The Best Exercises for Your Weightlifting Routine


You decide it’s time to update your weightlifting routine, so you spend oodles of time pouring over magazines and online resources to find the “best” exercises. You find a few exercises that look new and cool and they promise to sculpt those areas you want. So you start your new workouts and love them – for awhile. Until you realize your butt still looks the same and you’re not even breaking a sweat anymore.

The problem with using random exercises in your workouts is just that: they’re random. Those “interesting” and exciting new exercises may not be optimal for your goals. But most importantly, random exercises are not part of a weightlifting routine – that is, a plan that has direction and targets your specific goals. (In online training-speak we also call this a program or a plan.)

Reforming your random-exercise-picking ways is easy: Stick to the basics I list below. If you use these exercises as the foundation of your weightlifting routine, I guarantee you’ll see better progress. Plus I’ve added tips about variations that can add a little zest and interest to your workouts.

Weightlifting Routine Basics

Once you pick the right exercises below, stick to your weightlifting routine for at least six weeks, progressing each session by adjusting other variables. If you keep changing these exercises every session you’ll be right back where you started – randomness.

For big muscles (glutes/hamstrings, quads, pectorals, back muscles as a group), choose two to four compound exercises as the foundation of each workout. Shoulders can be trained as a big muscle and a small muscle. You should include at least one compound shoulder movement and can supplement with isolation exercises if you’re looking for more definition.

Small muscles include (optionally) shoulders, triceps, biceps, calves, and any upper-body back muscles you want to hit individually, such as traps or rhomboids. Small muscles don’t need as much stimulation, so choose one to three per small muscle, depending on your goals.

Remember, there’s an inverse relationship between sets and reps: The fewer reps you do, the more sets you’ll do. The more reps you do, the fewer sets you’ll do. Do fewer reps/more sets of your first two “big” exercises. Do more reps/fewer sets for small muscles. (See my post on training variables for more.)

Exercises Proven to Give Results

These are not the only good exercises, mind you. But they’re the foundation of a good weightlifting routine. All exercises listed below can be viewed by searching the exercise database.

Lower Body

So you want a firmer butt, shapely calves, and well-defined inner thighs. Use the following exercises in your weightlifting routine and your results will speak for themselves.

  • Deadlift. Sumo or conventional deadlift
  • Squat. Back squat, Bulgarian split squat, box squat, front squat,
  • Kettle bell swings. Alternating or two-arm
  • Romanian deadlift. Do these with a single-leg or
  • Weighted hyperextension
  • Barbell hip thrusts. Single-leg or two-legs

Back and Chest

Pulling and pushing: It’s more easy when you break it down this way.

  • Pull ups/chin ups. Do band-assisted if needed or negatives.
  • Rows. Barbell bent-over row, one-arm row, cable row, chest-supported row, machine row
  • Pull downs. Lat pull downs with various grips, straight-arm pull downs 
  • Pushups. Many different variations!
  • Barbell or dumbbell bench press. Flat or incline
  • Cable crossovers. One or two arms
  • Chest flys. Cable or dumbbell

Shoulders and Arms

You only need 1 to 3 exercises per small muscle group, but again, it depends on your goals. For shoulders, see my note about training big muscles above.

  • Overhead press. Military press, push press, Arnold press, uppercuts, seated, standing
  • Rear delt flys. Standing, seated, one arm, two arm
  • Shrugs. Barbell, dumbbell, cable
  • Tricep extensions. All variations
  • Bicep curls. All variations

Pick your exercises wisely, adjust training variables judiciously, and stick to the plan and you’ll start seeing results from your weightlifting routine in about six weeks. And then? Keep going and stick with it.

Still need help? Check out my online training programs for a customized plan!

22 thoughts on “The Best Exercises for Your Weightlifting Routine

  1. What great info! Didn’t know that the shoulders were so versatile either in being able to be trained as a big and small muscle. I try to cover at least a couple of the big muscle groups in my strength training workouts. 🙂


  2. I am one of those people you mentioned above, well except the magazine part. I see stuff on line or in my training books, but getting myself focused is at times a challenge. I gave myself a bit of a routine (sadly I fell out of it) and I am pleased to see I included some of each area. So now to work on adding it back in. As a runner I really do have to remember that I need to do weightlifting too.


  3. Great article, love the emphasis on the basics and how you put the importance on a routine to reach specific goals. I find the compound movements the most interesting too, keeps me more engaged. Probably because there’s so much to think about!


  4. I think you must be a mind-reader. I have been searching for a new, more exciting workout, and now realize I might just as well stick with the basics – cause they work! – will add more more fun moves to my already-basic routine and keep working it.

    I am so glad to have found you through Lindsay yesterday and love your newsletter and your common sense advice. No gimmicks. Just plain hard work and clean eats! Thanks.


    • Thanks so much Elle! I love it that I’m able to make new friends through Lindsay. I’m also glad you’ll be sticking to the basics. Let me know about your progress! (It’ll rock :))


  5. For me, there are no “good” or “bad” exercises; there are those that work for me and those that don’t. And what works or doesn’t can change over time.

    BTW, has a very neat database of exercises. In my opinion the best around.


    • Hey evilcyber, thanks for hanging out here. Yeah… I don’t classify exercises as “good” or “bad” and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. More a message to stick to a plan and do what works instead of switching workouts all the time, doing rows on the Bosu one day and plank rows the next (not that either is “bad” – ha!). I have seen and wasn’t too impressed. But thanks!


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