Before we jump into it I want all to be aware that everybody is different. Everyone has different goals and needs, so when it comes to priorities, exercises will vary based on what you're trying to accomplish. That being said... there is a group of exercises that provide the greatest strength, functionality, and overall health benefits. This group of exercises is the category of compound movements.
Exercises can be categorized into two groups, compound and isolation. Isolation exercises only use one muscle group and involve movement of one joint. Compound exercises use multiple muscle groups and involve movement of two or more joints. Isolation exercises are typically done in one plane of motion and often are performed on machines. Compound exercises move in multiple planes and usually are performed with free weights (with the leg press being an exception).
Compound exercises simply allow more work done. Because of multiple muscle systems involved in each exercise, a greater load can be applied generating an overall greater stimulus to the muscles. Compound exercises also require much more stabilization throughout the body. This provides better overall balance and functionality throughout the entire body. Overtraining isolation exercises can lead to muscular imbalances.
Compound exercises stimulate a larger concentration of testosterone and growth hormone than isolation exercises do. Because of the hormonal response compound exercises have a greater anabolic effect leading to more muscle growth and more strength gained. Don't worry ladies... this response is not enough to get "bulky" or "too big." Everyone can benefit greatly from compound exercises.
Lastly compound movements keep your workouts simple. Rather than doing a hundred different exercises just to workout your arms, you could do a military press and a pull-up to get better results, take less time, and also hit several other muscle groups at the same time. Not to mention, compound exercises spike the heart rate leading to greater fat-burning effects. It's a win-win-win all the way around.
I'll end it with the best compound exercises, and know there are many variations and different ways to perform each of these. All of them are staples in my workout routine.
- Deadlifts - possibly the best, overall, full-body workout. It's a true definition of strength and also my favorite exercise
- Squat - Back, front, overhead, split, pistol... you name it there's a variation to this indispensable exercise.
- Pull-Up/Chin-Up - most people hate them but there's no doubt it's possibly the best upper body exercise
- Bench Press - The classic lift that gets every gym bro excited is definitely one to include in your routine to get a bigger chest, shoulders, and triceps.
- Rows - There are tons of variations of rows, all of which focus on different parts of the back, traps, and shoulders. You'll want to use barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells for these.
- Military press - If you want wide shoulders go for the military press. Nothing stimulates them better while also developing a strong core.
In my opinion, you can create a killer workout with just these few exercises and their variations. Go give them a try and let me know what you think!