This is a piece I’ve wanted to put out for a long time. I’ve been thinking and studying around the topic for quite a while. You’re going to be getting my opinion on the 5 best resistance exercises for the ever-evolving athletic human.
[Don’t care to read? Have a listen! Also available on all the major podcast platforms!]
First I would like to qualify my position and describe how I came to it. While I’m absolutely going to be offering my opinion, I must say that the suggestions I’m going to make hold a fair amount of weight (of course the pun is intended). My opinion is supported by good science in biomechanics, exercise physiology, and physical therapy. It’s also bolstered by my experience of 4 decades working with thousands of people utilizing 3 degrees and multiple certifications. I’m coming at this with great sincerity and no bullshit.
In laying all this out, I’m going to initially describe some of the considerations in making a “top-5 list.” Then I’ll present each exercise and discuss the reasons for its selection, along with some “runner-ups” or alternatives where indicated.
When I look at my model for helping people to become Hard to Kill and athletic for life, I’m thinking about developing and expressing the 5 Capacities of Athleticism (or human performance). Those are strength (and hypertrophy), speed, power (aerobic and anaerobic), agility, and endurance (cardiorespiratory and muscular). Same stuff I talk about all the time. Good stuff. Great stuff. However, even though there is always crossover between exercise modes, resistance training doesn’t have to develop all those things to the same degree, or even at all.
What we are targeting with resistance training is primarily strength, muscular hypertrophy, connective tissue durability, and movement pattern competency. I’ll list out a couple quick bullets depicting how resistance training enhances each of those qualities.
- Strength is maximum force production capacity. The concept of “how strong is strong enough” – for one’s age, gender, sport, and body type – comes to mind. But the inarguable point is that we need to be somewhat strong in the appropriate sense.
- Muscular hypertrophy is muscle development, or an increase in cross-sectional diameter of muscle fibers. We all need some muscle. The debate over how much can rage on, but having muscle for both performance and longevity is evidence-based and undeniable. This also holds true for bone and organ density.
- Connective tissues, like tendons, ligaments, fascia, and even skin…need to be supple, elastic, and strong. Practically all forms of training can have an effect here, but resistance training is particularly effective.
- Working out is movement practice, and that’s a skill and art form which benefits from regular honing. Many of the patterns we use in daily, functional life are enhanced and maintained by resistance training.
I’m certain you already know all of those things but I wanted to address what this list is generally going after. Today’s edition is only going to look at the exercises themselves, and not the endless possibilities of training programs in which they might exist. These exercises are not the only thing you should do in your training, they are just the 5 best ones (again, in my opinion) that you may want to consider. And of course, everybody has unique constraints and issues which may warrant modification. For our purposes today, let’s just assume you can access and perform each exercise.
When I use the term Lifetime Athlete, I’m thinking of anyone who is moving through the lifespan and wants to max out performance and functionality, but who also needs to be safe and intelligent in that approach. With this in mind, each exercise needs to be “joint-friendly” (which many are not), and relatively easy to learn and perform. It also needs to provide a huge bang for your buck, or return on your training investment.
One of the standard approaches to exercise program design is to incorporate the Big 7 exercise patterns. These are squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, rotate, and locomote. Basic and solid. Obviously, you can also start to add in triplanar, unilateral, asymmetric, isometric, explosive, and lots of other characteristics. We’re not going to try to do everything with our Top 5, because we can address our comprehensive set of goals in our total program design. So we don’t have to make these resistance exercises do everything…just the “mostest and bestest.”
We are going to hit every single one of the Big 7 with our Top 5. If you think about the math for a second and say “wait a minute…that doesn’t add up” you’d be right. On the surface. But there is some combo/crossover mojo in all this mixology. Every exercise in the list is valuable, so even though I’m going to present them in a specific order, they are all of equal importance. My objective is to give you the best choices and the rationale. Here we go.
