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Rating 20 of the most Common Strength Training & Fitness Exercises

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 10 July 2019
Hits: 5451

There are so many exercise choices available to use for improving your health and fitness but which ones are the best to use? It is impossible to give an absolute answer to that question for it depends on so many factors such as age, goal, injury, sport, time and skill to name just a few. Having said that there is certain exercises that personal trainers, strength coaches, and various experts in the health and fitness industry know are the “game changers” and the movements they want their clients to spend the most time doing. To help you understand this we will take a look at 20 of the most common exercises used in most gyms today along with many of our most popular movements and provide each exercise with a rating to help define its position in the hierarchy of importance.

Why Have a Rating For Each Exercise?

The simple answer is; to maximise the time working out and get the biggest return on your investment. The two biggest obstacles facing people from achieving great health and fitness results is TIME and KNOWLEDGE.

Modern living has made many things easier but it has also found a way for us to fit more and more things into our day. There is only so much you can do so if you can find an exercise program that delivers great results in the least amount of time you are more likely to succeed. This would be one of the main reasons why people see a personal trainer in the first place as they need an appointment to make them fit in their training.

I have been a trainer for almost 15 years and regularly have clients I see only twice per week. I know they need to exercise at least 1-2 more times in the week to be at their best but in reality most do not train that hard and if they do it is not that good. But this does not mean they cannot see great results (as long as they are eating well). The key is to find a workout that delivers a big punch in effectiveness, but comes with minimal risk.

The second obstacle being knowledge is where people base their health plans on principles that are from friends or something they read in a magazine. They more or less just make stuff up, thinking if they train as hard as they can and burn heaps of calories it will all work out just fine. This is like throwing darts blindfolded and hoping you hit a bulls-eye.

Most health and fitness plans are doomed before they even begin and a lot of wasted time and effort is often the result.  

But what if you knew what the best exercises to use were? And you knew exactly how to do them and when? This would solve many of your problems. Again it is impossible for me to give you a template that fits everyone but this rating system can help give you a better understanding of what you need to do.

How the Rating System Works

This rating system is not a scientifically proven formula, it is very subjective and many may argue that some exercises could be higher or lower. This is also NOT rating what is the hardest exercise, it is to rate what is the BEST set of exercises for most people to use to achieve great results in minimal time. The ratings are based upon the discussions between our team of trainers and what we have found to be useful across multiple age groups with different goals and needs.

I myself have trained and worked with over 1000 people in 14 years of being a trainer, some with horrific injuries or disease, some professional athletes, kids as young as 8, and adults as old as 85! This has enabled me to easily classify what are my “go-to” exercises for all these different people for I have seen first-hand the results from using them. This is very important for injury and people with problems for it gives me a map of what exercises I need to move them towards knowing full well how many benefits they provide.

Let’s define the scoring system and the different categories.

Each category is scored from 0-10 with zero being a poor score, and 10 being first class excellence.

Skill

This first category determines how much skill is required to complete the exercise effectively. The higher the skill required the higher the rating provided. This is because our bodies develop multiple abilities faster than any other method by being exposed to complex movement.

There has been several studies proving strength increases in line with the development of the nervous system, which is of primary importance to the body in terms of muscular strength. This is why so many young kids and beginners to gym exercises are so weak when they first start for their coordination and timing is so bad. Once they develop skill with movement their stability improves and as a result their strength increases rapidly. Not from increasing muscle size but from improved neurological coordination.

We also see this same problem with people suffering from injury and older adults. This category for this reason is of more importance than fitness. 

Strength

This category explains itself. This is where we rate the ability of this exercise to promote muscular strength. Muscular strength is very important for several reasons:

  • Increases your bone density while lowering your risk of osteoporosis
  • Helps to regulate hormones
  • Lose weight (the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolic rate and the more efficiently your body burns calories)
  • Protects your joints from injury
  • Helps maintain flexibility and balance
  • Improves your stamina and lessens fatigue

Strength relates to the goals and needs of every client and again is more important to your health than cardiovascular fitness. The health benefits of strength training cannot be underestimated and should be your priority no matter what age you are. Even people receiving treatment for cancer strength training is essential as it plays a key role in controlling blood glucose and the role of insulin. See article cancer & exercise for more detail on this.

