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Strength Training Exercises

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

A CrossFit athlete completing a series of strength training exercises. She is performing a squat with an Olympic barbell.

Armed with these six strength training exercises, you will build superior strength and size in all the major muscle groups. As well as targeting specific areas of the body, the list of exercises below will enable you to create strength-promoting workouts.


And as with all Hungr4Fitness tutorials, each exercise features a list of primary and secondary muscles engaged. In addition to being generally helpful, the list allows you to make more accurate exercise selections. So, if you want to target your deltoids, for example, you’ll know that, based on the primary muscles stimulated, the best exercise is the barbell military press.


Included within each tutorial you’ll find an outline of key technique points and a link to a quick video demonstration.


Strength training exercises in practice

But there’s more to this blog than strength training exercises. For beginners and those just starting out on their body-building journey, we have put together a 6-Step Strength Training Guide.


The guide brings you the best strength training advice from leading authorities. It’s not enough to know which are the best strength training exercises and how to perform them correctly.


To maximise each exercise and to bring about the desired training effect – strength! – we also need to know optimal sets, reps, rest, and resistances. After all, applying the wrong training protocol to a strength exercise will not result in the desired outcome.


Why do strength training exercises?

In our article Benefits of Strength Training, we outline a broad range of ways that building strength can build better health. For example, as well as slowing the natural ageing process and prolonging longevity, we look at the strong links between resistance exercises and the reduced risk of osteoporosis.


Also, we consider the many ways that improving strength can translate to improved athletic performance. The fact is, increasing your physical strength can enhance sporting prowess (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).


But instead of trying to sum up a whole blog in a few short paragraphs, the benefits of building strength have been listed below.


Seven reasons why you start getting stronger!

  1. Improves sports and athletic performance

  2. Reduces the risk of osteoporosis

  3. Enhances self-body image and confidence

  4. Improves body composition – muscle-to-fat ratio

  5. Promotes neurogenesis

  6. Strengthens proprioception

  7. Reduces injury risk by strengthening connective tissues and improving control


Strength training exercises quick finder

Strength training exercises #1: Deadlift
Strength training exercises #2: Squat
Strength training exercises #3: Sumo squat
Strength training exercises #4: Bent over row
Strength training exercises #5: Bench press
Strength training exercises #6: Shoulder press

 

Strength training exercises #1: Deadlift

An image of a woman performing a strength training exercises - she is deadlifting.

Purpose of strength training exercise: engage the glutes, and lower and middle back – the erector spinae and latissimus dorsi respectively.


Of all the strength training exercises, the deadlift is the most effective at targeting the mid-section of the posterior chain. This is not where the strength train stops when deadlifting though.


Delavier, in his book Strength Training Anatomy, reminds us that deadlifting ‘works virtually every muscle’ as well as ‘building terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscle mass.’


Barbell squat teaching points

  • Standing directly in front of an Olympic barbell – your shins are almost touching the bar (or make your life so much easier and use a hex-bar).

  • Bending the knees, squat down and grasp the bar. Before executing the lift, organise your hands first: they are spaced about shoulder-width.

  • Don’t deadlift yet!

  • First, make micro-adjustments to your posture. Also, flatten your back, look forward, and take the slack out of your arms by applying force against the bar: this helps to ‘set’ your posture.

  • In one smooth movement stand up.

  • Once fully erect, pause momentarily before lowering the bar back to the floor.

  • Repeat.

  • Watch the quick demonstration.


Exercise tip

A simple method of improving the technical execution of the deadlift is to focus on forcing your hips forward throughout the initial phase of the movement. Most people perform the deadlift incorrectly as they perceive it as purely a lower back exercise. Thus, they hinge excessively at the hips. This is a dangerous technique and must be avoided.


Strength training exercises #2: Squat

A powerlifter performing a strength exercises - he is squatting.

Purpose of strength training exercise: enhance strength in the quads and glutes.

But the benefits of squatting do not stop there! In The Complete Guide To Strength Training, bodybuilder and fitness author Anita Bean reminds us that ‘the squat is one of the most efficient exercises for increasing mass, strength and power in the lower body.’


