If You Could Only Do One Exercise

Ever wondered what the best exercise is?

If you had to choose just one lift to do for the rest of your life?

Is the squat really the best exercise? Is benching more important than anything else? Should you just shut up and deadlift?

Sure, we’re lucky that we don’t actually have to choose just one lift for the rest of our lives. But it’s a fun question to think about.

On top of that, evaluating different lifts in this light can be revealing. It forces you to think about what you’re really getting out of different movements, and whether there’s room for better balance in your program.

But again, it’s also just a lot of fun.

Criteria

So, how should you choose the one lift to do for the rest of your life?

There are a lot of ways you could look at it, but two factors stand out.

First, how comprehensive is the lift?

That means, how many muscle groups does it hit, and how much can you get out of it?

Remember, this is the only lift you’re doing, so it needs to make up for as many other lifts as possible.

It should also be something that you can expect to add weight to for a long time. If you can max out your progress on it in a few weeks, then you’re pretty much screwed for the rest of your life.

Second, how much do you enjoy the lift?

This is where it gets more subjective, but it’s still important to consider. Even if you can identify the perfect lift in terms of comprehensiveness, that doesn’t mean anything if you hate the lift itself.

You’d be a lot better off doing a somewhat less ideal lift if it’s one that you love and will consistently work on.

Instead of starting off with just one lift, we’re going to do this a bit differently.

We’re going to start with five lifts, and then narrow it down one by one until we’ve chosen the single lift to do for the rest of our lives.

We’re also going to be very strict here. When we say five lifts, it means that you can only do these five lifts in the gym. Absolutely nothing else at all.

Let’s get started!

Five Lifts

Okay, this one’ll be easy.

With five lifts to choose from, it’ll be no problem to hit all the muscle groups. We can probably even work in some of our own personal preferences pretty easily too.

In order to hit the whole body, we’re going to want at least one each of a squat, a deadlift, a push, and a pull.

For the squat, you can’t go wrong with either the back squat or the front squat. The back squat might be better in that you can use more weight, but the front squat is an excellent movement in its own right. Plenty of people only front squat, and with great success. You could probably even choose the Bulgarian split squat. Most people don’t have it as a primary lift in their program, but it’s also an effective movement.

For deadlift, either conventional or sumo deadlift would be the obvious choices. Either way, you’re hitting the posterior chain.

If you’re only choosing one, then the conventional deadlift might be better to pair with the squat. The stiff leg deadlift or the Romanian deadlift (RDL) could also work well here.

For push it’s a bit trickier. Just about all pressing movements work your triceps, but depending on which plane you’re moving in, you could be sacrificing either the chest or the delts. If you want to make sure you’re getting a bit of everything, the incline bench press might be the best choice.

That being said, you’d still survive just bench pressing, or just overhead pressing. The anterior delts play an important role in the bench press, and the upper chest is used in the overhead press.

For pull lifts, you’re going to want to go with either a row or some type of pull up.

Although a lot of people swear by heavy barbell rows, for this it makes sense to choose a strict variation. Very heavy rows performed with a lot of body English can almost turn into a deadlift. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that’s why they are such a great deadlift assistance exercise.

But since we’re already deadlifting in this scenario, we want to choose a lift that best targets the all of the back. So a strict barbell row, or a Pendlay row, or pull ups would work well here.

So, even though there are a lot of good options here, let’s go with the “best” four lifts so far:

  1. back squat
  2. conventional deadlift
  3. incline press
  4. strict barbell row

That gives us room for one more. There’s so much to choose from here, and we already have a decent balance, that it really comes down to personal preference.

You might want to add in another pull movement like pull ups to include work in the vertical plane, or perhaps another lower body movement like lunges or hip thrusts.

Or if you feel like those four lifts are already balanced enough, you could consider something a bit different than the compound lifts we’ve been focused on.

I’m going to be a little iconoclastic here and go with face pulls as the fifth movement.

Why’s that?

Face pulls, or similar upper back and rear delt work, are extremely valuable for ensuring shoulder health. Even if your pressing is balanced out to some degree by pulling movements, a lot of people will still find that they benefit from something more targeted to maintain healthy shoulders.

And remember, we decided at the beginning that these are absolutely the only movements we can do, so we can’t just sneak it in as part of a warm up or mobility work.

So, let’s go with this as our final “best” list:

  1. back squat
  2. conventional deadlift
  3. incline press
  4. strict barbell row
  5. face pulls

That looks like a pretty good choice of exercises to hit the entire body while ensuring long term health.

