People always ask me, “what are the best weight training exercises to build muscle and get ripped?”
The typical answer found online these days is usually “squats, deadlifts and bench presses.”
But I hate typical answers. There’s nothing Renegade about typical answers.
And remember, my style of training is all about the use of unconventional methods and implements.
So, while those three exercises are great for some people (namely those who compete in the sport of powerlifting) they’re not the best choice for most of us.
A lot of people aren’t built for those particular lifts. Because of that they’re too risky and injurious and can put your joints or spine in unfavorable positions. They also take a long time to learn.
And a lot of us are training in our homes with nothing but some dumbbells, kettlebells and our own bodyweight.
That’s how I train, it’s how I train my clients and it’s how I recommend you train. Simple and minimalist. Safe and effective.
I spent a lot of years doing the typical “bench-squat-dead” programs and ended up with nothing to show for it but a laundry list of injuries.
Once I stopped doing the powerlifts and Olympic lifts everything improved. I was able run faster, jump higher, move more efficiently and, most importantly… I had far less pain to deal with. The great thing is all my clients had the exact same experience!
The majority of Renegade workouts consist of bodyweight exercises. But we also love and use the shit out of kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, sledgehammers, macebells and other odd implements.
Since I’ve already written about the best bodyweight exercises I figured it was time for the list of the best weight training exercises.
Now, even though I don’t think everyone should be doing the competitive powerlifts or Olympic lifts I have to say this…
DO NOT piss around with isolation exercises like flyes and concentration curls if you are a beginner or are looking to get the most bang for your buck in short workouts.
Compound, multi-joint free weight exercises that allow you to use the greatest amount of weight, through a full range of motion, will build size and strength faster than anything else because they incorporate the largest amounts of muscle mass.
Below is a list of the top ten weight training exercises that absolutely must be a part of your workout.
Note once again, that keeping you healthy is a major part of the Renegade System so we use more non-traditional exercises to achieve the desired result.
When you minimize the nagging injuries you can train more often in a fresher state which allows more muscle to be built.
Note: The exercises are listed not in order of effectiveness but rather starting from the top of the body and working our way down.
1) 1 Arm Dumbbell Snatch
This is one of my top 3 exercises for improving explosive power (the other 2 are box jumps and medicine ball throws). Unlike barbell Olympic lifts there is a very low learning curve. Anyone can be taught to do a damn near perfect 1 arm dumbbell snatch in under 1o minutes.
When I worked up to the point where I was able to snatch a 120 pound dumbbell from a dead hang to overhead, my vertical jump skyrocketed. In my late 30’s I was able to dunk a kids sized basketball. Keep in mind that I’m a six foot white dude with very little natural athletic ability.
Getting to the 120 took a long time. I don’t expect you to start with more than a 25 or 30 pound dumbbell. Take it very slowly and allow your body time to adapt.
The other benefit of this exercise is that it’s far less stressful on your body than any form of barbell Olympic lift. The trapezius muscles respond well to explosive contractions so this is a great lift to use if you are looking to build Bill Goldberg sized traps.
It’s best to stick with sets of 5-8 sets of 3-6 reps on explosive exercises like this.
2) Clean & Press
The clean and press is the most basic, old school exercise there is. You pick a weight up off the ground and put it overhead. It’s the essence of weight training. And nothing is better if you want to build big shoulders.
But cleans with a bar can be hell on the wrists and elbows.
Not to worry, though. You can do clean and presses with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags or even heavy medicine balls.
The Sig Klein Challenge, named after the Iron Game legend, was to clean and press a pair of 75 pound dumbbells twelve times. The ability to do that meant you were a freaking beast.
Such a feat is out of reach for most of us mere mortals but I think working up to the 50’s for a solid set of 10-12 reps is a pretty attainable long term goal.
If you can do that you’ll have some pretty big traps and huge shoulders.
Pick any of the implements listed above and hit 3-5 hard sets of 8-15 reps once per week.
