The most effective exercises for strength
Updated: Jul 17
If you haven't already realized, there is a hierarchy of exercises for building muscular strength. However, you won't find any fancy or unconventional equipment recommendations in this blog post. The most effective practices for building strength have been around since the beginning of weight training and are still used by athletes today. These core exercises should form the foundation of anyone's physical training program. They are effective for three simple reasons: stability, muscle recruitment, and function.
Before we dive into the top exercises for developing strength, it's important to understand the seven movements of the human body: pull, push, squat, lunge, hinge, rotation, and gait. These movements provide the foundation for all strength training programs.
Let's take a closer look at each of these movements.
Pull - involves moving a load towards your body or pulling your body towards an object. This movement works an extensive array of muscles, primarily those of the back, biceps, forearms, and rear shoulders. Developing these muscles improves strength, creates a more athletic appearance, and can help improve posture.
Push - consists of pushing a load away from your body or pushing your body away from an object. This movement involves the chest, triceps, and shoulders, particularly the anterior aspect.
Squat - is a fundamental movement that targets the gluteals, core, quadriceps, and to a slight degree, the hamstrings. There are many variations of the squat, but all are effective in building strength
Lunge - is another fundamental movement that requires flexibility, stability, and balance. It targets the gluteal group, quadriceps, core, and hamstrings. The split stance adds a different dynamic that we will explore later
Hip Hinge - involves leaning your torso forward or kicking your leg back. This movement builds the posterior chain, which includes the hamstrings, gluteals, and low back muscles.
Trunk Rotation - crucial for building strength through an entirely different motion than the previous movements. This movement involves the muscles of the core, specifically the obliques, and helps prevent common injuries such as ACL tears or bulging discs
Gait - is the technique of walking or running. While often overlooked, this movement is essential and involves the hamstring's lunge, rotation, and pulling. It requires technical precision and is important to train for overall strength.
These seven fundamental movements are the building blocks for all strength training programs. Here are my top exercises for developing strength in each movement.
The Pull-Up reigns supreme for whole-body strength building, requiring 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 barbell movements, requiring significant engagement from the triceps and shoulders; however, here are my winning arguments.
Reason number one: Standing vs. lying on a bench requires much more recruitment throughout the 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 and the significant pushing muscles make 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 perform; however, nothing trumps them for power-building exercises. The Deadlift is the foundation of them all and shows how effectively 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 instantly identifies strength imbalances between sides 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 leg strength and 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, 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 so much going on in a Turkish Get Up that it is hard to say what muscle doesn’t build strength. Therefore, it is a very technical movement for the sake of exercise simplicity. So that I know you are not going to go from reading this to injury, I will 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 don't know what this means, contact me, and I will gladly explain. Furthermore, if you feel 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. You will feel them during this exercise if you couldn’t feel them before. 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.