I can’t think of a question that comes up more in Strength & Conditioning interviews than, “If you could only do one lift, what would it be?” Most of my colleagues absolutely loathe this question, believing it to be absurd since nobody is ever in a position where they can only do one exercise for the rest of their lives. I, however, happen to love these types of questions. Taking the time to ponder this question helps coaches ponder the efficacy (capacity or power to produce a desired effect) and efficiency (the ratio of the output to the input of any system) of an exercise (or combination of exercises if more than one exercise is allowed).

In today’s article, I’d like to expand on this question and answer what exercise(s) I’d employ if I could only perform/prescribe one, three, and ten exercises. Before I continue, I should mention my criteria. Many individuals answer this question by listing their favorite exercise (or exercises in the case of 3 or 10 lifts), without putting any thought into it. For example, I’m a huge fan of the hip thrust, as most of my readers know, but I wouldn’t include it in my programming if only one to three exercises were allowed, as you’ll see below. Only when greater than 3 lifts are allowed does the hip thrust come into play in my opinion. When answering this question, I considered the exercise or combination of exercises’ capacity for building total body muscle and increasing functional strength and power.

If the question was rephrased as to If you could only prescribe one exercise to make the most difference in a woman’s physique,” then I would indeed go with the barbell hip thrust, hands down. However, for this blogpost, I considered functional adaptations and total body muscle and aimed the article toward males and females.

P1010195

If I Could Only Perform/Prescribe One Exercise…

My choice would be the low handle trap bar deadlift.

Rationale: The trap bar deadlift is a mixture between a squat and a deadlift. It utilizes more quad than a typical deadlift and more ham than a typical squat. For this reason, renowned strength training author Stuart McRobert mentioned that it should be called a squat-lift.

Simply put, the trap bar deadlift will build the quads, hams, glutes, erectors, lats, traps, and grip musculature and build a ton of functional strength and power. The only drawback is that it wouldn’t build upper body pushing strength, but as far as one lift is concerned, it’ll do more than any other exercise would for building total body muscle and creating favorable adaptations for increased athletic capacity.

Runners-up: I considered the clean & jerk, but that’s really two lifts, not one. I considered the snatch, but it’s such a technical lift that doesn’t work well with every body type. I also considered the heavy sled push, but it lacks an eccentric component and isn’t a standard strength training movement. Some coaches like the Turkish get up, but it’s highly technical as well. Therefore, these exercises didn’t quite make the cut.

trap bar dl

If I Could Only Perform/Prescribe Three Exercises…

My choices would be the:

1. high bar back squat (as deep as possible while keeping good spinal position)

2. conventional deadlift

3. powerlifting-style bench press

Rationale: The squat, bench press, and deadlift are the three powerlifts for good reason – they work the vast majority of the body’s musculature and do a fairly good job of representing an individual’s strength level. I like the high bar squat to ensure optimal quad strengthening, the conventional deadlift to ensure optimal hamstring strengthening, and the powerlifting style bench press to strengthen the shoulders and tri’s along with the pecs.

Runners-up: Front squats, stiff leg deadlifts, push presses, close grip bench presses, bent over rows, power cleans, and hip thrusts were considered, as they’re all incredible exercises. But ultimately, they didn’t make the cut simply because I felt the three I chose provided the absolute best combination.

molly

If I Could Only Perform/Prescribe Ten Exercises…

My choices would be:

1. high bar back squat

2. conventional deadlift

3. barbell hip thrust

4. powerlifting-style bench press

5. military press

6. weighted neutral grip pull-up

7. trap bar bent over row

8. barbell curl

9. ab wheel rollout

10. farmer’s walk

Rationale: Squats will build the quads, erectors, glutes, hip extension strength in a flexed-position, and jumping power. Deadlifts will build the hamstrings, erectors, glutes, quads, and hip extension strength in a flexed-position. Hip thrusts will maximize glute strength and power while building horizontal force production capabilities and speed. Bench presses and military presses will build the pecs, delts, and triceps while ensuring sound levels of upper body pressing strength. Neutral grip pull-ups and trap bar bent over rows will build the lats, traps, and rhomboids while ensuring sound levels of upper body pulling strength. Barbell curls will build the biceps and increase functional strength. Ab wheel rollouts will strengthen the abs/obliques and increase core stability. Farmer’s walks will build the grip and increase functional strength. Together, these ten lifts will work towards optimizing an individual’s musculature and athletic capacity.