Some strength training authorities go further still. Arnold Schwarzenegger maintains that the squat can promote ‘whole body size.’ Because squatting is a maximal stimulation exercise, it triggers the release of growth hormones. The presence of these hormones has been shown to be a precursor to hypertrophy, the biological process by which the body builds new muscle tissue.


Barbell squat teaching points

  • With an Olympic barbell resting across your traps, adopt a slightly wider stance – just over shoulder width.

  • Your knees are bent a little and you are looking forward.

  • Slowly and under control squat down until a 90-degree angle forms at the back of the knee joint.

  • Again, maintaining strict form stand up out of the squat.

  • Remember to apply equal force through both quadriceps.

  • Also, do not hinge at the hips or round the back at any point throughout the movement.

  • Watch the quick video demonstration.


Exercise tip

The single most common mistake made during the squat is rounding the lower back. This is a consequence of one of three reasons. First, too much weight. Second, insufficient flexibility in the Achilles tendons. Third, failure to pay attention to recognised safe lifting techniques.


To avoid the mistake of rounding your back ensure to use a weight that you are physically capable of lifting. Also, to mitigate tight Achilles tendons, use lifting shoes or place spacers under your heels (and frequently stretch your calves). Finally, pay close attention to your form.


Strength training exercises #3: Sumo squat

A fitness woman performing a strength exercises - she is doing a sumo squat.

Purpose of strength training exercise: promote strength in the lower links of the posterior chain – quads and glutes.


The sumo squat is a core strength training exercise. Shifting the feet to the double-wide position places emphasis on the outer segment of the quadriceps (vastus lateralis). In addition, holding the bar between your legs, as opposed to supporting it on your back like you would when back squatting, engages a broader range of muscle groups – such as the lats, traps, deltoids, and those of the arm.


Another benefit of sumo squatting is the range of extensions available. For example, from the main movement, you have the option of popping into a plyometric jump. This is much safer to do with sumos than with back squats.


Another extension is to perform a high pull. Sumos into high pulls actively engage every muscle in the posterior chain. Furthermore, because it’s such a mammoth movement that transitions through every joint, after just a few reps your heart rate will be through the roof.


Barbell sumo squat teaching points

  • Standing in front of an Olympic barbell, adopt a double-wide stance.

  • Your knees are a little bent and you are looking forward.

  • Slowly and under control squat down and grasp the bar. Remember, with sumos, you are taking a narrow-hand position.

  • Before initiating the movement, adjust your position and ensure that your back is straight.

  • Under control, stand up ensuring to fire through both quads evenly.

  • The knees are still slightly bent at the top position.

  • If you have bumper plates drop the bar. Otherwise, lower under control.

  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

  • Watch the quick video demonstration.


Exercise tip

The sumo squat is very similar to the sumo deadlift. If you fail to focus on your form, you’ll find that your squatting slowly starts to resemble deadlifting. To avoid this blurring of exercises, ensure that all the hinging takes place at the knees and not the hips. When standing up, concentrate on keeping the back straight while forcing the hips forward.


Strength training exercises #4: Bent over row

A woman performing the strength training exercise bent over rows.

Purpose of strength training exercise: promote raw strength in the lats, traps, rear deltoids, infraspinatus and rhomboids (and teres minor and major).


For building a big, strong back, few exercises compete with bent rows. Schwarzenegger states that ‘this exercise also helps widen the upper back and, to a lesser degree, adds density to the lower back,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).


As well as being a ‘maximal stimulation exercise,’ bent-over rowing engages a broad range of muscle groups – and not just those outlined above. Stabilising the position and controlling the barbell through the range of movement requires the engagement of an army of synergists.


Bent over row teaching points

  • Feet are spaced shoulder-width, and you are standing directly in front of an Olympic barbell (this exercise can be performed with dumbbells, kettlebells, and resistance bands).

  • Pick the bar up safely by performing a perfect deadlift.

  • The hands are spaced a touch wider than your shoulders.

  • At this point you are standing tall, the bar resting across your upper thighs.

  • To get into position for rowing, hinge at the hips until the bar is just below the kneecap.

  • The back is either flat or concaved.

