The Exercises That Count – What The Top Minds Say

There are people who actually buy unbelievable junk like the Shake Weight and the AbRocket and the Belly Burn. But I don’t give a damn about them because people who buy such obvious crap are slackers. Slackers who look for quick fixes. Slackers who are lazy to move their back sides. Slackers who don’t want to work hard. Slackers who will never look awesome.

But you know what I do give a damn about? The folks who really want to make a change for the better and are willing to do anything it takes to get healthy, grow stronger, move faster and in turn look better because these folks are fighters. Fighters ready to put in time and effort. Fighters ready to bust their chops to reach their goals. Fighters who  spend hours working out every week doing thousands of repetitions of hundred different exercises. Fighters who are frustrated because they don’t see results though they work so hard.

Why? Because it’s not their fault. They have uneducated idiots for trainers who look at them as nothing but dollar signs and make them do mindless crap just to keep them paying for longer.

So in the interest of helping such fighters, I decided to get in touch with some of the best coaches in the world today. I personally emailed these folks asking them the following question…

If you can only do 4 exercises for the rest of your life (for overall physical fitness), what would they be and why?

Realize that these folks are all from different parts of the world, have completely different backgrounds, have different training methodologies, differ big time with respect to nutritional advice and train clients with drastically different goals (soccer moms to fighters to bodybuilders to gymnasts to powerlifters).

But they all have one thing in common – they are all bloody damn awesome in what they do. Each one of these guys walk their talk, have produced stunning results their clients and have changed many many lives for the better.

Without any more blah blah I present to you the coaches and the exercises they deem superior.

1. Martin Berkhan – Leangains

Squat, deadlift and bench. These are called the “big three” for a good reason and I arguing for each one specifically would be an exercise in redundancy.

In addition to the big three, I’ll say chins. This movement complements the big three perfectly by adding biceps and lat work, which are two muscle groups that the three other lifts don’t do that much for, relatively speaking.

Besides being a great back movement, chin-ups also add more shoulder work to the arsenal, and delts in particular. I think I owe a great deal of my biceps and delt development to the fact that I have always been a fan of chin-ups. Never did much targeted work for these muscle groups (curls, lat raises, etc.).

2. Mark Sisson – Mark’s Daily Apple

If I could up it to 5, the answer is easy: The 5 Essential Primal Movements. Pullups, pushups, squats, overhead presses, and planks.

Scalable to any fitness level, no gadgets or machinery necessary, a bench and a tree branch is really all you need.

3. Leigh Peele –

  • The most bad ass female trainer I know. In her words – “I am not what you think of as a normal trainer. I don’t overuse hair gel and you will never, ever, see me in spandex.”
  • Author of Fat Loss Troubleshoot and Body By Eats.
  • While she’s worked with celebrities and pro athletes, she says her ultimate purpose is to help educate people on the most efficient methods of making yourself become the person you want to be. Inside and out
  • Hate her or love her… she is legit!

Women please get off the damn elliptical, stop doing your stupid ab twists and listen to Leigh!

I could talk about this FOREVER. I will do my best to keep it brief. It is torture trying to only choose 4!

1. Deadlift – It is the only weighted exercise I truly love. Right from the start of the deadlift, it was a fit. It never hurt me, I never did it wrong and it was instantly my strongest weighted movement. I also feel like of all movements, it is the most applicable towards my life. I am constantly in situations where I am thankful for that movement.

2. Pull-Up – Simple. Effective. Badass. I think there is no greater test to your will and strength than being able to knock-out a pull-up. It will always be in my programs.

3. Leg Swings – It isn’t as popular as the other exercises, but it is a mobility exercises which has saved my hips quite a few times. You can see a great description (along with other movements) over at ( )

4. Suspension Rows (in all variations and forms) – Inverted Rows, Back Rows…I love a row. I love them even more on suspension trainers. I get great mid-back work when I use the suspension trainers in ways I don’t get with traditional weights. I always seem to compensate with my upper traps more. Perhaps it is the adjustablity or the freedom in the movement, but I love that exercise system and the rows specifically.

4. Al Kavadlo –

If I could only do 4 exercises I would choose Push-ups, Pull-ups, Muscle-ups and Pistol Squats.

You can hit every muscle in the body and build tremendous strength with just those 4 exercises.  Of course, you have to be fairly advanced before you can do a muscle-up or a pistol squat in the first place, so I wouldn’t suggest those 4 to a beginner.  Instead, I’d recommend novices start with Push-ups, Australian Pull-ups, Squats and Lunges.

