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Top 5 exercises for improving strength

Sean Lerwill pullups (credit snhfoto)

It’s a common question isn’t it? What are the best exercises for developing strength?

Some people want to get big, some people want to get lean, some people just want to get stronger. There are certain exercises that top others in terms of strength gain. Simply put compound exercises will always trump isolation exercises when it comes to strength gain, and certain compound exercises have been the cornerstone of people’s training regimes for 50 plus years. Yes, you’ve guessed it, squats and deadlift are going to make the list.

Strength vs Hypertrophy

Dumbbell rackBefore we list the top five strength exercises, let’s just make sure we are all here for the right reasons. When you train with weights, there are a number of goals: conditioning, strength, muscle gain, lowering bodyfat to give a few. People often confuse strength training with muscle gain (or hypertrophy), not to say you can’t have one without the other, or that the same exercises can’t be used for both. However, rep ranges will certainly be a little different. The average strength programme will see reps between 3 and 5, perhaps up to 6 but no more. Some people may go to 2s and 1s as well. In terms of hypertrophy to add muscle, reps are higher at 8-12, perhaps even up to 15. Bear that in mind when analysing the list below. We are looking for strength gain, not muscle-building.

1. Deadlift

Bob's TransformationWithout a doubt the King of strength exercises, allowing a vast amount of weight to be put through the legs, lats, traps – to be honest through the whole body. The deadlift is exactly what it says on the tin. A lift of a dead weight off the floor and up. Have you ever seen a series of the World’s Strongest Man where they haven’t included a deadlift event? Exactly. It is THE strength exercise!

Utilise a programme like 5, 3, 1 or the like to add some real strength to your body. Just be sure to warm up correctly and lift weights you can lift with good form. The deadlift my be the King of exercises, but it’s also the maker of jesters. I’ve seen many a bad form, rounded back end in tears when injury occurs. Leave the ego behind and follow a progressive sensible programme to see the strength gains come without problems later .

2. The Back Squat

If Deadlifts are King, then the Squat is Queen. The Queen often rules the roost anyway, and that’s probably why more programmes include the Squat than the deadlift. Even Arnie followed a programme that had the word Squat in the title back in the 70s: Squats and Milk. If you follow Stronglifts 5 x 5, it’s all about Squats, each and every session. Squats put a weight through the entire body from the shoulders. Everything has to tense and work to move a heavy weight, perfect for adding strength through the entire body.

There’s no hiding from squats. Some people can rarely train and drag a deadlift up, but you can’t squat if you don’t squat. It takes time and effort to get good at this Queen of exercises. If you want a solid set of pins then getting under the bar is the answer. Following stronglifts 5 x 5 is certainly the way to go in my opinion, a no-nonsense progressive and successful programme. Horrible, but great!

The Pull-Up

Sean Lerwill training his back/latsYou either can or you can’t. There’s no half arising or faking the pull-up. You can’t drop the weight, it’s you, all you. I true act of strength. if you want to impress people, forget the deadlift, jump up to a bar and bang out 30 pull-ups. That’s strong. The pull-up isn’t something most people can do from birth. Especially as we get bigger with age, unless our muscles are trained from young (gymnasts, climbers etc) we cannot perform pull-ups. it something you have to work at and train. And if you stop doing it for long periods of time… you lose it.

For me, as a former Royal Marine Commando, the pull-up is the real King of exercises… the god of exercises if you will. It’s a man test and one which you may need. The ability to pull your bodyweight up a wall or fence, up a rope or even to pull someone else up or pull something over. true pulling power should not be sniffed at. Try my 30 Days to 20 Pull-ups for a good Pull-up training programme.

Overhead Press

Pressing a weight completely over your head. It just sounds strong doesn’t it? Like the deadlift, this exercise is synonymous with strongman contests. Except they tend to be pressing a tree or lorry axel overhead. Bottom line is, to press a heavy weight overhead with control is a real feat of strength. Like the squat, it takes time to develop the synergistic (support muscles) to allow you to do this with some bigger weights. It take good shoulder and core strength as well as a certain amount of flexibility.

Stronglifts 5 x 5 is another good one for the overhead press, ensuring progression is made is a safe yet hard working way. Ensure you have good technique and aren’t leaning back. Kidding yourself you are good at overheard press when you are leaning back and recruiting the chest is a big no, no. Especially if you like your back. That’ll do will never do. Perform you lifts properly and become strong properly.

Bench Press

I’m almost loathed to include the bench press because of its popularity. Everyone wants to bench. All the time. How many times has each guy in the gym benched compared to how much he’s squatted and deadlifted? Still, you can’t take it away from the bench press, it requires strength. it’s still firmly number 5 of 5 for me, but it’s a worthwhile addition. Fixing the legs and the back, all the strength has to come from the chest and triceps and is a real test when performed properly. There’s a reason why powerlifters are tested on 3 big lifts and after squats and deads, bench is the third. it is a great exercise.

Again, 5 x 5s is a great programme for deadlifts, as is 5, 3, 1. Just be sure to warm up correctly and strengthen the synergists too. You dont want to injure your rotator cuff, it’s a painful injury and could spell the end of your benching.

Get strong

Sean Lerwill using the deadlift machineThere you have it, the top 5 exercises for getting stronger. All 5 should be part of your training, not necessarily in every programme you follow, but they should at leat pop up every now and then. Even if you are utilising derivatives like front squats, dumbbells press and push press, go back to the originals sometimes. The guys who do strongman do and there’s a reason why they are so strong.

Sean Lerwill - Author

Sean is an former-Royal Marines Commando Officer & Physical Training Instructor. He has been published as a writer five times, has a BSc in Molecular Genetics and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. He is also a Maximuscle ambassador.

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