Trap Bar Deadlift: The trap, or hex, bar is a phenomenal piece of equipment and it honestly has no parallel. This is the one exercise where we can (relatively) safely put a significant amount of loading into the body. It is extremely functional in that it mimics how we actually pick up a lot of things off the ground. The real beauty of the trap bar is that it allows for a “squatty” hinge. I often call it the SquedLift because you can hybridize your squat and hinge pattern to spread the load across the anterior and posterior kinetic chains. You get the best of all worlds. You don’t have the technique challenges and potentially excessive spinal loading often experienced with a straight bar deadlift or a back squat. Just a reminder here, there is a place for those exercises and I both perform them personally and use them with many clients. So I’m not saying any exercise is bad. It’s all about context. For most folks, the trap bar deadlift is best.
In addition to the lower extremity benefits, you also get a lot of grip, upper body, and core strength with this movement. It’s just so super functional. Helps with explosive acceleration and countermovement jumping ability, but it also prepares anyone to pick up a laundry basket, a sack of mulch or pet food, or building materials.
Coming in at a close second to the trap bar is doing this exercise using heavy kettlebells or dumbbells off blocks. This works almost equally well, although the rigidity of the trap bar is superior for obvious reasons. When clients do not own or have access to any of this equipment, we pursue a few other options. For around 20 bucks, a couple of cinder blocks (to stand on) and two 5-gallon buckets of gravel work fairly well. Or stepping on a very heavy resistance band and grabbing the ends with both hands can work. The main thing is to train the squedlift pattern.
Some folks might say that the Romanian Deadlift is an option but I’ll disagree. That’s a great exercise but it’s very hamstring-intensive, not as easy to load heavy and perform well, and it doesn’t work the squatty hinge functionality.
The darling of the fitness community currently is probably the kettlebell swing. I like this exercise and use it quite a bit, but it is simply (in my honest and humble opinion) not nearly as good as the trap bar. The swing requires a bit of a learning curve to master and even though I like ballistic movements in training programs, the traditional swing emphasizes mainly a hinge pattern. There is a variation known as the Freedom or American swing in which one can squat into it a bit deeper and drive the arms higher, but we can’t get the overall loading effect into the skeleton as well as the trap bar and the overhead motion can compromise some people’s shoulders. Likewise, I do bristle on occasion when I see a 25 or 30 year old fitness influencer doing KB swings with a forceful knee hyperextension, slamming the knee into an end-range, ligament and cartilage risky position. Doesn’t matter how pretty or handsome they are. You can trust my expertise here.
Landmine Press: This is the ultimate pushing exercise! Let’s discuss what it is, how to set it up, and why it’s so ideal. A landmine apparatus is a simple device that allows you to anchor one end of an Olympic barbell (unloaded) into an implement that rotates. Then you load plates onto the distal end with which to perform exercises in an arcing motion.
While there are many variations of the landmine press, such as standing, kneeling, unilateral and bilateral, I recommend the standing two-hand method which uses a partial squat as well as some rotation. By using two hands with one being primary and the other assisting, you can minimize joint stress to the shoulder while also handling slightly more load. The pushing hand is the same as the back foot in your asymmetrical or staggered stance. The other hand assists with steering the barbell more than pushing. That little bit of squat, or push press technique, allows this to be a great, full-body, compound lift.
Because the landmine press starts out with the bar moving in a vertical orientation, and then progresses to a more horizontal finishing position, you can capture much of the multiplanar pushing capacity in the upper extremity without excessive overhead challenge. If you study ancestral biology, human evolution, and anatomy, you’ll immediately recognize that the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. Being mobile means that it doesn’t have a ton of inherent passive stability. It gets that stability from muscular stabilization from not only the rotator cuff but about 20 muscles operating across the shoulder girdle. We actually have not walked on our hands for several million years, and it’s that dynamic shoulder function that allows us to wield tools and weapons, and throw…like no other creature.
We need to be able to own range and create stability within the shoulder complex at every point in space where possible. The landmine press is unique because it is sort of a hybrid between a closed kinetic chain (body moving about a fixed hand and causing increased potential for compression and shear force in the shoulder) and an open kinetic chain (hand moving freely in space and increasing dynamic stability demands). In general, pushing exercises can potentially be more problematic for the shoulder than pulling movements. Consequently, we can use the landmine press to train the shoulder (and upper extremity/body) in a very effective manner while simultaneously minimizing risks to this rather sensitive joint.
