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Essential Exercises?

Hi guys. What exercises do you think are the best starting point (for beginners or for someone guilty of exercise hopping like me, to get jacked?)

I was thinking about (training with HST: one exercise per muscle group):

-bench press
-bb rows
-pull ups
-bb curl
-bb squat
-donkey calf raise

How does this exercise selection look to you?

Typically, you’ll see folks recommend you hit each movement pattern, but you pick the specific exercise. This makes sure you’re covering your bases, but leaves room to work with equipment, injury history, goals, individual anthropometry, etc.

So, I’d say:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Push (some folks will say vertical and horizontal, but eh)
  • Pull (same as above about planes)
  • Bicep curl - come at me, bro

Edit: just saw we agree on curls and calves. Let’s retitle this thread to indicate it’s for geniuses only


Any other suggestions?
Since I can perform all of them safely i think i’ll stick with the basic BB variation of those movements for the moment then, as this will allow for a greater overload potential, and I’ll get very good at mastering them. Maybe i’d venture further with different movements after a year or two of milking them (unless i do feel any kind of pain, discomfort and so on)

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I think that’s a pretty solid plan.

Paul Kelso (RIP) put together what is, in my opinion, the best beginner training program/recommendation of exercises I’ve ever seen in Powerlifitng Basics Texas Style. I don’t want to re-create the whole thing here, as people should buy the book and read it, but as a quick summary (listed in order of preference for a trainee)

1: High bar squat, low bar squat, front squat, hip belt squat

2: Flat bench, incline or close grip bench, DB bench, parallel bar dip

3: Strict press to the front, behind the neck press, DB strict press, push press, jerk

4: High pulls from floor, power clean from floor, hang high pulls or cleans, standing high pulls with trap bar

5: Bent over rows or chins or pulldowns, one arm DB rows

6: Conventional deadlifts, SLDLs, trap bar lift or straight legged trap bar lift, partial deadlifts

7: Barbell curl, alternative arm hammer curl, reverse curls

8: Donkey calf raises, one-db calf raises, machine calf raises

9: Ab work (whatever you want)

10: Shrug variations (kelso shrugs or bench shrugs)

Stuart McRobert is a fan of such lists as well, and details stuff like this in Brawn and Beyond Brawn.


I think it looks like you’ve everything in place. I get bored doing the same variation over and over, but that’s as simple as switching grips/ stance, etc. Hammer away, good sir


It’s a matter of taste, I think. I like feeling like I’m in perfect control of the lift, and mastering it by practicing the same pattern over and over and over (even though i am guilty of spending too much time looking for the perfect magical exotic variation in the past hah)

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No singular lift is essential. You can ditch any exercise and still get big and strong.

However if a programme is missing any of these I tend to avoid it or at least understand why it / they are missing:

Back squat
Pull ups/one arm rows

The younger me would have said yes, but now the answer is an obvious no. There is just too much variation in both people’s bodies/injuries and their needs/wants that it’s not really meaningful to say a particular life is essential.

Now… if you want to have an overall physique and not just certain attributes, it’s certainly wise to include time tested, bread and butter lifts from the main movement categories listed above. Generally lifts that offer large amounts of progress can offer large amounts of results.

But if you like front squats more than back squats for whatever reason and you aren’t lifting to compete in he back squat? No one will know and they both do the same thing basically. Like sumo vs conventional dead? Ed coan didn’t seem held back by it.

This is why principles are better than programs.


Compound exercises. There are a million accessory options, but you need to have a base with some of these somehow. Some kind of squat and some kind of press at a minimum. Which one depends and it doesn’t hurt to mix things up, but if everything youi do is isolation work you are going to have trouble getting to where you are trying to go.

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For some reason, I still like pushups, especially rack pushups and varying the angle. I’m heavy so I have plenty of resistance.


@TrainForPain already mentioned you should focus on categories and I 100% agree. That said, the only exercise that I think 99% of the population should aim to be able to do is a chin-up or pull-up variation, simply because it’s an excellent way for you to monitor your body composition as you increase and decrease your body weight. Chin-ups (supinated), in particular, are also excellent at helping one maintain shoulder range of motion

Stuart McRobert set me on the path.

Everyone needs to read Brawn. It might be a little ‘out there’ however the message is powerful, especially for beginners


I am going to say some form of squat is essential - maybe not through out your entire life but definitely at points.

If you can’t lift something above your head, a friend or a machine can help - no issue, same with picking stuff off the floor.

But only squat variations guarantee you the ability to get off any toilet and that is a task you want to be able to do for yourself for as long as possible


Concur wholly. I remember the first time I read Brawn thinking how awesome a book it was and what great ideas it had, and then going to re-read it and not making it very far, haha. Super powerful first time read.


Agree, just harder to overload (weighted pushups are quite uncomfortable to add weight on) but I’d argue that otherwise they are a superior exercise to bench press since scapula is free to move

No one mentionned Lateral raise? For physique oriented goal it will be hard to argue against it (Dumbbel, cable, machine, i don’t care)

For the remaining, i agree with @TrainForPain but i would add leg curl variation for knee health.

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Incline Bench Press, instead of Bench Press.

Also Incline Hammer Strength.

Trust me, focus on those and start with those, neglect bench press, at least not as first exercise, and youll see the siginificant improvement in chest aesthetics, if you want that full godlike chest, start with all inclines first.

100% this. A few people mentioned this but I remember first reading about it from @EyeDentist: lateral raises are probably the exercise that can single handedly create the biggest visual impact on a physique.

Also, as per the leg curl, I’ll add that there’s evidence it doesn’t just help with knee health but it’s also really good for hypertrophy. I read this from John Meadows: basically one of the two heads of the hamstring muscles doesn’t cross the hip, only the knee, hence it wouldn’t be trained by just doing hinge variations and requires a knee flexion movement to be fully stimulated.

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