When including this exercise on a regular basis I notice that both myself and my clients have greater thickness in the upper back and shoulder girdle.
3) Farmers Walk
Carrying something heavy is a required part of any muscle building workout. It’s what we evolved to do and there’s just something innately manly about it.
Farmers walks are performed by picking up a heavy pair of dumbbells or kettlebells and walking with them for anywhere between 30 seconds and two minutes.
They are the best grip exercise you can do and will really help build bigger forearms. They also pack size on the traps and all the way down your back, glutes and calves. In fact, a lot of people find farmers walks infinitely more effective than any type of calf raise for thickening the lower leg muscles.
Stability in the ankle and knee is greatly improved from this exercise as well. And if you ever want to take a picture of yourself while training this one makes you look coolest. Just FYI.
4) Flat & Incline Dumbbell Press
The flat barbell bench press is way too stressful on the shoulders and causes pec tears. I don’t recommend it to anyone.
Dumbbells are a far safer and more effective option. They allow your joints to move freely in a more natural range of motion. This will go a long way in decreasing your recovery time between workouts and improving your overall longevity.
If you want to build a bigger chest you can’t beat the low incline dumbbell press at a 15-30 degree angle. This was the preferred incline of 7-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates. An incline of 45 degrees is okay for variety from time to time, but that angle places more stress on the shoulders.
If you don’t have dumbbells you can also do this exercise with kettletbells. If you don’t have a bench, a floor press is a good option.
5) 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
This is a great exercise for building up your upper back and lats. It can be done strictly with a sawing motion, allowing the weight to drift forward slightly at the bottom of each rep, then pulling it up towards your hip.
You can also do them with a slight cheat if you’re more advanced and know how to protect yourself and also use the target muscles properly. I’d recommend a more strict performance for at least your first two years of training.
Most people can’t feel their back/lat muscles working. That’s because they always tend to go too heavy on rows. If you can’t hold it for at least a one second count at the top it’s too heavy.
Lighten the weight and focus on really squeezing the muscles as hard as you can throughout the set. This will help you build your back a lot more effectively.
A chest supported dumbbell row, laying face down on an incline bench, while holding dumbbells is another great variation. This is especially effective for those with lower back injuries.
6) Hand Over Hand Rope Row
This is one of my all time favorite exercises to compete with training partners on. It’s manly and incorporates pretty much every muscle from head to toe. One set of these will leave your muscles burning and lungs gasping for air.
To do it you obviously need a thick rope. I prefer a two inch diameter but 1-1.5 will do if that’s all you have. Ideally the rope will be about fifty feet long but you can certainly get away with less. You can attach the rope to a sled or even to some heavy kettlebells (depending on the surface you are dragging the weight on).
Once you have the rope and sled set get yourself in a wide, athletic stance. Squat down half way and sit back to use your bodyweight as a counterbalance. Be sure to keep your back in neutral and don’t allow it to round during the set.
Now, simply row the rope in towards you going hand over hand. If you select the right weight the set should last about 30-60 seconds.
7) Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlift
You can get away with nothing but bodyweight exercises for the upper body and midsection. But you need to carry something (already covered above with the farmers walks) and you need to pick up something heavy off the floor. The single leg ketttelbell deadlift is the best exercise for people to start with.
My friend and colleague, Dr. Mark Cheng got me started doing this exercise. The regular use of it helped me heal back pain that had plagued me for over twenty years.
It’s a great exercise for building the lower back, glutes and hamstrings and far safer than a barbell deadlift. It also improves flexibility and range of motion.
If you have trouble balancing you can simply elevate your back foot during the exercise.
Stick with low reps and use slow, precise reps with pristine form.
8) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
There are numerous single leg squat variations and they’re all awesome. For the sake of this article I wanted to choose one that everyone can do without pain. I also wanted to include one that would require loading and thus, not be on the bodyweight list.
