In this article you will discover 5 of the best strength exercises including a step-by-step technique guide and video tutorial.
Strength is defined as ‘the maximum force that can be developed during muscular contraction’ (Watson 1995). We say someone is strong if they can lift a heavy weight or perform physical feats that few could – such as a gymnast holding the crucifix or powerlifter heaving half a car above their head.
However, a real show of strength is not necessarily indicated by how much weight can be moved during a single contraction. This sounds contradictory I know but bear with me a moment. A better means of measuring strength is how much of one’s body mass can be moved in a single contraction.
If a strength athlete who weighs 100kg can squat 200kg are they as strong as an athlete who weighs 60kg but can squat 140kg? Yes the first athlete can lift more weight but expressed as a percentage of their body mass they are in fact lifting less.
So when concerning yourself with how strong you are relative to other people in your gym, dismiss this immature mentality and instead focus on how much of your body weight you can lift. Though the ant be smaller than an elephant the insignificant little fellow can lift over 10X its own body weight whereas an elephant can’t even lift 1X its body weight.
How to Test Strength
The 1 Rep Max (1RM) is the go-to test for ascertaining strength. After selecting a compound exercise – squat, deadlift, bent-over row, bench press (all of which are featured below) – the trainer will begin the process of establishing their 1RM by using lighter lifts as stepping stones to their maximal poundage.
To conduct this test, then, you would firstly decide which compound exercise you wish to establish your 1RM on. Prior to initiating the series of lighter lifts it is ideal to have a perceived 1RM so that you can work up to it.
If you have never done this test before and you are clueless as to what your 1RM is, select a weight with which you can comfortably perform 5 repetitions. From this weight proceed to establish your 1RM. Remember: you are only performing 1 repetition with each lift.
Below I have outlined a number of points that you should be taken into consideration prior to attempting this test.
Ensure to have a second to support and spot you through the lift. Depending on the compound exercise you choose, the 1RM can be dangerous to do on your own (this is especially so with the bench press and squat).
Make sure that you are thoroughly warmed up prior to attempting the test.
Take long rest periods between lifts (3 to 5 minutes).
If possible perform the test away from other gym users – for the reasons: a) you do not want to be disturbed or distracted; b) you do not want someone knocking into you; c) if for any reason the weight must be ditched you do not want to ditch it on that unsuspecting person to your left performing a set of sit-ups.
Increase the weight incrementally – 5kg/2.5kg/1¼kg.
Leave your ego at the gym door!
Can strength training help you lose fat?
The short answer: No – not really. To encourage the body to metabolise fat we need to stimulate the cardiovascular system, which means running, rowing, cycling, etc. Though strength training does of course burn more calories than, say, sitting down in front of the TV, in comparison to cardiovascular training it is a hugely inferior fat fighter. Still incredulous? Conduct a spot research and go compare the physiques of world strong men with those of triathletes.
When strength training how many reps?
I’ll let Arnold Schwarzenegger answer this question. When striving to develop strength and size ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding – p.493). Here Arnold has very kindly summed up the strength training calculation. Which is as follows:
low reps + high weights + long rests = augmented strength
This accounts for why in Olympic weightlifting training halls little seems to be going on – certainly when contrasted against a CrossFit gym or a circuits class. The reason why it is important to enforce longer rest periods when training for strength is because ‘while dong heavy Squats, you fatigue muscle fibres in the leg so quickly that if you want to get through an entire set’ and sustain heavy lifts you’ll need to give the muscles plenty of time to recover (TEofMB – p.53).
Why is strength training important?
First the low hanging fruit answer: because by being stronger we are better able to meet the demands of daily existence; such as humping the shopping from the trolley into the boot of the car, squatting up off the toilet, reaching from the couch to retrieve the remote from the coffee table, etc., etc. But there are other reasons why strength training is important. For example, the American Heart Association recommends strength training because it has been shown to help ‘protect your body from injury’ whilst also boosting ‘your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even when your body is at rest’.
