Variety is an important component of training for strength and building muscle, there’s no doubt about it. Rotating lifts in every 4-6 weeks keep us progressing, help to avoid overuse injuries, and keep us motivated to train.
Too much variety in your training is a detriment, though, because if you’re constantly changing things, you’re never getting all that you can out of a particular lift before moving on. Progressive overload is the overarching principle of getting strong and jacked, and we can’t build on something if we are constantly changing it.
STAPLEsta·pleˈstāpəl/nounnoun: staple; plural noun: staples1. a main or important element of something,
With that being said, there are 8 staple exercises that almost never leave my programs for long. I’m 34, have been training for 20 years, (full disclosure: for a good chunk of those I had no idea what I was doing), have had both knees and a shoulder surgically repaired, and coach high school wrestling so I’m on the mats with young killers several days each week, so the need to train intelligently is of the utmost importance. These exercises check a lot of boxes for me, keep me progressing, and help from letting my joints from feeling like a rusty door hinge.
After all, I certainly can’t have high school kids beating me up, and I can’t be breaking down when training people to be strong, resilient, and healthy is my job.
Of these 8, you’ll notice that most are either bodyweight exercises or lightly loaded, yet train the entire body. This makes them very joint friendly and allows them to be done at a higher frequency than traditional barbell and dumbbell lifts.
And like I said, being strong, and healthy is what it’s all about, so the things you do in the gym allow you to maximize your life outside of it.
In terms of joint friendly exercises that work the entire upper body, you can’t beat pushups. There are a million different variations, and including them in some capacity is important. I like finishing off upper body training sessions with Hindu pushups, feet elevated neutral grip pushups on parallette bars, weighted pushups, band resisted pushups, or sometimes good old fashioned, high rep military style pushups. Sometimes I throw them in with battling ropes for conditioning, and truthfully, I do them every time I go to the beach.
The important thing is, no matter how strong you are, there are pushup variations that fit your needs, so you’ll never be too advanced for them.
I have a couple protruding disks in my neck and had a shoulder surgery from a wrestling injury, and whenever these somehow make their way out of my warm ups, without fail my neck starts to bother me. Arm bars help improve shoulder stability and mobility in the thoracic spine. They might look a little goofy, but they’ve paid big dividends for me.
Start light, and hold them for a number of deep, diaphragmatic breaths rather than for time. I like 5 breaths as a general length of time, and do 3-5 sets in my warm ups, between lifts, or on off days during mobility circuits.
No meat head list is complete without a barbell lift right? For me, front squats are my ultimate strength barometer. When it’s going down, my training has usually been shitty, I’m run down, or have drifted away from things that I know work for me. When it’s going up, everything else tends to be improving as well. I don’t necessarily try to set a PR ever time I front squat, but in the big scheme of things, I’m always working to improve it.
Chin Ups are the best relative strength benchmark there is. By that I mean strength in relation to bodyweight. There are a lot of guys out there who have big benches and squats, but can’t do a single chin up because they’re too fat.
Chins work everything from your lats to your scapular retractors to your core to your rotator cuff and everything in between. You can’t ask for a bigger bang for your buck exercise. Do them with your bodyweight, on gymnastics rings, different grips, or weighted-they all have a place and one form or another is always in my training programs.
As a last note, my current favorite chin up variation are neutral grip chin ups with Fat Gripz. These feel great on my shoulders and give your grip some extra work.
Life happens on one leg, and the requirements of your muscles changes when you go on one leg as opposed to 2, so including single leg training in your programs is important. Single leg squats are my favorite single leg exercise, as I get a lot of strength work with them and they don’t piss my knees off like lunges.
One thing to point out is that if you have a history of knee issues, don’t push the depth on these much past parallel, as they might get a little cranky.
Often, single leg squats are initially too much for people, so I like having people slowly build their strength on these by increasing the depth, and when they start squatting to a 12 inch box, then we start adding load in the way of sandbags or weighted vests.
Use 5 pound plates in your hands when you do these as a counterbalance, and think about sitting straight down to the box, as opposed to back.
The best shoulder prehab you can do. Everyone needs more rows to counteract all of the sitting, typing, and pushing we do in our lives, and these are able to be done on a daily basis without banging you up to strengthen the big muscles of the upper back and shoulders, reinforce good shoulder mobility, and promote proper core control-ie: not letting your back arch like a stripper as you row up.
Sets of anywhere from 10-20 work well, and to add to the load, elevate your feet on a box, then start adding plates on your lap.
I’m routinely pissed that I wasn’t the one who invented the ab wheel. Of all the fitness equipment that has ever been created, these and battling ropes are the 2 that I wish I had been smart enough to invent and retire young on. So simple, yet so effective.
Ab wheels are like 10 dollars and are the best trunk exercise you can do. They work your abs, lower back, lats, and shoulders, and they can be progressed indefinitely as you get stronger, making them a great staple core exercise. Elevate the knees, add a weight vest, add pauses, and keep working to progress to standing rollouts.
There is no excuse to have piss poor conditioning. I don’t think that I have to list all of the reasons why it’s important to have a big gas tank, but in the end, I don’t want to be all show and no go. The airdyne is an incredible tool because it’s easy on the joints and you can just get after it because the harder you pedal, the more resistance you get-there’s no messing around with resistance levels or anything. Some of my favorite conditioning protocols for the bike are:
I feel so strongly about the staple exercises here that I have the option to do almost all of them at my house at any given time. I have a chin up bar in the doorway to my office, and an airdyne, kettle bells, and ab wheel next to my desk.
On any given Saturday or Sunday morning, I might wake up, have some coffee, foam roll and do some mobility for 10-15 minutes where I include arm bars, then do something like:
and so on, throwing in different pushup variations as I do 1 less chin up each set down to 1. Then I’ll finish up with some conditioning on the bike. Quick, effective, and gets the day started off on the right foot.
These are my staple exercises, and I think they’re great choices for most people, but ultimately what you choose for yours is up to you. Think critically about what exercises give you the most benefit, make you feel good, and what happens when you take certain things out of your programs, both positively and negatively.
Then, make a list of the 5-10 things that work best for you. Find new ways to challenge them, don’t deviate too far from them for too long, and keep getting better, one day at a time.
Combine your staples with rotating some lifts in and some out every 4-8 weeks, and you’ll keep improving and feeling good, which is what it’s all about.
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