Runners-up: So many lifts were considered for this list, including Bulgarian split squats, single leg hip thrusts, single leg RDL’s with brace, trap bar deadlifts, front squats, box squats, Zercher squats, good mornings, stiff leg deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, rack pulls, snatch grip deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, barbell glute bridges, walking lunges, back extensions, glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, power cleans, hang cleans, heavy kettlebell swings, heavy sled pushes, one arm power snatches, snatches, cleans, trap bar jump squats, jerks, push presses, incline presses, close-grip bench presses, weighted push-ups, weighted dips, dumbbell incline presses, floor presses, chest supported rows, inverted rows, one arm dumbbell rows, Pallof presses, and more. But my choices were made to the best of my knowledge, and I went with the ten listed above.

female-bench-press

Conclusion

Though these questions are fun to ponder, the correct answers would require such extensive research that it isn’t realistic to expect any insight from the literature any time soon. With so many excellent exercises out there, one could make a strong case for a myriad of selections. And since individuals vary in anatomy & physiology, the right answer is ultimately unique to the lifter in question. I tried to remove personal bias from the formula and be as objective as possible, but at the end of the day, the powerlifters are going to prioritize the powerlifts, the weightlifters are going to prioritize the Olympic lifts, and the kettlebell crowd will prioritize kettlebell exercises. One could rightfully argue that I should have included a single leg exercise in my list of ten, in which case I’d see their point. I considered the fact that the Pallof press might be a better choice than the ab wheel rollout for total core strengthening as it heavily involves the glutes and acts in the rotational vector, however the ab wheel rollout trumps every single abdominal exercise in rectus abdominis and external and internal oblique activity. As you can see, there are many aspects to the decision-making for these questions! Now it’s your turn – what would your optimal one, three, and ten exercise combinations be?

Farmers-Walk

61 Comments

  • Guest says:

    What is a single leg rdl with brace? Thanks.

  • Matt P. says:

    Awesome — funny you mention it, I actually did the low handle trap bar deadlift today as my main lift…

    Love these types of questions too because they really make you think about your training philosophy. Nice twist on adding the 1-3-10 list…specific criteria really does effect the response to the question.

  • Marcin Szczyglowski says:

    Great article Bret!
    I was wondering what your rational was behind not including a unilateral lower body movement in your top 10? As well as why you may have chose a trap bar row as opposed to taking advantage of the rotary stability component of a dumbbell row?
    Really appreciate all your articles and all the knowledge you’re putting out!
    Marcin

    • Bret says:

      Great questions Marcin. I suppose I’m more of a “bilateral guy” by preference, though I’ve done a ton of unilateral work in my own training and with clients over the years and can attest to their efficacy (and in many cases, their supremacy depending on the body type). I love front loaded reverse lunges, Bulgarian split squats, walking barbell lunges, high step ups, single leg RDLs with brace, single leg hip thrusts with a pause, and prisoner single leg back extensions. However, I felt that I covered my bases with the squat/dl/hip thrust combo, and adding in a single leg exercise would require me to take out an exercise. Again, I’d have no problem with any coach putting in one or two single leg movements into their top ten. As for the one arm row, good question as well. I suppose that I like the trap bar bent over row for transfer to deadlifting – I teach it in a way where the set-up is nearly identical to the dl set-up and you have to hold that position. You end up getting a huge hamstring and erector workout along with the upper back when you do them that way. That said, one could argue that it’s redundant given the deadlifts, and that time would be better served with the one arm row. Lots of great combinations would be possible!!! Cheers, BC

  • Jake Long says:

    Definitely the most thorough and well thought out answer that I’ve seen for that question. Personally, I tend to go for an answer that is somewhere in between my favorite exercises, and which are most beneficial. I like the clean and push press for one exercise, but I guess that would count as two exercises like the clean and jerk. The exercises listed are all great, I’m just not so sure about the 3. Not enough upper back, and shoulder work. I would probably go with the trap bar dead lift, military press, and pull-ups. I’m just grateful that we don’t have to keep it to 3.

    • Bret says:

      Haha! Good call – glad we don’t have to stick to 3. One thing that amazed me when testing EMG is the incredible back muscle activation with deadlifts. They fry the lats, entire traps, etc. along with the erectors. I’ve omitted direct lat/back training for a couple months and my strength didn’t diminish as long as I was deadlifting (and I lose strength very rapidly compared to most). So trust me, upper back strength is very important to me too, it’s just that I think you get a ton of it through deadlifting alone. Great comment!

  • I get that question ALL the time. I had to ponder a similar question for an article I’m writing but, I get to choose five exercises. I think I would also recommend the trap bar deadlift considering the overall amount of muscle involvement and anabolic effect. Although, even though it’s not a conventional strength exercise and it could technically be considered two exercises, I personally might use the sled/push pull. My favorite superset is the side lunge/slider side lunge considering I’m a hockey specialist and I like frontal plane movements.

