The most effective exercises for strength
If you haven’t realised by now there is definitely a hierarchy of exercises when it comes to building muscular strength. If you were anticipating me recommending a fancy exercise 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 exercises for building muscular strength have been around since the beginning of weight training, in a testosterone fuelled test of performance they actually 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 is able to move through its full range of motion to provide strength and control throughout this range.
Now, before going into these core strength building movements, it is important to understand how our body actually moves. Pull, Push, Squat, Lunge, Hinge, Rotation, and Gait are the 7 movements of the body. Just what are these?
Pull - moving a load toward your body, or if your body is the load, then towards your hands. This can be done vertically or horizontally and works a large array of muscles, mostly those of the back, biceps, forearms and rear shoulders. Along with improved strength, developing these muscles builds a more athletic appearance, and helps to open the chest by pulling the shoulders back and down to counter growing postural problems like upper cross syndrome.
Push - opposite to the pull, this motion involves pushing a load away from your body or your body away from an object. This movement can also be done vertically or horizontally and involves the muscles of 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, which consists of the hamstrings, gluteals and muscles of the low back.
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 it builds strength through an entirely different plane of movement than the fore-mentioned movements. The major 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 a lot of clients chuckle when I mention training this movement, but 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 what you have all been waiting for, what are my top exercises for developing strength in the fore-mentioned movements?
The Pull Up reigns supreme for total body strength building as it requires a total 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 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
movement in my opinion.
There was an internal fight within myself for this one as hands down the Bench Press allows you to push the most amount of weight. This movement provides a greater stimulus to the larger ‘pushing muscles’ than any other exercise, therefore it's amazing 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 large 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 (full body strength building), this then follows in to functional strength, 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 major pushing muscles makes this number one on my list. In a world where we are seeing increased upper limb postural imbalances like rounded shoulders and thoracic stiffness the Strict Overhead Press develops better postural control along with much greater full body stability.
To oversimplify you are sitting down and standing 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 was not invented, athletes had to physically Clean and Jerk the Barbell just to position the bar at the start of the Back Squat position. Now, thanks to engineers developing the Squat rack, it is one of the strongest 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, mastery of the Deadlift allows for progressions into all of the 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 being the foundation of them all just shows how effective developing strength in this movement can set your body up for picking things up off of the floor with more confidence and also progressing to more advanced exercises.
I mentioned in the Lunge section above 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 not only improves 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 are 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 what muscle it doesn’t build strength in. Albeit, it is a very technical movement therefore in the sake of exercise simplicity, and 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 huge 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 not only introduces the upper body to the exercise, but also greatly increases the activation of all the muscles used in a walk/run. If you couldn’t feel them before, you will during this exercise. As an example: controlling your gait while holding 30kg Dumbbells in each hand for a Farmers Carry is an impressive show of strength in one's gait.