Before giving some example exercises, I’d like to briefly go over how you should be choosing exercises for strength gain specifically. If strength is your goal, then you need to get away from picking exercises like a bodybuilder would. It’s no longer about body part exercises, as much as it is movement exercises.
By focusing on movement patterns, you are choosing exercises that will be your best bang for buck towards increasing overall strength in those movements. These movements tend to be compound movements, which hit multiple muscles at once.
Here are the movement categories you should be thinking about when it comes to strength gain.
Knee Dominant - Back squat, Front Squat, Lunges, Hack Squat, etc.
Hip Dominant - Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Hip Thrusters, RDL, Good Mornings, etc.
Horizontal Push - Bench Press, Incline Bench, Decline, Dumbbell Bench, etc.
Vertical Push - Landmine Press, Military Press, Seated DB Shoulder Press, Push Press etc.
Vertical Pull - Pull-Up, Lat Pulldown, Close Grip Pull-up, Pullovers, etc.
Horizontal Pull - Bentover Barbell Rows, One Arm Row, Seated Row, etc.
Exercises for Maximum Strength Gain
The squat is one of the most fundamental movements. It allows you to push a ton of weight while also stimulating a bunch of muscles from hamstrings, glutes, and quads, to building isometric tension in the upper back. Being able to add heavier weight will allow for a bigger central nervous system response.
You can’t really get stronger at it without having a really strong core, a tight kept upper back, and strong hips. The squat is going to be a little more quad dominant while the deadlift is more posterior chain dominant. Deadlift can help with overall explosion and working the often neglected muscles you don’t see in the mirror. I have most of my clients run through at least some version of the deadlift because most people forget how to use their hips. We sit around all day, hunched over tightening our hip flexors and pec’s causing us to have this rounded out posture. The deadlift corrects all of that.
We tend to need strong shoulders for picking stuff up over our heads. Done with strict form, the press also has the added benefit of keeping your core braced and tight. Performing this movement will also hit the triceps and provide low back stability as well.
The pull-up is a great exercise to use with or without extra weight. Having a strong back isn’t just for pulling strength. It provides a foundation for benching to keep stable, as well as moving weight in the squat or deadlift. You can go on a lat pulldown to get stronger, but I advise learning to get really good at body weight pull-ups first. A lot of gyms have pull-up assistance machines if you find you aren’t able to perform 6-8 reps with good form or just your body weight so give those a try if you are struggling.
The bench press will hit the chest, shoulders and triceps. For how popular it is utilized the one issue I have is it is done with horrible form too often. Elbows should be flared to 45 degrees not 90. Shoulder blades should be pinched back like you are trying to touch them together not laid out flat. The chest should always be leading in front of the shoulders so that the shoulders don’t dominate too much during the lift. Not following these cues causes a lot of shoulder impingement pain for lifters.
While the pull-up will hit the lats of the back, the row will hit the rhomboids as well as biceps.
Getting good at horizontal pulling movements will also translate really well to the lower body lifts. Building a strong overall back is also a MUST for great posture and a strong physique.
Here’s what a sample workout could look like putting this all together.
Squat - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Overhead Press - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Pull-Up - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Deadlift - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Bench Press - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Row - 3-4 sets of 8-12
Make sure you stay 1-2 reps shy of failure, and maintain good form throughout the movement.