    • Bret says:

      Great comment Brandon – I realized that almost all of my stuff was sagittal plane work, but I couldn’t get myself to choose lateral/rotational work since I was so limited. Good thing in S&C we can employ many more exercises!

  • wickets says:

    read one of your colleagues (might have even been you, lol) a few months ago who said: deadlift and dips it made perfect sense to me

    • Bret says:

      Heck of a combo indeed. I don’t dip much anymore because they’re very hard on the shoulders. Now, there’s a way to do them that’s less stressful, but at this point in my training career it’s not worth the risk when I can close grip bench press til the cows come home and not have to worry about anything. Still, the two would make an incredible combo for sure!

  • N says:

    I think it was Brooks Kubrick who pointed out–“if all you had was a barbell and some weight you could deadlift and military press. Don’t you think if you could press and dead heavy weight for a good number of reps that you’d be big and strong all over?”

  • Neal W. says:

    Why not loaded pushups in place of bench press?

    • Bret says:

      It’s just harder to progress…plates on the upper back sliding around, training partners required to stack the plates on you, and it’s slightly harder to “standardize.” Don’t get me wrong, I love weighted push-ups, but I feel that the PL’ing style bench press is fairly tolerable for most lifters if they learn proper form.

    • Patrick O'Flaherty says:

      Neal,

      Instead of the safety issues and loading/unloading difficulties in weighted push ups with weight plates if one trains alone, may I suggest a Power Push Up Plus from Lifeline USA and or a V-Max Weight Vest which some versions can hold up to 150 lbs. There’s not much added resistance in the bottom position using the Power Push Up but that can be rectified combining that with the weight vest. This also creates much more of a challenge to your anterior/posterior core.

  • Jack Woodrup says:

    I used to think a dead lift variation would be my ‘one exercise’ choice. However now I would select the double kettle bell front squat. Works quads, glutes, core, upper back, delts, grip like a bastard. Plus, you get the benefit of having to clean the damn things into the rack position.

  • Nice list, Bret! Here’s mine:

    1. Conventional deadlift
    2. Military press
    3. Neutral grip pull-up
    4. Front squat
    5. Push-up
    6. Inverted row
    7. Hip thrust
    8. Bench press
    9. Single leg RDL
    10. Ab wheel

  • Todd says:

    Bret, I ( especially as a dude in my 40’s) really respect McRobert’s ideas, and I’ve noticed some of his principles in your Strong Curves book. Is he a strong influence on you?
    As an aside, I’m currently doing his ‘Twice a week divided’ program but instead of a second day of legs, I’m working out with my wife through 2 days of her 3 Gorgeous Glutes days. I’m impressed!

    • Bret says:

      You’re darn right he was! Loved Brawn and Beyond Brawn, and have incorporated HIT into my training very much over the years. Glad you’re training with the wife, that’s great. Even “gladder” that you’re training the glutes properly 🙂

      • Todd says:

        Me too! It’s amazing how the bodyweight exercises, done right, prevent us from walking down the stairs properly after a glutes workout. And both of us have commented that we can feel our glutes ‘firing’ much easier now, even when standing, etc. Good stuff, man, thanks again.

  • Steve Grose says:

    Hey Bret, great wrap up of exercises and priorities.
    Have done basically all of above listed and try to work the secondary ones in with the main 3 Power Lifting principles.
    Totally agree with top 3 and top 10, must look up ‘Trap Bar bent over row’ though.
    Cheers and totally awesome site….wish I was Stateside so I could visit or train at your gym……Steve

    • Bret says:

      Thanks Steve! Maybe I’ll post a video of the trap bar bent over row…there’s a technique to it that must be mastered. But I like it much more than the barbell version. Cheers!

  • Rob says:

    I’d have to throw in the kettlebell long cycle clean and jerk, what an exercise (s?). Might count for two….

  • as a huge fan of the Bulgarian split squat and a recent viewer of Mike Boyle’s video making a case for unilateral leg work over bilateral, I can’t help but wonder, What Would Bret Think? Bret! What do you think???

  • Chuck says:

    You pick the deadlift over bench press? Heresy! ( insert smartass smilie here)
    The braced SL RDL is the version I do.

  • Sol says:

    I’ve only been doing 7 exercises for like forever
    day1-deadlift,close grip floor press, pullup
    day2- clean+front squat, push press, farmer walk
    works pretty well for me, what do you think Bret?

