How many of my top 5 and bottom 5 exercises are you adding to your workout routine?

I thought I’d take a break from the fitness soapboxing and delve into a more practical arena for a post or two. This post will break down my TOP 5 and BOTTOM 5 strength and conditioning exercises.

These exercises are ranked based on their potential for injury, effectiveness, functional usability, and bang for your buck efficiency.

I’ll start with my BOTTOM 5 so I can finish the article with a more positive vibe.

  1. Taking the number one worst spot is the torso twist in a v-up position. This exercise puts a ton of shear and torque on the low back, THEN adds spinal twisting to boot. If you have a lower back issue, this one is actually hard to even witness. If you don’t, and you’re doing these (especially with extra weight), you’ll probably soon be in the ranks of those with back pain. The little ab work you get isn’t worth the cost.

2) Coming in at number 2 is forced range of motion squats, aka going “ass to floor” when your form clearly doesn’t support that. In the fitness world, its not uncommon to hear “if you’re not squatting all the way to the floor, you’re not squatting.” Ninety percent of those who prescribe to this notion don’t have the mobility to perform these, and the resulting squat looks like a combination of a good morning and a slight knee bend. The lumbar flexion, or “wink” often seen at the bottom of this movement loads the lower back tremendously. If you cant stay vertical with a neutral spine throughout your squat, you shouldn’t be squatting that deep.

3) The leg press. As far as functional movement goes, this exercsie is about as dysfuntional as they come. Lying on your back in a lounger pressing up? Along with this obvious limitation is the fact that full range of motion leg presses almost always flex your lumbar spine at the bottom. Under a load. That’s bad. Also, if you’re an athlete, this one does not match your athletic needs…Let’s hope you aren’t spending too much time on your back during your games. The leg development that you’ll get with this one isn’t worth the strain on the back and hips.

4) The upright row. This exercise puts the lifter in a pronated, internally rotated shoulder position. That, along with a typically flexed upper back creates a poor movement environment for moving the shoulder. Meaning, you’ll likely feel some impingement in the joint and will slowly wear away at your connective tissue with repetitive use. There are too many other great shoulder exercises to waste your time grinding your joints with this one.

5) Back hyperextensions. Training the muscles of the lower back to forcefully extend the lumbar spine from a flexed starting position is stupid. The muscle, including the core muscles that surround the low back are designed to work in unison to create hoop tension around the lower back, effectively creating a tense “girdle” to limit movement. To specifically train these muscles to move against the weight of your body will create back problems for you. Let the glutes and hamstrings do the work that you’re taxing the lower back with.

Honorable mention: burpees, supermans, and sit ups.

And know for the TOP 5.

  1. The deadlift. It’s hard to imagine a more functional movement pattern than the deadlift. Lifting kids, getting in and out of cars, exploding off the line in football, going to the restroom all require deadlift style movement patterns. The main feature of a deadlift, the hinge of the hip, is a must train muscle group for athletics and a requirement of normal, everyday walking. The combination of core work, upper back work, and your entire lower extremity makes this a very efficient, effective exercise. The deadlift may not be for everyone. Deadlifting from the floor with a back issue will exacerbate the issue. Even most of those folks can safely deadlift from an elevated surface, though.

2) The pull/chin up. In my opinion this is the king of upper body functional strength training. Done well, this exercise blasts the core, upper back extensors, lats, biceps and shoulder stabilizers. If you can’t do body weight pull or chin ups, use a long strength band to assist you.

3) The goblet squat. People who can’t squat can almost always goblet squat. This squat variation keeps the weight close to the chest, putting some awareness on the upper back extensors. The result is a very vertical, counter balanced squat that is typically performed deeper than most bar squats. The core is involved and quads, glutes, and hamstrings are allowed to provide the horsepower.

4) The farmers walk. This is nothing more than a functional, unilateral, walking core exercise. You’re whole body is involved, from your traps, shoulders, lats, core, biceps, single leg hip stabilizers, glutes, hamstring, quads, and ankle stabilizers. This is a huge bang for your buck exercise. If you want to test how functional all of your other strength training is, see if you can farmers walk with half your body weight (plus) in each hand.

5) All medicine ball throws. For training functional power, this group of exercises is a good bet. Power training often entails learning difficult, body and joint taxing exercises. The relatively light loads and joint friendly movement patterns of these throws allow even novice exercisers a chance to train powerfully. Overhead throws, rotational throws, slams, and presses are all great variations that involve powerful movement and awesome core stability training.

Honorable mention: The overhead kettlebell press, the hip bridge/thrust, planking variations.

If you have questions on these, or any other exercises, email me at

Matt Pirtle MA CSCS

It’s your turn. Emerge.