The best strength exercises is a subjective topic. At least they are when discussed by the masses of exercising public and many trainers. I believe the best exercises for strength development are actually universally applicable in nature. There are only so many ways you can move and only so many combinations of movement required in most activities and sports.
A lot of strength exercises are a waste of time. For a strength exercise to work it needs to be efficient at mimicking real movement patterns that are likely to be encountered in the sport or activity one is training for. This article is not so much about individual exercises, but more about types of exercises. My intention is to educate people on the most efficient strength exercises for functional development. These exercises are also, incidentally, the ones that create the most aesthetic value in physique development for those that are looking for this.
There are essentially three classifications of strength exercises. The first is basic absolute strength. This consists of barbell, dumbell, cable (to some degree) and heavy object strength work. The second is weightlifting, as in Olympic style weightlifting and all of the supporting power movements that go along with it. Third is gymnastics, which includes bodyweight exercises often performed by gymnasts and derivatives of these types of movements. Machines, isolation movements and the like are omitted. Essentially most of the equipment in major fitness centres is a waste of space. All that is really needed are the following…
Pull-up bar, kettle bells, dumbells, Olympic bar, lots of Olympic weight plates, a squat rack/power cage, portable gymnastics rings, parallel bars, a cable station (optional). You can also incorporate other heavy items such as those used by strongmen. These include heavy rocks, atlas stones, sandbags (alternatively use a heavy punching bag), kegs, large truck tyre and anything else that is heavy and can be lifted.
Absolute strength is used here to describe strength work that is designed to develop the maximum amount of strength possible for a given purpose or foundationally. This is not the strict definition of absolute strength but it adequately describes what we’re talking about here. The focus is solely on the load lifted for that movement with no consideration for power or muscle size. However this form of strength development can adequately be utilised to develop muscle mass as well as strength if volume, recovery and repetitions are structured specifically for that.
The best strength exercises for developing absolute strength are the ones that have the highest neuroendocrine response. Forget bicep curls, chest presses, leg extensions, lat raises etc. These exercises only work a single muscle group outside of the context of realistic movement. The best strength exercises for developing functional, absolute strength include deadlifts, squats, bench press, overhead press, bent over row and a limited number of other large compound exercises.
I use the word weightlifting because it adequately describes the best exercises for power development. Olympic weightlifters are some of the most powerful athletes that exist because they have to move a considerable amount of weight at a rapid rate. Absolute strength is the maximum load lifted at any speed, weightlifting is the transference of this strength into useful, athletic power. This involves development of the ability to generate force as fast as possible. The benefits are massive to this sort of development. Power is the partner of strength, without it most strength is not useful in real athletic endeavours. This is why I have included power movements as seen in weightlifting into best strength exercises. Power development is essential for applicable strength. Without it most strength work will be incomplete.
Weightlifting includes the main Olympic lifts such as snatch, clean and jerk, cleans, push press and split jerk. It also includes assisting movements such as sumo deadlift high pull, bent over power row, thrusters, hang clean, power snatch and further variations.
Gymnastics are some of the best strength exercises for the development of upper body strength. Gymnastics involves control of one’s own body through space under high tension. Absolute strength and weightlifting exercises allow control of an external object. Gymnastics allow development of strength where no external force is involved. So although muscles are contracting at maximal tension there is an entirely different neuromuscular response.
Gymnastics exercises are superior in the development of overall upper body strength development. The reason is that they involve near-maximal tension of a broad range of muscle groups in order to control the body through various ranges of movement.
Gymnastics are essential for developing functional strength that is useful in dynamic activities. The definition of gymnastics exercises is anything that involves movement of the body in awkward and disadvantaged leverage positions. This includes push-ups, pull-ups, kips, rolls, handstands, bridges, hollow position drills, dips, muscle-ups and the dozens of variations of each. Variations can include single arm push-ups, single arm pull-ups, rope climbing, high bar work, parallel bar work, still rings routines, callisthenics performed on a Swiss ball etc.
Putting it All Together
The best strength exercises are really nothing if they are not applied correctly. In order to get the most out of even the best strength exercises you need to structure workouts intelligently to maximise training, recovery and adaptation.
The following are some pointers on incorporating strength training intelligently into a well-rounded conditioning program…
Train frequently and make it count. Basically this means maximising training sessions and only training when you can get the most from a session. Let your body tell you when not to train. You should always avoid a session if muscles are sore from a previous workout or you feel too fatigued to perform at even previous levels. Training frequently means consistency.
Pumping up muscles to the point of fatigue is most often useless for real strength development. It may seem logical to train a muscle to absolute fatigue in order to force it to adapt to the stimulus but it will inhibit any progress you will make in terms of strength. A muscle trained to fatigued levels is performing at a sub-par level yet the nervous system thinks it’s performing at its peak. So actual strength adjusts according to this and can actually make you weaker over time. So train strength movements while muscles are at their peak.
