The 7 Best Strength Training Exercises: Complete Guide
Now, as a professional strength & conditioning coach I'm incredibly biased, but I think Strength training is awesome, in fact, I wrote a full article on the 11 major benefits it provides (things like more muscle, less fat, improved confidence, better sports performance) Problem is, with so many different exercises to choose from it can be hard to know where to start. This guide is written to help with exactly that. I'll be going over what I consider to be the 7 best strength training exercises around, along with full videos and guides on how to perform them correctly. Plus, I'll be providing bodyweight alternatives and going over sets and reps for optimum progress. Let's get started, shall we?
Strength Exercise Movement Patterns
The first thing you need to know about strength exercises is that they generally fall into 7 distinct movement patterns that work different muscles in different ways...
And throughout the article, I'll be providing what I consider to be the best strength training exercise for each movement pattern. 7 patterns, 7 exercises.
The 7 Best Strength Exercises
Back squats are one of the simplest and most effective lower body strength exercises. The main muscles they work are the quads, with assistance from the glutes, hamstrings and lower back to a small degree.
How to do a Back Squat
1) Set the barbell up in a rack at around armpit height. Walk underneath and place the bar on your traps, squeezing your upper back muscles together. From there, take 2 or 3 steps back, and stand with your feet at shoulder to hip width apart, and toes pointing about 30 degrees outwards. 2) Bend and your hips and knees, aiming to sit your bum in between your heels. Try to keep your balance in the middle of your foot throughout the movement.
3) Once you reach good depth, reverse the movement and think about pushing the floor away as you drive the bar straight back up along the same path.
Back Squat No Equipment Home Alternative
You can still perform the same movement, just aim for more sets and more reps, so instead of 3 sets of 8, you might perform 4 sets of 20. You could also consider squat jumps, which I talk about in this article.
Dumbbell lunges are great for building strength in your lower body. They use your quads, glutes and hamstrings, with varying emphasis depending on the length of your steps and your torso angle (longer steps and more lean forwards means more glutes and hamstrings)
They're a great way to ensure balanced strength between your legs.
How to do Dumbbell Lunges
1) Grab a pair of dumbbells, stand upright and step forwards with one leg, planting it firmly on the ground. At this point, bend your knees to achieve a lunge position, stopping just before your back knee touches the ground. 2) From here, bring your rear leg forwards and in line with your front foot to return to a standing position. You can then perform the same movement, leading with your opposite leg.
Aim to keep your core braced and stable throughout, and make sure not to step to narrowly or you'll end up lunging like you're on a tightrope.
Dumbbell Lunge No Equipment Home Alternative
You can perform the same exercise without weight, aiming for more sets and reps. So instead of 3 sets of 10 reps, you might aim for 4 sets of 20 reps. Alternatively, consider jumping split squats.
The barbell deadlift is a classic strength exercise that using a hip hinge motion to lift a moderate to heavy bar off the floor. It mainly works your hamstrings, glutes, lower back and spinal erectors.
How to do Barbell Deadlifts
1) Load the barbell with a moderate weight (resist the temptation to go too heavy, start with something you can learn the form with). Position your feet under the bar, around the midfoot position. 2) From there, reach down and grab the barbell without bending your knees. If you can't quite reach, feel free to bend your knees a bit. 3) Next, move your shins towards the bar, and tighten up your back (think "show your chest") so that there is no rounding, and brace your core. This is your set start position, everything should feel tight, almost like a spring. 4) Initiate the movement by pushing the ground away, and keep the bar close to your body as you pull against it to move towards a standing position. *It can be a good idea to record yourself from the side when first learning so that you can ensure your back is set in the right position and stays that way throughout the lift.
Barbell Deadlift No Equipment Home Workout
The deadlift is difficult to replicate at home without weights, so what I tend to recommend is accessory work that strengthens the same muscles (hamstrings and glutes) For example, Feet elevated glute bridges for 3 to 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Barbell Shoulder Press
The barbell shoulder press is our vertical push movement. It's a great upper body strength exercise that primarily works the shoulder muscles, with some assistance from the upper chest and triceps.
How to do Barbell Shoulder Press
1) Set a rack up at 1-2" below armpit height. Grab the bar at shoulder width (or slightly wider if you prefer) With your elbows pointing mainly down, but also slightly forwards so that the bar can just about rest on your shoulders as you walk it out.
2) Before you press, squeeze your glutes and brace your core to prevent excessive lower back extension.
3) Once set, aim to push the bar directly up towards the ceiling. You may have to move your head backwards slightly to make room. Keep pushing until your elbows are fully locked out above your head, and then carefully lower the barbell along the same path to return to the start position.
Barbell Shoulder Press No Equipment Home Workout
Luckily, the barbell shoulder press is quite easy to replicate without weights. All you need to do is turn yourself upside down and use your own bodyweight. If you're looking for a real challenge, handstand push-ups are a great option, or, if you're looking for something a bit easier, you can try pike-push ups instead.
(Assisted) Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups are fantastic upper body exercises, developing the lats, as well as the muscles of the upper back. Plus your forearms and grip will get strengthened too. If you can't do pull-ups just yet, I recommend band-assisted pull-ups, or an assisted pull-up machine if your gym has one. Alternatively, you can create an improvised pull-up bar using a barbell and rack as I've done in the video above.