You can be creative if you don’t have an Olympic bar and a landmine apparatus. Here’s one option I got from a client. Let’s say you have a smaller barbell (you know…the old school home sets with 1” diameter bars and plate holes). Unload one end and stuff it into an old boot. Stick that in the corner of the garage and lift away. You may need to put that boot up on a box, bench, or stool (just make sure it’s safe) to allow for adequate range of motion with the shorter bar. In a pinch, you can also go to half-kneeling on padding and jam a pipe or dowel in the corner (probably with boot again). Then attach an exercise band to the top (hold onto it for safety) and anchor it low behind you. Works pretty good.
A decent runner-up here is the good old pushup. Interestingly, even though it’s usually done with bodyweight it still puts a little more compressive force into the shoulder joint. And this is more so if you use a weight vest or elevate the feet. However, exploring ideal hand placement (hands under shoulders), and progressing slowly (from knees to feet, gradually adding reps, etc.) pushups are a very good exercise. A pro tip is to experiment with a subtle corkscrew motion in which you keep hands fixed on the floor but slightly externally rotate the arms as you go down, and then internally rotate as you press up.
Bench presses, incline presses, and overhead presses do work most of the time, for most people, but we could say they are a little less functional and full-body in most cases, along with having a bit more potential for injury, especially in the aging athlete trying to go heavy. Pundits will also discuss barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, machines, cables, and bands…and these variations usually allow almost anyone to perform a variety of pressing movements. They just don’t quite measure up to the landmine press for Lifetime Athletes.
Unilateral Pulldown: This exercise does two great things for Lifetime Athletes. It allows you to work virtually all of the pulling musculature in the upper body and it helps you to maintain access to overhead or near-vertical range of motion. Let’s break this down by describing the exercise and its virtues.
This movement is performed from a sitting or half-kneeling position, using an overhead cable handle or elastic band. I recommend sitting in a manner that has the body turned 30-45 degrees away from the overhead hand. For example, if you are pulling down with your left hand, your chest and knees would be facing partially to the right. This allows for an “up and out, down and in” motion to occur. A slightly backward leaning torso creates an elevated position of the arm that takes away some of the end-range demands on the shoulder. The pulldown is mainly up and down, but it also has a small amount of medial-lateral and rotary motion, which makes it truly triplanar. With lighter resistance, you can reach or stretch into the motion (even though it is a “pull”). Heavier loads necessitate keeping the shoulder “packed.”
Just like with the landmine press, performing this pulldown 1 arm at a time allows us to explore the strength curve of the exercise. We can alter the emphasis on training muscle (such as lats, rhomboids, or biceps depending on motion and position) versus compound movement pattern (more about total strength than isolating a specific muscle). It’s versatile.
Because we can almost infinitely adjust body position and arm path, this exercise allows us to “fish” for the most comfortable and effective groove of the movement. Many people (myself included these days) lack either mobility, stability, or motor control at the end ranges of shoulder elevation. This is usually more of an issue with pushing/pressing motions than pulling movements, which is why we are using the landmine press in that capacity. The beauty of the unilateral pulldown lies in those degrees of freedom. You can work at an elevation angle anywhere from 150-180 degrees and safely train and maintain access to your overhead motion.
Bilateral (using both arms on a bar or handle) pulldowns and pullups are great exercises, but they don’t measure up quite as well as the unilateral pulldown. Pulldowns on cable and similar machines are an excellent training tool, and they can certainly be modified regarding load or “lean-back.” But they don’t allow for that triplanar “barber pole” winding which is both natural and essential (for optimal force production as well as long term health) in the upper extremity. Pullups and chinups are awesome bodyweight (or less with assistance) lifts, but their strength and technique demands are very high. This makes them not always readily accessible to all of our population. And because they also are not really triplanar, they can be tough on the shoulder joint for many people. Remember, almost every exercise can have great utility, but if you are asking me the one best upper body pulling movement…it’s the unilateral pulldown.
Walking Lunge: These exercise selections stem from three areas. The first two are my observations/opinions and human performance/biomechanics research. The third one is client questions. Mainly it’s one simple question asked a few different ways: “What’s the most functional exercise for____(insert any condition or goal) or what’s the best exercise for ME?”