5. Jim Bathurst – Beastskills

The four exercises I’d do for the rest of my life for physical fitness –

Overhead press – standing and pressing a heavy weight overhead use to be the measurement of one’s strength. It requires total body strength and stabilization and can be done with just a barbell.

Back squat – it’s the king of exercises for a reason. make damn sure you have good technique. I’m including the squat instead of the deadlift because I’ve seen too many ugly deadlifts and think people would be better off squatting honest depths with good form.

Clean – the Olympic lifts require strength, speed, coordination, and mobility. ’nuff said.

Chin-ups or rope climbing – We need an upper body pulling exercise. I like the rope climb for the added benefit to your grip, but chin-ups are a-ok too. Unfortunately, way too many people do these incorrectly.

If you did nothing else but these four exercises in your routine, you wouldn’t be too bad off. If you give me a 5th, it would have to be the handstand! I just enjoy it that much. It’s a fun exercise, that’s why I’ve been doing it for the past 12 years.

6. Keith Norris – Theorytopractice

  • Huge, powerful, jacked and super smart! Everyone want’s to be Keith Norris – even Chuck Norris!
  • Has 30+ years of in-the-trenches warfare, empirical and self-taught knowledge at his disposal.
  • Manager at Efficient Exercise.
  • Check out his blog and you can read all about his own workout program and what loads he throws around.

Can I beg for a 5th??  🙂  Ok, OK, I’ll play by the rules — deadlifts, dips, pull-ups and sprints.

My 5th, by the way, would have been an overhead press.

Notice that all of these moves are intense, multi-joint/compound “most bang for the buck” moves.  As an added bonus, dips, pull-ups and sprints require one to not only to exhibit strength in that particular plane of motion, but also require balance and control of the body in space.

My Take

If you’ve read my post on 6 Exercises To Do And To Not Do, you’d know my choices and my reasons, but if I had to pick 4 I’d go with Deadlift (i.e lifting any dead weight off the floor), Sprints , Chin-ups/Rope Climbs, Push-Ups and add the Push-Press if I had a 5th.


There you have it – some of the best guys in the industry telling you what exercises matter. Do you see any mention a bicep curl? Or distance running? Or situps/crunches? Or Pec Dec? Or Bosu Ball crap? It all come’s down to…

Squat. Deadlift. Press. Push. Pull. Sprint.

Rinse and repeat.

In other words…

  1. Base the bulk of your training around these exercises.
  2. Add in isolation/supplementary work in reasonable volumes if and when needed.
  3. Eat well and rest much.
  4. Stay consistent and stick to your program.

You’ll be well on your way to getting strong, living long and looking awesome. And just so you know, my current training program (and most of my previous ones) have only 6 exercises – squat, deadlift, chinups, presses , sprints and dips… and my transformation ain’t shabby!

Well. my job is done. It’s your turn now. Tell me what your top 4 exercises are in the comments section and of course, be nice and share the information on your Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc.

48 responses to “The Exercises That Count – What The Top Minds Say

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  2. Vishwa February 17, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Amazing Post! As usual! 3 weeks before I would’ve said Squats and DLs are not for me. Strange what 3 weeks can do! Once I overcame my fears, I’ve come to realize why they are king of all exercises! I cant stop myself from doing them now…Its amazing when you actually realize what human body is capable of!

  3. Soundarya February 17, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Awesome post as always Raj:) my favourite 4
    1. Deadlifts
    2. Squats
    3. Lunges
    4. Tri dips

    if i was also given a 5th it will be sprint:) and thanks to u i cld read this post without having to keep opening you tube links to see what the hell ur talking about:) awesome:)

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  5. Ken O'Neill February 18, 2011 at 7:11 am

