Strength training is a universal term the encompasses many different training styles, though we could easily call them methods, modalities, or other commonly used names. We will not touch on every possible style of strength training but rather touch on a few basic commonly known methods that use weight-based approaches (i.e. uses weighted exercises such as the barbell squat).
Focuses on basic strength development
Borrows from other strength methods
Ideal for person who does no prefer traditional lifting programs
Often a good fit for the average person looking for general fitness improvements
Focuses on developing maximal strength and power for specific lifts
The contested lifts are the bench, squat, and deadlift
Variation occurs only in so much that it supports the major lifts
Low-rep ranges and heavy weight
Focuses on developing maximal strength and power for specific lifts
The contested lifts are the snatch and clean and jerk
Variation occurs only in so much that it supports the major lifts
Low-rep ranges and heavy weight
Focuses on the development of muscle and aesthetics
Varied exercises used for targeting all muscles
Moderate- to high-rep ranges with light to moderate weight
We employ or have employed the above methods with clients and ourselves, but also utilize other strategies such as calisthenics and powerbuilding or hybrid programs that combine methods (i.e. cross-training).
How to pick the method for you
The exact method we employ for any client, and indeed ourselves, is based on the situational factors of that person (e.g. age, condition, etc.) as well as the goals and interests of that person. The reason for this is we want to create a program that is effective but also enjoyable. Now, understand this idea applies more to the average person and not the athlete. For the athlete, we still want him or her to be engaged in the program, but ultimately performance improvements trump the interests of the athlete. For this writing, we will talk in the context of the average person.
Current outstanding ailments
These cover anything physical that limits someone’s ability to engage in physical activity. This includes but is not limited to injuries of any kind (sprains, strains, broken bones, eye swelling), asthma, heart condition, etc.
Previous ailments with or without current impact
A previously injured tissue is a previous ailment and may include broken bones, previous sprains or strains, etc. These issues may not cause current or ongoing aggravation but may be weak points worth considering. For example, a previously broken bone may be more susceptible to future breakage.
Current fitness level as assessed
A person’s current fitness level must be assessed. How this is approached varies, but as a minimum we focus on the foundational movements, the overhead press, squat, hip-hinge, and running as well as general mobility.
Number of goals
If you have concurrent goals, then concurrent training will likely need to occur. In this instance, concurrent goals might mean improving speed and improving distance. While overlap occurs between the two, there are distinct differences in approach to program design or selection.
Loftiness of goals relative to current fitness
It should go without saying, the further you are from your goals, the longer it will take to reach them. Your current fitness level as determined by an accurate assessment is a major consideration for program design. It not only tells you how fit you are but also tells you how close you are to your goals, what your starting point should be, and helps formulate a timeline for achieving your goals.
Goals are specific, and planning should coordinate, but interests should be considered. For example, if a person wants to be a bodybuilder, but enjoys powerlifting training, then powerlifting exercises should be included when possible, since these will contribute to muscle building.
Situational factors such as schedule, time available to train, work stress, etc. must be accounted for.
A foundation for beginning
Regardless of which strength-training style we utilize for a client, the program must always include the following. The reason for this is these movements set the base from which all additional movements will grow. If a person cannot do these four tasks well, he or she will have trouble with every other task.
Squat—develops lower body ability, with focus on the anterior and posterior sections as well as lateral and medial portions of the body
Hip-hinge—primarily focuses on lower-body posterior muscles, but does work the upper body and anterior, lateral, and medial portions of the body
Overhead press—develops overhead strength by building performance in the arms, shoulders, and torso across all sections, though some areas receive more focus than others.
Running—important for overall health, as a healthy cardiovascular system will better drive the body, but also improve your ability to train with resistance. Generally speaking, the greater your cardio ability, the easier it is for your body to recover and the harder and longer you can train without fatigue. This can also reduce rest periods between sets, allowing you to complete the workout quicker and/or fit more work in the same amount of time.
The Best Bang for Your Buck Exercises
An eternal debate rages on about what the best resistance movements are. Commonly, the bench press, the back squat, and the deadlift (sumo or traditional), are considered the “go-to” resistance exercises for free weights, collectively known as the “Big Three”. We agree that these exercises can be some of the most important. However, the inclusion of exercises in client programs vary based on the goal of the client. Even more, people from different sports may or may not need certain movements for optimal benefit. For example, a football player or CrossFitter may not receive the best benefit from bench pressing, especially if he or she has limited time for resistance training due to sport specific training or specialized strength needs.
Resistance training is the movement of an object with weight through the power of muscle. This can be body weight, weight attached to a machine, free weight movements, or any other form of resistance. Body weight movements, free weight movements, and machine movements all have benefit. Machine movements are the least beneficial of the three. Let’s break down each one.
