The most effective exercises for strength
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
If you haven’t realised by now, there is a hierarchy of exercises for building muscular strength. If you were anticipating me recommending a fancy training schedule with the most unusual equipment that you haven’t seen in your lifetime of lifting, then you came to the wrong blog. The most effective practices for building muscular strength have been around since the beginning of weight training; in a testosterone-fuelled test of performance, they developed the sport. The below-mentioned exercises should form the foundation of anyone’s physical training program. They rank so highly on the strength-building list because of these simple reasons:
You are stable - being stable and following the movement pattern allows you to focus on your control and effort throughout the movement.
Muscle recruitment - they have the largest recruitment and stimulus of the target muscles.
Function - your body can move through its full range of motion to provide strength and control throughout this range.
Before going into these core strength-building movements, it is vital to understand how our body moves. Pull, Push, Squat, Lunge, Hinge, Rotation, and Gait are the body's seven movements. Just what are these?
Pull - moving a load toward your body, or if your body is the load, then towards your hands. A pull can be done vertically or horizontally and works an extensive array of muscles, primarily those of the back, biceps, forearms and rear shoulders. Along with improved strength, developing these muscles builds a more athletic appearance. It helps to open the chest by pulling the shoulders back and down to counter growing postural problems like upper cross syndrome.
Push - consists of pushing load away from your body or your body away from an object. This movement can also be done vertically or horizontally and involves the chest, triceps and shoulders (particularly the anterior aspect).
Squat - there are many variations of the squat, yet all target the gluteals, core, quadriceps, and to a slight degree, the hamstrings.
Lunge - splitting the feet forwards and backwards, a lunge requires flexibility, stability and balance. The lunge targets the gluteal group, quadriceps, core and hamstrings, much like the Squat. However, the split stance adds a very different dynamic which we will go into later.
Hip Hinge - commonly executed by kicking your leg back or leaning your torso forward; the exercises involving this movement build the posterior chain, consisting of the hamstrings, gluteals, and low back muscles.
Trunk Rotation - the body's rotational planes involve movements which common injuries like an ACL tear or bulging disc can occur if the unexpected force is too great for that joint to withstand. These planes are crucial within a training plan because they build strength through an entirely different motion than the fore-mentioned movements. The primary muscles worked in trunk rotation are the muscles of the core (specifically the obliques).
Gait - is the technique of walking or running. I have found many clients chuckle when I mention training this movement. Still, once examined, it quickly becomes something they take seriously. Involving the lunge, rotation and pulling with the hamstring, this movement is layered with technicalities that most cannot see at first.
Now, my top exercises for developing strength in the fore-mentioned movements.
The Pull-Up reigns supreme for whole-body strength building as it requires a full-body contraction when performed strictly. Some professionals argue that the Lat Pulldown trumps the Pull Up with its ease of variability, however in my ten years of training clients in both, I find people have a greater degree of improvement on the Lat Pulldown machine after training their Pull-Ups versus the other way around. The addition of full-body tension required in this movement is why Pull-Ups take the number one spot for strength building the pull
action, in my opinion.
There was an internal fight within me for this one as, hands down, the Bench Press allows you to push the most amount of weight. This movement provides a more significant stimulus to the larger ‘pushing muscles’ than any other exercise; therefore, it's fantastic for building strength in that movement. However, much like my argument in the pull, I cannot allow it to trump the Strict Overhead Press for the most effective strength-building exercise. Both exercises have similarities. They are both a barbell movement, both require significant engagement from the triceps and shoulders; howbeit here are my winning arguments.
Reason number one: Being in a standing position vs. lying on a bench requires much more recruitment throughout the entire body to balance and stabilise yourself (whole-body strength building). You are much better off training your push strength from a stable, standing position as that is where it will appear more in life vs. the possibility of needing to press something off of your chest when you are lying down.
Reason number two: The recruitment of the Rhomboids and Trapezius throughout the overhead movement, along with the significant pushing muscles, makes this number one on my list. In a world where we see increasing upper limb postural imbalances like rounded shoulders and thoracic stiffness, the Strict Overhead Press develops better postural control along with much more excellent full-body stability.
To oversimplify, you sit down and stand back up with a load on your back; only a fool would argue that this is not the most effective squat exercise. When the sport of weightlifting first came about, the Squat rack had not yet been invented. Athletes had to physically Clean and Jerk the Barbell to position the bar at the start of the Back Squat position. Thanks to engineers developing the Squat rack, it is one of the most substantial lifts people can perform. For that reason, the Barbell Back Squat can provide the muscles of the Core and Legs much more stimulus than most, making it the number one strength-building squat exercise in this age of training.
“But I Squat so do I really need to Deadlift as well?”
Yes! Ever picked something up off of the floor? That’s why you need to Deadlift. Along with the super-strong Back, Posterior Chain and Core that this movement creates, the Deadlift's mastery allows for progressions into all powerlifting movements. Those movements don’t make this list because of how technical they are to perform; however, nothing trumps them for power building exercises. The Deadlift is the foundation of them all shows how effective developing strength in this movement can set your body up to pick things up off of the floor with more confidence and progress to more advanced exercises.
In the Lunge section above, I mentioned that the split stance puts a new dynamic on the body that the other movements don’t offer. The unilateral stimulus identifies strength imbalances between sides instantly by placing most of the demand on the front leg. Upon doing so, you may notice a variance in balance, stability, or even strength differences as you transition from one side to the next. An imbalance between sides over time will most likely lead to injury. For this reason, building even strength throughout the lunge movement improves not only leg strength but also your balance and reduces injury risk. The exercise I recognise as the most effective for building lunge strength is the Barbell Split Squat.
Strength in these planes is crucial for injury prevention. We cannot avoid these movements in life, so avoiding them in your training plan isn’t a great idea. Do more rotation! Live in rotation! Own your rotation! For full-body rotational strength: Turkish Get Up, Easy. There is just so much going on in a Turkish Get Up it is hard to say in what muscle it doesn’t build strength. Albeit, it is a very technical movement, therefore, for the sake of exercise simplicity. So that I know you are not going to go from reading this to injury, I am going to have to recommend the Dumbbell Woodchop as the best full-body strength builder in rotation. It is simple to progress and regress while maintaining a massive stimulus on trunk rotation.
Mastery of walking/running is the first step (pun intended)! If you have no idea what this means, reach out to me, and I will be happy to explain. Furthermore, if you feel that you are the master of Gait, add load. Heavy Dumbbells in your hands introduce the upper body to the exercise and dramatically increase the activation of all the muscles used in a walk/run. If you couldn’t feel them before, you will feel them during this exercise. For example, controlling your gait while holding 30kg Dumbbells in each hand for a Farmer's Carry is an impressive show of strength in one's gait.