Op-Ed: There Is No Such Thing As the “10 Best Lifts”

The "best lifts" are not exclusive, as everyone will have exercises that suit their needs best.

Recently, BarBend author Nick English wrote an op-ed titled “These Are the 10 Best Lifts, Fight Me” — one of which, weighted planks, even featured yours truly! Since Nick asked for it, I’m gonna offer my opinion:

Not one of those lifts deserves to be on the list. Not. A. Single. One.

Here’s my definitive list of the ten best movements for any goal.  You ready? Wait for it…

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

The Best Lifts are the Ones that Work For You

Now, you’re probably groaning at this point, but hear me out. If you skim through a simple Google search, you can find hundreds or even thousands of opinions on what constitutes the best exercise for XYZ body part, or the best workout, or the best diet, and so on — seemingly to infinity. It’s common sense: If there are really that many different arguments on what is “the best,” then really, there can’t be one right answer. It just comes down to opinion.

Take the deadlift, for example. Many sources will cite this as the best movement for overall strength, back development, and so on — but just read my mentor John Meadow’s experience with heavy pulls:

For my back training, I tried to emulate the great Lee Haney. I performed a ton of the tried and true staples: chins, barbell rows, and dumbbell rows. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the same incredible results that Lee Haney did. I tried a few other routines from legends that had monstrous backs, like Dorian Yates and Bertil Fox, to name a couple.

Swing and a miss there, too.

I then started training with a few powerlifters at my gym. These were big, thick dudes, with symmetry to spare; two of them actually did bodybuilding and powerlifting shows on the same day! These guys taught me that the singular best way to build a huge back was through the deadlift. Only one problem: that didn’t work for me either.

Instead of deadlifts, John’s staple movements for his back include his famous Meadow rows, one-arm barbell and dumbbell rows, and other movements that attack the lats from a wider variety of angles.

Now, I know John is (rightfully) seen as a bodybuilder, but don’t forget that he started out in powerlifting, trained at Westside, and is frequently seen in the trenches at Elite FTS. He’s as hard core as they come, and even John can’t agree that deadlifts are “the best,” or even necessary!

Okay, But Really — Which Lifts Are Best?

I’m not trying to cop out here. I genuinely believe in finding what works for you — but I also know that if you’re reading this article, you’re probably interested in hearing my opinion on the best lifts, so it’s only fair that I share that as well.

First, I don’t think the list should include 10 movements. In my mind, if this is really a “best of” list, it should reflect the movements you want to prioritize, and getting stronger at 10 movements all at once really isn’t reasonable. Instead, I suggest you choose 5-7 movements, particularly ones that meet the following criteria:

  • A heavy squatting movement. This would be the front squat on Nick’s list, but I don’t like front squats as a focus: it’s too difficult to load them heavily. Personally, I’d put pause squats here, but low bar squats and safety bar squats fit the bill, too.
  • A heavy pulling movement. This is a deadlift variation.  I enjoy pulling from a deficit, so that’s my choice, but rack pulls, regular conventional or sumo deadlifts from the floor, trap bar deadlifts, and even bent-over rows can go in this slot.
  • A heavy pressing movement. I would choose a low incline bench press, because the risk of injury is somewhat lower than for a flat bench.  I’m also really enjoying Joe Bennet’s take on the Smith incline press:

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Over the past 20 years, my top 3 “favorite” chest movements have been Incline DB press, Incline barbell press and this one: Incline banded Smith. (From a results producing and principle based standpoint) ••• While I definitely have a stronger emotional attachment to the DB and barbell press (I’ve been doing them since I first started), on paper I’d have to say the banded Smith is the “best” exercise. Luckily you don’t have to pick just one, and the individual component throws the word “best” out the window when trying to apply things to everyone. For more than just structural reasons. And I still do all 3 at some point in my program. ••• For those that will ask: your body’s strength profile for this motion is weaker at the bottom, stronger at the top (of the ROM). The band creates a resistance profile that better matches that (lighter at the bottom, heavier at the top). Which for me is all about efficiency. It’s not all about “full ROM”, it’s about making every inch of that ROM as challenging as possible – especially for “advanced” lifters. And as for my spine/rib position, as well as arm path, they are what fits best for me and my goals. There will absolutely be some variability from person to person. #hypertrophycoach

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  • A lighter pulling movement — ideally in a different plane than the heavy pulling one. Most rows and deadlifts involve a horizontal body position, so you’re looking for one where your torso is upright: Pulldowns, chins, and so on. Pulldowns are my clear favorite here, because they put less strain on my shoulders than chins.
  • A lighter pressing movement (again, in a different plane). Many will argue that the overhead press is best performed standing, but I find it’s too easy to cheat that way, so I like seated presses. I’ll typically do these from a dead stop in a power rack, resting the bar on pins between reps. Dumbbell presses, log presses, push presses, and even machine presses go well in this slot, too.
  • A hamstring-dominant movement. For me, Nordic or inverse leg curls are tough to beat, because they allow me to get a bit of overload while moving my hips from a flexed to an extended position (which changes the function and development of the hamstring just a bit).  Glute-ham raises, seated or lying leg curls and stiff-legged or Romanian deadlifts are all good as well.
  • A static ab movement. As Nick mentioned, planks are probably my favorite, but farmers’ walks, vacuums, ab wheel rollouts, front squat holds, and much, much more could go here.  My biggest complaint about Nick’s list is probably the over-abundance of ab movements: you don’t need to be doing heavy squats and pulls, heavy overhead movements, heavy unilateral movements, Turkish get-ups and planks to get strong, well-defined abs. In fact, I’d argue that any one of those would be sufficient; instead, they make up the majority of Nick’s list!

You Don’t Need to Be Exclusive

You’re not in a relationship with the weights, even if you do spend more time in the gym than with your girlfriend. It’s good to change movements to give yourself a change of pace, address weaknesses, and build momentum — hence why I suggested so many different options for each slot above.

Furthermore, your training doesn’t need to be comprised solely of “bang for the buck” exercises. It’s fine to throw in other stuff like pinkie-up curls, band pull-aparts, or whatever other movements you enjoy that can help shore up weak points, make your training more fun, and contribute to your overall training volume. One mistake I see a lot of lifters make — myself included — involves feeling “wedded” to certain exercises, training styles, or similar self-imposed rules that ultimately impede progress.

In other words, this one comes down to the same point I keep making over and over again: find what works for you, and keep an open mind in learning what actually does work for you! Nick’s list of best movements, my list, John’s list — none is necessarily better or worse than any of the others. All that matters is what you enjoy and what helps you get better.

So with that in mind, go hit some heavy slow-eccentric dumbbell preacher curls — after your deadlift PR, of course!

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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