But there’s more. The Harvard Medical School maintains that regular strength training can reduce age-induced muscular atrophy; that is, the rate at which our muscles lose their size and strength as we get older. ‘The average 30-year-old will lose about a quarter of his or her muscle strength by age 70 and half of it by age 90,’ (Harvard Medical School - 2020). By consistently engaging in strength-based training, preferably whilst we’re young, we can significantly slow this inexorable and inevitable decline maintaining into our advanced years a robust and strong physicality.
Purported Benefits of Strength Training Includes
· Increased muscle mass
· Increased strength
· Stronger tendon and ligaments
· Increased metabolic rate
· Anti-ageing benefits
· Reduced fat
· Increased one density
· Reduced blood pressure
· Reduced blood cholesterol and blood fats
· Improved posture
· Reduction in injury susceptibility
· Improved psychological well-being
· Improved appearance
(List adapted from Anita Bean’s Strength Training: The Complete Guide To)
Is strength training enough?
The short answer: Hell No! Of course it’s not enough – that’s why there are lots of strength athletes and trainers out there who still carry significant subcutaneous (and visceral) fat. For, as touched on above, strength training, though indubitably beneficial, does not adequately stimulate the cardio-respiratory system (the heart and lungs). Thus with each session we are burning fewer calories than if we interchanged between strength, muscular endurance and cardio. Also, to maximise our chances of obtaining the many benefits exercises has to offer, such as reduced risk of disease and increased longevity, we must regularly and consistently take part in all forms of fitness.
The strength exercise covered in this tutorial include:
2: Bench press
4: Bent-over row
5: Military press
Super Strength Building Exercises #1: Squats
Muscles worked: When squatting the primary muscles recruited are those of the gluteus maximus (bum), the quadriceps (vastus lateralis, rectus femoris and vastus medialis), adductor magnus (hamstrings), the soleus (lower calves) and the abdominals and erector spinae.
‘The squat is the number one bodybuilding movement because it involves a large part of the muscular system,’
Delavier (Strength Training Anatomy)
Benefits of Squats: besides building strength in the obvious muscle group squatting is also an excellent exercises for developing strength in your core, transverse abdominus and pelvic griddle and I’ve heard it said that it can develop whole-body growth.
Squats have for a long time been recognised as one of the best strength and size building exercises. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that to develop his impressive size and strength he ‘included a lot of Heavy Squats in my leg routine, especially Half Squats.’ He goes on to tell us that, when trying to build strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding – p.493).
Firstly prepare the barbell: ensure that you have not overloaded it and that, if you are using a free-weight bar, the clips are securely fastened so as to prevent the discs from sliding off the end. Also, ensure that the bar is set at the correct height for you: often you see people set it too high or too low which requires that they manoeuvre their body in an unnatural position to un-rack the weight. It’s best to set the bar slightly below your shoulders.
Now stand under the bar. Before attempting to un-rack it make sure that your feet are in the correct position, your hands are evenly spaced and that the bar is resting across your trapezius muscles.
When you are comfortable and have organised your anatomy in the correct position, only now should you consider removing the bar from the rack.
To do so tighten up the core, stand up under control and step back and away from the rack (of course whether you need to do this depends on the structure that you are squatting in).
Again organise your feet so they are just over shoulder width apart.
Under control slowly execute a squat ensuring to bend at the knee.
When a 90° angle has formed between the calf and hamstring pause then fire through the quadriceps as you return back to the start position.
Maintain a smooth continuous movement from start to finish
Keep your eyes riveted on an indefinite point in the distance (or a spot on the gym wall)
Ensure that your entire foot remains flat on the floor – it is common mistake to lift the heel
DO NOT flex your spine – ‘this error contributes to most lower back injuries, especially slipped discs,’ (Delavier)
Don’t let your knees collapse inward – this is indicative of physical incompatibilities with the weight selected; in short, the squatter has gone too heavy: it’s better by far to lift less weight and to lift it well than to overload the bar and look like one of those fools fighting under the load, body quaking and creaking.
