This article will discuss the top ten exercises for the development of optimal strength and size. Generally speaking, compound, preferably ground based, multi-joint, free weight exercises that allow you to use the greatest load, will precipitate increases in size, strength and power more rapidly than any other methods. This is because they incorporate the largest amount of muscle mass and central nervous system (CNS) involvement.
In general the quality of an exercise will increase with more involvement of joints, muscles and a corresponding increase in central nervous system activity to manage them. The more of the body that is involved in an exercise the closer these criteria are met.
These multi-joint compound movements not only produce greater increases in size and strength more quickly, they also stimulate the production of higher levels of growth hormone and testosterone in your body. In addition, by training destabilised (free weights vs. machines) these movements recruit more of the small intrinsic muscles. Isolation work and machine training is usually ineffective in this regard, but I will leave that discussion for another day.
The following ten exercises are among the most effective at developing optimal strength, size and power, as far as I am concerned, sure, there are a few others that are not on this list but the following movements cover all the bases:
Often known as the king of exercises, the benefits of squatting are well documented. Not only is this the most effective leg exercise, it will, like the Deadlift precipitate mass and optimal strength gains throughout the entire body. There are few other exercises that produce or require an equivalent level of neuro-muscular activity. Additionally few exercises match the Squat in its effect of increasing skeletal loading, bone density, balance, coordination, muscular stimulation and overall systemic adaptation. It’s also (especially with high repetitions) virtually unmatched in its psychological demand for building fortitude and mental toughness. When done correctly to a proper depth, it’s tough, consequently it is avoided by many trainees in favour of the leg press which is vastly inferior. We’ve all seen the guys loading the “hip sled” up in the gym with huge amounts of weight to impress onlookers and then unlocking their knees and straightening them again. The leg press performed thus is completely useless and needs to be performed through a full range of motion to be effective, but even then is still inferior to the Squat. Aside from a few individuals with injuries or structural anomalies, anyone who lifts weights should learn to squat correctly. Back squats, front squats and safety bar squats are all effective, just do some type of squatting.
The Deadlift and its derivatives are some of the best builders of strength that exist. Deadlifts essentially develop the posterior chain, the seat of power, building explosive power and strength in the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and the entire back. Like squats, deadlifts develop strength in the hips which is the major source of power for the majority of athletic activities. The Deadlift tends to be avoided by many trainees who often cite the unfounded rubbish that it is bad for the back. This is another myth (like squats being bad for the knees) that has been circulating for as long as I’ve been training. It is unlikely that any other exercise is more effective at building superior back strength. It exposes weaknesses, it’s tough, tells no lies and can’t be cheated which is probably the real reason you rarely see anyone doing it in commercial gyms. Loaded appropriately, this brutally hard exercise utilises virtually every muscle in the body, producing systemic adaptation, and should be an integral part of your training program.
This movement is most effective when performed standing as it then involves the entire body from the feet up. The Press utilises all the mid section musculature, hips and legs to stabilise the body whilst the bar is pressed overhead by the upper chest, deltoids and triceps. It is therefore also an excellent exercise for developing the strength and stability of the core. The Press develops strength in the entire midsection – the abs, obliques, intercostals and back in addition to the shoulders and arms. It therefore uses more muscles and elicits more CNS activity than any other upper body exercise. It builds big shoulders and helps keep them healthy. Too much emphasis on bench pressing causes over development of the anterior deltoid at the expense of the posterior which becomes relatively weak. To keep the shoulders healthy you need to do both. The Press can be done with a regular bar, a fat bar, a log, dumbbells or kettlebells.
Flat or incline press
This movement can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells. The bench press needs no introduction and is the most popular exercise seen being performed in the gym. It is arguably one of the most effective exercises for developing optimal strength in the upper body. It is not without controversy however and is associated with shoulder problems especially by trainees utilising poor form. Incline presses are probably safer and may transfer more effectively to functional sporting activity. long limbed individuals sometimes have problems with this exercise and can benefit from utilising the weighted dip as an alternative.
