Fundamental human movements
There are many ways to create a set of "best" exercises that cover all one's weightlifting bases. The best way to do so, in my mind, is with Dan John's movement classifications:
- Pull (upper body)
- Push (upper body)
I'm not convinced that Carry is as fundamental as the others, but if it was generalized to "locomote" I would strongly agree. This gives us an enormous grab bag of exercises within each category:
- Front squat, pistol, goblet squat...
- Deadlift, clean, snatch, Romanian deadlift, tire flip...
- Pull-ups, barbell rows, Kroc rows...
- Bench, overhead press, dips, push-ups...
- Walking lunges, waiter's carries, sprints, hiking, sled drags...
Arranging them in this way makes it simple to combine them in a complementary way.
Squat, Bench, Dead
I think that the Big Three of powerlifting leave out a key movement: pulling. This can be easily remedied with pull-ups. A similar omission (and solution) exists when training Olympic-style weightlifting with cleans, overhead pressing, snatches, and squats. The framework suggests as well that both of these approaches could be rounded out with some locomotion as well.
This is not to say, however, that a powerlifter or Olympic lifter or gymnast who omits a squat and hinge movement is going to fall apart at the seams. It's just that these are version 0.1 of the broad strokes of a complete approach to moving the human body.
I have cycled through several personal favorite combinations of well-rounded exercise groups:
- Dan John's minimal program: clean and press, front squat, pull-up
- The Starting Strength approach: Back squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press, pull-up
- Romanian or regular deadlift, front squat, dips, pull-ups
In doing so, it is increasingly clear to me that the specific exercises are not as important as getting in all or most of the major movement types and making sure to work on one's weak points. I think periodically replacing one type of squat for another, for example, is good for keeping our bodies robust and widely capable. There's also tremendous room for variation within these classifications. For example, we can explode the last group into multiple approaches:
- Three light sets of 12 Romanian deadlift for flexibility, front squat for three sets of 5, three sets of dips, three sets of maximum pull-up reps
- A five-round circuit of max pull-ups/10 front squats/max dips/20 Romanian deadlifts
- Greasing the groove with short sets of pull-ups throughout the day, then an actual workout of front squats for two heavy triples, weighted dips, and one heavy set of 10 Romanian deadlifts
Each of these produces different results, despite using the same exercises. One can play with the qualities of conditioning, strength, hypertrophy, mobility, and power by titrating the load, set/rep scheme, and arrangement/timing of the workout.
So I don't think there is any one set of best weightlifting exercises, but I do think there are many approaches that qualify as optimal. I think that keeping an eye on movements and qualities is the best way to create an optimal approach for a given trainee at a given point in time with specific goals.