People always ask me, “what are the best weight training exercises to build muscle and get strong?”
But I like to add something to the end of that…
“While remaining healthy, athletic and injury free.”
Because then the game changes.
Sure, you can do a lot of power and Olympic lifting but it will take a toll on your body and eventually you’ll get hurt.
I prefer to put safety at the top of the list and stick with exercises that are joint friendly and don’t beat you up.
That said, the basics are still the best.
You judge an exercise’s effectiveness in two ways.
First, it has to be a movement that allows a great amount of loading for that muscle group.
Second, it has to allow for great progression and strength gains.
That’s why goblet or kettlebell front squats are better than leg extensions, and why dumbbell or kettlebell military presses are better than lateral raises. You can use way more weight on the first two. And you can add a lot of weight on the squat and military press. On lateral raises you’ll start with 5’s and when you’re really strong you’ll be using 20’s a few years later. Not that great.
Compound exercises are where it’s at.
With that, here’s the list:
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) Dumbbell Clean and Press
This is an old school classic. Sig Klein used to have a very well known challenge. It was to do twelve reps on this movement with a pair of 75 pound dumbbells. If you can do that you’re a freakishly strong, jacked dude. It’s definitely one of the best shoulder exercises you can do.
2) Standing Landmine Press
This is a lot easier on most people’s shoulders than pressing straight overhead. Plus the core stabilization required turns this into an awesome full body movement.
3) Incline Dumbbell Press
I prefer these to be done somewhere between ten and thirty degrees. Dorian Yates always said this was the best angle to hit the upper chest, while placing the least amount of stress on the shoulders. Who am I to argue? (“He’s not Flash, but he’s fast, and his name is Jay.”
The safest way to do them is with your elbows tucked and palms facing each other. The bodybuilder way to them is with your elbows way out to the sides and palms facing forward. That’s more stressful to the shoulders but does seem to hit the pecs more effectively.
A good compromise is to have your elbows and hands at a 45-degree angle. Be sure not to bounce at the bottom.
4) 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.
5) 1 Arm Landmine Row
This is another great variation of a 1 arm row that helps pack size on the lats and upper back.
6) Sandbag 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. That’s why I suggest doing them with a sandbag. It’s more about brute strength and power instead of technical mastery.
7) 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.
8) 1 Leg Romanian Deadlift
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?
But I’m not prescribing conventional barbell deadlifts. I much prefer the single leg Romanian deadlift variation. My friend, colleague and rehab specialist, Dr. Mark Cheng got me started doing these and I used them to rehab a lifelong back problem.
You can do them with a barbell, however, I recommend starting with a single kettlebell, held in the opposite hand of the leg you are working. Go slow and maintain very strict form and control of the movement.
9) Goblet Squat
It’s forever been called “The king of all exercises,” and for good reason.
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. Those are very difficult to master and pose quite the injury risk. A goblet squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell will be all that most people ever need.
I recommend that everyone spends 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.
10) 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.
So there you have it- the best joint-friendly, weight training exercises for building muscle and strength.
Good luck and be relentless.