The Holy Trinity of Fitness

by Cameron Schaefer on April 9, 2008

Since writing my post on the Lost Art of the Push-Up last month I’ve gotten a lot of feedback indicating a great interest in physical fitness. Keeping in theme with classic exercises that don’t require thousands of dollars of equipment or gym memberships I want to present 3 exercises that will give you an incredible workout and get you in great shape if done consistently.

1) push-up

2) pull-up

3) sit-up

These three exercises comprise the workout trifecta or the “Holy Trinity of fitness,” as reader Dave pointed out. They are a bit old-school, but they’ve stood the test of time and are still used today, with great success, by the U.S. military.

Here is a quick summary of the how’s of each exercise and what muscles they work.

Push-Up

1) Lie Face down on the floor with your legs together. Put your palms on the ground just more than shoulder width apart.

2) Look out ahead of you, not down. Look out ahead of you and focus on something to keep your head from bobbing up and down during the exercise.

3) While pushing yourself up keep your back as straight as possible. Imagine a board running down your back from your head to your toes. Don’t stick your butt in the air and don’t go the opposite direction looking like a seal with your back arched. Keeping your back straight is key in working out your whole body.

4) As you reach the top, take a breath and then start down. Lower yourself until your arms are bent at a 90 degree angle, but don’t let yourself rest on the floor. Lots of people let their chest touch the floor, but this is a weak way of doing push-ups and your cheating yourself if you do this.

5) Repeat until you can no longer push yourself up. Going to failure is extremely uncomfortable, but nothing else will give you a more accurate indication of where you are physically

Muscles Worked:

  • Chest
  • Triceps
  • Shoulders

Pull-Up

1) Find a Hanging Surface. Most people prefer a metal bar of some sort, but any surface that will allow you to hang down at arm’s length will work. You can purchase doorway pull-up bar at most sporting goods stores or online.

2) Hang Palms Facing Away. This is the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up. With a chin-up your palms are facing you and you work different muscles, mainly biceps. For a pull-up you palms should be facing away from you. This is a bit harder, but it works your back a lot more. Position your hands a bit wider than shoulder width. You can vary this as width to work different muscles, but this is a good starting place.

3) Cross Your Feet. By crossing your feet you keep your legs from thrashing around and also help keep them bent a little bit. Legs have no place in this exercise, so keep ‘em crossed and still.

4) Pull Yourself Up. Seems simple enough, but if you’ve never done pull-ups, chances are you may only be able to do 1 or 2, if any. No problem, you’ll get there (more on getting started below). While pulling yourself up remain controlled. Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.

5) Lead With Your Chest. Imagine pointing your sternum right at the pull-up bar, this will help ensure proper body position and keep you from injuring shoulders. Looking up during the pull-up will help this happen more naturally.

6) Lower Yourself Down. Don’t let yourself just fall down, be controlled. By controlling yourself on the way down you are working your muscles throughout the whole exercise and preventing injuries that can occur from slamming your body weight down on joints and muscles

Help, I Can’t Even Do One – Most people can’t do a pull-up right out of the gate so don’t feel bad. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Ask someone to help. If you have a workout partner have them hold your sides and push you as you go up. Make sure they pushing you up…I’ve had “partners” spot me and push me forward which didn’t work out so well.
  • Use the Lat pull-down machine. By increasing your weight on this machine you will be building the muscles necessary for pull-ups.
  • Use a resistance band. These can help you on the way up…this is good if you don’t have a partner

Muscles Worked:

  • Back
  • Arms
  • Shoulders

Here’s an awesome post on pull-ups from StrongLifts.com

Sit-Up

1) Anchor Your Feet. Whether you have someone hold down on your feet or you slip them under something sturdy like a couch or a sit-up bar at the gym the important thing is to anchor your feet.

2) Arms Crossed Over Chest. Many people put their hands behind their heads, but this can result in an injury. The best technique is keeping your arms crossed over your chest. Not only is it safer, it forces you to use your abs rather than momentum from jerking your head up with your arms.

3) Touch Legs with Elbows. Go up until your elbows touch your thigh. Flex your abs as you reach the top and give a wink to the person holding your feet just to show them that you’re a fitness god.

4) Go Down Until Your Shoulders Touch the Ground. Don’t bounce yourself, but make sure that you go back down all the way. By having your shoulders touch the ground you are making sure to get the full range of the exercise. Don’t, however, let yourself rest between sit-ups…touching the ground is not the same as laying on the ground.

