Strength training. It's one of THE essential components of a well-rounded exercise habit (I'd also add self-massage work, mobility work, balance exercises and cardio-respiratory training in there too).
But if you've stepped foot in any of the more than 41,000 fitness centers in the U.S. you know that there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of distinct exercises to choose from. Perhaps that's not surprising, as the human body contains anywhere from 600 to 850 different muscles and 250 to 360 different joints! (the specific number depends on the classification method used) [1-3]
So considering all that, do you know which exercises are best for you?
Or put another way- which exercises need to be a mainstay of YOUR strength training practice?
Because every person's physical condition (and health goals) are different, there aren't one-size-fits-all answers to these questions. Despite that, there ARE certain exercises
that are likely to give you more "bang for your buck" results-wise than others (if results mean an increase in lean muscle and improved functional strength, among other goals).
In working as a personal trainer for the last 15 years I've created 3 different lists of strength exercises that I believe every person should be aware of (or at least, every person who wants to get and stay fit!). They are as follows...
LIST #1: THE ESSENTIAL 8
These 8 strength exercises are for the person who wants a very simple strength training routine built around movements that will stimulate the largest muscle groups.
Pros: This list keeps it super simple.
Cons: Several relatively safe and effective strength movements aren't included, and several smaller muscle groups and basic movement patterns will be neglected here.
LIST #2: THE SIMPLIFIED 16
These 16 exercises are for the person who wants a relatively simple yet more comprehensive strength training routine built around movements that will stimulate the largest muscle groups and encourage a variety of movement patterns.
Pros: This list keeps is somewhat simple, yet there's enough variety to reduce the risk of boredom.
Cons: Doing weekly (and daily) programming for 16 exercises instead of 8 can be a bit more complex, and even this expanded list leaves out a few smaller muscle groups and important movement patterns.
LIST #3: THE THOROUGH 35
These 35 exercises are for person who wants a very comprehensive strength routine built around exercises that will stimulate all of their muscles (from calves to neck) while also encouraging a large variety of movement patterns.
Pros: The list addresses every significant muscle from calves to neck, and the variety of movement patterns can help optimize joint mobility and multiplanar functionality.
Cons: Programming for 35 exercises can be more challenging, and a larger number of movements can mean an increased risk of injury (more exercises = more knowledge needed of what proper form is = increased likelihood that form may be compromised on 1 or more movements = increased injury risk).
For this article series I'm going to focus on "The Simplified 16", but if you want to know what exercises are included in each of the 3 lists above, you can download this FREE PDF below!...
What follows is my list of 16 exercises that likely need to be a part of your strength training routine. How did I select these specific exercises?...
1. COMMON MOVEMENTS: For the most part these are relatively common exercises, meaning that you're likely to see plenty of people doing these at the gym. That also means it should be relatively easy to find solid educational info on these movements online.
2. TARGETS MAJOR MUSCLE GROUPS: It's very easy to get reductionistic with health, and exercise is no different. That said, there IS something to be said for identifying those exercises that best target major muscle groups. This is overly simplistic but...
larger muscle activation -> more hypertrophy (muscle growth) -> more lean mass -> increased anabolic hormonal response -> increased resting metabolic rate -> increased loss of excess body fat -> increased attention by members of the opposite sex (ha!... just kidding... or am I?).
The negative side of this major-muscle-group-focused, reductionistic approach is that some important (albeit often smaller) muscle groups will get neglected. In the case of the exercises below, you may notice that the calves, inner thigh and outer thigh muscles (leg adductors and abductors) and some of the neck muscles aren't directly targeted (the forearms do tend to get enough work, albeit via other exercises). If you don't want to neglect these 4 smaller but still important muscle groups, you might consider adding exercises that also directly address these muscles as well (my Thorough 35 list does include exercises to address these muscle groups).