I really, really like the walking lunge for every Lifetime Athlete. Olympic/pro level to absolute beginner and everyone in between. Natural gait pattern. Infinitely modifiable. Can be performed with partial range and bodyweight only. Can also be loaded up in a variety of manners. We can adjust body position to emphasize hips and glutes versus knees and quads. Easy to learn. And that’s just the short list.
The walking lunge captures locomotive capacity while it develops great functional strength, balance, and body control/awareness. As long as you progress slowly, it’s likely that you won’t get hurt doing this movement. But you have to progress slowly if you don’t want to get sore, because you can light up your butt and legs big time if you are overly aggressive or optimistic.
We can use the walking lunge to help athletes appreciate the stance phases of gait and to access expansion properties as well as pronation and propulsive mechanics. Want more glutes? Use a weighted backpack or a barbell across your shoulders and pressure the heel as you use a hinge to lean the trunk forward (with a flat back). This creates a greater hip flexion angle and more glute recruitment. Need quads? Hold a kettlebell or sandbag in front, or dumbbells at your sides and load the forefoot (but keep foot flat) as you drive the knee forward past the toes with an upright torso.
There are a lot of alternatives to the walking lunge which use variations of the movement pattern. Lunging back and forth in one place, stepping forward, backward, or laterally. Split stance squats with options to elevate front or rear foot. Step-ups (or controlled lowers) using a bench or box. These and others are all outstanding exercises but the walking lunge gets my vote as numero uno.
Suitcase Carry: Also known as a loaded unilateral carry with the weight held low by your side, the suitcase carry does a lot for a human. It works grip strength, balance, and fatigue resistance while at the same time being one of the best frontal plane anti-rotational trunk exercises on the planet. Because you only hold the weight on one side, the stabilizing demands can be quite profound with even a moderate amount of weight.
Setting up the suitcase carry couldn’t be easier. Grab a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell and have at it. Or use that bucket of gravel we talked about earlier. You can even use a suitcase (thus the name), briefcase, or gymbag filled with books or anything hefty you can find. You can walk for distance or time, and if you are indoors in a small space you can walk in circles (don’t get dizzy) or march in place. It’s all good.
Grip strength is strongly correlated with longevity. This isn’t to say that squeezing a hand gripper is going to extend your life. It’s more an association that active, strong people tend to be healthier and live longer than lazy weaklings (just sayin’). Picking up and carrying “stuff” throughout the day, and being able to do it well, is key for long term functionality but it’s also great conditioning for any Lifetime Athlete. I’ve known a lot of one-dimensional athletes who could ride a bike or jog all day, or contort the hell out of themselves in yoga…who blew out their back or totally f**cked themselves up trying to move furniture in their house. Gotta train for life. Don’t shoot the messenger. Do your suitcase carries and make those grocery bags quiver with fear when they see you coming.
So there’s my top 5 list of resistance exercises for Lifetime Athletes. The criteria that I applied to my list emphasized a blend of ease of use/access, effectiveness, and relative safety. I feel like those 5 exercises fit the bill quite appropriately. While it’s certainly possible that I could change my mind and modify or replace one of these movements, for now I think it’s a pretty solid list. Please keep in mind that I’m not suggesting these should be the only exercises you ever perform. Not by a long stretch. But they should be go-to moves that are in your program at least some of the year. Resistance training should be present in our conditioning systems almost all the time, but the volume and intensity should naturally go up and down throughout the year in accordance with seasons and goals.
To close this one up, I’ve got something to share and something to ask. In the near future, I’ll be incorporating these exercises, along with several other modes of training, into The Ultimate Anti-Aging Workout. That’s been a work in progress for several years and I’m ready to unveil the nuts and bolts of the session as well as the wizardry (maybe) behind it. Stay tuned. And…if you are so inclined, I’d like to know what you thought of this Top 5 list and if you have a different exercise (or 4 more) that you prefer and use successfully. Plus, any questions or comments that you may have are always welcome. Thanks for joining me and see ya soon!