Body weight movements require a person to move only the body through a range of motion. Pull-ups, push-ups, air-squats, and sit-ups are all examples. When completing these exercises, the body has a limited resistance source. The muscles as well as supporting tissues such as tendons and ligaments all receive stress. This results in the muscles as well as the tendons and ligaments growing stronger, which is ideal for function and injury prevention, not to mention improved health and fitness.
Free weight movements operate in much the same manner as body weight exercises, albeit with the body under load. The bench press, barbell squat, and snatch are all examples of free weight movements. These movements allow for a virtually unlimited source of resistance, far outweighing the body’s own weight/resistance. Through free weight movements, a person can use progressively heavier loads to increase muscle strength, size, and endurance, while also stimulating improvements in the surrounding tendons and ligaments. This is ideal for function and injury prevention, not to mention improved health and fitness.
Machine movements operate a fixed weight through a set range of motion. A weight stack attaches to a cable/pole, which attaches to an object that the user moves. The triceps pushdown, leg press, and smith machine bench press are all examples of machine movements. These movements can increase strength, muscle size, and muscular endurance. However, they do so with the support of the machine, limiting functional transfer. This is not ideal as it can lead to imbalances, which, when moving free weight of equal resistance, can lead to injury. A person who benches 315 pounds in the Smith machine will not be able to do so with free weights or will not be able to do so as easily.
Machine weights have a clear limitation as a method of resistance training. For this reason, body weight movements and free weight movements are ideal. Exactly what movements a person should use and with what level of resistance or intensity will vary by the person and his or her goals.
The debate could rage on about these and other movements, in direct relation to need, ability, and physical limitation. Our goal is not to debate which is superior. Instead, we are going to include what we think are the best resistance exercises:
Overhead press (military press, back press, or dumbbell press)
If you have any experience with resistance training, you may already have thoughts on what the best movements are. Some of our included movements may make sense and others may not. We want you to understand why these movements are included so we will offer a brief explanation for each.
Back squat—the back squat can directly increase power output through the legs and gluteus, as well as the entire posterior chain, which has a direct benefit to sports and everyday life. From an aesthetic standpoint, the squat can build shapely and muscular quadriceps (front thigh) and gluteal (butt) muscles. The squat works other parts of the body as well, albeit to a lesser degree.
Deadlift—the deadlift relies directly on back, core, leg, and gluteus performance. Completing the movement can increase power output through these muscles. Additionally, shoulder and forearm strength is required and the deadlift builds both. The finger flexors and extensors are also actively involved. From an aesthetics standpoint, the deadlift helps build shapely and muscular gluteus, back, and leg muscles.
Overhead press—an overhead press movement in this context refers to a non-explosive variation such as the military press or back press, which relies more on strength and power than the use of momentum. This builds overhead strength for both the athlete and the everyday person, which is essential in a functional sense. When used in conjunction with the snatch or clean-and-jerk, the movement creates maximal overhead strength and power. From an aesthetics standpoint, an overheard pressing movement helps develop the deltoid muscles, pectorals, and various other muscles such as the triceps, helping create a muscular frame.
Pull-up—the pull-up picks up where the deadlift left off. The pull-up works the trapezius muscles, from top to bottom, the latimus dorsi, and the rear deltoids. When done with a reverse grip, the biceps are highly engaged. The pull-up also engages the forearm muscles, not to mention the finger flexors and extensors.
Dip—strengthens the front deltoids, chest, triceps, and stabilizer muscles, stressing these tissues in ways different from the other exercises.
Clean and jerk—lifting weight from the ground to overhead is something the everyday person will need to be able to do, and many athletes will need this in greater degree. The clean and jerk builds power and teaches someone to rely on technique more than brute strength. From a functional and efficiency standpoint, this is ideal. This movement also helps develop various muscles in the body, creating a muscular frame.
Snatch—lifting weight from the ground to overhead is something the everyday person will need to be able to do, and many athletes will need this in greater degree. The snatch builds power and teaches someone to rely on technique more than brute strength. From a functional and efficiency standpoint, this is ideal. This movement also helps develop various muscles in the body, creating a muscular frame.
Bench press—the bench press is included for pressing power, which finds functional use in everyday life as well as athletics. From an aesthetic standpoint, the bench press helps create a muscular and well-shaped chest.
These movements will create a well-rounded base of strength/athleticism and an aesthetically pleasing body when programming is properly applied. In most cases, additional movements are included to bring up weak points, to increase strength on a specific lift, or for other purposes, such as sport or strength-specific need.
Below are some additional thoughts about each movement. The content is just a small part of the narrative that could be provided about the various movements.
