ONLY Four Exercises

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Q:  Tony,

I know that blogging 5x a week and coming up with readable content constantly is a high order, so I thought I would pose a question that I’m sure many, many people would love to read your answer to.

If you could only have FOUR exercises/movements to perform for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Two caveats:

1.     You have to exclude any PT/prehab/rehab exercises, and

2.     You may only choose one variation of the exercise (i.e. you can’t have deadlifts; you have to choose conventional or trap bar etc).

Other than that, you can choose any movement you would like, including things like sprinting (which would be on my list).  Oh yeah, and WHY for each one.  Enjoy.

A:  Wow, only four exercises?   This is going to be quite the conundrum.  I mean, that’s like asking me to choose between which Jessica is hotter:  Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jessica Simpson, or Jessica Rabbit.

I didn’t just make things weird, did I?

Anyways, when it comes to exercises that I feel are most beneficial, and ones that I know I’ll be rocking for the rest of my life, I revert to what I like to call the 180 Rule.

In short:  walk into any commercial gym and what do you see?   Chances are you’ll see every elliptical machine being used, every bench press station taken, guys loading up the leg press or blasting their biceps, and a waiting line for Zumba class.

I like to tell people to do the EXACT opposite – the 180 Rule

Rarely, if ever, do you see people really (and I mean REALLY) pushing themselves.  They’d rather do the cybex circuit than perform a few sets of heavy deadifts.  They’d rather grab the BOSU ball and do whatever the hell it is that people do on a BOSU ball than step inside a power rack and front squat.  They’d rather watch television while walking on a treadmill than go to a stadium and do stair sprints till their legs feel like they have cement blocks attached to them.

In a word:  people like to do what’s easy and what they’re good at.  Is it any wonder, then, that many people are still frustrated that they look the same now as they did back when stone washed jeans were considered cool?

Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now.

Nevertheless, if I had to choose only four exercises here’s what I’d pick:

1.     Trap Bar Deadlifts:  I love me some deadlifts, and you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise that trap bar deadlifts aren’t one of the best overall lower body exercises you can do.

For starters, due to the bar placement and body positioning, trap bar deadlifts tend to be a little more “user friendly.”  Secondly, as someone who has banged up knees, TBDL’s have been a saving grace in that I can still get a fair amount of quad activation without my knees giving me the finger.  Thirdly, I can really load these up and make people destroy the back of their pants.

2.  Loaded Push-Ups:  I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a horrible (HORRIBLE) bencher.

NOTE: Not as bad as Kevin Larrabee, though.

I have long arms, so I picked the wrong parents for having the ability to press a lot of weight off my chest.  As such, for my money, push-ups are where it’s at.

While many are quick to deem push-ups as “too wimpy,” I’d say that more than half of the guys that come into Cressey Performance can’t perform ten bodyweight push-ups, let alone do them correctly.  Sad, but true.

That said, push-ups have a lot of advantages:

  • Since they’re a closed chain movement, they don’t beat the shoulders up as much (compared to the bench press).
  • They’re a superb exercise to teach someone to engage their anterior (and posterior) core musculature.  As I’ve noted in the past, improve your push-ups and more often than not, you’ll also see vast improvements in your squats and deadlifts as well.
  • And, most important of all, they help develop a chest that can scratch diamonds.

3.  HAS (Heavy as Shit) Farmer Carries:  I won’t spend a lot of time on this one because Dan John has already done a fantastic job at bringing them to light in the past year or so, and it’s because of him that we’ve started to include these more and more into our programming at CP.

What don’t farmer carries work, really?  They hammer the upper back and arms; they force you to engage your core (especially if you go with one-arm/offset variations); they’re awesome for developing hip stability; they help to improve grip strength; and they’re undoubtedly an MVP when it comes to overall conditioning.  Nuff said.

