5 Exercises Every Strength Training Workout Must Have

If you’re starting a strength training program for the first time it can get overwhelming with the amount of information out there on body part split programs, specific body part focused workouts, and best exercises for weight loss and toning for women.

When creating a long term habit of strength training you want to start off with a simple program that you can stick to that is not too complex or time intensive. If you want to design your own full body strength program without having to spend hours at the gym I will outline what are the five essential types of exercises your program needs to be complete.

Focus On Compound Movements

Most body part split workouts include accessory exercises that recruit smaller muscles and involve only a single joint at a time. When you’re training 3-5 times a week you have the time to devote to training those smaller muscles multiple times. But if you’re short on time and have a hectic week then your focus should be on free weight exercises that are compound movements which engage large muscles that involve multiple joints while activating synergistic muscles at the same time.

Not only do compound movements offer the biggest bang for your time but they are fundamental movements that you perform every day.

When you are activating large muscles in your workouts you experience a bigger caloric burn because it involves whole body stabilization which will spur on muscle growth. As a result your body’s physical appearance will start changing as you put on lean muscle mass and burn fat.

Fundamental Movement #1 – Knee Dominant Exercise

I call squats and lunges knee dominant exercises because there so many different variations of this type of leg exercise including the bilateral and unilateral forms. It’s classified as knee dominant because it involves more of a knee bend than a hip bend.

A prime example of a knee domain exercise is barbell squats.

There is a reason why everyone says the squat is king. It not only activates muscles in your quad, hamstrings, and glutes but it works on your adductors, abductors, abdominals, and lower back. It’s not just a leg exercise but an overall entire body exercise that strengthens your core.

For some barbell squats are intimidating especially to beginners but as I mentioned earlier there are many variations that will work the same muscles. Add in different types of equipment dumbbells, kettebells, and even your own bodyweight, and you have an endless variety.

Below are examples of knee dominant exercises,

Zercher squats – Instead of positioning the barbell on your back you hold the barbell in the crook of your arm. This is a great variation that will increase quad and glute activation as well as fire up your anterior core.

Goblet squats – Hold the dumbbell on one end like a ‘goblet’ in front and make sure it’s in contact with your collarbone and sternum. This is a great beginner exercise that will turn on the core and upper body stabilizers. It will also clean up your squat patterns as well.

Fundamental Movement #2 – Hip Dominant Exercise

As you can guess this type of exercise has more of a deep hip bend with minimal knee bending component instead of a knee bend component.

It’s a posterior chain or backside focused movement that opens up hamstring flexibility and builds a better butt. Like knee dominant exercises it’s a full body exercise that builds muscle in your entire back, glutes and hamstrings.

This is a powerful movement that once mastered and performed correctly is the key to serious fat loss, generating explosive power, and improves athletic ability. Think of kettlebell swings, this is the exact same movement pattern.

Again, there are numerous exercise variations that will fall under hip dominant besides the standard barbell deadlift.

Listed below are some fun variations to try out,

Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift – Take a squat stance with toes pointing straight ahead. Bend at the hips with your back straight, butt going straight back, and chest up. Grab the kettlebell while squeezing your lats and low traps to pick it up.

Stiff Leg Deadlifts – Take a pair of dumbbells and while keeping your knees stationary, bend at the hips to lower the dumbbells while keeping your back straight. You know you’re performing this movement correctly when you feel a big stretch on your hamstrings.

Fundamental Movement #3 – Upper Body Pull

One of the hallmarks of poor posture is the slumped position we take from spending endless hours sitting at our desk or being glued to our phones. As we get older the muscles in our back get weaker and we start to lose the strength to hold ourselves upright which is why you see most of the elderly tend to have a hunched over position.

We literally are losing muscle mass as we get older which is why the back muscles are one of the most important muscles to train and a muscle we should train twice as much as the mirror muscles or chest muscles.

Below are examples of upper body pull version exercises,

Chin ups and pull ups – These are great exercises that teach you how to train for and maintain full body tension. Grab the bar shoulder width apart with either an overhand or underhand grip. Pull your shoulder blades down and back, focusing on the pulling the bar down rather than pulling yourself up. Remember to keep your glutes clenched and abs engaged and tight during the entire movement.

Barbell inverted row – Starting with the same shoulder width overhand grip on the barbell, lie on the floor with your body under the barbell. Squeezing your glutes and abs, maintain a straight line from head to toe as you pull yourself up until the bar touches your chest. Lower your body back down in a controlled motion.

Fundamental Movement #4 – Upper Body Push

This movement pattern is so popular that every Monday is dedicated to chest day and benching. While the push movement is important it tends to be over executed in gyms. There are two planes of motion that are covered under the push pattern, horizontal and vertical.

Below is an example exercise covering each plane.

Push ups – starting on the ground your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder width and your feet in a comfortable position. Your hands should be at an angle that is comfortable for your wrist. Maintaining a rigid torso position, push your body up as one unit as you straighten your arms at the top of a push up position.

Military press standing with barbell – with the feet shoulder width apart, grip the bar at a width as if you were preparing to do a bench press position. Keeping a neutral back, tilt your head back slightly while maintaining a neutral neck as you push the bar overhead. Shift the torso forward as you simultaneously squeeze the glutes to lock out at the top position.

Fundamental Movement #5 – Loaded Carries

Loaded carries are great for developing core stability and teaching your body to brace itself. It develops hip stability, core strength, and grip strength which is essential to perform all kinds of strength movements. Nothing is more functional than carrying a heavy load for distance.

Suitcase carries – This where you pick up one dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand. This imbalance forces you to work harder to straighten up as you walk with the load.

Farmer carries – Pick up a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell with both hands as you walk as far as you can.


Incorporating one exercise from each fundamental movement (knee dominant, hip dominant, upper pull, upper push, loaded carry) will ensure that you have a well-rounded training program that covers all the basic human movements.

If want to be able to lift for the rest of your life without aches and pain focus on training the fundamental movement patterns instead of focusing on specific exercises. Not only will you get strong and reach your physique goals but you will prevent injuries that will side line you for weeks at a time.