I’ve been training for over ten years, with varying levels of discipline and effort. In this time, I’ve done a lot of studying on what matters and what doesn’t. What follows are the four strength training exercises that are the biggest bang for your buck.
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Front Squats: The squat is one of the most important strength exercises in the toolbox. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the benefits are similar. But I prefer the Front Squat for some important reasons:
- It strengthens the upper back. Early on, the upper back can often be a limiting factor in front squatting, but as it strengthens, posture and shoulder flexibility will improve.
- It improves wrist flexibility, holding the bar in the clean position.
- It is easier to bail out of – you just drop the implement in front of you.
- It can be done with many implements – a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags – and can even be done weighted on one side at a time for more of a challenge.
- It uses a more upright posture, which has more practical carry over to athletics.
It is a very versatile way to squat. Be aware that the weight moved and progression will be slightly lessened when compared to a back squat.
Weighted Dips: While the bench press is one of the most well known builders of chests and triceps in every gym across the world, I prefer the simple Weighted Dip for a few reasons:
- The scapula are free to move, not pinned in place against a bench or the floor, resulting in more idealized shoulder mechanics.
- The stretch in the chest at the bottom helps improve shoulder flexibility often caused by excess chest work.
- The position at the top of the dip, where arms are locked out, helps train stability of the shoulder girdle.
- Weight can be added with a dip belt, a weight vest, or by placing a dumbbell between your thighs.
- In addition to weight alone, difficulty can be varied by using straight bars, angled bars, or you can use gymnastics rings or a single bar – you can pick up a pair of rings for cheap and hang them almost anywhere.
When doing dips, make sure you only use the range motion that doesn’t hurt – if you are as flexible as concrete, going to deep can cause injury. Stay within a comfortable range and try to push at the edges of that range to improve over time.
Weighted Chinups: I don’t think this is a controversial choice. I’ve known all sorts of people that attribute various achievements to their skill with chinups. But let’s add some good reasons anyway:
- They are a great back exercise that allow for free scapular movement and work the biceps.
- The necessity to hold the bar throughout the set will vastly improve grip strength.
- Similar to dips, you can vary pull-up difficulty by using an different grips, or modifying the width of your grip.
- Any of the tools to add weight to dips also works for pullups.
Concerns about grip orientation are largely unwarranted, but I prefer a focus on chinups – with palms facing you. Even this can be difficult for novices, however, so the movement can be scaled down by using pull-up negatives and jumping pullups until you are able to perform a chinup.
Power Cleans: This is probably the choice that will meet with the most disagreement, but the Power variation of the Clean is not as complex as people seem to believe. The full Olympic Clean is certainly complex and full of technique that is important to get right. But the Power Clean is like the undignified, brute forced brother of the Olympic variation.
To perform a Power Clean, you setup the bar on the floor, pull it upward forcefully, and catch it as if at the top of a front squat. Watch some videos and practice with light weights. The movement won’t really click until See this tutorial or this one for more complexity if needed.
Reasons for choosing the Power Clean are:
- Explosive lifts have major carry over to athletic performance.
- Covers a wide range of muscles from the calves and hamstrings to the upper back and traps.
- Variations like the Olympic Clean and the Hang Clean can vary the emphasis and training effect.
- Cleans are often a crucial part of Complexes [more on Complexes later!]
While there will be complexity in learning the movement, the Power variation is very forgiving – it’s not a technique movement, but one based on simply muscling through.
[Bonus] Adding Deadlifts: I know I said this was four core exercises, but the Deadlift needs to be mentioned. The reason it is not part of the four is simple: Deadlifting is often not something that should be done often with training. The Front Squat, Weighted Chinups, and Power Clean will all work to improve your Deadlift.
But you should still train it! Whether you train the conventional- or sumo-style Deadlift or if you use a trap/hex bar, it doesn’t particularly matter. I recommend training the Deadlift once a week – either in place of the Power Clean, or after it. If you want, you can dedicate an entire day to Deadlifting.