*Pro Tip: Pull-Ups use a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) and chin-ups use a supinated grip (palms facing towards you)
How to Do Pull-Ups
1) Make sure you've got a bar above you at a decent height, not so low that your feet are going keep hitting the floor, but not so high that you'll have to jump off a box just to reach. 2) Before you initiate the movement, try to set your shoulders in back and down, retracting your shoulder blades. I like to imagine that I'm putting my shoulder blades on a coat hanger right behind me. 3) To pull yourself up, visualise pulling your elbows back and down, really aiming to squeeze your lats. Once your chin is above the bar, control back down and repeat.
Pull-Up No Equipment Home Workout
Pull-ups can only really be replicated at home if you happen to have one of those pull-up bars that attach to a doorframe. (Plus a doorframe strong enough to support it!) Instead, I tend to recommend performing inverted rows on a table or desk.
There's a reason 'how much ya bench' has become everyone's go to gym question. The bench press is a great exercise to develop upper body strength. It's a horizontal pushing movement that develops your chest, with assistance from your shoulders and triceps.
How to do The Bench Press
1) Start by setting up your rack at a height where you can unrack and rerack the bar safely. If the rack is too low you'll have to bend your elbows too much, and if the rack is too high you might have trouble getting the barbell back in (not a great idea!) 2) Before you lift, set yourself up with your shoulder blades tight together, your bum on the bench and your legs firmly planted on the floor. You're aiming to make yourself as tight and stable as possible. 3) Grip the bar at shoulder width (or slightly wider if you prefer) and unrack the weight, lower it with control down to your lower chest, pausing for a slight moment before driving the bar back up to where it started.
*Pro-tip: For your arm position, aim for about 45 degrees. You don't want your arms and elbows flared too far out, but you also don't want them directly next to your body.
Bench Press No Equipment Home Workout
The simplest and best alternative is the humble press up (or push up if you prefer to call it that) A few sets of press ups done with good control are a phenomenal home based horizontal push workout.
Barbell 'Pendlay' Row
For me, the barbell 'pendlay' row (named after the late, great weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay) is one fo the best upper body strength exercises going. It's a horizontal pulling movement that develops your lats, upper back and grip, whilst also delivering a slight lower back workout due to having to hold a static hinged position.
How to do the Barbell 'Pendlay' Row
1) Set up very similar to how you would for a deadlift (described above) only instead of moving your shins towards the bar, let the bar remain slightly further away from you. 2) From there, with a tight back and braced core, pull your elbows up and back to lift the barbell towards your upper abs. 3) With lighter weights, you should control the lift back down, but with heavier weights you basically let the bar fall back down, slightly guiding it.
Barbell 'Pendlay' Row No Equipment Home Alternatives
Just like with the pull-ups we looked at earlier, a great alternative is the table row. Alternatively, if you happen to own a basic backpack, you can load it with books, cans/tins etc and perform one arm backpack rows for multiple sets of high reps. Either exercise works great.
How Many Sets and Reps for Each Strength Exercise?
Generally speaking, strength training tends to use heavier weights for fewer reps. Depending on your level of experience, you could use anything from 1 to 10 reps and still class what you're doing as strength training.
As a beginner, I would suggest 3 to 4 sets of 6-10 repetitions, focusing on learning the technique and adding some muscle.
As an intermediate, I would suggest 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 6 repetitions, focusing on moving moderate to heavy loads.
As an advanced strength athlete, you should use a mixture of the above, but also frequently include heavy sets of 1 to 3 reps to get used to maximal weights.
How to Progress with the Strength Exercises
Strength training is all about lifting heavier weights, so your main method of progression should be through lifting slightly more weight as frequently as possible.
Typically I recommend keeping your increases small, 2.5 to 5kg for lower body, 1 to 2.5kg for upper body, and letting them add up over time. Adding 2.5kg to your squat every week for a year is over 100kg added. Keep the long game in mind.
Can I Strength Train Without Weights?
100% yes, the alternative exercises I've provided all the way through the article should be more than enough to help you get stronger without special equipment.
Commonly Heard Strength Training Terms
If you're new to strength training there can be quite a bit fo new terminology, here are a few you might want to learn... Eccentric: The negative or lowering portion of a movement. (e.g. descending in a squat) Concentric: The positive or raising portion of a movement. (e.g. ascending up out of a squat)
Intensity: The weight on the bar, often expressed as a percentage of your 1 rep max (the most weight you can lift for 1 rep)
Volume: The total amount of training you are doing. So a high volume session would be lots of sets and reps, and a low volume session would be just a few sets and reps.
Alright, now that you've got my recommended best 7 strength training exercises, your biggest priority should be... 1) Getting into the gym (or training at home) at least twice per week, and start practicing the movements using the sets and reps I recommended just above.
Alongside that, you might want to consider... 2) Joining my mailing list (sign up is one this page) for free coaching tips, strength training programmes and info.
And last but not least...
3) If you want some extra 1:1 support, consider looking at some of my coaching options. (Found under the coaching tab)
. That's all for today, 'Til Next Time Alex
MSc Strength & Conditioning British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator