TOP Exercises for Muscle and Strength
One of the most common questions I get asked related to fitness is “Jack, what should I be doing in the gym to get bigger and stronger?” And it’s very understandable why that is the case. There’s a lot of confusion out there about isolation vs. compound movements, free weights vs. machines, and whether lifting heavy is even safe. The best advice I have for you guys is simply to stick to the basics. There’s no need to use every machine in the gym, or all of the different exercises you see on Social Media. If you’re looking to build muscle and get stronger in the most efficient manner look no further than sticking to free-weight barbell exercises. If you’re not familiar with each of them, don’t worry, I have you guys covered in this post!
Overall Training Strategy
Compound lifts ( i.e. squat, bench, and deadlift) are the most effective exercises for building strength and hypertrophy in the least amount amount of time (Fleck and Kraemer 1997). These are multi-joint resistance exercises where more than one muscle group is involved. For example, in the barbell deadlift, almost all of the back muscles are involved at some portion of the movement, in addition to the posterior leg muscles on your body. While isolation lifts can and are recommended to be added to one’s training program, one study showed that adding single joint exercises into a multi-joint program provided no additional benefit (Gentil et al 2013). Therefore, it is highly advisable to make compound lifts the bulk of one’s strength training program. Isolation lifts still have their part in my opinion, especially the longer has been weightlifting, where they may accumulate lagging body parts for various reasons. But if you’re at the gym by yourself, short on time and want to maximize the exercises you perform, making progress on the six exercises I’ll outline below is an incredibly effective practice for building muscle and strength.
Squats are an incredibly effective exercise for leg development, particularly when performed with heavy loads and with appropriate depth (Bloomquist et al 2013). Tje primary muscles worked in this movement are the quads, with your glutes and hamstrings varying in involvement based on foot stance and bar positioning on your back. While squats have been shown to not be the most effective in terms of optimal hamstring development (Dedinsky et al 2017), they have shown additional performance benefits in athletes, such as vertical jump and explosive strength (Marián et al 2016). This is why you almost always see athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, pretty much any person whose sport revolves around lower-body power and strength performing this exercise on a consistent basis. As long as you don’t have any preexisting injuries preventing you from doing them, take the time to practice and master your technique/perform on this exercise, then aim to get stronger each week and reap the benefits this exercise provides on your lower-body development.
Ahh yes the bench press, perhaps the most infamous exercise when it comes to weightlifting, and for good reason too. The bench press is a key compound lift that has shown to elicit max pec stimulation, with pec size showing strong correlation with a HEAVY 1rm following the principles of progressive overload (Akagi et al 2014). While an compound chest movement at an ~45deg is recommended for additional recruitment of upper chest fibers, the bench press has shown significant muscle recruitment across both the upper and lower head of the Pec major (Santana et al 2007). I see way too many beginners shying away from the bench press, and instead opting for cable crossovers or any lighter chest exercise. Listen, those exercises can have their value at the end of a routine, but if you’re looking to build your chest and develop some serious upper-body strength, the bench press is going to be your best friend to accomplish that. Just like the squat, take your time in learning the technique for this movement. Don’t be afraid leave your ego at the door and start as light as necessary, then slowly work your way up from there.
I used to think the deadlift was unsafe and only resolved for heavy powerlifters, until I took the time to research the movement and understand the incredible benefits it provides for size and strength. Unlike any other movement, the barbell deadlift is an effective exercise for recruiting more muscle groups from both the upper and lower-body. Although not an essential exercise nor the most optimal back movement for hypertrophy, deadlifts when performed with heavier loads have shown stimulation across the entire back muscles (Beggs et al 2011). Additionally, while many people have deemed deadlifts to be unsafe, lifters who perform the exercise with proper form and avoid excessive rounding of the lower back have shown little ligaments strain, and therefore place a heavier load on the musculature (Cholewicki and McGill 1992). You should not be afraid of performing the deadlift, but make sure you’re performing it the right way. Although with this exercise there’s much less worry about failure to move the bar at the bottom of the movement, often times lifters suffer injuries from poor positioning during the initial set-up. Don’t be afraid to practice often or reach out to someone else to check your form with this exercise, as we all want to lift safe and effectively.
Proven as an exceptional exercise for both delt recruitment and explosive strength, the overhead press has shown to be an excellent compound for shoulders (Barnett et al 1995). I prefer the standing barbell variation for this exercise, where I find that it’s easiest to progress on a weekly basis and effectively recruit the muscles in my core. And while dumbbell variations have shown to elicit more medial and rear head recruitment (Sasterbakken et al 2013), few other movements possess the potential for improvement in upper body strength and power (McKean and Burkett 2015). This is another exercise often completed by all athletes that require strength training to improve in their respective sport, with the lift translating so well to improved athletic performance.
Both pull-ups and chin-ups have shown to elicit high amounts of lat recruitment; however, if one is unable to perform them for multiple reps, lat pulldowns have still shown to produce similar EMG as pull-ups with relative loading (Doma et al 2013). This is an exercise I personally still struggle with too this day, but the results are evident in overall back development. Again if you’re unable to perform more than a couple of reps, I definitely recommend starting on the lat pulldown machine, eventually using resistance bands and negatives on the exercise until you can progress and easily knock out higher-rep sets on your own. Additionally, both the biceps and pecs will be significantly more involved in chin-ups, while the pull-ups have shown to elicit higher trap and less bicep involvement (Youdas et al 2010). Consider utilizing a combination of both in your programming to effectively target many of the working muscles in your upper body.
Just as you have a vertical row in a pull-up, I highly recommend also incorporating a horizontal pull in your strength training routine. The most common vertical pull used are bent-over barbell rows, which have shown to produce large amounts of lat recruitment (Fenwick et al 2009). While vertical pulls have shown to train the lats through shoulder adduction and medial rotation, row variations are advised as they train the middle back muscles through shoulder extension (Lehman et al 2004). A combination of both pulls is an effective strategy for targeting the various muscles in your back.
These six compound movements are some of the most effective out there in developing both muscular strength and hypertrophy, and therefore it is advisable to incorporate these or variations as such as staples in your strength-training program. While there are effective isolation exercises out there that can support individual muscles that aren’t as widely recruited in the movements above, you should prioritize getting stronger in these basic movements.
Thank you guys for reading through this post, and I’m hopeful I was able to shed some light on an effective training strategy for building muscle and strength in the most optimal manner. Which of these are your favorite exercises to perform? Or do you have any other suggestions for what should be added to this list? Let me know in the comments section below!