I was thinking about the top lifts to get stronger the other day and wanted to write an article on them. These movements are all proven to build strength, increase muscle mass, and do it faster than anything else.
These 10 movements are broken up as follows:
Big 4 Barbell Movements
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
Big 6 Assistance Movements
- Low Back
The reason I picked these lifts was based on a couple of factors:
- They are all multi-joint, compound movements. I’ve gone over why compound movements are the best at building muscle and strength in this article. This should come as no surprise why I believe these are the best.
- They allow you to lift the most weight. When it comes to building strength, the more weight you can add to the movement, the better the strength response will be. If you do a bunch of isolation movements you won’t be able to load them up nearly as much.
- They promote balance, flexibility, and are the best bang for your buck exercises. These movements are balanced between the upper and lower body. You’ll never have to worry about having chicken legs if you Squat and Deadlift massive weights. At the same time, there’s enough work for your back musculature as well. They also allow you to work through a full range of motion, the greater the range of motion the better your strength gains will be.
BIG 4 Barbell Movements
We’re going to start with the Big 4 Barbell movements I think everybody should be doing to build brute strength. These are the Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, and Overhead Press.
When it comes to getting stronger, the #1 thing I always recommend to people is the Squat. No other exercise can build the entire body stronger. You have a weighted barbell on your back that is threatening to crush you into the ground!
The thing about Squatting is it’s a lot like life, it’s about standing up when something heavy tries to keep you down!
Here’s the best quote I’ve seen when it comes to the Squat. I’m sure some of you have heard it and if not pin this on your wall, your gym, anywhere you need the motivation to get in and Squat.
“Down the road, in a gym far away, A young man was heard to say: No matter what I do, my legs won’t grow! He tried leg extensions, leg curls, leg presses too. Trying to cheat, these sissy workouts he’d do! From the corner of the gym where the big guy’s train. Through a cloud of chalk and the midst of pain. Where the big iron rides high and threatens lives. Where the noise is made with big forty fives. A deep voice bellowed as he wrapped his knees. A very big man with legs like trees. Laughing as he snatched another plate from the stack, chalked his hands and monstrous back. Said: Boy, stop lying and don’t say you’ve forgotten! The trouble with you is you ain’t been SQUATTIN!” -Jeff MADDOG Madden
If you’re having trouble getting stronger and building your legs, you better be Squatting. If you aren’t, you’re wasting your time and need to focus on them. Mark Rippetoe, the creator of Starting Strength, says it perfectly in this quote.
“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.” – Mark Rippetoe
You need to be Squatting to get stronger, you can build strength without it but I don’t recommend it whatsoever. It’s the first on this list for a reason, it’s important. Regardless if you Back Squat, Front Squat, Safety Bar Squat, or Box Squat, get it done.
The strongest people in the world all Squat, it’s the foundation on which total body strength is built. If you aren’t doing it, start doing it. End of discussion.
Your end goal in this lifetime is at least 2 times your bodyweight. If you weigh 200 lbs aim for 400, if you’re 300 lbs you better be close to 600. The amount of mental fortitude necessary to get to this goal transcends anything you’ll do in life. If you think going to the gym is just about getting bigger and having abs you’re missing out on the greatest benefits.
A lot of you knew this was coming, the Bench Press is the best way young males test their egos in the gym. Although I think the Overhead Press is superior for total and upper body strength, the Bench Press is right up there with it.
When it comes to building the chest, shoulders, and triceps; the Bench Press is an amazing exercise just for that. Make sure you’re using correct form and not cutting the range of motion to use more weight.
Our goal on the bench press is 1.5 times your bodyweight MINIMUM. If you’re 200 lbs you should be getting 300 lbs at some point. If you get to this point within 2 years of training you definitely can get to 400 in 10 years of training. It just depends on your individual genetics, consistency and resolve.
Right after the Squat, I think that the best total body strength builder is the Deadlift. It’s not as intimidating as a loaded barbell on your back but it’s definitely close!
The muscle groups involved in the Deadlift are similar to the Squat, however, it hits your posterior chain and grip much harder as well. If you’re only Squatting and never Deadlift you’re still missing out on a big strength builder and need to do it.
You can do the Trap Bar Deadlift, Stiff Leg Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift or other variations as well. I start new clients on the Trap Bar simply because it’s easier to teach, maintain good form, and add weight on.
When doing the Deadlift; make sure to keep a neutral spine, hold your air, and push through your feet. This prevents rounding in your lower back which would be BAD. Don’t increase the weight until your form warrants it first!
The end goal for the Deadlift is at least 2.5 times your bodyweight. This is 500 lbs if you’re weighing in at 200 lbs. This is a perfectly reasonable goal and something most people will be able to do within a couple of years of training.
Next on our list is the Overhead Press! As you know, I believe this to be a better full body and upper body strength builder compared to the Bench Press.
When doing the Overhead Press, you’re not just building up your shoulders, triceps, and traps; you’re also stabilizing with your legs, abs, and back.
This forces you to be strong in your entire body to get stronger at the Overhead Press. This is why I feel it is superior to the Bench Press. I know tons of people that can Bench Press over 300 lbs and yet, can’t even do 135 on the Overhead Press.
Our goal on this movement is a tough one but I think it’s ultimately worth it. You want at least a bodyweight press, 200 lbs at a bodyweight of 200 lbs is an awesome goal and one that will ensure your entire body is strong! Your abs and low back will have to be rigid to make this goal a reality. Otherwise, you’ll fold in half and nobody wants that with a barbell over your head.
Take the time to learn the form on the Overhead Press and get started. Your overall strength and shoulders will thank you!
Big 6 Assistance Movements
After the Big 4 Barbell Movements, we have the Big 6 Assistance Movements. These are exercises that assist in building up the big 4. Their main goals are to help in filling in gaps in strength and muscle mass that the main movements might miss.
When it comes to upper body pushing movements, Dips are definitely the best assistance exercise I’ve ever done. When my Bench and Overhead Press were at their strongest (300×3 and 185×1 respectively), I could do 5 sets of 10 at a bodyweight of 250. I had a huge carryover from Dips to those upper body barbell movements.
When doing dips make sure to only go as low as your shoulder allows you to. You don’t want to be going to low that your shoulder starts acting up and you injure yourself. A great way to build tons of strength and keep yourself injury-free is to use Pause Reps.
You lower yourself down to the bottom position, pause for 1 second, press back up to the top, pause for another second, and repeat. That’s the basic gist to it and definitely helps you maintain good form.
A good goal to aim for is 50 total reps in 3-5 sets, this is around 10-15 reps a set. If you can do this start adding weight in increments of 5 lbs at a time. It doesn’t sound like much but it adds up over time.
A great goal for these weighted dips is 100 lbs for the same total reps described above. You do this and I guarantee your Bench and Overhead Press will be stronger and your triceps, chest, and shoulders will be much bigger as well!
I’ve gone over how to get strong enough to do Pull-Ups in this article. If you can’t do them already follow the training I outline here to get to your first Pull-Ups.
Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups are without a doubt one of the best exercises I’ve ever done to build a stronger back. Pulling your whole bodyweight up over a bar is an amazing strength builder and something that has real, applicable strength to the real world.
I always imagine myself falling off something in real life and having to pull myself back up. Doesn’t it make sense that you can’t be truly strong without being able to do something so basic?
When I first started TRYING to do Pull-Ups I couldn’t do them whatsoever. I was weak, fat, and out of shape. The training it took to get up to 5 sets of 10 required me to be strong, lean, and in shape. No other movement requires relative body strength like Chins and Pull-Ups.
The important thing when doing Chins and Pull-Ups is to use different grips. You can do Chin-Ups, Neutral Grip, Wide Grip, Towel, and Rope Chins. There are tons of variations and even more muscles in the back, each variation hits different parts of the musculature so feel free to mix it up.
Your goal for these is the same as Dips, 50 Total Reps in 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps. As soon as that goal is done, aim for 100 lbs added on for the same total rep count. It will take a ton of time and work to make this happen, but that amount of work it takes to smash this goal will be worth it. You’ll be stronger, your back and arms will be bigger, and you’ll absolutely be in shape. Make it happen and reap the rewards.
Just like Pull-Ups, Rows are incredibly important for overall muscle and strength gain. When I Benched 300 for the first time I did 135 lb DB Rows for sets of 10. This was my best strength feat using Rows and something that took a ton of work.
You can use Dumbbells, Barbells, Cables, Machines, or even bodyweight to do your rows. What’s important is picking a movement and getting stronger at them.
The main ones I recommend are Dumbbell Rows, T-Bar Rows, and Barbell Rows. You could alternate these 3 every couple of months for years and still make progress. That’s the goal and something that needs to happen to build a big and strong back.
The main goal on these that I’ve always thought about but have never done is on the barbell and dumbbell rows specifically. If you bench 300 lbs then your goal could be 300 lbs on barbell rows and 150 lbs on dumbbell rows. Makes sense right? A 1:1 ratio of upper body push to pull strength would definitely make you much stronger than just being strong in your pressing muscles.
If you want to be strong on Bench, Squat, Deadlift and Overhead Press you need to have strong lats, and a strong posterior chain. The stronger your rows get the stronger your entire body will be. Focus on Rows and make them a priority.
The implement doesn’t matter as much as the execution. I would err toward the side of barbells and dumbbells, however. They’re much harder than something like a cable row which tells you how effective they are for building strength.
A lot of people say you only need to do big barbell movements to get stronger abs. I would definitely disagree with them.
The number of people I’ve seen that struggled to get stronger on Squats and Deadlifts due to weak abs is exceptionally high. Squats and Deadlifts specifically are the exercises I see injuries on in general. Most of these are due to the weight being too heavy and those people having weak core muscles.
Between abs and low back, both need to be strong to maintain a rigid spine. The best movements I’ve found to accomplish this goal are the Ab Wheel, Decline Weighted Situps, and Hanging Leg Raises.