Personally, my list would look different.

Although the back squat allows you to use the most weight, I much prefer the front squat. It’s actually been my main squatting movement for years. I love that it really hits the quads, abs, and upper back, and can still be trained with very heavy weights.

Another consideration is that gives you a very similar training effect to that of the back squat, but with less weight. This means that over the long term, there’ll be less wear and tear on your body and less chance for injury.

The front squat isn’t better than the back squat, but given those considerations, and that I just love performing the lift, I would choose it as my squatting movement.

For my deadlift movement, I would choose the RDL. Conventional deadlifts have never felt very comfortable for me, whereas RDLs feel natural and smooth. I also feel like I can really target my posterior chain effectively with these by doing them slowly and controlled.

For my pressing movement, I would have to go with the bench press. The incline press is probably a better choice in terms of balance, but I simply don’t like it as much. To be honest, it’s probably because you can’t do as much weight. I just know I’d be much happier in the long term with the flat bench.

Neutral grip chin ups have been my favorite pulling movement for years. I find that with the normal supinated chin up grip, I get elbow pain after a while, but the neutral grip eliminates that problem completely. I think either a horizontal or vertical pulling motion is perfectly justifiable, so in this case it’s purely my preference to go with chin ups.

I would add, however, that the feeling of satisfaction from doing heavy weighted chin ups is unparalleled.

For my fifth lift, I’ll stick with face pulls. If I had it my way I would probably have it be the overhead press, but I’ll be long term oriented for now and keep the face pulls.

So here is Squats and Stuff’s five lifts:

  1. front squat
  2. RDL
  3. bench press
  4. neutral grip chin up
  5. face pulls

Alright, after five comes . . .

Four Lifts

We actually did most of the work for this in discussing the best five lifts to choose.

You still have enough room to get a great balance of exercises here, but you’ll have to leave out a fifth lift.

The most straightforward thing to do would be to take away face pulls, the last one we added.

I know, I know, we included it because it’s important for shoulder health. So how can we take it out?

Well, that’s the point. We’re going to have to make sacrifices in this hypothetical scenario.

With four lifts, it really doesn’t make sense to get rid of the squat or the deadlift, so we’d either have to choose between one upper body movement or face pulls.

It seems hard to justify giving up either your push or your pull movement for face pulls. Either way we’re leaving out very important muscle groups.

If you have to leave out face pulls, then the argument for choosing a horizontal pulling movement over a vertical one becomes much stronger. Horizontal pulls tend to work the rear delts much better than vertical pulls, which would somewhat mitigate the loss of face pulls.

In that case, it seems we chose the four best lifts wisely. It would be the same first four as with five lifts:

  1. back squat
  2. conventional deadlift
  3. incline press
  4. strict barbell row

In my own list, I would still go with chin ups. I just love chin ups too much, shoulder health be damned.

I would just be careful with benching, and try to take it easy with the volume.

So here are the four lifts for Squats and Stuff:

  1. front squat
  2. RDL
  3. bench press
  4. neutral grip chin ups

Next up is three lifts!

Three Lifts

This is where things start to get interesting.

There’s no way to avoid making a major sacrifice here by paring our list down to three lifts.

Most people won’t want to get rid of either the squat or the deadlift at this point, and how can you choose between a push or a pull movement? Either way you’re missing out on a lot of important muscle groups

So we’re going to have to get creative.

One way to get out of the predicament is to substitute in a new lift, one that can roughly take the place of two.

Let’s try the snatch grip deadlift. We can replace the conventional deadlift and the row with it. It won’t be perfect, but let’s see how it goes

The snatch grip deadlift is a smart choice because it is, of course, a deadlift. You won’t be able to work up quite as heavy as you would with a conventional deadlift, but it can still be trained with extremely heavy weights. So we’re not really missing out on too much by taking out the conventional deadlift.

The wider grip also makes it much harder for the upper back. This will make up for some of what’s lost from getting rid of our pulling movement. It’s true, we won’t be getting as much lat work as we’d like, but at least the lats will still be used isometrically.

Considering we’re restricting ourselves to three lifts, that’s really not too bad. It’s much better than just getting rid of rows or presses.

So here’s our list of three:

  1. back squat
  2. snatch grip deadlift
  3. incline press

For my list, I’m going to start really ignoring balance and go hard on personal preference.

I’m keeping the front squat, but I’m going to get rid of the deadlift entirely. The snatch grip deadlift is appealing, but all in all, I much prefer doing chin ups to deadlifts, and it’s not even close.