  • Jeremy D says:

    I think it depend of the sports of the athlete (specificity).
    Exercices on two leg for lifters is good.
    For athletes in other sports like team sports, i think to the load vector.
    In the weigth room, i try to use all vector. But i have a dominant in function to the specificity.
    Movement in sport are a combinaison of load vector and i work on it during field training. Balance and movement on one leg are major.
    If i only speak about weigth room training.

    One leg Squat
    One leg Deadlift
    One leg Hip thrust
    Lunge (marching)
    Power Clean
    Pallof press
    Ab rollout
    Push up (weighted)
    Inverted row (weigthed or not)
    Lateral Squat

    No truth, just individualization in function of athlete.
    If i could only do one, i’m agree with you.

  • Martin says:

    Hi Bret

    A fascinating twist on an old question. However, how come you hardly recommend the trap bar after the one exercise? The problem with your best 3 is that both the squat and the deadlift is hard on the back, so the back limits the work that can be done on the quads and the hams. I suggest the trap dead/squat, bench press and hip thrust as a “better” best 3, especially as you have convinced me of the importance of the glutes. What do you think?

    Martin

  • Josh Bryant says:

    Great article Bret!

    Ordered your new book–stoked to read it!

  • Ryan Albertson says:

    I like your list but I vote the TGU in for the masses. Not for body builders but for everyone else. Technical, yes, but it is the most comprehensive strength, movement quality, corrective movement, etc, etc, etc I know. I’d rather teach the hell out of the 7 transitions than 7 different exercises.

    I work at a small private school with 7th-12th graders and had a very limited time with a team this year. I taught 2 lifts. KB DL progressing to Trap Bar DL. And the Kalos Sthenos Get Up. Then we had a individual variable: Upper mobility, lower mobility, core stability. I would vary the sets, reps, load, etc but that’s all we did in the weight room for the 2xweek, 6weeks. We also did a multi-planar/bodyweight movements warm up.

    DL for total body strength.
    TGU for everything else.
    Variable corrective.

    Simple. Easy to teach. Big results.

    Now I’m going to spend more time in thought on my Top 10 list!

  • Patrick O'Flaherty says:

    Bret,

    For high school track coaches with limited practice time, what would be your most time-efficient, “Bang-for-the-Buck” exercises for each of the following groups if you could only choose ___ exercises (you decide the number) listed in order from 1st priority down to last priority:

    Sprinters / Hurdlers / Jumpers?

    Mid Distance Runners (800m to 5000m)?

    Shot Put / Discus?

    Would there be any difference in rep ranges for the sprinters/hurdlers/jumpers versus the mid-distance runners?

    Thank you much!

  • Keith says:

    I’ve always answered this question with the “Heavy tire flip.” For one rep, the amount of muscle worked is tremendous. According to Dr. Stu Mcgill in his research on strongman exercises, the core implications are great. And, once you become proficient with the heavy tire, it lends itself well to becoming a power movement. The final push(with full effort, not laziness), is great for the upper body and full body stability as well. But you mentioning the eccentric component checked me effectively. Will rethink. Great post!

  • Ben Fury says:

    Hi Brett!

    Tried a trap bar years ago and it didn’t work for me because of my long legs. (6’4″)

    Which trap bars do/don’t work for tall guys?

    • Will Arias says:

      Hi Ben, feel free to tell me to “back off” but, since i train a few tall guys, here some links that you might find handy:

      http://www.t-nation.com/store/products/dead-squat-bar

      http://www.davedraper.com/trap-bar-deadlifts.html

      http://www.ironedge.com.au/store/search.php?mode=search&page=1&q=trap%20bar

      http://www.australianbarbellco.com/barbellsPublic/productdetail.html?productid=%2fbarbells%2folympicbarbells%2fgeneralpurpose%2fBODBN&perpage=16&page=0&order=

      Depending which country you are located, you might be able to find the right trap bar to satisfy your training needs. The first two links are very informative about the advantages and disadvantages of the Trap Bars.
      The third link (website) offers two different models: “economic trap bar” and “Premium trap bar”. the first version is square and probably similar to the ones you tried before, which surely hit your buttocks, shins or knees because the don’t give enough space for you to move groovily due to your long femurs. The positive side of that model is that it features a double handle grip which “artificially” gives extra-length to your arms, which keeps the load below your fulcrum level the whole way; So , all you need to do with that model its to put the bar upside down and grab it from the “top” handles for all you lifts… The “premium model” features a diamond shape which gives you enough room and you’l never knock your knees or buttocks…
      However, the best for the last, the last site offers the kind of trap bar that definitely fits your anthropometry. It is a DIAMOND TRAP “OLYMPIC” BARBELL which i would highly recommend for guys like you or even taller. It might be heavier and takes a bit more room for storage than the “standard squared” version. Nevertheless, the “diamond shape” model definitely offers enough room for your long legs.