4.  Prowler Pushes:  nothing makes me hate life more than pushing the Prowler – which should tell you why I love them so much.  I remember reading something from Mike Boyle where he described heavy sled pushes as more of a “functional leg press,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Think about it:  you’re essentially pushing yourself AWAY from the floor with each step.  What’s more, you can also think of sled pushes (or drags) as single leg training – so you’ve got your bases covered there as well.  Specifically, you get some great hip extension with the pushes.

Moreover, from a conditioning standpoint, nothing really compares.  They don’t call it “Prowler Flu” for nothing.

Man, that was tough.  It’s really hard to narrow it down to just four – but those would be it.

Honorable Mentions:  chin-ups, chest supported rows, kettlebell swings, boobies.

So, lets have it everyone.  What would you pick?

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Comments for This Entry

  • Michael Gray

    The Prowler-it turns men into boys, and boys into men. My four: Sled/Prowler Push/Drag Conventional Deadlifts Front Squats Push Presses

    March 17, 2011 at 7:17 am | Reply to this comment

  • Charles

    Hey Tony here are my top four exercises. Chin-ups weighted or not Dips weighted or not Trap bar deadlifts Tire flips (now these are a full body workout)

    March 17, 2011 at 7:24 am | Reply to this comment

  • Mike

    I called 3/4 before I read the article. Surprised me with the pushups!

    March 17, 2011 at 7:37 am | Reply to this comment

  • Sar Carstic

    1. Whole body vibration bosu ball wrist curls. 2. Pistols done on the exercise ball while being hit with foam light sabres. 3. Banana thong clam shells, supine, hip flexed, feet on wall. 4. Spring bar bends for chesticles.

    March 17, 2011 at 7:38 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    Interesting choices, Tony... Mine would be somewhat similar, and obviously a little biased based on the exercises that have given me the results (and that I think everyone needs), even if I hate life while performing them. Here goes (in no particular order): 1: Pushup 2. Trap Bar DL 3. Walking Lunge 3. Prowler Pushes/Pulls

    March 17, 2011 at 7:39 am | Reply to this comment

  • aap

    I'll take a diff approach, say you dont have much equipment, maybe dbs, kbs nothing else... 1. DB RDL 2. Row 3. KB Swings 4. Loaded or normal Pushups Combine that 3x week with intervals 2x week and you have a decent plan - by Tony - you can call me crazy if you disagree.

    March 17, 2011 at 7:49 am | Reply to this comment

  • Niel

    1) Conventional DLs 2) Overhead squats 3) Hang snatches 4) HAS pull-ups Honorable mention: Loaded push-ups!

    March 17, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply to this comment

  • J B

    wow tough.. Clean and jerk (a speed movement and pressing movement in one, with a front squat as a bonus) Deadlift (You gotta deadlift) Pull-up sprints (conditioning+hip extension)

    March 17, 2011 at 8:33 am | Reply to this comment

  • SHIB

    I agree on TBDL...question has anyone used the Hammer Squat which trys to replicate the TRDL because of the handles on the same and the set up is very similiar Thanks

    March 17, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply to this comment

  • Ben Bruno

    Tony, I really like your choices. I'd be curious who asked you that question because I just answered the exact same one about 3 weeks ago. Kind of an odd question in my mind, but I guess it gets at what you think is most important. When I answered, I split it it into the 4 main categories (knee dominant, hip dominant, pull, push) and said walking lunges, glutes hams (deadlifts for those that can do them), chinups/inverted rows, and weighted pushups. If I could do it over, I would put the Prowler in there as well. I still have yet to mess around with carries too much but I want to get down to your gym sometime when you guys are doing them and give it a rip. Some of the guys here have talked about pitching it and buying a set of handles as well and I would love to try them out. Ever since that post you made with the carry/prowler combo I've been wanting to try it. Good stuff as always...

    March 17, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply to this comment

  • Greg R

    Alright here are my four: 1. Turkish Get Up 2. Deadlift 3. Sled Push 4. Pull Up

    March 17, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply to this comment

  • Greg R

    How important do you think it would be to get something out of the Sagittal Plane?