Using just these 3 movements I’ve seen people that struggled to Squat their Bodyweight build up to using a Barbell for 20 reps in 2 weeks. This isn’t a normal occurrence and it definitely shows you just how important abdominal strength and stability are for getting stronger.
If you want to get stronger you need to make sure your torso is as strong and stable as possible. The main goal I’ve had for these are Ab Wheel for 50 total reps in 3-5 sets. If you haven’t done the Ab Wheel before nothing is more humbling.
Eventually, you can move onto standing Ab Wheel like Dan Green shown below. There’s never been a greater display of abdominal, low back and full-body stability than this. Take notes.
The first time I did them, sets of 5 was almost impossible. The soreness was excruciating that first time but I eventually worked up to 5 sets of 10. This helped me build my Squat from the mid 200s to 400 in a matter of months. In that same time frame, my Deadlift went from the low 300s to 500 lbs.
Mind you, I’m 6’6″ so the length of my torso absolutely factors into this. The longer an object is the more prone it is to bending from my life long experience. I always struggled with keeping a neutral spine in the Squat and Deadlift, building up my ab and low back strength made a huge difference in this struggle. I know it will make a difference for your strength levels as well!
Just like your abs, your low back is incredibly important for getting stronger! The number of people I’ve seen Deadlifting with rounded backs is insanely high! I can count on 1 hand the total people that I’ve seen in a commercial gym with GREAT form on the Deadlift.
It’s insanely rare to see and something I never understood, why would you try to do an exercise incorrectly that could damage your spine?
You have to be aware of your form always when doing big barbell movements and the low back is the biggest contributor to total body strength.
I’ve found 3 great movements that I recommend above all else for the low back: Back Extensions, Reverse Hypers and Romanian Deadlifts.
When training new clients I ALWAYS start them off with Back Extension. I’ve never found a better movement that any trainee can do! Not everybody can Deadlift, not everybody can Squat, but everybody can do Back Extensions.
Our main goal starting out, just like all bodyweight movements, is 50 total reps in 3-5 sets. As soon as this is done we can start adding weight. For most people, getting to a 45 lb plate for 50 total reps is plenty.
From here, it’s time to move onto harder low back movements such as the Romanian Deadlift. The whole point of this movement is to put you in a position you DON’T want to be in when doing a normal Deadlift. The low back and abdominal rigidity necessary put this exercise into a class of its own.
Here is Paul Carter of Lift-Run-Bang doing a solid set of 5 with perfect form. As you can see, his whole body is built and strong. His hamstrings, low back, spinal erectors, calves, grip, and lats are all being tested in this amazing exercise.
I have no real goal for this movement, all I have is a basic tip to prevent you from injuring your back, never go heavier than sets of 6. If you treat this movement like a heavy Deadlift you WILL get injured, it’s only a matter of time.
Stick to the 8-12 rep range and get stronger at it. Your low back, spinal erectors, and abs will get incredibly strong from this one movement. Try it out and let me know what you think!
I know I said that all of the exercises on this list are compound movements but this is my only exception. When training the entire body with compound movements, the one area that doesn’t really get enough work is the biceps.
Here are the 3 main reasons to train your biceps directly:
- Biceps assist in pull-ups and rows. Stronger biceps=stronger back=stronger body
- The strain from Deadlifts on them can lead to tearing. Building stronger biceps helps prevent these muscle tears.
- They provide stability to the elbows while performing Bench and Overhead Press. The strongest people in the world that can Bench and Overhead Press all have big biceps and arms in general. Train your arms.
These reasons alone tell me they’re a solid addition to this list. You can pick whatever Curls you want but once again I recommend Barbell and Dumbbell movements over cables, etc.
The 2 movements I’ve used are Barbell Curls and Hammer Curls. This is all I think most people need and like always you want to get stronger at them.
One goal I’ve always thought of for Barbell Curls is 135 lbs for 50 total reps. At this level of strength, you shouldn’t have any issues with small, weak biceps prone to tearing. Also, it puts a lot of strain on your abs and low back if you prevent yourself from cheating the weight up. See if you can head toward this goal and watch your upper body strength improve!
These are the 10 exercises I believe you need to be doing to get stronger and build muscle at the fastest pace possible. Stick to these movements and watch your strength improve week after week. That’s what I’ve done and all my clients continue to do as well!
The best part of these movements is you can choose close variations to each of them and still get all of the benefits. If your Deadlift is starting to plateau, start doing Trap Bar or Sumo Deadlifts. Regular Bench is stagnating? Try out some Incline or Close-Grip Bench! Or Close-Grip Incline Bench!
This list takes all the best movements I’ve found over the past 10 years and puts them in one easy to find location. If you find your strength isn’t progressing the way you want it to, head back here and definitely try them out. You might find you weren’t doing the right exercises to get stronger.
If you guys and girls liked this list, definitely let me know in the comments below! If you hated the list, I’d also like to know about it! The pursuit of strength is not limited to just those that agree with me, it’s available to all. This is something I love and have a passion for. If you agree with that, even if we disagree, we aren’t that different at all.
Thanks for reading my friends! Until next time,