People always ask me, “what are the best weight training exercises to build muscle and get strong?”
The fact is, the answer to that question hasn’t changed in a hundred years.
The basics are still the best.
You judge an exercise’s effectiveness in two ways.
First, it has to be a movement that allows the greatest amount of loading for that muscle group.
Second, it has to allow for great progression and strength gains.
That’s why squats are better than leg extensions, and why military presses are better than lateral raises. You can use way more weight on the first two. And you can go up hundreds of pounds on the squat and a ton of the military press. On lateral raises you’ll start with 10’s and when you’re really strong you’ll be using 25’s a few years later.
One thing I should note about the big compound exercises is that they can be risky if you do them with less than perfect form or have any pre-existing injuries or conditions which prevent you from doing them properly.
I like to make all my workouts as safe as possible so I do things like program the big lifts a bit later in the program or tweak the warm up, use slower negatives and pauses, or use bands and chains. I also like to use specialty bars like a trap bar, Swiss bar and safety squat bar.
Not everyone has access to this kind of stuff so I will present the exercises that you can do in most public gyms.
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) Standing Press
You stand up, grab a bar or a pair of dumbbells and press them overhead. Nothing will pack size on the shoulders as effectively.
Be sure to brace your abs, pull your ribs down and squeeze your glutes tightly throughout the set. Also make sure you have your feet corkscrewed into the floor.
Do 3-5 heavy sets once per week for strength and 3-5 higher rep back off sets for size.
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.
But cleans with a bar can be hell on the wrists and elbows if your technique isn’t perfect.
Not to worry, though. You can do clean and presses with dumbbells.
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.
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) Hang Clean
We’ve all seen Olympic lifters and marveled at their huge traps. And these days all the top Crossfit competitors have the same kind of development. The reason? Cleans.
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you they’re not the safest exercise nor are they easy to learn. But if you can do them properly and safely you will gain some serious size.
I’d take the time to learn proper technique and build up very, very slowly.
4) 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.
5) Flat & Incline Barbell/Dumbbell Press
The flat barbell bench press is stressful on the shoulders. I don’t usually recommend it to anyone unless you can do it with a reverse band set up or chains. Or if you have an angled or neutral grip bar. Then, if you are qualified to do it, it’s a fine exercise.
A 15-30 degree incline press with an angled grip barbell is as good as it gets for building the chest. You can’t beat it. 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.
But if you don’t have anything but a straight bar and that beats the shit out of you then dumbbells are a 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 don’t have dumbbells you can also do this exercise with kettletbells. But I’ll be honest, it kinda sucks. I’d use it as a last resort.
If you don’t have a bench, a floor press is a good option. But then again, so is finding a better place to train.
6) 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.
It doesn’t get any more basic than bending over and picking up a heavy object. This movement works your neck, traps, shoulders, lats, mid back, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, forearms and entire midsection.
Powerlifters all have huge traps and backs. They deadlift a lot. See the correlation?
The conventional deadlift with a straight bar from the floor is just one option. You can also go sumo or pull from pins or blocks. To strengthen the start of the pull you can stand on a low box or some plates.
Trap bar deadlifts are another great variation that have much less of a learning curve. They can usually be done with very good form by most people.
When starting your pull make sure that you are tight from head to toe. Take the slack out of the bar and flatten your lower back. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, your upper back should actually be slightly rounded. To achieve the proper position just let your shoulder blades spread instead of pinching them together. If you can do this while keeping your lower back flat you’re good to go.
Stick with primarily low reps on deadlifts and build volume through more sets. When the reps get high the injury risk increases exponentially.
It’s forever been called “The king of all exercises,” and for good reason (though I’d argue for the clean and press or the deadlift).
If you want to be strong and you want big legs squats are essential.
That doesn’t mean you should only do back squats with a barbell. Front squats may work better for your structure. Or you may find that squatting with a safety bar is far more comfortable and effective.
I recommend that everyone squat with a good pair of Olympic lifting shoes. I also recommend spending the time required to develop the necessary mobility to squat properly. It’s not sexy, fun or exciting but you have to do it if you want to squat without getting hurt.
Be sure to stretch and mobilize the ankles, calves, hips, glutes, hamstrings and thoracic spine for optimal, injury-free squatting. And always use a load you can dominate with perfect form. When you go too heavy and allow the form to get loose you’re just asking to get hurt.
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) Standing Hammer Curl
I broke the order here by putting these down towards the bottom. But it would be insane to have them near the top since they are simply icing on the cake.
However, 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!
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So there you have it- the best weight training exercises for building muscle and strength.
Good luck and be relentless.