  • With your eyes fixed forward, row the bar to your navel or lower chest.

  • At peak contraction, force your shoulder blades together.

  • Release under control and repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

The single most common mistake people make when rowing is rounding the back. Rounding your back increases injury risk by putting muscles and spinal ligaments under tension when they are stretched and elongated. Straightening (better still concaving) the back reduces this risk as brings the posture into correct alignment. For beginners or those practicing bent rows for the first time, it is recommendable to practice with an unloaded bar. Get the technique down and then slowly start to introduce resistance.


Strength training exercises #5: Bench press

A man performing a bench press on an Olympic bar.

Purpose of strength training exercise: primarily develops size and strength in the pectorals and, to a lesser extent, the posterior deltoids and triceps.


The barbell bench press is the most effective compound exercise for building strength and size in the chest. Of all the exercises covered in this tutorial, the bench press is the most precision focused. By that I mean, only one major muscle group drives the movement while a small number of synergists assist the lift.


The deadlift, in contrast, involves two major muscle groups and a whole host of synergists. And squatting promotes whole-body growth as well as stimulating a score of muscles.


But just because bench pressing is comparatively limited in the range of muscles it activates, it should not be regarded as inferior. The bench press was one of Bruce Lee’s core exercises for building overall strength in the upper body (The Art of Expressing The Human Body).


Bench press teaching points

  • Lying flat on a training bench, position your hands on the barbell about one and a half shoulder-widths.

  • After unhooking the bar, ensure that it clears the rack. You do not want it catching the rungs during the descent.

  • The bar now poised above your chest, a slight bend in the elbow joint, lower it under control. Remember, to transition through the full range of movement, the bar must touch your chest.

  • In one smooth movement press the bar back to the start position.


Exercise tip

The set-up is arguably the most important part of the bench press. Before benching, ensure that the bar is positioned at the correct height. How many times have I seen people try to unhook a bar that’s too high! Even without weight, this is dangerous. Also, make sure that the bench is central. This point is especially important if you’re using a Smith machine. Because the bar is fixed to a pair of rails, you cannot correct the alignment once it is unhooked. The best thing to do, set the bench and bar up before piling on the plates. Hop on and have a few practice presses. Make minor adjustments if needed. Only when your OCD is completely appeased should you start the exercise.


Strength training exercises #6: Military press

A CrossFit athlete performing the strength training exercise military press.

Purpose of strength training exercise: enhance strength in the deltoids, upper chest, and triceps.


The military press is a formidable exercise and one that builds awesome strength in the shoulders. Typically, pressing is performed in a seated position. This is a super-strict variation that targets those muscles outlined above.


However, the scope of the exercise can be broadened when performed standing. Also known as the ‘push press’, the standing military press engages the core, lower back, glutes, and quads.


Military press teaching points

  • The Olympic bar is set at shoulder height on a Smith machine. (Alternatively, you can get the bar into position by performing either a clean or deadlift followed by a hang clean.)

  • Standing under the bar, ensure that your hands are evenly spaced before stepping away from the Smith machine.

  • Now ‘front racked’, organise your feet so that they are a little over shoulder-width. It’s important to form a solid base from which to execute the exercise.

  • To do so, take a short dip at the knee before pressing the bar above your head. Of course, you can forgo the initial dip and instead perform a strict press. Remember, we do not lock the elbows out.

  • Lower the bar under control.

  • Watch the quick video demonstration.


Exercise tip

When military pressing, all the joints involved in the exercise are weight-bearing. A weight-bearing joint should not be locked out. The load should be supported by muscle contraction. So, with that in mind, ensure to keep the knees bent throughout the movement. Also, do not lock the arms out at the topmost position.


 

Strength training exercises in motion

When you perfect the strength training exercises above, it stands to reason that you’ll want to put them into practice. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.


As part of this extensive strength series – which includes the benefits of strength training and how to build a strength program – we have produced four strength workouts for you to try. Enjoy!


 

Get more workouts and training ideas with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.

Strength training exercises tutorial concludes with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits and Workouts Volume 3.

 

This tutorial of the best strength training exercises concludes with the author bio.

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