    March 17, 2011 at 10:05 am | Reply to this comment

  • Emerson

    Weighted pull ups - one of my favorite lifts, nothing looks more badass at the gym then strapping a bunch of weight and banging out some chest to bar pull ups. Conventional deadlift - I know Crossfit isn't the most popular thing around these parts, but I love Greg Glassman's quote "I wish I could overstate the importance of the deadlift." Low bar back squat - "There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat." - Rip Hill Sprints - Best type of cardio out there.

    March 17, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    @SHIB: I have played around with the Hammer squat/lunge. Not a huge fan, particularly when compared to the TBDL or conventional DL. Could keep adding plates but with very little carryover to the tbdl. RS

    March 17, 2011 at 10:26 am | Reply to this comment

  • Stephane

    Damn good choices of exercises. I would only add the BOSU Ball Power Snatch (very functional and great for the core!!!).

    March 17, 2011 at 10:30 am | Reply to this comment

  • SHIB

    @RS... we don't have a TRB where I train which I find strange since we have prowlers..ropes 5 oly platforms...KB actyally a great facility but strangely don't have the TrB have the Hammer squat lunge as it's replacement :-( I do find though the set similiar though

    March 17, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    @SHIB: I stand corrected. I used the HSL last summer, and though I did like it, I found my long femurs getting in the way, which caused me to try to muscle it up, throwing my lower back under the bus in the process. I did pull 4x3 @405 on it, however, so I guess I should love it. And by all means, if that's all you have, use it.

    March 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Maki Riddington

    Front Squat Dead Lift (conventional bar) Chin Ups Loaded Push Ups I'm choosing this from a maximal strength, and hypertrophy view point.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kujo

    Deadlift (conventional) Weighed Chin-Ups Back Squat DB Bench Press Honorable mentions: Front Squat, Loaded Push Ups, Bulgarian Split Squats, BB Push Press, Weighted Pull Ups I like Chin-Ups than Pull-Ups do to the better range of motion that can be achieved. I really want to get a trap bar. Just waiting for a good deal on one.

    March 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Everyone: seems like the bunch of us are all on the same page for the most part. Internet high five to all of you. Now, excuse me while I go eat my second omelet of the day. @ Greg: At first, not that important. Someone needs to prove to me that they don't suck at sagittal plane before I add frontal or transverse.

    March 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply to this comment

  • TJ

    Walking Overhead Lunge Alternate DB Incline Weighted Pull Ups Snatch Grip Deadlift ...What do ya think Tony?

    March 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply to this comment

  • John

    moderate stance Front Squats Chin Ups Sumo Deadlift Push Ups

    March 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sable

    Tough call!! But I'm relieved that I'm somewhat in the consensus here! Chin ups Sumo deadlifts Front squats Push ups

    March 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Sable

    HAHAHA hi John! Didn't see you right above me. Same wavelength or what?!

    March 17, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Andrew

    Four? That's it? Well it's tough, but here's mine if anyone cares to read: 1. Deadlift Conventional (Just raw: you, the bar, and gravity) 2. Tire Flips (Great total body exercise, goes well with #4) 3. HAS Farmer's Walks (they know you're bad ass when you don't just pick heavy stuff up, but you carry it away) 4. Sledgehammer Slams (Freaking awesome, plus I'm a boxer, so... yeah) Honorable mentions: Push-ups (do 'em anywhere), Front Squats (just ask Dan John), Rope Climbing/Rope Pull-ups (like pull-up + grip exercise in one), sled drags

    March 17, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kashka

    I go to 24 hour fitness, can not do farmers walk or prowler pushes, and I have never done them before in my life though I have always wanted to find a gym with such equipment. So here are my four exercises Clean Jerk 30 Degree Incline Bench Press Squat Weighted Chin up I love deadlifts, but I'm limited by my grip strength on these, so due to limited space they ain't gon make it.

    March 18, 2011 at 12:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Bret Contreras

    Comment of the day definitely goes to Sar Castic! "1. Whole body vibration bosu ball wrist curls. 2. Pistols done on the exercise ball while being hit with foam light sabres. 3. Banana thong clam shells, supine, hip flexed, feet on wall. 4. Spring bar bends for chesticles."