I fully realize that this is far less balanced than my previous choices, but fortunately we don’t live in a world where we’re only allowed to do three lifts, so I can be a little reckless.

Squats and Stuff’s top three:

  1. front squat
  2. bench press
  3. neutral grip chin up

Now let’s do two lifts!

Two Lifts

If things got interesting at three lifts, at two lifts they just get downright hard.

Instead of thinking of which lift to get rid of from our list of three, let’s try approaching this in a different way.

With two lifts, it makes sense to pick one lift for the lower body, and one for the upper body.

For the lower body we could pick either the squat or the deadlift, or we could try to combine them in some way.

The trap bar deadlift seems like a decent option here. It has greater knee flexion than conventional deadlifts, so it involves the quads more, which would make up for not having a squat.

But then we’re forced to just choose one upper body lift, which means we’ll be really missing out on either pushing or pulling muscles.

Let’s think about the snatch grip deadlift again. It was a good choice because it more or less combined the deadlift and a pulling lift.

If we could somehow modify it to make up for the squat, like the trap bar deadlift does, then we would be onto something.

The easiest choice would be to do a deficit snatch grip deadlift. The deficit requires greater knee flexion, which will somewhat mimic the squat.

In that way, the deficit snatch grip deadlift is taking the place of three lifts for us: the squat, the deadlift, and a pulling movement.

Of course, we would be much better off doing those individual movements, but when we’re limited to only two lifts, this is a great choice.

So, if we could only do two lifts, this would be the best choice:

  1. deficit snatch grip deadlift
  2. incline press

For my own list, I’m going to keep being irresponsible.

I love front squatting, so I’m going to keep that. I had already gotten rid of deadlifting, so you can see where my priorities are.

The problem is choosing between a push movement or a pull movement. This is really difficult, but I would probably go with the push movement.

Any type of barbell squatting requires spinal erector strength, and the front squat especially hits the upper back. It’s far from an ideal back workout, but you could do worse than the front squat.

You might guess that I would stick with the bench press as my pushing movement. But I’m going to switch things up.

The push press will be my pick.

The push press requires full body coordination in transferring force from your legs to your upper body. Since I’m only doing two lifts here, it makes sense to pick a more athletic movement like this.

Most of all, the push press is just a lot of fun. It’s not something I’ve ever tried nearly as consistently as the bench or overhead press, but if I had to stick to two lifts, I think I’d really enjoy it.

So here’s my top two:

  1. front squat
  2. push press

And now, finally, what we’ve been waiting for:

One Lift

At this point, it’s just impossible to get true balance.

In some ways, that makes it easier.

With three lifts you could get close to really working all the major muscle groups, so it was painful to have to neglect some.

With just one lift, you know you’re going to be missing out on something important no matter what, so it’s not as bad.

Based on what we’ve concluded so far, I think that the deficit snatch grip deadlift is the way to go.

In a pinch it’s functioning like a squat, a deadlift, and a pulling movement. We’re missing out on pressing movements, but I think that’s the most reasonable sacrifice to make.

So, if you could only do one lift, here’s your best option:

  1. deficit snatch grip deadlift

For me, you’ve probably guessed by now. I won’t even justify it. I just can’t get enough of it. Here it is:

  1. front squat

Maybe if someone had a gun to my head and I really could only do one lift forever, I’d choose something el–nah, I’d still pick the front squat.

Wrap-up

So, what was the point of all this?

In these types of articles, people always say that you’ll never really be forced to do just one or two lifts.

But if you think about it, that’s not actually true.

Sure, over your entire life you’ll be able to use a wide variety of exercises in your programs.

But haven’t you ever gotten to the gym late, and had to rush through your workout, and maybe leave some things out?

Or maybe the next few weeks will be crunch time at work or school, and you’re still committed to getting your workout in, but you’ve only got time for one or two exercises each day.

Or you’re traveling, and in a gym that doesn’t have much equipment, so you’re limited in your choices.

In those cases it will come in handy to have an idea of how to get the most out of a few lifts. You don’t necessarily have to do deficit snatch grip deadlifts the whole time, but it doesn’t hurt to have that as an option.

On top of that, going through the mental exercise of thinking about what lifts you would do if you were restricted to only a few might make you reconsider your own programming.

Maybe you’ve strayed too far from the major compound lifts and need to get back to them.

Or maybe it’s the opposite, and this reminded you that you’re free to do whatever lifts you want, and you should introduce more variety into your program.

But again, it’s also just a lot of fun to think about.

So, what would your list look like? Let me know in the comments!