Don’t hold your breath
Don’t shift your weight onto your toes
Don’t collapse at the hips. You see squatters do this a lot and it’s usually a consequence of one of two reasons: 1) the squatter is not physically capable of correctly lifting the weight selected; or 2) they lack the necessary flexibility to dip lower than 45°. To compensate, and to delude themselves into thinking that they’ve completed the full movement, they fold at the waist. All this does it place massive stress on the lower back thus significantly increasing the risk of injury. Best either to reduce the weight or stop at 45°.
Super Strength Building Exercises #2: Bench Press
Muscles worked: when performing this classic strength exercises the primary muscles worked include the pectoralis major and minor (aka chest), anterior deltoids (front part of your shoulder), triceps and, to a lesser extent, your latissimus dorsi (which is engaged during the eccentric – or downwards – phase of the exercise), abdominals and intercostal muscles.
It’s not up for debate, the bench press is one of the all-time great strength developing exercises. And if you want a hulking chest which looks as though it’s about to burst out of your t-shirt then get benching sooner rather than later.
‘The Bench Press is a fundamental compound exercise for the upper body. It produces growth, strength, and muscle density, not only for the chest muscles but for the front deltoids and triceps as well.’
But beyond base aesthetics developing strong chest muscles can be advantageous in enhancing one’s sporting performance. Anita Bean, author of Strength Training: The Complete Guide To, maintains that the muscles of the chest are involved in a vast array of different sports such as rugby, tennis, athletics, swimming and gymnastics. Thus by building strength in and around the chest area we could improve our abilities across a wide range of activities. Who’d have thought that benching has more to offer than just bulking out a baggy tee?
Firstly, prior to thinking about the lift, you should concern yourself with the set-up. To set-up for the bench press, if you are using a free weight barbell and Smith Machine, position a bench underneath the Olympic bar. At this point there should be NO weight on the bar. Why? Well you must lie on the bench and make sure that it is positioned correctly. At this stage you might want to complete a number of repetitions to make sure that the bench is in the right position. How do you know? When you remove the bar from the rack you should be able to lower it down to your nipples without catching any of the rack hooks. Once these requirements have been satisfied only then do you start to increase the weight.
Select an appropriate weight for you current strength.
Manoeuvre yourself under the bar.
Your feet are planted flat and firmly on the floor and from your feet to your navel the shape of a pyramid should be made. This ensures that you have a stable base from which to execute the lift.
Grasp the bar: your hands are spaced nearly double shoulder width.
Remove the bar from the rack and position it over the chest.
Under control lower the bar so that it touches your nips. At this point a 90° angle should form between your biceps and forearms.
Smoothly press the bar to the start position.
Methods of Modification
The traditional flat barbell bench press described above generally works the entire chest. However, if you wish to target specific areas of your chest you can either invert or incline the bench. The former places emphasis on the lower part of the pectorals – pectoralis minor – the latter the upper part and anterior deltoids.
Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift
Breathe in during the downward phase (eccentric) of the lift and breathe out during the upward phase (concentric)
Do not arch the lower back at any point whilst benching. This is the classic mistake made by people who a) don’t know how to bench properly and/or b) have over-loaded the bar.
Do not bounce the bar off your chest. Again, the fool who has over-loaded the bar tries to spring-board it off his ribcage in an attempt to generate some assists. Of course this is not only dangerous but it also looks hideous.
Do not lock the arms out in the top position; there should be a slight kink at the elbow. Remember: muscles, not locked joints, should support a weight.