    March 18, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply to this comment

  • Derrick Blanton

    So I filled out my ballot before reading everyone's answers so I wouldn't be swayed. 1. Back Squat, medium width stance to 9-10" depth - has always carried over to both my deadlift and front squat. Torches PC and quads evenly. Change the rep scheme to focus on one over the other. High reps/quads, low reps/PC. I can go weeks without DL'ing, and if I'm B-SQing, I don't lose much strength. 2. Incline Bench Press - beats out bench press due to shoulder integrity/overall shoulder health issues. Beats out military press b/c you got to hit the pecs. (If I could call the clean and press one exercise, it would probably go here, though.) 3. V-handle barbell row - narrowly edges pull ups, again due to the shoulder integrity/balance issues. Crushes forearms and biceps as well as the yoke. Edges deadlifts only b/c squats are covering much of the same ground. How can I leave deadlifts out? This is hard!! 4. Hill sprints. Never had the pleasure of the Prowler or sled whatevers. But I love to run up a hill...repeatedly. Great question, and really boils down the whole 80/20 rule. Nice, Tony.

    March 18, 2011 at 2:43 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Kashka: sure you can do heavy farmer carries - just grab the heaviest pair of DBs at your gym and own that shit! Now, prowler (or sled) pushes are a different matter. Below is a video that one of my distance coaching clients sent me that I thought was pretty cool. He doesn't have a sled at his gym either, but that didn't stop him:

    March 18, 2011 at 3:51 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kashka

    Thanks TG. I'll try it out.

    March 19, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Greg R

    1. Single Leg Squats 2. DB Snatch 3. Pull Up / Chin Up 4. Slide Board Intervals

    March 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ray McCarthy

    Love everyone's top 4-5 list. My top 4-5 seem to vary. Hey variety is the spice of life brother! But that said I do not see a lot of over head pressing in the lists. I did go through it fast hyowever. Push-Presses come to mind I have to say one of the moves I have come to love is the Single Arm Kettlebell Push Press. Love the way Brett Jones talks about these and the form he recomends specifically "slow negative". Love Farmers walks (as Dan John said at Boyle's this winter this is the move that most people can add to their program and gain the most from.) How do you argue with a McGill favorite. Particular Favorite of mine that One -Arm Overhead> should locked down. Deadlifts of course are on the list. I like Conventional for some, trap bar for some, sumo for some and of course partials for real tall dudes and girls. How can we forget suitcase and single leg to make sure we are balanced. Good article TONY and fun to think about. Ray McCarthy

    March 27, 2011 at 8:07 am | Reply to this comment

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    March 15, 2012 at 1:20 am | Reply to this comment

  • John Gabriel Augustin

    Man that's tough. I would definitely agree with trap bar deadlifts and HAS farmers walks. I would also include one arm thick handle dumbbell clean and presses and ring pullups to my list.

    November 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Paul Bruce

    (1) Front squats (2) Push-ups (3) Dips (4) Natural glute-ham raises

    April 22, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dean Smith


    September 2, 2015 at 10:53 am | Reply to this comment

  • Franko

    Press-Up, Clean and Push Press, Sprint, Chin Up.

    January 14, 2016 at 8:33 am | Reply to this comment

  • Austin

    1. Front Squats to full depth (hamstring touching calves) 2. Conventional Deadlift 3. Weighted Gymnastics ring muscle-up 4. Swimming

    February 25, 2016 at 11:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • seth ortiz

    Trap bar Deadlifts- so I can pick up stuff for the rest of my life Push press - so I can throw my kids and grand kids in the air Missionary in a push up plank position - best core exercise ever Basketball - does this count?

    March 19, 2017 at 3:09 am | Reply to this comment

  • Datsuzoku

    Pullups Bench Deadlift Hill Sprints

    June 23, 2017 at 10:37 am | Reply to this comment

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