Enter any gym, and you’re guaranteed to see people loading up the barbell with as much weight as possible to gain strength. But is there more than one way to improve strength? And if so, how do you choose which exercises are best?
Improving your strength doesn’t just help you lift more weight; more importantly, it plays a crucial role in your daily life, helping to improve your functional fitness and movement. Simply put, the stronger you are, the less likely you are to get injured.
Today we look at the five best exercises for strength while providing practical and easy-to-implement steps to help you reach your fitness goals.
Strategies for gaining strength
Strength forms the foundation for pretty much every exercise and athletic activity we perform, so it makes sense to be as strong as possible. Whether it is a basic activity like walking or carrying groceries, strength is pivotal in maintaining correct posture.
Strength also provides other benefits that are not evident initially, such as increasing your speed, power, and explosiveness when performing squats or CrossFit. Being stronger increases your metabolism, allowing you to burn more fat too.
Undoubtedly, though, the biggest benefit of increasing your strength is its ability to help with injury prevention. Strength exercises like squats can help strengthen the core taking stress off the lower back.
The Big Three
The big three refers to three of the most popular compound strength exercises known to increase strength dramatically among all fitness levels:
The common denominator among these three exercises is that they utilise the barbell. The barbell allows you to lift more weight and is easier to control than dumbbells. Remember, if you want to get stronger, then at some point, you’ll have to lift more weight, and barbells allow you to do it.
Keep it simple
A common mistake that many gym-goers make is overcomplicating things.
K.I.S. or ‘keep it simple’ can help simplify your strength and conditioning program by getting you to focus on the two aspects of strength training that matter: correct form and the count.
There’s no need to scream out loud, drop weights on the floor and walk around the gym like the Incredible Hulk. Instead, focus fully on performing each and every rep with correct form, lifting in a controlled fashion, and gradually increasing your weight as you get stronger.
Rest and recovery
We’ve all heard of the adage ‘less is more’, and nothing could be more accurate when it comes to getting stronger. Many gym-goers struggle with this philosophy because it seems counterintuitive to achieving success.
Strength exercises like the squat and deadlift place a great deal of stress on your body, which is why it’s important to schedule rest and recovery days while undertaking a strength training program. Aim to give yourself at least 48-72 hours of rest before hitting the same target muscle again.
Remember, your muscles grow while you’re resting, not while you’re in the gym. Additionally, ensuring you get adequate rest and a good night’s sleep is critical to your strength gains.
The top five universal strength exercises
These exercises work the entire body and are easy to modify, making them perfect for all fitness levels.
One study showed that bodyweight squats reduced fat by 4.3%, increased muscle mass by 3.2%, and strengthened the knee by a whopping 16.%.
Why: Squats are an excellent exercise that anyone can perform regardless of fitness level. They help strengthen your entire body, not just your legs, and help to improve functional movement.
How: Start by taking a shoulder-width athletic stance while focusing on pushing your buttocks back and bending at the knees. Lower down to a comfortable position and then push back up, returning to the starting position.
Target Muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, calves, upper body, and core.
Expert Tip: Only go as low as you feel comfortable with. Always keep your core nice and tight.
In a recent study, deadlifts were shown to increase overall power and strength by 17.7% on average compared to squats at 15.2%. Deadlifts also increased the participant’s 1 rep max by 6.7%.
Why: Deadlifts are another excellent exercise for improving strength across your entire body. They are easily modifiable and are equally as valuable for beginners as they are for experienced gym-goers.
How: Place a comfortable amount of weight on the barbell. Take a shoulder-width athletic stance, keeping your core tight. Now bend down, grip the barbell, and lift it in a controlled fashion keeping your back straight and driving power through your hips. Return to starting position.
Target Muscles: Hamstrings, back, core, forearms. glutes and trapezius.
Expert Tip: Keeping your back straight and your core tight will allow for correct posture and lifting technique while helping to prevent injury.
Why: The military press is an excellent strength and conditioning exercise because, as with many other exercises, it benefits the entire body. Granted, the shoulders are the primary muscle used, but the core, as well as the chest, biceps, and triceps, are also utilised.
How: Start with your feet shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance, keeping your back straight and your core tight. Now grab the bar from the rack and slowly push the bar up over your head in a controlled manner. Lower back slowly to start position and repeat.
Target Muscles: Deltoids, trapezius, upper back, shoulders
Expert Tip: Avoid locking your elbows out at the top of the movement, as it can cause serious injury to your joints.
A 2014 study looked at the effects strength training had on patients suffering from osteoarthritis. After the study, participants reported a significant positive impact on their quality of life while also increasing bone density and strength.
Why: Arguably one of the most well-known strength exercises, the bench press is one of the best ways to improve upper body strength. The beauty of the bench press is that its suitable for any level of strength and can be modified easily by adjusting weight.
How: Lie down flat on a bench making sure to keep your core tight but your arms nice and relaxed. In a controlled fashion, take the bar from the rack and push up slowly, stopping just before you lock out your elbows. When pushing the bar up, make sure the bar goes up and slightly over your head at an angle. Return to starting position and repeat.
Muscles Targeted: Chest, triceps, and core.
Expert Tip: Regardless of your experience and strength, always use a spotter when possible to ensure safety.
A 10-year study showed that men who could perform 40 push-ups, compared to those who could only perform 10, were 96% less likely to fall victim to cardiovascular disease.
Why: The humble push-up provides many benefits, such as improving strength, balance, posture, and flexibility, and even burns calories. There are several different styles of push-ups, making them the ideal exercise to modify and adjust. For instance, if you’re a beginner, you can simply start with your knees on the ground before progressing to the traditional push-up.
How: Start in a plank position lining your hands up with your chest. Both hands should be shoulder-width apart, keeping your hands straight to avoid wrist and shoulder injury. Slowly lower yourself as far as you comfortably can, being careful never to lock your elbows.
Muscles Targeted: Chest, triceps, biceps, and core.
Expert Tip: Changing your hand position will target different areas of your chest muscles. Try performing 3 sets of 10 using three separate hand positions.
Let’s sum it up
The five strength exercises that we have outlined today have been used by elite athletes to improve their athletic performance for years. While some of the exercises require a good amount of baseline strength, they can be adjusted to suit any fitness level.
Following the K.I.S. or ‘keep it simple’ strategy and adhering to a healthy and well-balanced diet also goes a long way in helping to improve your strength. Remember, these exercises are quite taxing, so don’t forget to give your body ample time to rest and recover.
If you are limited physically in terms of fitness and strength, start by choosing the exercises you can perform before gradually progressing to the others.
Want to learn more?
As a professional coach with 20 years of experience, this next training video is one of the best I’ve seen. Conducted by Rebecca Barthel, a former winner of Miss Hercules Olympia, the video targets fitness beginners and can be performed at home with no equipment needed. The exercises are easy to perform, improving core strength, functional fitness, and movement.
Receive Exclusive Tips & Weekly Digest – subscribe to our newsletter