People always ask me, “what are the best weight training exercises to build muscle and get ripped?”
The typical answer is usually “squats, deadlifts and bench presses.”
But I hate typical answers. There’s nothing Renegade about typical answers.
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 prefer it. Simple and minimalist. Safe and effective.
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) 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 straight bar can be hell on the wrists and elbows.
The steel or wooden log with a neutral grip is a much better choice. Plus there’s almost zero learning curve. Anyone can learn the technique in 5-10 minutes. It’s a staple in strongman competitions and builds massive traps, upper back muscles, shoulders and forearms. It’s actually one of the few non dumbbell/kettlebell/bodyweight exercises I do.
But lets be honest, who has access to a strongman log? Not many of us.
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 shoulders.
2) 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 beef up your 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.
The first option I start people out with is a kettlebell sumo deadlift. It’s pretty safe and fairly easy to learn. You stand over the kettlebell, centered between your legs, then squat down and pick it up. Pretty simple stuff.
A single leg kettlebell deadlift is another fantastic option that would benefit the majority of people.
I also love Romanian deadlifts with dumbbells or kettlebells. These are done by standing with the weights at your side and pushing your hips back as far as you can until you feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings. These are often far more effective for loosening up your hamstrings than any type of static stretching could ever be.
So what about the straight bar deadlift?
I’m not a fan for most people. It’s just too hard to do. And since a lot of people reading this train in their minimalist home gyms I’m not going to discuss it too much.
Now, it’s very rare that someone can barbell squat with decent technique. It’s pretty hard to find someone who can deadlift a barbell with passable form. But the trap bar deadlift is one lift that almost everyone can do perfectly the first time they try it. It’s like a hybrid of a squat and a deadlift so you can kill two birds with one stone just by using this exercise. It’s also safer than regular squats and deadlifts and tends to leave you feeling less beat up between workouts.
So that is the one barbell variation for lower body lifts that I recommend and allow if you are qualified and can do it pain free.
If you want to use the trap bar deadlift purely for strength development and decrease the injury risk even more, drop the bar at the top of each rep. Then squat down and reset. So instead of doing five reps in a row you’d basically be doing five singles with a couple seconds of rest in between.
But like I said, most people can get all they need from dumbbell and kettlebell deadlift variations.
4) Low Incline Dumbbell Press
The flat bench press is way too stressful on the shoulders and causes pec tears. I don’t recommend it.
Now, if you raise the bench up to a slight 15-30 degree incline, as was preferred by 7-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, you get a much better exercise. It’s safer and targets the pecs more effectively. Unfortunately, most gyms only have 45 degree incline benches. So my advice would be to see if you can find some boxes or plates to give your flat bench a slight lift.
The next thing you can do to improve the exercise is ditch the straight bar. A Swiss bar or football bar would be the preferred option. Those will be much safer and keep your shoulders healthier.
That being said, I’d only press a neutral or angled grip bar if you are really dead set on it. 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’re over 40 I wouldn’t even think about pressing a bar.
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) 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!
7) 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.
8) Goblet or Kettlebell Front Squat
Wanna build bigger legs? Then you need to squat. But you don’t have to use a barbell to do so.
Most people can’t do a barbell squat with safe, passable form. In my opinion it’s not really worth it if you’re pressed for time, lack mobility or have pre-exisiting injuries. There are safer options that can be just as effective.
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.
The kettlebell front squat is performed by holding two kettebells on your chest; on in each hand.
If you do enough sets and reps on those two exercises, and add in a variety of single leg lunge variations and sled work I don’t think you’ll miss the barbell squat too much. Speed skaters and cyclists build some pretty big quads just from a lot of volume and time under tension.
A rarely seen squat variation that’s safe and awesome is the belt squat. If you have a dipping belt with an extra long chain and two high boxes to stand on I’d recommend giving this one a try. Just loop a weight through and squat in between the two boxes. This is best performed for high rep sets of 20-50 reps.
What about if I really want to do barbell squats?
The problem with the typical back squat is that most people simply can’t do it. At least not without serious preparation, soft tissue and mobility work. More people do seem to be able to squat properly with the safety bar, however.
The added benefit of the safety bar is that there’s zero stress on the shoulders. Back squats with a regular straight bar can irritate your shoulders especially if you’re big, tight or both. It makes no sense to tax your shoulders on a lower body exercise if you don’t have to.
Another great option is a Buffalo bar which is slightly bent so that it allows for a lower hand position.
But do me a favor and start with the goblet and kettlebell front squat and milk those for all they’re worth before moving on to the barbell variations.
9) Sled Dragging/ Pushing
So it’s not a traditional barbell or dumbbell exercise. 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.
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 weight training exercises listed above.
Good luck and be relentless.