    When asked what his favorite ten exercises were, John Grimek replied he was the product of 1,001 different exercises. For those too young or lacking in Iron Game literacy, Grimek was the major icon in strength and physique for Physical Culture between the 1930s-1960s. At age 85 he was observed doing three sets of 12 on the ass to grass full squat with a scant 355. When asked the same question, legendary Bill Pearl (see my review of his Legends of the Iron Game in March 2011 Iron Man Magazine) replied the important ones are the ten he dislikes most – they hold the secrets.
    Everyone has repeated the bane of the fitness industry – sagittal plane dominate movements excluding rotation or transverse plane of motion – the genesis of all sorts of imbalances and injuries, what I call iatrogenic training – only worsened by exclusive training with machines (exercise wheelchairs).
    Where’s the dumbbells? Where’s one arm moves? Splitting moves? Rotational moves like Turkish get ups – surely in Bill’s list of ten most disliked?
    BTW, I like BOSU squats as therapeutic for aging people well into the disability zone to re-establish balance and hip flexibility as part of overcoming sarcopenia.
    Chins are fine for smaller people, while more matured strength/bodyweight makes them somewhat challenging. I personally prefer bent rowing with barbells, dumbbells, etc. Variables such as relative bone lengths and the overall constellation of bone lengths renders chins difficult for some of us – starting with me. Once got serious with rowing, strict form and over 200 lbs for reps easily followed.

    Training 4-6 days weekly, surf the curve of varying intensities, rep & set schemes, changing movements each time. That’s worked well for me going on 53 years of training.

    • RG February 18, 2011 at 10:28 am

      Hello Ken,
      Thank you for stopping by and for the awesome comment. There isn’t much I disagree with in your comment.

      The point of the article was to help the general fitness enthusiast what moves he should be doing as a part of a successful training program. While everything you mentioned is true (especially dumbbell work which I can’t stress enough about), I don’t think you will disagree with me when I say most people at the gym spend more time in front of a mirror doing curls/isolation work than at the squat rack doing compound lifts. There is always more demand for 20-30 lbs dumbbells than there is for 100 lbs plates.

      What all these coaches (and I) say is ‘base the bulk of your training around big compound lifts’ and add in isolation work if necessary.

      And if someone, anyone, trains for 53 years I’m sure he/she will have to have tried more than the basic 5 compound exercises for sure! Thank you for your thoughts once again.

  6. Tom gillette February 18, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Look great I start some traing monday maybe we need to hook up.on a plan

  7. Mish February 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I would def add pelvic floor lifts. Nothing like working from the inside out 😉

  8. Kyle Del Bonis February 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve always believed in these basic compound exercises, and it’s all I do when I exercise, but it’s nice to see a round-up from experts like this to back it up with some pro firepower – well done, subscribed!

    One thing I’m big into lately, however, is Kettlebells. In particular, the two-handed kettlebell swing.

    I’ve been hearing about them on-and-off for years, and it makes sense – swinging around heavy free weights in manners that emulate the movements of these proven compound exercises SHOULD have amazing effects.

    But I never got around to buying one until I read Tim Ferri’s 4-Hour Body, and it’s definitely busting me through my body fat plateau that was at 14%, and the abs are ripping out.

    I would’ve liked to see what a kettlebell oriented celebrity fitness figure would say about their top 4 …

    • Duff February 18, 2011 at 5:12 pm

      I’m guessing they’d say:
      * swings
      * snatches
      * presses (or long cycle clean and jerk)
      * turkish get up

      …and if a 5th: windmills.

      Or at least those would be my 5 if I could only work out with KBs.

    • RG February 18, 2011 at 6:17 pm

      well… if a kettlebell is all you had… my 4 would be clean & press, turk getups, weighted chins and sprints. add in pushups as a 5th and youve got yourself strength, endurance and a great body (with a good diet of course).

  9. David Reagan February 18, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I’m a slacker! 57. Hate to exercise. The discipline of the daily mental & physical challenge of physical exertion sucks. I don’t like it. I had to find a way to exercise or train, that I enjoyed. One that I could and would do every day. 15 minutes minimum, 40 minutes maximum. Every day.
    Every day! 15 minutes minimum.
    (Hell, I spend 15 minutes a day on personal hygiene.)
    Since I’m getting older and lazier, physically feeling the result of youthful indiscretion, tend to look more & more for the most bang for my buck.
    I do calisthenics every day,…pushups, squats, crunches, neck bridge,…
    and,…I throw things. I swing things. I strike things. I break things.
    Rarely train for more than a half hour a day.
    And strictly limit heavy resistance training (a machine, dumbells, kettlebell, isometric,) because I do it heavy & hard, when I do it. Don’t want to do it at all. But, once or twice a week is all my physical recuperative powers and mental willingness allow.
    More and more, once a week. Usually the weekend.
    I’m just sayin”.

    Check out the new Timothy Ferriss book,…The 4 Hour Body.