Super Strength Building Exercises #3: Deadlift
Muscles worked: the deadlift truly is a whole-body exercise and pretty much every muscle from your trapezius down to your calves are in some way stimulated when executing this towering giant amongst strength movements. The primary muscles engaged, however, include the quadriceps, gluteus maximus (aka the extensor muscle of the hip), erector spinae (a group of muscles which run the length of the vertebral column) and forearms – for when holding the bar of course (incidentally, though often overlooked as an essential link in the long chain of muscles recruited to perform the deadlift, the forearms are usually the first to fatigue during a heavy lift (which accounts for why some cheats use barbell wraps)).
Truly, if it’s strength you’re after then you absolutely must include the deadlift into your training regime. As Delavier says, as well as working ‘virtually every muscle . . . it builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’ But the benefits of regularly performing this this power packed exercise do not stop at developing superior strength and size. Deadlifting will also improve your physical performance in other fitness and sporting disciplines – such as ergo rowing, rugby and most all combat sports.
But, a word of caution! Though all strength exercises pose a significant injury risk factor, in comparison, say, to calisthenics or light weight resistance muscular endurance movements, the deadlift is arguably the riskiest of them all. Why?
Well, when that egotistical moron overloads the bar in a crude and quite vain attempt to win some of that highly coveted gym kudos, in his extreme ignorance he’ll not only place huge loads on his lower spine but, in order to execute the lift, will no doubt resort to incorrect technique.
The potential consequence of applying incorrect deadlifting technique?
Ruptured erector spinae, slipped discs, popped nerves and burst blood vessels are all on the menu waiting to be served up. I’ve even heard a harrowing story of one overzealous trainer who sheared his spine in half when rounding his back and ratcheting an overloaded bar up his quaky quads.
Do me a favour, whenever completing a set of deadlifts keep the above list of potentially life-altering injuries in the forefront of your mind. By doing this it will ensure that a) you do not overload the bar; and b) that you maintain the strictest technique from the beginning to the end of the exercise.
*When deadlifting for the first time it is advisable to have an experienced trainer coaching you through the movement.* If you don’t have such a luxury make sure that you use a super light bar!
Firstly, then, begin by organising your weight and engineering your environment so that you will in no way be impeded whilst performing the exercise.
Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder width.
Bending at the knee and ensuring to keep the back perfectly straight grasp the bar: the palms should face toward you and your hands should be spaced slightly wider than your feet so as to prevent your arms and knees clashing.
Before executing the lift take the slack out of the bar by applying force against the load.
Looking forward and slightly up fire through the quads and glutes pushing the hips forwards as you stand.
Once you are fully erect there should be a slight bend in the knees – not locked out. Also, from a side angle, a vertical line could be drawn from your shoulders down to your heels. A common mistakes is to lean back. DO NOT do this! All you will succeed in doing is compressing the intervertebral discs around the lumbar region.
To conclude the exercise simply return the bar to the start position making sure to retrace your steps.
Methods of Modification
Really the only methods of modifying the deadlift is by including chains or resistance bands which serve to increase the load at the point of peak contraction. There is also the option of including a plyometric jump at the end of the upwards phase of the movement – but I would only ever advise this when using a low resistance.
Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift
Select a weight commensurate with your current strength
Keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift
*Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*
Do not snatch the bar from the floor – take up the slack prior to lifting
Do not lock out the knees in the top most position
Do not arch your back at the top position
Do not ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous
Do not hold your breath
Do not use bar wraps!
Super Strength Building Exercises #4: Bent-over row
Muscles worked: this classic strength exercise targets mainly the muscles of the back – latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and major, the rear (or posterior) deltoid, erector spinae (which take on the role of synergist supporting the ‘bent-over’ position). In addition, rowing is a fabulous biceps builder and if it’s a bulging pair of Popeye guns you’re after then find a place in your weekly strength session for this exercise.
The bent-over row is synonymous with strength and size – certainly in the aforementioned muscle groups. And I don’t think I’d be over-selling the superiority of the bent-over row if I said that it is a paragon of upper-body strength exercises.
