I've heard this many times from powerlifters that I've work with, "All you really need is 3 lifts to hit all major muscle groups, and technically that's all you really need for maintenance, too."

On top of my head, I would think that squat, deadlift and bench press are the three exercises that really target pretty much all the major muscle groups. I would also recommend chin-ups/pull-ups and clean and press.

What are your thoughts about these 3 exercises (squat, deadlift and bench press) for hitting all the major muscle groups? Also, are there any other exercises that you would recommend?

  • 1
    Yes, I agree. Squatting and deadlift are up there with the top for hitting all the major muscle groups because it's a complete workout. I've also been experiencing that with leg machines (Free-weights, not the leg machine) also provide a good overall muscle workout as well as the free-weight stand machine that requires you to squat. Hope this helps a tiny bit :)
    – Phorce
    Jun 24, 2013 at 18:11
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2 Answers 2


Everything always depends on your goals.

The best exercises are the ones that help you accomplish your goals.

If you are a power lifter, your goals are to get the biggest squat, deadlift, and bench press you can. Obviously, it helps to do those exercises to make them stronger. It does also happen that they are very good exercises for General Physical Preparedness (GPP); but they aren't the only ones that are good for GPP. If an Olympic lifter were to make the same observations they would select their competition lifts--which hit all the major muscle groups as well.

If your goal is bodybuilding, compound lifts are great for building general strength and large slabs of muscle. However, you'll still need isolation exercises to fine tune the proportions of the muscles with each other. That's important if you are a physique competitor. On the same token, isolation exercises in the proper proportions can keep your joints healthy.

If you are a strongman, you need to put heavy things over your head, so overhead pressing becomes much more important than bench pressing. This is true for the continental press, the log press, keg tossing, etc.

For GPP I would recommend:

  • Incline press--more useful in most team sports, and provides good carry over to both overhead pressing and bench pressing.
  • Squats in all variations--Helps with jumping ability, sprinting, core strength, leg strength, and a good muscle builder.
  • Pulls from the floor (deadlifts, cleans, snatches, high pulls)--excellent posterior chain work, mental toughness, and strength builder.
  • Rows in all variations--balances out the pressing, keeps the shoulders from becoming slumped forward, and helps out both the squat and deadlift

Beyond that, do whatever is necessary to fine tune work. I find that light weight high volume curls help flush out inflammation in the elbows before it has a chance to start. However, if you do too many of them it can become a source of inflammation themselves.

There is no absolute best exercise. There is only what's more appropriate for your given goals at the moment.

  • Thanks for an awesome and very clear answer. I supposed if I were to just hit the weights for 20 minutes 3 days per week, and the main goal is to just build some strength and muscle mass, then I would definitely try to hit as many compound lifts as possible. I agree with you regarding the specific exercises and specific workouts are best only for specific goals. Thanks again!
    – QikMood
    Jun 25, 2013 at 2:35

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:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Pull (upper body)
  • Push (upper body)
  • Carry

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.

  • Wow! Good information here Dave. It seems like you have been doing your own research as well as your own experience. Great answer!
    – QikMood
    Jul 6, 2013 at 23:42

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