    • RG February 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Pretty good book that. If you dig that kind of stuff, check out body by science. McGuff has some pretty awesome info out there.

  10. Fredrik Gyllensten February 19, 2011 at 5:40 am

    Great article, interesting to hear the though of all the great people 🙂

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  16. allie February 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Great read, thanks!!

  17. Mark J. Ryan February 22, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    You don’t give a damn about them?

    What a Narcissistic Dick…with no empathy for people with weight issues… or understanding of the psychology of change.

    You Metaphor of “fighting” is one of anger and force as opposed to power.
    Works good for short term…but is not sustainable over the long haul.
    This is coming from a slacker who once worked out as a “fight”.
    And has watched many others fall by the wayside by injuries.

    I am sure you are young and full of piss and vinegar…and will be tempered by age…as so many are.



    • RG February 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      Sure, this comments section isn’t moderated and you can say whatever the hell you want. But there is no need for personal insults.

      ‘Slackers’ here aren’t people with ‘weight issues’. Slackers here are people who try to find quick fixes/short cuts/magic bullets and are not willing to put in the work. I’m talking about people who look at infomercials and go ‘6 pack in 3 weeks?! I want that!’ or ‘Lose 15 lbs in 1 week! I’m buying that now!’.

      ‘Fighters’ are people who do what it takes to reach their goals. This ‘fight’ doesn’t mean beating the piss out of yourself at the gym every damn day. This ‘fight’ ranges from eating right to walking everyday to reducing lifestyle stressors to avoiding certain foods to whatever it is that is between the person and his goals.

      For a lot of people, the fight is the diet. For a lot of other people the fight is motivation. My job, as a trainer and coach, is to explain to my clients what they need to do (from sleeping more to eating better to drinking less to quitting smoking) in order to achieve their goals (which could be general well being or something as specific as I want to be able to run a 5k in 18 mins).

  18. thejsap February 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Excellent post! I’m an avid proponent of advanced bodyweight strength gymnastics style and love discovering like-minded people!

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  21. Carl-Philipp February 26, 2011 at 5:51 am

    That was nice to read! Thank you for thinking of that and putting it up, it fits in with my training and the theories I follow. For one year now I have done the 5×5 plan with squats, deadlifts, bench and weighted chinups. I do add some body weight exercises like l-seat, plank, handstands, and one I call the”Rollmops” you can check it out here.

    I enjoyed reading the article. Keep up the good work.

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  24. bee March 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

    pavel tsatsouline has just two – deadlift and press. check out his book “power to the people”. it’s free on scribd.

    i follow his deadlift regimen and am close to lifting twice my bodyweihgt after two months.

    • RG March 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm

      pavel is legit (of course!) and his stuff is amazing. if you dig his stuff the naked warrior is a good one too.

      btw – for whatever reason I’m not able to post comments on your blog post.

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  31. Adrian Hurley March 1, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Hi very interesting article. I am all for doing these core compound exercises and my routine is Bench Press, back Squat, Shoulder Press, Deadlift, Pull Ups and Lunges with weights. I try to do them in a circuit format. 4 sets x 10 reps each. Where my head gets fried is when I start reading different articles with different opinuons. My goal is fat burning and to get ‘lean and mean looking’ and I generally try todo this workout Mon Wed and Friday. But do I need to be chanfging the exercises if I am doing it this regularly, will I start to plateau? Is that overtraining? I also do a tabata workout of burbees or sprinting on the other days.

  32. Nickster March 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Trapbar deadlift/squat
    Clean and Press

    Nothing left to train but calves!

  33. anush March 19, 2012 at 8:40 am

    are you familiar with interval/turbulence training-craig ballantyne?

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  35. Emory May 10, 2012 at 12:51 am

    Deadlifts or Squats
    Clean and Press

    On my “easy” day (Wednesday) I’d do some of the kettlebell exercises that Milo Steinborn taught me when I went to his gym…Swings, cleans, halos, snatch. I’d keep the weight light since it’s not an intense workout day.
    Every couple of weeks I might switch up and use the heavy kettlebells on Mon and Friday and do the chins, dips, deadlifts and CP on Wednesday….using a fairly light amount of weight and not maxing out.
    Then again, I’m a geezer. I’m 62 and have to slow down a bit. The basic compound lifts have always worked for me though I did go through a phase of doing arm work and some isolation movements. Took too long and got boring so I went back to the basics.
    Use good form…lift heavy…go home.

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