands down the most important hinge pattern you will ever learn because it uses more muscles and allows you to lift the most weight safely when executed correctly.

Due to the deadlift starting from ground, it will teach you how to generate tension from a static position and is one of the best trunk development exercises known to man.

This lift trains the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and lumbar erectors) which are the strongest muscles in the body when all working together.

Squat – Goblet Squat

Full range-of-motion squats are just flat out good for you. The goblet squat in particular teaches us how to breathe and brace your abdominals while activating the pelvic floor. It’s also one of the best hip mobility exercises I have ever found.

Additionally, the bottom of a deep goblet squat will massage the ascending colon which can help with toilet time if you struggle in that department.

This lift trains the anterior chain (quads, hip flexors, abdominals) and is great to counter all the heavy deadlifts that you do.

Push – Kettlebell Military Press

I was once told that heavy military pressing is for intelligent people, but I never really understood it until I had spent time working towards a single arm half bodyweight kettlebell press.

You see, there are so many principals involved with the press and they all need to come together simultaneously to lift heavy loads. Learning about tension is not enough, to press heavy one must truly understand tension and how it’s applied for effective results.

When you get it right, the kettlebell military press is a phenomenal upper body developer but also teaches you about whole body strength.

Pull – Pull-ups

Who wouldn’t like to be able to do more pull-ups? The pull-up is a superior upper body exercise because it is a closed kinetic chain movement (the hands remain stationary whilst the body moves). I believe that all strength training should involve at least one closed chain exercise.

The pull-up is also a great back developer. Being able to do a set of ten strict pull-ups is a benchmark for manliness! 

Twist/lunge – The Turkish Get Up

The Turkish Get Up (TGU) is definitely a big bang exercise because it incorporates more than one primal movement. It has a hinge, a push, a pull and a loaded carry.

If executed correctly, the TGU promotes thoracic spine mobility and shoulder girdle stability. It also is one of the only exercises that has 100% peak activation in all four working muscle of the core when tested by EMG.

Loaded Carry – Farmers Walk

Strength can be defined as pulling load towards the body, pushing load away from the body or finally, carrying load over distance.

When you carry heavy loads, it puts stress on structures such as bone, ligaments and connective tissues. This in turn, forces  these structures to strengthen and grow making your overall capacity for heavy loads far greater.

Keep it Simple

There are a lot of movements here, but incorporating them into your training doesn’t need to be difficult. As a rule of thumb, I like to include a hinge or squat, followed by a push or pull. A sample 3-day week might look like this:

Week One

Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
Squat TGU Squat
Military Press Deadlift Military Press
Farmers Carry Pull-ups Farmers Carry

Week Two

Session 1 Session 2 Session 3
TGU Squat TGU
Deadlift Military Press Deadlift
Pull-ups Farmers Carry Pull-ups

I have seen athletes get freakishly strong from following formats just like this, and it only took a few short months.

Work off about 20 to 30 total reps for each exercise and 10 total reps for the dead lift. Do sets of 5 with the aim to increase the weights steadily over time. You don’t need to be jumping weights every session — instead challenge yourself to perform so that you’d rate your exhaustion as a 7 or 8 out of 10.  If you’re feeling flat one day, go slightly lighter, and if you are feeling beastly then choose something a little more challenging.

For the TGU, complete one rep per side for 3 to 5 rounds and for the farmer’s carry do repeats of 25m efforts for 10-15 minutes.

Test your 5 rep max in each movement at the start of the program, and then retest each movement again after 12 weeks. You may just be surprised with how much strength you’ve gained, and any plateaus you were experiencing in other movements will surely have been broken!