3. RELATIVELY SAFE (WHEN PERFORMED CORRECTLY): No strength exercise is 100% without risk. When a muscle contracts, whether isometrically or concentrically or eccentrically, there's going to be risk, whether to the muscle itself or to the joint its acting on. Generally, the slower the movement is performed, the lighter the load (weight) and the lower the volume (reps/time and sets), the safer the movement. If an exercise below is brand new to you, I highly suggest going light, going reps low (or for a shorter amount of time), keeping your sets down, and going slow, at least until you feel comfortable (and safe) with your biomechanics.
4. SCIENTIFICALLY-VALIDATED: Most (if not all) of the exercises below have at least some peer-reviewed clinical data supporting their superior benefit as a strength training movement.
5. BACKED BY EXPERIENCE: In more than 15 years experience as a personal trainer (and as someone who's been involved in strength training for >25 years), these are 16 of the most effective exercises I've seen for increasing (and maintaining) lean muscle mass and for improving overall functional strength and mobility.
For each exercise below I've included info on...
a. why I chose this movement
b. the primary muscles affected
c. the primary joints affected
d. relevant nuggets from scientific studies
f. alternative exercise(s)
The exercises below start with LOWER BODY specific movements, then CORE specific, then UPPER BODY specific. In each category, the exercises are listed in proprietary order.
For TODAY'S article, we're going to start our dive into the Simple 16 by looking at Exercise #1: The Weighted Hip Thrust. So without further preamble, let's get into it!...
EXERCISE #1: WEIGHTED HIP THRUSTS
WHY WEIGHTED HIP THRUSTS
Travel back 5 years and this exercise wasn't a staple in my workout routine (or in most of my personal training client's routines for that matter). Boy was I missing out on a great movement! One of the reasons I like the bilateral (both feet) weighted (either barbell or heavy dumbbell) hip thrust is because it directly engages the biggest muscle in your body (glutes) while minimizing strain on the knees. For many of my clients, especially those who have sedentary jobs and have spent excessive amounts of time sitting (haven't most of us?), the glutes are usually weak, and this is a great exercise to activate and strengthen them (while simultaneously sparing the knee joint significant load).
PRIMARY MUSCLES AFFECTED
While the gluteus maximus is the primary muscle targeted with the barbell hip thrust, other muscles are commonly engaged as well, such as erector spinae (lower back), hamstrings and quadriceps.
The hip thrust, depending on variation, may also directly or indirectly activate one or more of the "deep" glute muscles, including the piriformis, gemellus or obturator muscles. If you're dealing with piriformis syndrome or sciatic nerve pain, the hip thrust may prove problematic. For my personal training clients dealing with these issues, one of the ways we often try to address the problem is via self massage and mobility techniques, which we do first before moving into a strength exercise like the barbell hip thrust.
PRIMARY JOINTS AFFECTED
During the weighted hip thrust, the weight (load) sits directly above the pelvis (i.e. pelvic girdle), and because of this several joints in the pelvis are affected, including...
* the lumbosacral joint (connects lumbar to sacrum)
* sacroiliac joints (connect sacrum to ilium, which is the largest part of the hip bone)
* sacrococcygeal joint (connects sacrum to tailbone)
* pubic symphysis (connects left and right parts of pubic bones)
* and the hip joints themselves (ties femur bone into pelvis). 
The lumbar vertebrae and discs are also affected during a hip thrust movement. If there's dysfunction or excessive inflammation in any of these joints, the hip thrust movement may prove problematic.
A small (n = 13) 2015 study by Contreras et al. found the barbell hip thrust to be vastly superior to the barbell back squat for eliciting upper and lower gluteus maximus activity (as measured by electromyograph [EMG]). The same study also found hip thrusts to be superior to squats in activating the biceps femoris (one of the hamstring muscles). 
Another small (n = 13) study published in 2016 by Contreras et al. found barbell hip thrusts to be superior to banded hip thrusts in soliciting activation of gluteus maximus muscles. 