Exercises with high strength ratings are ranked very highly as they provide a big bang for your buck.

Speed & Power

This is an interesting category and one that may not relate to many people’s goals if you do not play sports. Many fall into the trap thinking they do not need it but it is something that we should try to preserve as long as we can. For once we lose our ability to move fast it is very difficult to get it back. But it is not limited to sports with many daily activities also requiring this ability. We need power and speed to complete simple tasks like getting out of a chair, walking up stairs, or crossing a road quickly. Read our article Why we all need Power Training for more detail on this.

The higher the demand of speed and power the higher the score.

Mobility

We all know that good mobility leads often leads to good movement. Whenever we suffer with an injury the very first thing we do is stretch, get a massage or see a physical therapist to release the stiffness. I have found over the years that there are two types of people when it comes to stretching. Those who hate it and never find time to fit in any stretching at all, and those who love it and tend to over-use it and become too flexible. Finding the middle ground is important in maintaining balance within the body.

Certain exercises will also demand this of you (eg Turkish Get-Up) and if you can learn to master these movements you will maintain optimal mobility without the need of a stretching program. And vice versa there are exercises that decrease your mobility and as a result we rank these poorly.

The higher the need for mobility the higher the score.

Versatility

This is an interesting category for we decided to add this at the last minute to reward the exercises that cater for the most age groups and needs. This is where some exercises that rank very highly in speed and power might rate very poorly here. Even though they are great exercises, the fact they are only relevant to a small percentage of people gives it a poor rating.

However exercises like the squat and deadlift relate to people of all ages and even those with injury for it will significantly improve their quality of life by improving how they move.

The wider the cross section of people the exercise caters for, the higher the score.

Fitness

This category relates to cardiovascular fitness. Exercises that may have received high ratings in strength may not receive high ratings here for it is unlikely to improve cardiovascular fitness as much as running or cycling for example. However, if you think you cannot get fit from lifting weights you will be very surprised by many of these ratings.

Confusing fitness with health is an area we find that the lack of knowledge comes to the surface where people abuse exercise and all of the previous categories are ignored in the sake of getting fit. This is a real problem in today’s gyms and many of the clients we see with horrible injuries are caused from over-exercising and trying to thrash their body with fitness methods.

See our article – How to avoid Over-training

We tend to look at this category as a nice to have if you already have the other things.

Exercises with the highest cardio output will have the highest rating here.

Functional

This last category is another controversial topic for many people can argue almost all exercises are functional. Wikipedia defines functional training as “a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.”

Many confuse integrated exercise with functional. For example Olympic lifting or muscle-ups people classify as functional when in reality they are sports specific exercises, and not something we would ever do or need in daily life.

This category is very similar to the skill category and we would rate exercises that are standing as more functional than those lying, kneeling, or seated. You can read more about our definition in the article – How functional movement can change your life

The more closely it relates to an everyday movement the higher its rating.

For more information on this make sure you get a copy of our FREE Report below. Click here to get your copy.

Okay that covers the categories lets dive into the exercises. Starting with the highest rating and working our way down to the lowest.

1: Single leg squat/deadlift – Score 53

This only just beats the bilateral deadlift and squat and the main reason is due to the stability demands and how it relates more to walking and our ability to create motion. Of all the exercises to use to reveal a hidden weakness or energy leak the single leg variations are by far the best. They are also the ones that provide the greatest gains for strength (see unilateral article) and also skills with agility and power which are both essential for sports. These two exercises achieve perfect 10/10 for skill, versatility and function. The only thing it rates poorly for is speed and fitness, however one could argue the progressions of this movement are perfect for these two things.

See article – Why the single leg squat is the best exercise for knee pain

2: Deadlift – Score 52

 

Most people would rate this as number one and I almost agree. We rated this as perfect 10/10 for strength, function and versatility. The skill of this is a bit less than the single leg version but what it loses in skill it makes up in grip strength and maximal strength gains. Just like the single leg exercises this is a key exercise for injury (in particular back pain), older adults, general strength and sporting fitness. It simply has so many benefits that we ALL need to become great at this.