Pistol squats and shrimp/skater squats can be done forever with bodyweight and won’t really require loading unless you are freakishly strong.
But after a few months of training most people will be able to load the rear foot elevated split squat. You can put chains around your neck, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in the goblet position, or hold bells at your side.
To reduce the stress on your knees and to recruit more of the glute muscles lean forward slightly throughout the set. Drive up off your entire foot, not just your toes and the ball of your foot.
If you start feeling it in your lower back try leaning forward a bit more and making sure your abs are braced tightly. Another reason for feeling it in your lower back could be that your rear leg is extended too far back. If that’s the case just hop your front foot back a bit and bring your entire body back closer to the box or bench.
Do 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps with a controlled tempo and full range of motion.
9) Sled Dragging/ Pushing
So it’s not a traditional barbell or dumbbell movement that would usually make the list of best weight training exercises. The fact is you’re using weights when you use a sled. Not only that but sled work can build leg size and strength like a mofo, while simultaneously improving your conditioning. I consider it an essential part of any training program.
If you look at the quads of any cyclist or speed skater you’ll see that quads respond well to volume. The best part of the sled is the lack of eccentric component. So you can pile on the volume and frequency, which will make your legs grow without your recovery ability getting crushed.
10) Kettlebell Swing
Most people just started hearing about swings in the last decade. But Arthur Saxon was doing them back in 1906. That makes them okay in my book. Swings are not only great for conditioning but also for improving posterior chain strength and explosiveness, building bigger glutes, protecting the lower back against injury and helping to actively lengthen tight hamstrings.
Not everyone has access to a reverse hyper, a glute ham raise or a 45 degree back raise. But most people can get a kettlebell and do swings just about anywhere. That makes them a big winner in my book.
I know I said it was the 10 best exercises. But I’m gonna cheat and include 5 more here that I really love.
11) Kettlebell or Dumbbell Military Press
We already included presses with the cleans above. But some people have lower back injuries which prevents them from adding the clean. If that describes you the simple solution is to eliminate the clean and simply press the bells overhead from a standing position. This is a great shoulder builder and also develops midsection strength and stability.
12) Medicine Ball Throw
This is one of my top 3 exercises for developing explosive power (along with 1 arm snatches and box jumps). You can do chest throws, overhead soccer throws, forward scoop throws, backward scoop throws or sideways rotational throws.
Use a 10-20 pound medicine ball and perform 3-6 sets of 1-6 reps prior to your workout.
13) Standing Hammer Curl
Ya gotta include at least one exercise for the guns on the list. No one wants to have big legs and a big torso with toothpick arms. The standing hammer curl is my top choice for thickening up the upper arms and forearms.
Use fairly strict form and focus on your arms doing the work, not your shoulders and lower back. Squeeze the weight at the top for a second, then lower under control in three seconds. Be sure to extend your elbows 99% of the way at the bottom, then immediately reverse the movement with a powerful contraction of the biceps. But don’t swing!
Click HERE for more tips on building bigger biceps.
14) Turkish Get Up
This is a phenomenal full body exercise that really strengthens the core. Getting up from the ground is a fundamental human movement pattern and must be practiced. The added benefit of the TGU is that it helps improve shoulder stabilization better than almost anything else.
15) Goblet Squat
Wanna build bigger legs? Then you need to squat. But you don’t have to use a barbell to do so.
Nearly everyone can perform a goblet squat safely. To do so you hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of you on your chest with both hands. Then you simply squat down until the tops of your thighs are parallel with the ground.
Be sure to keep your chest high and never let your lower back tuck under at the bottom. Use a controlled 3 second negative on each rep, pause for a second in the bottom position, then drive back up powerfully.
These are best done for high reps in the range of 15-30.
So there you have it- Renegade Method essentials.
If you’ want to get jacked without getting injured I highly recommend you put in a lot of time and effort on the top 10 best weight training exercises listed above.
Good luck and be relentless.