We brought together 12 fitness experts from a broad range of backgrounds–with bodies of experience ranging from weightlifting to track and field to mixed martial arts, and over two centuries of collective coaching experience–to ask them all the same question:
If you could only perform five exercise movements for the rest of your life, which five would you do? (Assuming your goals are general health, fitness and longevity, and not a specialized sport)*.
*If your goal is to be a high-level competitive exerciser, your goal is not health, fitness and longevity – it’s sport-specific performance. That’s okay, but don’t be confused. Keith Norris does a nice piece on health vs performance, if you’re interested.
We’ve spent some time analyzing the responses, and we’re going to share some of our observations and thoughts on this collection of opinions. Note that we’re using the word “opinions,” not “truth,” or “fact,” or any other hubris-soaked descriptor. There is no “right” way to answer our question. Each person has their own experience to draw from, and that experience will impact their selections. That being said, we think there is much to be learned from collective experience, and Smart People take notes when veteran coaches share insights like this.
Let’s take a peek at some of the things we noticed about this list of exercises.
Five Movements, Summarized
- All of the exercises selected are multi-joint (compound) exercises. As in 100%. No single-joint exercise belongs on a list like this. If you’re doing lots of curls or lateral raises or leg extensions or tricep press-downs, your training currency would be better spent elsewhere.
- The vast majority of the exercises are ground-based, either with feet flat on the ground, or with some sort of transition between body-on-the-ground and standing positions (i.e. Turkish getup). There are no contrived, machine-based movements. The real world happens with objects in unrestricted planes of motion, and so should your training. The only “resistance” you need is your body and something heavy to pick up or carry.
- There is a significant emphasis on movements that are “big, strong” movements. Whether explosive (fast) or “grind” (slow) movements, there’s a lot of weight moving – even if that weight is “just” your bodyweight. Ever done multiple sets of unweighted squats or strict pullups to failure? A training effect is still present, despite the fact that there is no external load applied. For long-term health, building and maintaining strength must be a central feature of your program. Clif Harski lays out an excellent sample week of programming using these movements here.
- Locomotion was a common response. We are bipedal creatures, and training the reciprocal patterns of walking, running, lunging, stepping, and crawling, strongly echoes the three-dimensional ways that we move in the “real world”. Stabilizing our trunk while shifting and supporting weight is not only beneficial, it’s fundamentally human. We learn it as infants, but far too many of us lose that ability in adulthood. Get it back. Side note: Our experience with the Airdyne, which uses an arm-and-leg reciprocal pattern, suggests that trunk stability has a major impact on power output. Trunk strength matters, especially if you’ve got a pair (or two) of appendages flailing about at high velocity.
- Squatting is not the end-all-be-all. Sure, we have to squat to be able to stand from a chair, but little else occurs where our feet are symmetrical and neatly spaced outside of hip width. Gardening, all field and court sports, moving furniture, and wrestling all share the staggered stance position where stabilizing the body’s mass on top of a narrow or unilateral base of support is critical. Every coach we polled who chose squatting at one of their five movements also chose a movement with a unilateral stance component (lunging, step-ups, Turkish getup, etc.). If you’re squatting all the time but under-utilizing single-leg or staggered-stance movements, you’re making a mistake. (Clif comments on this in his post about our 5 Movements series.)
- We found it fascinating that an Olympic weightlifting coach (Greg Everett) did not include a single explosive movement in his list. If that doesn’t illustrate the priority of building full-body strength with basic movements, we don’t know what does.
- Almost everyone included putting weight overhead: press, clean & jerk, overhead squat, etc. If you aren’t putting heavy things overhead on a regular basis, your program should change. If you don’t know how to press with proper technique, find a good coach and learn. (We don’t want any cranial fractures.) Mark Rippetoe’s classic volume, Starting Strength, is a good option if you don’t have access to a local coach. You don’t have to go to a fancy gym to do this; at home, you can use water jugs, bricks, kettlebells, or inexpensive dumbbells.
- Almost everyone included a pulling movement (a pull-up or row variation), and no one mentioned kipping. We’d be shocked if any of these coaches recommended kipping pullups as their primary pulling movement. (We’ll republish Melissa’s post on prioritizing dead-hang, strict pull-ups soon.) Build true strength through appropriate scaling, not by manipulating physics to “clear the bar.” If you can do weighted pull-ups, doing them fast if the real-world demands it would be no problem. And don’t give us that foolishness about kipping over a fence or up into a tree.
- Note that one of our experts selected both swimming and walking. That would be Eva T, a legendary athlete and coach – as well as a recent inductee into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. We believe the training and therapeutic value of both of those movements is under-rated. They might not sound very bad-ass, but Eva knows a thing or two about creating and maintaining excellent health and longevity. Perpetually chasing performance is not the same as creating excellent health. Don’t be afraid to slow down, especially if you’re All Banged Up.
- One of Greg Everett’s comments struck us as poignant: “With a foundation built on excellent execution of these movements, an individual would be capable of performing nearly any other movement imaginable with little instruction or practice.” Did you get that? Learn these movements, and train them often–and you will be able to readily transfer the physical capacity you have built to most other applications.
Those are some of the things that we gleaned from these experts’ responses. What struck you about the experts’ choices? What, if anything, will you change about your own training program based on their perspectives? Comments, questions and observations are always welcome.