See article – Which deadlift version is best for you

3: Woodchop – Score 52

This exercise may surprise many and it is unique in that it is neither an upper body or lower body exercise. All our movements are created from this pattern as this was the first thing we ever used as a baby to move! A newborn baby doesn't yet have the motor nerves, strength or ability to integrate the arms and legs to propel movement. The infant learns to move its body by using its core in a twisting and wiggling type movement. This is why many regard the twisting movement pattern as the most important one to master. Another important attribute of this movement versus many of the others is the speed in which it is performed. Where the deadlift, squat and push ups will need control and a slow tempo, the woodchop needs a much faster and more explosive timing in order to be completed efficiently. This is why it is also a big part of many sports specific programs for golf, tennis, baseball etc.

See article – Twisting and Rotation what you need to know

4: Squat – Score 50

If you are thinking why is the squat not ranked equal to the deadlift? Or perhaps even higher? It loses out based on its limited versatility. This is due to the fact many people cannot complete this exercise due to knee or hip pain. There is also many versions and we could rate them all a bit differently but for the sake of this article we will just refer to the squat as either a barbell or dumbbell. I would rate the front squat as a much more difficult exercise and add an extra point for skill if this was used as shown in the picture. Another key exercise for sports as the movement of jumping is created from the squat pattern.

See article – The Top 7 Squats

5: Single cable push – Score 50

This exercise is very under rated and many people may have not even tried it before. This is so much more than just a simple upper body exercise. This improves stability and strength of the shoulder, trunk, pelvis and even the big toe. This movement activates what is known as the anterior sling critical for the use of walking. Again this movement rates very highly in versatility and function as we use this with people of all ages and needs due to its high neurological adaptation.

See article – Single Cable push & why it is so much more than a strength exercise

6: Walking lunge – Score 49

There is so many versions of the lunge we could have included another 10 varieties of this in the list. We chose the walking lunge as it is one of the most commonly used exercises in gyms, sporting clubs, and group training. This is an excellent exercise to build not just strength into the legs but the ability to stabilise on the move. It has the added bonus of cardiovascular fitness beating all the previous exercises. However similar to the squat it loses points for its lack of versatility as older adults and many people with knee, foot and even back pain may not be able to use this. 

See article – Lunges are great for fitness success

7: Turkish get up – Score 49

This is one of my personal favourites as it improves so many things. I like to think of it as the "Swiss army knife" of exercise but for this reason that it can be hard to learn which is why it has such a high skill rating and low versatility rating.

Here is a list of the benefits to your body from the Turkish Get Up.

  • Greatly improves shoulder stability and thoracic mobility at the same time!
  • Improves overall body stability and integration between upper and lower body
  • Promotes reflexive stability of the torso
  • Encourages great mobility of the hips and thoracic spine, the two areas most people are lacking
  • Improves the body's ability to coordinate and enhance balance from lying to standing
  • Develops upper body strength, trunks strength, and glute strength

As you can see this is so much more than just a simple strength exercise.

See article – Turkish Get Up is the ultimate core exercise

8: Push up – Score 44

Push-ups are very under rated and are without doubt one of the oldest and most common of all exercises to every person around the world. They are often used as a fitness test in Police & Military, sporting clubs as well as being a cornerstone of programs for martial arts and gymnastics. Where it loses out on skill versus the other exercises, it makes up in categories of versatility as almost everyone knows how to do a push-up and you can do them pretty much anywhere.

See article – Push-ups are the best bodyweight exercise

9: Battling Ropes – Score 44

Again another very interesting exercise that creeps into our top 10. Although not as common as the push-up and loses out in the versatility department it is similar to the woodchop in that it demands incredible speed. The skill level is moderate versus many other speed and power exercises that are very technical and difficult to learn. It also gets a 10/10 for fitness as anyone who has ever completed this will tell you how quickly it can exhaust your body. While it is not really delivering huge strength gains the benefits of moving fast with minimal risk of injury is what moves it up high into our rankings.

See video – 4 great ways to improve your fitness with battling ropes

10: Chin up – Score 35

I must admit I was disappointed not to have this ranked higher as I love chin-ups and do them every week at least once or twice in my workouts. There are not many exercises that demand as much strength as this movement as it builds incredible grip strength because your fingers, hands and forearms are all used. Also the core is given a huge workout as it tries to prevent your legs and body from swinging around. The reason it scores much lower is due to its lack of versatility and mobility. As it is so hard not many people can perform this movement at all and it is known for creating neck and shoulder problems with those not strong enough to handle the load. It also loses points for lack of speed and fitness. However it is still in our top 10 and an exercise well worth spending time to do if you can.