Incorporate exercises in successive difficulty. This is logical and means starting with the most basic version of an exercise and gradually learning the next skill for the next progression of the exercise. Before using any sort of real intensity on an exercise begin by learning the movement either at a light weight or assisted. A lot of strength development is a skill. Learn the skill aspect then begin adding to the intensity. You may begin learning something like a clean using just an empty Olympic bar or start learning handstands and planches by beginning with a frog stand.
Utilise the concept of progressive intensity. This has been discussed several times on this site. Progressive intensity is one of the ways a periodised strength training program is periodised. Essentially progressive intensity means beginning a cycle at a low intensity then gradually increase the intensity until you get closer to your maximum lifts over a period of weeks or months. After spending a short duration at maximum intensity then back off to the beginning of a new cycle and start building back up again. If this principle is used properly you should begin each cycle with more strength than you had at the beginning of the previous cycle.
Vary every strength workout. Doing an exact program will make you stronger but only for the selected movements you are doing. For strength training to count outside of the training environment the principle of variance and non-linear periodisation must be utilised. There should be certain core movements that remain fairly consistent over time with the addition of extra exercises thrown in to challenge the nervous system. In addition to changing the movements of a workout you should change as many of the other variables as possible. You can change the rep structure, the order of exercises, the intensity, training frequency of certain movements, recovery periods etc. So set up a strength training outline structure and work with that as a base while incorporating other aspects and movements.
Ok, now we get down to details, the structure. Strength work should be done frequently as mentioned previously. Sessions should generally be fairly short as there is a certain window of effectiveness. Generally complete strength sessions should be performed every 2-3 days for most people. This means every 2-3 days you should be focussing solely on strength development within a session with the addition of other strength work being incorporated at other times within various contexts. So you might do a weightlifting and absolute strength session on Monday, a metabolic conditioning session on Tuesday with elements of strength, a gymnastics session on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, metabolic conditioning on Friday without strength work then another strength session on Saturday possibly including a mish-mash of absolute strength, weightlifting and gymnastics.
Maintain somewhat specific guidelines for certain goals. Someone training to be a road cyclist is obviously going to perform their workouts a little differently to someone training to be a shot putter. This means structuring reps and intensity based, at least in part, by the needs associated with the task at hand.
That concludes the guidelines on how to incorporate the best strength exercises. Putting it into practice may be a little more difficult than it was reading about how to do it, especially for those lacking strength training experience. It is advised to seek the help of a professional trainer or coach for clarification and assistance in structuring your strength training workouts.
Selection of Exercises
Sometimes it is hard to select exercises that will be of benefit. So I have compiled a list of strength exercises, drills and skills. This is not an exhaustive list but does provide you with enough to put together a basic training program. Keep in mind also that although these are considered the best strength exercises, not all of them will be included. For exercises that are not common or familiar I will include a brief explanation. This is a mix-and-match of standard skills and high level skills.
PUSH-UPS (AND VARIATIONS)
SINGLE ARM PUSH-UPS
L-HANG PULL-UPS: This is simply a pull-up performed with the legs extended straight out in front for the duration of the set.
MUSCLE-UP: Begin by performing a regular pull-up (kipping). When you get to the bar continue by rotating your shoulders and pressing the body over the bar until the bar is at your waste. Reverse the action back to the starting position. Congratulations, you have just done one muscle-up.
HOLLOW BRIDGE: With your feet flat on the floor walk your hands out in front keeping them shoulder width apart. Keep walking the hands out while keeping the back from sagging and maintaining a hollow position. Go to the point where you are struggling to keep from falling in the middle. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds or longer.
IRON HOLD: Lie face down with palms on the floor at about level with hips and not much wider. Fingers should be facing backwards diagonally. Now push the body up until the elbows come almost to lock-out. Now hold this position for 10-30 seconds. This is a great way to begin learning a planche.
Absolute Strength Exercises
DEADLIFTS (ALL VARIATIONS)
SQUATS (FRONT, BACK AND OVERHEAD)
BENT OVER ROW
CLEAN AND JERK
HANG CLEAN (SAME AS THE CLEAN EXCEPT BEGIN A LOT HIGHER WITH THE BAR HELD AT ABOUT KNEE LEVEL TO START)
POWER SNATCH (SAME AS SNATCH EXCEPT START LIKE A HANG CLEAN AND ONLY “CATCH” WITH A SLIGHT ABSORPTION WITH THE KNEES)
THRUSTERS: Begin like you would for a front squat or a push-press. Squat into a deep front squat then power up as fast as possible while thrusting the bar overhead to finish the movement.
That’s it for best strength exercises. This is intended as a guide for strength training and exercise selection. Incorporating the above movements and principles is most efficient for athletic advancement. Of course there are certain needs that would need to be adjusted for. However the guidelines here can be adapted in any number of combinations to suit varied needs.
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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Unleashed Training, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.