Also we mustn’t forget the functional application of bent-over rows. Regular rowing with a reasonably heavy load will improve pull-up performance and ergo rowing – that is, rowing on a rowing machine. Whenever I embark on a quest to improve a row PB – say shaving a couple of seconds off my current 2000m time – I always incorporate bent-over rows (and deadlifts!) into my training.
But if it’s just augmented strength, size and some razor-sharp striation lines separating your muscles, then this is the exercise for you.
Stand with your feet under an Olympic bar and execute a perfect deadlift (see teaching points above).
However, before concluding the deadlift movement we need to complete a set of bent-over rows. To do this:
Whilst keeping a slight bend in the knees hinge at the hips until the bar is level with that fleshy bit just above the patella (aka knee cap).
In this position your back must remain perfectly straight (better still concaved), eyes fixed on an indefinite point to your front, arms straight.
Pulling smoothly and evenly with both arms draw the bar up from the bottom position to your navel – the bar should make physical contact with your abdomen.
Under control lower the bar back to the top of the knee.
Hinge at the hips
Keep your back straight
Space your hands slightly over shoulder width apart
Do ensure to maintain strict form when picking up and putting down the bar
Do not round the back – this is by far the single most prevalent technical error bent-over rowers make
Do not lock the knees out
Do not cock the wrists
In a bid to generate momentum a trainer may bounce at the hips: don’t do this for not only does it look stupid but by bouncing at the hips the posture becomes corrupted which could result in injury
Super Strength Building Exercises #5: Military Press
Muscles worked: the primary muscles engaged when performing the military press include the deltoids (all three heads: anterior, medial and posterior), pectoralis major (mainly the upper part of the chest), triceps, abdominals, erector spinae and, if you decide to use your legs to assist the movement, quadriceps.
I fell in love with this exercise after watching that scene in the film Red Heat where Arnold Schwarzenegger, standing amongst a group of menacing prisoners, manhandles a huge barbell and proceeds to military press it above his head. Awesome!
But that scene perfectly portrays the type of exercise military press is – viz. overtly masculine and ideal for jail house gym-style training sessions; after all, you wouldn’t want to be seen by your fellow inmates performing sets of spotty dogs now would you? That’d rightly land you in the soup and get you a ruddy good shanking in the shower!
In addition to imbuing you with an aura of machoism, the military press is perhaps one of the best (if not the best) exercises for developing over-head pressing strength and building shoulders like boulders! Thus, in short, no self-respecting strength regime would be without three sets of six.
Assuming your environment is perfect for military pressing position yourself so that the bar is over your feet (I probably should have said this but the technique description is for trainers using an Olympic bar)
Now, to get the bar in position – because it’s my contention that when military pressing the bar should always be taken from the floor – firstly perform a perfect deadlift (see above teaching points above) then a hang clean.
Ok, if all’s gone well the bar should be suspended about an inch or two under your chin, your hands spaced on the outside of your shoulders and your feet spaced a little over shoulder width apart.
To perform a strict press apply force evenly through the muscles of the shoulders, chest and triceps.
Once the bar clears your head right your posture so that you are standing erect. It is natural during the initial phase of the movement to lean back slightly.
In the top most position your hands should be in line with your ankles.
To complete the movement return the bar back to the upper chest in preparedness for the next rep.
On conclusion of your set, to return the bar to the floor you must adhere to the technical points of the hang clean and deadlift.
Methods of Modification
Personally my preferred method of modifying the military press is to make use of the legs to assist the movement – which is kind of like performing a quasi thruster. When the bar is resting on the upper chest just in front of your clavicles, dip at the knee and fire through the quads. This serves to put a bit of momentum in the bar. As it follows a vertical trajectory engage the deltoids as you would with a strict press. From the top position return the bar as normal. By recruiting the legs I find that I am able to shift more weight safely and I get more of a whole-body workout. But to really maximise this movement just perform a full thruster.