      (i must clarify i’m not commercially associated with any of those brands. The sites mentioned are just for illustration purposes. So, i hope that provides independency and credibility to my professional opinion)

      As you see, when it comes to trap bars, there are options for all body types. Keep in mind an exercise is good only when it suits the needs of the performer and that obviously includes anthropometric profile. The main thing is to be informed about your the alternatives in the market, in order to make a sound decision. I’m sure you’ll find a convenient provider in your local area. Best of luck in your pursuit of fitness. Thanks for reading my reply. Will

      • Ben Fury says:

        Thanks Will!

        Yeah, the one I tried that didn’t work for my long legs was a square style trap bar.

        Those hex trap bars look much roomier. I’ll have to try one. For shoulder health I prefer to use supine or neutral grips whenever possible, so being able to switch DL’s to neutral would definitely be something I’m interested in.

  • Jeff says:

    1.Clean & Press; it works everything

    top 4 (sorry gota have push for pull)
    1. Conventional DL
    2. low bar mid stance squat
    3. Wide Dip
    4. One arm row
    (strongest pull or push for upper and lower body)

    top 10 same as above but with Strongman, Body Building exercises and KB swings.

  • My optimal one would be Bulgarian squat from a deficit! 🙂 I love this exercise! 🙂

    Great post once again!

    Ines

  • Barry says:

    I’m late to the party but from my vantage point if I had to pick one lift it would be a reverse slide lunge front loaded via zercher carry.
    Yeah, that’s a mouthful.
    But it trains freakin everything.

    Hits both Quads and Hams/Glutes hard.
    Fries the back as well as the core due to the zercher loading method.
    Builds endurance in “holding”/bear hug type strength as well as biceps.
    Offers the advantages of a unilateral lift but still has enough stability built in to go heavy.

  • Jacob Soeholm says:

    Also a late comment, but I really like to make lists like this 😉 My personal top ten list looks like this.

    1: Conventional deadlift
    2: Trap bar deadlift
    3: Dumbell benchpres
    4: Dumbell standing shoulderpres
    5: Dips, weighted
    6: Narrow grip chin-ups or pull-ups
    7: Inverted rows
    8: Sled pushes
    9: Kettlebell swings or throws
    10: Farmer walks

  • Steve says:

    Hey Bret!
    Why do you have the Barbell Curl in your top 10? Is there a benefit for strength that the chin up can’t cover?

    Thanks
    Steve

  • Claudia says:

    Bret,

    I’m new to all of this so I will look up what these exercise are but wanted to ask…

    if you are looking to tone your entire body, and a woman, are these exercises the answer?

    And also very important question…

    will it tone your glutes for a beautiful butt and make it bigger?

    Someone did the 30 day squat challenge and said her butt was smaller and not what she wanted. I feel the same way I want to grow the glutes as well.

    All of what has been said is overwhelming for what I should do but I can look it up and make sense of it all.

    I just want to know if this is good for major toning the entire body and also growing the booty to make it beautiful?

    Thanks,

    Claudia
    P.S. I know I am very late posting compared to when the article was written but really hope you answer.

  • george says:

    Now do it again with kettlebell(s)!

    1) Squat (Any)
    2) Swing (Any)
    3) Press (Any)

    I am the champion, my friends!

  • Ark says:

    Hi Bret,

    This is a great list for 10 exercises. Can I ask you why you prefer trap bar row over traditional BB row?

    Thanks,
    Ark.

  • Simon says:

    Great article! Personnaly my Top 10 is:
    1) Barbell Power Snatch
    2) Conventionnal Deadlift
    3) Full Back Squat
    4) Full Clean (catching the barbell in a full front squat position then stand)
    5) Chin-up
    6) Bench Pull
    7) One arm Dumbbell Row (supported with one arm on a bench torso parallel to the floor in an athletic stance)
    8) Standing Overhead Press
    9) Dips (upright to emphasize on the triceps)
    10) Single arm landmine push press
    Bret what do you think of my list?
    By the way, I love your articles. I think your one of the smartest guy in the strength industry (along with Christian Thibaudeau which I also respect). Sorry if my english isn’t perfect, I’m French.

  • gareth says:

    Mine would be the super heavy HUNGARIAN CORE BLASTER for swings

    Second place would be hiking with a heavy weight vest – 60lbs +

  • […] deadlift if  they could use or prescribe only one exercise including Bret Contreras in this article. I’ve found trapbar reduces stress on my back and connective tissues during deadlift and have […]

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