Muscles Worked:

  • Abdominals
  • Obliques
  • Hip Flexors

These three exercises are by no means the only exercises one should do to get themselves in top physical shape, but they provide a very solid base from which to start building. Obviously one would be wise to do some sort of cardio exercise like running or bicycling and weight training if possible. What makes these three exercises so great is the wide range of muscles they cover and the fact that they can be done almost anywhere.

Finally, for kids these exercises are wonderful. Weight lifting can be hazardous to a young person’s development, but these exercises can provide great muscle development in a safe way. Start doing this workout trifecta on a regular basis and see for yourself how good they are.

Do you think these are the top three exercises? Why or why not?

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Marelize April 9, 2008 at 2:15 pm

Oh, the push-up, pull-up and sit-up. After reading your first article about the push-up I was determined to start doing more…ok, so just to start doing some push-ups. My goal is Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane” where she does the one handed push-up. Maybe if I do some more pull-ups and sit-ups I’ll achieve this feat of strength. Thanks for the practical article!

Bolshevik April 9, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Fantastic blog. These three exercises are great. Throw in air squats and you’ve got a simple, full-body workout that you can do without stepping into the gym.

Cameron Schaefer April 10, 2008 at 9:20 am

@ Marelize,
Glad to motivate you, just don’t shave your head…I can’t have my wife looking like a Navy SEAL.

@ Bolshevik,
Thanks for the kind words, glad you liked the post. I admit that I struggled with what to say about legs since they are the obvious muscles neglected in the trinity…air squats would be a definite solution to that problem.

Cameron

Akshay Kapur April 10, 2008 at 10:13 am

Definitely top 3 because the whole body is worked and the core is key in all. Do a lot of situps and then do pushups or pullup and you’ll feel just how much your stomach is involved.

Even when I think of bench, lat pulldown or curls, I easily think your list beats ‘em out. I’ve tried it all, and nothing is as fast, easy and vigorous as this holy trinity.

Btw, how come you didn’t pop up in twitter when i searched for “schaefer”?? I ended up finding your username through the the lijit search at top anyway though. I just signed up as agkapur.

Ken April 25, 2008 at 11:08 am

You should add squats to that list.

Cameron Schaefer April 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

@ Ken,

Yes, that was my one big struggle with this post. I realized that the elephant in the room was the lack of legs…and squats are definitely the best overall leg exercise.

If I were to list 4 exercises, squats would make the cut, but having to choose just 3 I stand by my picks. Would you have squats instead of one of the three I chose? Which would you replace?

-Cameron

Dennis Groves April 25, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Definately, change the sit-up to the crunch; add Squats and Lunges for a solid 5 exercises that give you a full body workout. I would say however, that since the squat is the most functional exercise that works the largest muscles in the body, you can not call your stuff the ‘holy trinity’ at all.

The holy trinity would really be Squats, pushups (3 times a week) & walking (10000 steps a day). Think about that, those three give you a nearly full body workout and cardio program.

Cameron Schaefer April 25, 2008 at 8:39 pm

@ Dennis,

Ahh, I can tell this is one of those debates that could go on forever with valid points from both sides.

First, you’re not going to find a bigger advocate of squats than me. They are THE leg exercise. However, I don’t know that they can replace sit-ups or crunches in the “holy trinity.” Especially if you’re going to put walking in there instead of pull-ups.

The reason I left legs out is that I felt the average person works out their legs either by walking or running anyway. Now, obviously if someone did neither of these, then maybe squats, lunges or walking would be a better exercise for them than pull-ups.

At the end of the day it comes down to the type of person. For the average joe that does some type of cardio/legs everyday whether it be walking to work and up the stairs, running, or riding bikes on the weekends I stand by my three picks. For the person that is completely sedentary you may be correct in replacing one of mine with a leg exercise.

-Cameron

Winner May 16, 2008 at 6:06 pm

i prefer crunches to sit-ups

novocaine May 17, 2008 at 6:16 am

limiting to three exercisers is… limiting.

muscle up (pull up + dip)
burpee (squat + push up)
plank

niteworks May 17, 2008 at 6:59 am

Do you have any alternatives to the pull up?

I find it hard to locate a cross bar or some location to perform the pull up.

