10 Basic Exercises You Need to Build a Workout

Single-leg Romanian deadliftJay Sullivan

You don’t need a ton of equipment, fancy machines, or crazy new moves to build a workout. In fact, some of the most basic exercises are still some of the best exercises.



Take the humble pushup, for example. It’s a total-body move that uses your body as the equipment and works your chest, arms, shoulders, and even your core.

Every good gym routine will use moves like that as building blocks. You can then add other, tougher variations of those moves or throw in some fancy equipment to get a little variety. But, mastering the fundamentals is key to seeing gains in the gym.

We spoke to Colin Young, the regional performance manager at EXOS, to bring you these 10 basic exercises that you can use as the foundation for hundreds of strength routines.

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1. Bodyweight Squat

Squatting is a basic movement necessary for everyday function (think of getting in and out of a desk chair).  The Bodyweight Squat is a great exercise to engrain proper mechanics with minimal risk of injury while strengthening the quads and glutes.

2. Glute Bridge-Iso Hold

Proper glute engagement is so important for pain-free movement, especially in the knees and back.  Glute Bridges are often part of a physical therapy regimen to decrease knee or back pain, but can double as a strength exercise for most. For an added challenge, try the movement with one leg.

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3. Pushup

The Push-up is traditionally known for building strength in the chest and shoulders.  It does this very well, however it also doubles as a great pillar and shoulder stability exercise.  Simply holding the top of a push-up position forces the body to work against gravity with the emphasis on stabilizing the scapula and spine.

4. Split Squat

Split Squats-like traditional Squats-replicate a basic human movement while challenging the quads and glutes.  Going from a half-kneeling to a standing position happens all the time. Training balance and strength through this process is key.  Keeping the feet rooted for the entire movement vs. stepping in and out of a lunge takes some of the impact & eccentric load off the knee and hip, making it a perfect introductory movement.

5. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Most training programs are light on engaging the posterior chain (the backside), especially in the lower body.  The Inverted Hamstring/1 Leg RDL activates the hamstrings, glutes, and postural muscles that can reverse some of the damage done by spending time in a seated position and hunched over a computer.  It is also a great introductory exercise into training single leg balance.

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6. Bent-over Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

This variation is fantastic for developing shoulder stabilization and balance limb strength across both sides. The tendency for most is to shrug the shoulders up causing the upper traps to act as primary movers.  This can lead to shoulder pain and general dysfunction.  Push the shoulders away from the ears to best utilize the lats, mid/low traps, and rhomboids.  Using rows to balance the amount of time we spend in an internally rotated position of the shoulder is a great strategy to avoid issues.

7. Single-arm Half-kneeling Dumbbell Overhead Press

Focusing on unilateral (one limb) exercises is a great way to balance strength, stability and mobility.  Completing the Overhead Press as a unilateral exercise in the half-kneeling position does this not only for the arms and shoulders, but the pillar as well.  Using even a small weight shifts the body’s center of mass and forces the pillar to engage to keep you upright, turning a traditional delt-builder into a total body exercise.

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8. Kettlebell Deadlift

Picking items off the ground is a crucial movement for everyone to train.  Using a light kettlebell can reinforce proper position that will hopefully transfer outside the gym to avoid injury when bending at the hips.  The key is to keep the spine straight and drive the glutes back, which loads the hips instead of the lumbar spine. If done correctly, the hamstrings, glutes, and back will all engage and strengthen.

9. “Quadruped” with Arm & Leg Lift

The Quadruped Arm and Leg Lift exercise has a dual purpose.  The first is to strengthen the pillar and hip extensors.  The second is to train the cross-patterning (opposing movement of the arms & legs) that comes so natural to the body when walking and running. Training the body to optimize this process can boost performance during a run or simply while walking around during the day.”

10. Reverse-grip Pulldown

Chin-ups/Pulldowns are great for reinforcing scapular control and latissimus dorsi engagement.  The lats should be the primary movers, so emphasize pushing the shoulders down away from the ears when pulling.  The reverse grip provides a more comfortable position for the rotator cuff, as getting into the externally rotated position of a traditional pulldown can be difficult for many.

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