A 2019 review of 39 studies that looked at hip extension exercises and glute max activity found that unilateral exercises (one leg versus two legs) produced higher EMG values compared to the bilateral version of the same exercise. This same study also found that females exhibited greater EMG activity than males in all hip extension exercises. Lastly, the study found that verbal and tactile cues increase glute maximus activity during these exercises. 
A 2019 review of 12 previously published studies, researchers found that the barbell hip thrust is superior to the squat and other exercises at activating the glute maximus muscles. The authors also found that the muscle activation sequence during the hip thrust goes glute maximus -> erector spinae (lower back muscles) -> hamstrings -> quads. The barbell hip thrust was also found to positively impact sprinting abilities. 
In a 2020 analysis of 16 previously published scientific studies, the authors found that several exercises were effective at soliciting very high levels of glute maximus activation. This included the hip thrust, as well as variations of the deadlift, squat, step up and lunge. One of the findings that came as a surprise (to me at least) was that certain variations of the step up were found to be superior at soliciting glute max activity when compared to the other movements. 
Some of the main take-aways here...
* Most studies show the barbell hip thrust superior to other lower body movements for the purpose of activating/engaging the gluteus maximus muscles.
* Single leg hip thrusts are likely a beneficial addition to a program that also includes bilateral barbell hip thrusts.
* Don't simply depend on barbell hip thrusts to develop your glutes! Some research even suggests that variations of a step up exercise may be superior to hip thrusts for glute activation, and squats, deadlifts and lunges also tend to solicit very high glute maximus activation.
TIPS AND CAUTIONS
As with every exercise, body positioning and biomechanics play a major role in both the effectiveness of the movement and the relative risk of injury. The height of the bench (or platform) the shoulders rest on during the movement is important, and I've found that heights of 14-18" are suitable for most of my adult clients. One of the ways of figuring out the best height for you involves doing a test bodyweight-only hip thrust. If your thighs and torso are parallel to the floor during the finish (concentric contraction in the glutes), then you're probably where you need to be height-wise.
With the feet, I've found that my clients (especially the men) tend to benefit more from a slightly-wider-than-hips stance, with toes flared out to around 45 degrees. Drive through the heels during the movement, in order to best activate the posterior chain (and glutes).
Because the barbell (or dumbbell if you're using dbs) will sit in the hip crease, perhaps the BIGGEST tip I can give you is to find an appropriate pad. The vast majority of barbell pads are, IMO, not suitable for heavier hip thrusts (read- they will leave your pelvis hurting!). I hear good things about the Hampton International Bar Pad (4" thick, around $50) but personally haven't tried it yet. For me, I've found that using an Airex exercise mat, rolled up a few times, gives me the comfort and stability I want, even when doing 400lbs hip thrusts!
While the barbell hip thrust is emphasized above, there are several variations and alternative movements you can do to directly address the glutes by putting the pelvis in extension. Bodyweight hip thrusts (both bilateral and single legged), banded hip thrusts (with a hip circle or "booty band" placed above your knees), and barbell hip thrusts are all options, and due to an increase in the popularity of the movement, I've even started to see hip thrust machines at a few gyms.
Next up in this series we'll be looking at 3 more lower body exercises, including the Romanian Deadlift (which some may classify as a full body movement), Squats and Lunges.
ARE YOU READY FOR CHANGE?!
If you're ready for a SIGNIFICANT, positive health change and want to take a holistic, personalized, evidence-based approach to get there, let me know! I provide health and nutritional consulting as well as personal training services to both local (Charleston, SC area) and remote clients.
4 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538523/ (joints of the pelvis)
5 https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jab/31/6/article-p452.xml (2015 study comparing hip thrusts to squats)
6 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26695353/ (2016 study comparing barbell hip thrusts to banded hip thrusts)
7 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6350668/ (2019 review of 39 studies)
8 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6544005/ (2019 review of 12 studies showing the benefits barbell hip thrusts have on glute activation and sports performance)
9 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039033/ (2020 analysis of 16 studies that found several exercises effective as soliciting very high levels of glute max activity)