Bryan May 21, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Can anyone tell me the actual difference in the workout that one gets by choosing crunches or sit-ups? The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men’s Health advocates crunches over sit-ups, but aside from this I have no real reason to prefer one over the other.

Keith May 26, 2008 at 12:11 pm

I do pull ups, push ups, and squats. My core gets plenty of work from just these three exercises.

I have been following the routine at simplefit.org along with three half hour runs a week. I am in better shape now than at any point in my life. I can do more push ups and pull ups now than when I was in the Army. My two mile run time is probably better too.

Israel July 21, 2008 at 9:33 am

I would replace sit ups with squats. Squats work you out man! They help you build testosterone. They work out your whole body.

Shariff July 29, 2008 at 8:49 am

Try burpees. I know they sound funny but seriously, look up how to do them online. They blast your entire body and no equipment is required. Doing just ten is challenging.

emmyalex August 22, 2008 at 6:13 pm

Try planks. You can do them anywhere and they are seriously good for your core and your upper body. I love squats too but sometimes i just need stuff i know i can do with proper form. and that means no pullups. SOrry. for the beginners out there i like fitness magazine. they give you a 4 week plan and some one page articles with great moves every mnth. september issue has a tank top workout that ‘s pretty great.

Britt August 23, 2008 at 8:06 pm

This is not the same set of exercises used in the U.S. Army in 1989. In that time pushups, situps and the two mile run were Army standard, different units added stuff to that, but Army standard was just that. My Unit added the hundred yard buddy carry and chinups, but those were not part of the Army Manual.

James September 2, 2008 at 5:17 pm

I work alsmost the same exercises in a Pyrimid

- Set/Step 1: 1 pullups/2 pushups/3 situps/3 Squats
- Set/Step 2: 2 pullups/4 pushups/6 situps/6 Squats
- Set/Step 3: 3 pullups/6 pushups/9 situps/9 Squats (Your first few set are basically a warmup)
- Set/Step 4: 4 pullups/8 pushups/12 situps/12 Squats
- Set/Step 5: 5 pullups/10 pushups/15 situps/15 Squats
- Set/Step 6: 6 pullups/12 pushups/18 situps/18 Squats
Then Work backwards down from 6 to 1

William Andersen April 11, 2009 at 9:54 am

This is a great post but I was always taught that situps are really bad for your back. Maybe that is a myth?

buh May 1, 2009 at 1:22 pm

if you haven’t tried ring dips yet, they accomplish everything the pushup does and more. i doubt the majority of 50 rep pushup enthusiasts would survive 5 reps of ring dips. for abdominals, i usually use hanging leg raises over situps, as they allow more weight to be lifted, require fewer reps to be effective, and keep strain off the lower back. the pullup is a nonnegotiable. everyone and their next of kin should do them. alternatively, rope climbing builds an impressive back and grip.

lately, i’ve also tooled around with a workout comprised of 1 armed pushups, 1 armed bodyweight rows with straight legs (the opposite of a 1 armed pushup), and pistols. i hypothesize that this one limbed workout offers better results than simple pushups, pullups, squats, or situps alone. if you’re pushing or pulling just 60% of your bodyweight with one arm, you can potentially handle 120% with both. just watch form carefully on all three. if i might offer a more elite trinity of physical fitness, one armed pushups and rows followed by pistols might offer excellent results for those who grow tired of their usual pullup, pushup, situp, and squat routine.

buh May 1, 2009 at 1:37 pm

oh, and work up to 1 armed pushups with dips on rings or parallel bars. work up to 1 armed hanging rows with uneven pullups, where one hand grasps a towel to assist the other.

david May 12, 2009 at 6:13 am

I could not agree more. I run 50 – 55 miles a week and I don’t have any extra time to go to the gym. These 3 exercises, along with some one legged squats, are all that I need to maintain a strong core. I avoid machines like the plague – they are completely unecessary. The only thing that I vary are sit-ups – my favorite is doing sit-ups while throwing a 12lb medicine ball against a wall, catching, going down, coming up, throwing, and repeat. 3 sets of 30 will have whip your core into shape in no time.

Jamie May 28, 2009 at 4:39 am

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that anchoring the feet during a sit-up is very bad for your back. The best thing to do is leave them un-anchored and try a more ‘crunch’ like sit-up.

Also, like some of the guys above I’d really recommend including squats to get some lower body muscles working too :)

PS. Burpee’s are evil but will get you super fit!