See article – Why Chin-ups are so powerful to your core

11: Yoga – Score 33

Now this is the only one on the list that is really a method of exercise instead of an individual exercise. I felt I had to make way for Yoga for it is so unique and has so many impressive benefits. However it is very difficult to measure accurately as there are so many poses and there is also many different styles of Yoga. If we just measure the more typical approach to Yoga which is often called Hatha and is not a strength workout but more of a meditation type approach to exercise with an emphasis on breathing and mobility. We also applied a rating that is basically an average of the different demands of each pose to give us a rough comparison to the other exercises. Yoga has numerous benefits to the body in terms of health that none of the exercise so far provide and for that reason is a great addition to any health and fitness program.

Using Yoga on its own however poses problems for while it is great at many things it does lack the strength and skill development found in the other exercises.

12: Running – Score 33

 

The first of our cardiovascular activities and by far the most common source of fitness training. Again there is many versions of running to consider as sprinting is much different to distance running. For the sake of this article we consider this to be a jog of 2-5km which is what the majority of people would do. This rates very highly for fitness and function but loses points for mobility, strength and versatility. Arguably the skill level could be much higher too as there is a technique to running efficiently but very rarely is this taught. There are many people who are unable to run due to problems with hips, knees and feet. It simply hurts too much. If you can do it that is great but I would still rate all the other exercises before this. A nice to have but not essential.

See article – Exercises to improve running

13: Squat Row – Score 33

This exercise is a variation we use from the typical seated cable row. This version scores much more favourably than the seated version for the same reasons stated earlier with the leg press. This exercise is unique with the legs for while it looks like a tough squat movement, which it can be if you want, it also allows the person the ability to squat with assistance. This all depends on where you place the cable handles on the column. By placing it higher it actually assists the person on the squat allowing them to develop their leg skill without strength. The main benefit to the exercise and what is known for is developing strength into the upper back region of the middle and lower traps, rhomboids and biceps of the arms. A great movement that can be used by almost every age group safely and effectively. We use this as a warm up exercise with most people.

See article – Correct technique for pulling exercises

14: Box Jumps – Score 33

This has become a very popular exercise in recent years with Crossfit and F45. It has been a staple exercise for many years in sports and conditioning facilities as it provides huge benefits for athletes looking to improve explosive power with jumping. It also provides great benefit with landing and prevention of injuries to the lower limbs in particular the knee and the ACL. Where this exercise loses a lot of points is its lack of versatility as so many people lack the necessary power to execute this effectively if at all. An awesome exercise if taught and used appropriately and can go a long way to preserving your precious fast twitch fibres which are very easily lost and hard to get back once gone.

See article – Why power training is so important

15: Cycling – Score 31

A great activity that improves fitness and leg strength to some degree. Again there are many versions of cycling from road cycling to mountain biking that have very different demands. If again we consider the most common which is recreational cycling we can observe the benefits this exercise method provides. Where it gains more on leg strength than running it loses out on functionality and mobility. As with running and all cardio activities this mode of exercise has the big problem of efficiency. This is where your body becomes so good at it that there is little change no matter how much you do. You have two choices and that is to increase your duration or your intensity. Most people pick the first option as it is easier, but this leads you back full circle to the big obstacle facing people in the first place being TIME!

It also must be noted that this activity has no ability to improve how you move for activities in life and in fact can create injuries in people who cycle a lot. 

See article – Strength training for cycling

16: Bench press – Score 25

Many people may argue with me here and believe this exercise should be rated much higher. We have all been in a situation where someone strong walks in to a room and you hear someone say "I wonder what he can bench?" As if the bench press is the ultimate measurement of strength. While it ranks well for versatility and strength, it ranks very poorly in all other categories in particular function and skill. Most people are injured or perform poorly with movement mainly due to a lack of skill and poor stabilising strategies. I have seen many people who can bench well over 140kg yet barely be able to walk up a flight of stairs or perform a squat with their own bodyweight. Their strength is useless to them in any real-life situation or a sport where we need to be standing up. While it may deliver some muscles size and strength in the upper body, the fact it neglects to involve the legs and the core moves it down the list.

