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What are the best strength exercises?

Updated: May 3, 2021

What are the best strength exercises?

Strength is the amount of force you can exert against a resistance. For example, you may have enough strength to push a car with a dead battery along a flat road but be unable to generate enough force to push the car up a slope.

So what are the best exercises to increase strength? Well, there’s a simple answer and there’s a more nuanced answer.

The simple answer is to favor exercises that allow you to lift the most weight, such as the deadlift. Well trained individuals without injuries will be able to lift a heavier weight off the floor with a deadlift than with any other movement. So if we improve our deadlift we'll be doing more than anything else to increase the maximum amount of force we can generate to overcome the greatest resistance.

The more nuanced answer is that it depends on the resistance we’re trying to overcome. Sumo wrestlers would be considered the strongest men in the world if the measurement were pushing another man out of a ring, yet weightlifters win weightlifting competitions, not sumo wrestlers.

So relative strength depends on the specific resistance we’re trying to overcome. Thus weightlifters would be fairly handy at sumo wrestling if competing down at your local bar but wouldn’t stand a chance against a grand champion like Akebono, and it’s not because they haven’t done enough deadlifts.

We get better at something through practice and the improvements we make are mainly confined to that specific activity. We may get slightly better at ping pong if we play lots of tennis but we’ll mainly get better at tennis. Michael Jackson was an amazingly gifted dancer but he learned to moonwalk the same way we all can: by learning the movements then practicing them to the point of mastery.

Strength training is no different. Exerting a lot of force on an object is a skill that requires physical adaptations combined with a well trained technique that extracts peak output from each individual muscle with optimal alignment to maximize mechanical advantages while sequencing each individual part into a cohesive whole. You can be fairly certain Crossfit champion, Matt Fraser, doesn’t have lazy glutes during a squat.

If we focus our training on deadlifting we will mostly improve our deadlift. However, the great thing about deadlifts is that the secondary benefits aren’t insignificant and include stronger quads, hamstrings, glutes, erectors, lats, hands and every muscle in the body so you WILL get stronger overall AND stronger at other lifts but remember it doesn’t matter how many deadlifts you do the BEST way to get stronger at squats is by doing squats. Not deadlifts.

Imagine a scientific experiment where the test of strength were how much weight you could lift on the leg extension machine. A person who does three sets of five heavy leg extensions three times a week would almost certainly lift more on that machine than the person who does three sets of five heavy deadlifts (assuming they were of a similar build and experience). They have simply practiced it more and developed specific strength in that movement and the muscles involved.

So why don’t many strength coaches recommend building a training program around the leg extension machine? Because while it’s great for isolating and improving the size and strength of your thighs, most of your other muscles are basically just sitting in the chair. It does a great job of replicating the movement of straightening the knee under load but little else.

On the other hand, the traditional squat places a weight on your back which forces you to recruit all the muscles that protect your spine, thus strengthening them. This is a very useful adaptation that can be applied to a wide range of movements, not to mention all the benefits a squat provides for your lower body as well as the deeper neurological and psychological changes that come with placing a heavy load on your back.

So the key question is: Am I training a specific moment, like the leg extension, or am I training a cohesive multi-joint movement, like the squat? Specific movements have narrow benefits while multi-joint movements have broad benefits.

If you wish to build ‘general’ strength or supplement your sport with strength training then it’s probably best to train multi joint movements. To keep it simple, I like to use the four primal tests of a persons strength. Like eating food our ancestors ate, the primal strength tests are challenges that could have been done around a stone age campfire:

1) Lifting the heaviest object off the ground.

2) Pressing the heaviest weight over your head (or away from your body).

3) Lifting the heaviest weight on your back (or in front of you)

4) And carrying the heaviest load.

Aka: The deadlift, the press, the squat and the weighted carry. So we recommend you base your strength training around those movements.

For advanced lifters there are other primal strength tests based on combining those exercises above into even more complex movements - such as lifting a weight off the floor and then over your head, like in a clean or snatch.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for isolation exercises. Every complex multi-joint exercise is made up of smaller movements and muscles so much like an engineer tuning up a race car by improving the performance of individual components, you too can pin-point specific parts of a movement and ‘tune up’ those.

You’ll only really be as strong as your weakest link so isolating under-performing muscles can help the overall machine, but I should note this can also be achieved by just refining our technique in the compound lifts. If your upper back is weak in a deadlift, try focusing on keeping your shoulder blades back and down and your lats engaged during the lift and you’ll develop these muscles to perform better at those tasks under load. You don’t necessarily need to do face pulls and straight arm lat pulldowns to improve your deadlift because the same rule applies: you’d mainly get better at face pulls and straight arm lat pulldowns.

That being said, I'd suggest you do both: work on lat engagement during deadlifts and supplement this with isolation movements such face pulls and straight arm pulldowns which are two excellent accessory exercises.

Note: The most common rep range is generally between 3 to 6 reps, and while the science on this isn’t as clear cut as many would have you believe, unless you lift something heavy once in a while you’ll probably never get better at lifting heavy things.

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