The most important basic exercises and their variations

The most important basic exercises and their variations

If one speaks of basic exercises, spontaneously  three exercises come to mind: squats, bench press and deadlift, the classic “big three” of powerlifting. With these alone you can already cover most of the body’s muscle groups. Primary and secondary or auxiliary muscles are all being targeted and you can put together a nearly complete training system with these three exercises alone.

However, if you only look for training your major muscle groups, these 3 exercises only cover half of your targeted muscle groups. Shoulders, hamstrings, and lats are not being optimally covered by the big three alone. This is the reason why I like to add 2 exercises to the already stacked line-up: chin-ups (for lats and biceps) and OHP (for shoulders and triceps). Sometimes if the hamstrings are still underdeveloped and overpowered by the quadriceps you can think about adding extra hamstring work via stiff-legged deadlifts.

A complete training system can thus be designed in a minimalistic way through these classic basic exercises (Fig. 2). However, such training would sooner or later be rather monotonous due to lack of variation in the exercises. Therefore, you should occasionally replace these basic exercises with alternative exercises. Although this is not necessary for the growth stimulus, there are athletes who have been training for years with the same exercises that have proven to be particularly effective for them and with which they are still making good progress. Nevertheless, especially for beginners the variety in training is an important part to keep the motivation and fun factor at a permanent high.

Fig.2: Basic lifts and their variations
Muscle Group Basic Exercise Variation
Quadriceps Squat, front squat Leg press, hack squat
Hamstrings Stiff-legged deadlift Leg curls
Shoulders OHP, military press Dumbbell press
Back Barbell row, deadlift Dumbbell row, T-bar row
Latissimus Pullups and chinups Lat pulldowns
Chest (Incline) Bench press, dips (Incline) Bench press (dumbbell)
Biceps Chinups Barbell curls, drag curls
Triceps Dips, close grip bench press French press, pushdown


Putting your program together – Push and Pull