See article – Why the bench press fails and movement succeeds

17: Bicep curl – Score 24

This could be the cousin to the bench press and again another age-old exercise that comes to people’s minds when they think of strength training. At least this exercise can be performed standing up and some would argue it is functional and mimic picking up a shopping bag for example. My argument to this is that we always try to find the most efficient ways to lift things in life and this is why we would always use our legs to lift heavy objects as they are much stronger and more capable. This is where we really use a deadlift with minimal bicep work. Again like the bench press it gets a high score for versatility as it can be done by almost anyone due to its low skill level. There are many exercises you can find that will provide all the work the bicep ever needs but with the added function. Eg a chin up or a bent over row.

See article – Movement not muscles

18: Leg press – Score 21

One of the worst things technology has done to the fitness industry is create machines to do strength training with. The leg press is right up there as one of the worst things you could ever use. Why? Several reasons for this but mainly it ruins your body’s ability to stabilize and also places you in a horrible position for your spine and hips. Sure you can increase some strength but it is at the expense of your stability. Similar to the bench press I have seen many guys leg press well over 400kg but unable to do a body weight lunge or single leg movement. The strength they have from the leg press is an illusion for in the real world when they need to stand up to lift things their technique is so faulty their muscles have no chance.

See article – The truth about the leg press

19: Sit up – Score 19

Now we are up to some of the most over used and abused exercises being the sit up or abdominal crunch. In recent years I believe people are becoming more aware to the dangers of this exercise, however it is still often used as a test in military, police force and sporting clubs similar to the push-up. This exercise is one of the main causes of poor posture and bulging discs as it repeatedly bends the spine into flexion which is ironic as many think it is building core stability and strength to prevent back pain. Secondly one reason this exercise is so popular is that people think it will give them a six pack abdominal appearance. Anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge in about health and fitness training will tell you cannot SPOT REDUCE. This means you cannot target an area with a particular exercise to make that particular area more toned or muscular.

There is not much good this exercise provides and one to avoid

See article – 5 Worst exercises of all time

20: Plank – Score 15

Yes you did read that correctly the score is 15 and this exercise ranks very low on our scale. Why? At least the sit-up has an element of movement involved where the breathing timed with the movement enables muscles to work the way they are designed. This exercise cannot even be labelled a movement as it does not move. People are drawn to this exercise as it really rips the abs apart the longer you hold it. However the abdominal stabilizers were never designed to work like this ever. When would you ever need to stiffen your body up like this in real life, or name a sport where you need to do this for minutes at a time? I cannot think of needing to do this other than when I do this exercise. True stability is about effortless timing and the ability to go from relaxed to stiff within the blink of an eye. Staying stiff as a board is not stability at all. It is confusing strength with stability. To train stabilizers correctly you need to train them in the way they are used.

See article – Are core workouts useful for injury prevention?

For tons of great ideas of how to put these exercises together in many challenging workouts make sure you get a copy of the Little Black Book below. Click here to get your copy.

Summary

That covers our top 20 and there is many great exercises we left out. The main purpose of this article was not to find the hardest exercise but to find the best choices of exercise to deliver the biggest benefits in the least amount of time. Many of the strength exercises used in years past were based on body building methods that required an exercise for almost every body part. A program could take 60-90 minutes to complete and you needed 4 or 5 days to do this. Most people do not have the time or devotion to train like this, yet alone the complications of learning so many things that are really creating movement dysfunction. Also many of these exercises were not relevant to older adults or people with injury or limitations. There is a much easier way and effective way to train and I hope the exercises we have shared in this article open your mind to the possibilities of different training methods that emphasise movement and function. Some of the lower ranked exercises may in fact be a good choice depending on the person and the circumstances. But in most cases you will find the exercises in the top 10 will deliver everything you need.

Just remember that one exercise on its own will only do so much. The best programs are a combination of several key exercises and methods and it is fair to say that if you were doing all the exercises listed here in the top 20 you are in pretty great shape. And that is what it is all about.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References

  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Athletic Body in Balance – by Gray Cook
  • New Functional Training for Sports – by Mike Boyle
  • Bending the Aging Curve – by Robert Signorile
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Stuart McGill
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Balance - By Peter Twist