The squat is an excellent movement for building overall lower body strength, power, muscular endurance, and muscle. It also has a high functional transfer into sports as well as everyday life, as everything a person does on their feet, and some things they don’t, required the lower body to perform. These “things” include squatting down to pick something up, jumping, running, and even balancing, among others.
The squat helps build the upper body as well, albeit to a lesser degree, due to the core, back, arms, and shoulders stabilizing the weight of the bar when it is loaded on the back of the lifter.
Simply put, the squat is one of the best movements you can perform for overall muscular development and performance.
Like the squat, the deadlift is an excellent movement for building overall lower body strength, power, muscular endurance, and muscles. At the same time, it provides a high level of stimuli to the back muscles. The deadlift also has a high functional transfer into sports as well as everyday life, specifically in any activity where a person “drives,” or pushes, through their legs or has to explosively move something from a lowered position.
Simply put, like the squat, the deadlift is one of the best movements you can perform for overall muscular development and performance.
The Overhead Press
The overhead press often refers to any shoulder to overhead pressing movement that a person performs. The movements include the military press, dumbbell press (which has a few different names), the behind the neck press (a.k.a. the back press), any variation of the push-press, and even other movements, such as a kettlebell press or log press.
To keep things simple, we include a strict (no momentum) press as part of any client’s program, generally some version of a barbell press or dumbbell press, such as the military press of the overhead dumbbell press. These two exercises are, arguably, the most common versions of overhead pressing. At the same time, each is (relatively) easy to learn and a person can generally load up heavier weight early on in a safer manner when using these movements, as opposed to some of other movements such as a jerk or push press.
The overhead press is your first step in building a strong, muscular upper body, as the primary movers for this exercise are the shoulders and triceps, along with help from the pecs, while the core and other parts of the body actively stabilize.
From where we stand, the pull-up is the best all-around back exercise that a person can complete and a key to helping you build a good-looking, strong, and functional back. When completed in strict form, which means sans kipping or use of body swing, the pull-up is a pure strength move that requires the lats, traps, rhomboids, and other muscles and tissues in the back, shoulders, and arms to work in unison. When performed with the proper range of motion as well as sets and reps, there are few things that can build a strong, functional back like the pull-up.
If you cannot perform the pull-up, you can use variations until you are strong enough to complete a pull-up. Many gyms have an assisted pull-up machine, which is a device that add support to your body through use of a weight stack. Resistance bands are our preferred go-to, and function much like the assistance machine would, but may be more difficult for people to incorporate. Jumping pull-ups, especially when used with a hold on the negative portion of reps, can be an excellent variation as well. Conversely, you could use Olympic rings or a bar in a rack to perform inverted rows or self-assisted pull-ups.
The dip is one of the best movements that a person can perform to develop upper body strength on the front of the body. Performed properly, the dip works the chest, shoulders, and triceps, as well as other assisting muscles. Performing dips in appropriate rep and set ranges can improve strength as well as muscular endurance and build muscle. Like the pull-up, variations such as the machine assisted dip, band assisted dip, negative dips, and bench dips are options a person can use if he or she cannot perform a dip and needs to build up strength and endurance before moving on to the standard movement.
The Clean-and-jerk and Snatch
The clean-and-jerk and the snatch are the two best movements for developing overall explosiveness and power in the body. Each movement works the body overall, though some areas get more focus than others, but the differences in the movements make them complement each other well, building a stronger, better looking, and higher performing body than just performing one of the movements.
At Nathan DeMetz Personal training, if we were asked to pick only one exercise for a person—the best exercise if you will—we would select the clean and jerk. The logic behind this is the singular movement combines a hip hinge, squat, and overhead press, which are our three foundational strength movements.
The Barbell Bench Press
The bench press is often one of the most touted exercises in commercial gyms, especially among novices. It often incorrectly receives emphasis as the superior lift among all others and a bragging point for many males at the gym. However, even though the upper-body-only lifters erroneously place too much emphasis on bench, the barbell bench press does have its benefits.
The barbell bench press is one of the best exercises for building a strong and visually appealing pec and shoulder area, while also providing benefit to other muscles, notably the triceps, though others are involved as well.
The exercises included in this writing are not all possible exercises, nor do you necessarily need to utilize them all. You should engage in squatting, hip hinging, and overhead pressing. However, you can find two or all of these movements combined into other exercises, such as the thruster, clean and jerk, or snatch. Indeed, if you just performed the clean and jerk as well as snatch with enough variation in load and volume, you could build a strong lean body (given that nutrition was on point, of course).
This writing is meant to provide you with some insight into strength training and a basis from which to consider your own strength program. It is just a starting point and you need to consider your goals, abilities, interests, and overall situation when creating your own program or selecting one from someone else.
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Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science. Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.