Exercise is at its core a form of functional training for movement. While we make up plenty of ways to make it more complicated, everything ultimately boils down to a handful of necessary movements from which all the rest are contrived. The most basic of movements are ultimately also the most useful in most cases. While the requirements of specific sports and competitions may necessitate the use of more specialized training movements, the vast majority of people can get the most benefit from focusing on the basic, full-body movements from which the most benefit can be derived. Here is a list of these movements.
1. Chest-Based Pressing Movement
Chest-based pressing movements include the bench press, dumbbell bench press, and pushup. They will help build chest, tricep, and (to a lesser extent) shoulder musculature, which means that a lot of people tend to do them for their aesthetic value in addition to their health benefits. Chest presses also have a good amount of carryover to any contact sport, as pushing an opponent away from you will primarily involve these muscles. If you're looking for pecs you can bounce bullets off of, these are the movements for you.
2. Overhead Pressing Movement
Overhead pressing movements include dumbbell overhead presses, barbell overhead presses, and the push press. These ones didn't almost make the cut, in my opinion. While overhead presses still involve a considerable amount of stabilizing musculature, the muscles involved (shoulders) are relatively smaller in terms of muscle mass and weaker in terms of strength than most of the other movements on this list. Also, while the push press is great at building power, it isn't necessarily the best at building musculature. That being said, overhead presses can be extremely functional, as anyone who works in a profession where they have to lift stuff overhead can tell you. Overhead pressing movements can also be extremely useful in some sports, making them a valuable tool. If you're looking for those boulder shoulders, overhead pressing movements are for you.
3. Back-Based Pulling Movement
Back-based pulling movements include rows and pull-ups and their numerous variations. Lots of people tend to ignore them to focus on those muscles more aesthetically visible arm, shoulder, and chest musculature, but training only half of your upper body is plain stupid: you put yourself at risk for postural deviations, not to mention you look silly with a defined chest and no back. Further, while you likely aren't going to be showing off your back as much, most people tend to store less fat back there, meaning you can look a lot more ripped without having to worry about it as much. Back musculature is important in maintaining good posture and counteracting the sitting that most people do all day at desk jobs. Pulling movements will build those lats and rhomboids, giving you the wings that you can show off even from the front.
4. Squatting Movement
The king of all movements, in my humble opinion, squatting movements revolve around the squat and its numerous variations. Squatting movements focus on your glutes, low back, and hamstrings, but will primarily target the quadrilaterals. The squat is also the single largest exercise in terms of the strength and musculature you can build as well as the benefits it has for your body, even if the form can be a little bit trickier. Learn to properly hip hinge, and soon you can be squatting with the greats. Both guys and girls will love the way squats build up the legs and butt, helping you fill out those pants with more than just chicken legs. Squats are almost always useful, no matter your goal, because you use your legs for a lot more than your upper body.
5. Deadlift Movement
6. Plank Movement
The plank wins the crown for most useful core movement by a mile. The vast majority of abdominal exercises focus on shortening movements, such as your crunch, sit up, and reverse crunch. Unfortunately, your abdominals weren't actually designed for extreme shortening, and don't respond well to this form of training. Rather, your abdominals were designed with the stability of your spine in mind, which means that they're really good at holding isometric (static) positions against external forces. While the plank may not be the hardest available isometric abdominal exercise, it's easily scalable for exercisers of all proficiency levels, and has plenty of progressions for more advanced exercisers. While diet is ultimately the key to getting the lean abdominals most people are looking for, planks will help build strength and stability in the core and low back, protecting the spine and improving posture. For this reason I can safely recommend it to a variety of individuals with a variety of fitness goals. It may not be the best exercise for extremely deconditioned clients, who may prefer to start off with the dead bug, but aside from that it serves well for the vast majority of individuals. Quit wasting your time with crunches and situps, and do planks instead. I'll be honest: I haven't done anything for core except planks in months, and it's been the best decision I've ever made. Make the switch and you'll understand what I mean.
So there you go, the six most useful basic movements. Next week I'm going to write a follow-up piece along the lines of the most useful advanced movements, the movements everyone should be learning to do whenever possible.