Josh June 21, 2009 at 4:11 pm

When you guys say do max in terms of push ups, do I do one set of max push ups or do I do 3 sets of max push ups

Cameron Schaefer June 22, 2009 at 7:13 pm

@Josh,

Good question – 3 sets of max

hillmatt June 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I’ve recently lost around 90 pounds in order to get into the army, that isn’t really related to what I wanted to post I just enjoy telling people. Anyway one of the recruiting Sgts. gave me a workout to knock out the last 3-4% off my BMI so I can get in
run 1/4 mile
21 pull-ups
21 pus-hups
21 sit-ups
1/4 mile
18 pull-ups
18 sit-ups
18 push-ups
and on until you hit three, best workout I’ve ever done I highly recommend it.

Buh August 19, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Those 3 exercises offer good results for the upper body in high enough repetitions, but neglect leg development.

As bipedal organisms, our success in the natural environment depends on our legs. The legs contain the largest muscles in our bodies, and constitute 60% of our total muscle mass. The typical upper body contains only 40% of our musculature. To produce growth hormone, an exercise must tax the most possible muscles. Therefore, I would nominate the bodyweight squat as an apostle to the holy trinity. Squatting enough to release lactic acid will aid the development of upper and lower body development by eliciting more growth hormone than upper body exercise alone.

I have used Tabata interval squats to great effect in leg development. When followed by Tabata pushups, pullups, and situps, the whole body gets worked to exhaustion. Under a Tabata protocol, this typically takes 16 minutes to achieve.

For those who believe that running alone can develop legs, keep in mind that squats can help runners sprint faster, but running has never helped anyone squat better. The difference is in the full range of motion used by the bodyweight squat, which balances the anterior and posterior leg muscles while increasing flexibility in the hips.

Nimbette2 September 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I say the holy trinity should be:
- Pull-ups
-Push-ups
-Squats

Abs are worked when doing anything, really. Push-ups work abs already…

MikaelL February 23, 2010 at 2:54 am

I agree with Nimbette2. Maybe substituting the squat for a burpee seeing as a burpee includes a squat and works almost every major muscle group in the body.

Joseph May 15, 2010 at 11:38 am

I believe that we can be (and stay) in a great shape if we are doing only these three exercises in a daily basis. I am going to the gym but it is not necessary. These 3, combined with running, are the best!

Stin May 26, 2010 at 3:36 am

Just a note on sit-ups vs crunches; doing sit ups (feet anchored, back straight) mainly trains hip flexors, with the abdominal muscles simply stabilising the body as it is lifted off the floor. Doing crunches (try to pull the lower part of your chest towards your pubic bone) fully contracts your abdominal muscles, giving a better workout. To my knowledge, both are safe for the back if done correctly.

push ups x 100
crunches x 100
squats x 100
chin ups 4×25

one arm push ups x 10 each side
pistol squats x 10 each side
I’m working on one armed chin ups
Plus cardio, usually running

Tom October 3, 2010 at 2:05 am

Excellent advice and tutorial on these bodyweight exercises Cameron!

Bob April 26, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I agree with Nimbette2. The Holy Trinity should be pushups, pullups, and squats.

Michelle September 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm

I would go so far to say that the squat should be at the top of the exercise triangle. The squat hits multiple muscle groups when done using more than bodyweight, and can be altered to target specific muscles more effectively.

NiCk N June 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Those all get to easy after a while, i think the holy trinity of fitness should be.

Muscle Ups

Bicycle Crunches

Pistol Squats( Each Leg)

shawn doherty August 13, 2012 at 3:08 pm

lol the problem with this world they cant fathom the importance of simplisity. your 3 are the best period. were not talking about athletes or hardcore lifters here, were talking 3 exersices for the every day man or women looking for the foundation of fitness., muscle ups arent for the average guy who has 10 minutes a day to squeeze in some exercises and squats no matter what they say dont do crap for your upper body which is what every one sees and that is needed for real life usefullness.pro boxers untill the 80s only did pushups and situps and they all looked great(maybe not jersey shore great) but who cares,id rather look good working out 5 minutes a day and spend the rest of my time with the ladies then spend 6 days in a gym with sweaty dudes

A Koziol September 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

The sit-up is bad for your spine. I would have put the squat as the third part (gotta get at least some kind of lower-body exercise in there).

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