Barbell or one Arm Dumbbell Row
Too many athletes and lifters (especially beginners) focus primarily on pressing movements and neglect the pulling muscles of the back or the posterior chain generally, which should be the seat of power. Inexperienced trainees often prefer to focus on the “showy muscles” like the pecs and biceps. This can lead to imbalance injuries like rotator cuff tears, pectoral tears, and shoulder impingement. I have seen many trainees in the gym with large arms and pecs, but often they are relatively weak. I have however never seen a lifter with a wide deep back who was weak. Done correctly rows work not only the lats, but the lower back and hip extensors as well. Rows are great for back development and will build a deep back. If you’ve been neglecting your back work, as many do, increase the amount of back exercises you do compared to pushing movements.
Chin ups/pull ups
Considered by many to be the upper body squat, chins and pull ups are some of the most effective upper body mass builders. They are multi joint, involve the movement of the entire body and work multiple muscle groups. For building optimal strength and size they are therefore far superior to pulldowns where only the arms move. Chins and pull ups develop high levels of functional strength and they are most effective for building back width. If done with the palms facing you they are also an excellent bicep exercise, and superior to any form of curl in the author’s opinion. The core of your upper back work should revolve around the chin or pull up. Done weighted they are even more effective .
High pulls pack muscle on your entire upper back and strengthen your lower back, glutes and hamstrings.They can be done with a narrow or wide grip. Like cleans, they are also extremely effective at building the trapezius muscle giving you a powerful “yoke”. You only have to look at any Olympic weightlifter to realise this. The high pull is basically a clean but removes the complexity of wrist and elbow stress during the catch phase.
Done heavy this exercise increases explosiveness and strengthens the entire posterior chain. Swings are also a great conditioning exercise. Double swings also develop enormous hip strength. Kettlebell work in general for strength and conditioning is vastly underrated in my opinion.
These are a favourite strongman exercise, and for good reason. The Farmers walk increases strength and stability in the ankle and knee, whilst also massively developing the posterior chain. It is also one of the best exercises for developing grip strength. Like other types of odd object lifting it increases the use of muscles that may not be challenged with a barbell alone, for example it places a huge stimulus on core musculature, and your smaller joint stabilisers. It is also compound, functional, ground based and therefore builds useful, real world optimal strength.
Prowler/Hill sprints/Sled dragging
Sorry I had to include what I believe to be the best conditioning exercises last. This aspect of training is important, and should not be neglected. Make time for conditioning, your body will thank you for it. It will also help enhance the quality your overall training and improve your cardiovascular fitness. This in turn will help to make your body run more efficiently and aid recuperative ability. It will also help to lower body fat levels. There are lots of myths about Cardio vascular conditioning and contrary to popular belief it will not detract from your strength and size increases if it is done properly. However, that does not mean hours of running on a treadmill after every workout!
The Prowler maybe the king when it comes to conditioning. It is also one of the most effective methods of increasing strength in the legs, hips and arms. In fact there isn’t much this thing can’t do. Its versatility allows it to be pushed and pulled for time, distance, or speed. To increase resistance it can be progressively loaded with weight. The Prowler can also be utilised laterally, an important component of conditioning ignored by majority of athletes.
Sled dragging is also a great strength and conditioning exercise which will build muscle. It is also a great calf builder if dragged up hills. Its versatility means it can also be dragged backwards and used laterally. Sleds are easy to construct from an old tire if you do not have access to one.
Not everyone has access to a prowler or sled, but Hill sprints although not weight training exercises are an equally good conditioning alternative in my opinion. Hill sprints also build muscle and if you look at any sprinters physique you can see why I say this. Compared to the emaciated bodies of long distance runners sprinters are usually muscular and carry little bodyfat. I believe that they are healthier too.
Sprint up a hill as fast as you can and use the walkdown as your rest period. Repeat. If you go balls out, twenty minutes of this will be more than enough believe me, your sides will ache and you will feel like your lungs are burning.
This is far from a comprehensive list and you could add another ballistic movement in there such as power cleans or snatches for example, however your workout should revolve around these fundamental core exercises or their derivatives. If it does not, then maybe you are not utilising the optimal strategies to increase size, strength and power. In other words your workout probably sucks.