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The 7 Exercises You Need to Build Strength and Muscle (and How to Incorporate Them!)

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

When it comes to muscle building, there are certain exercises that give you more bang for your buck, and should be your go-to options when you want to build strength and muscle, but are limited on time.


No matter the training split that you're running, these exercises will provide you with the most bang for your buck, and it's well worth it to incorporate them into your training routines if you can and it's safe for you to do so.


Please note that we're not telling you to only perform these 7 exercises. We're saying that if you were to only be able to fit 7 total lifts into your weekly training program, these would be your best bet. You'd still see amazing results.


Strong and muscular man doing heavy barbell deadlift as a large compound exercise.

The Most Effective Exercises Are...

(No particular order)



Deadlift


It's no surprise that the deadlift made this list. It works almost the entire body, and is absolutely fantastic for building up your strength and muscle mass in the posterior chain.


It's your strongest free weight exercise, and is often considered the single best indicator of human strength.


Now there is a lot of controversy over the deadlift as to whether or not it is a safe exercise to perform. Many people argue that the risk to reward ratio is simply not worth it for most people.


For many people, the chances and consequences of suffering an injury during a heavy deadlift far outweigh the benefits that you get.


You've likely heard people tell you that lifting heavy weights can destroy your back, and that there's a chance you won't be able to walk again.


And while this can be true if you are not sensible and deadlift with either bad form, too much weight or both, the same goes for every other exercise you could ever do.


Attempting to curl with too much weight could cause an injury. Bench press too much weight can cause serious injury or even death in some cases. Sometimes, even if you've got a spotter.


Squatting with too much weight and bad form can destroy your knees and back. Every exercise can be unsafe if not performed correctly and sensibly.


If done right and sensibly, and you don't have nay back conditions, the deadlift is safe to perform, and can provide you with huge benefits that no other exercise would be able to match alone.


You increase your overall pulling strength, build muscle in your legs, back and forearms, increase grip strength, stability, and reap heaps of other benefits.


It activates the most muscle mass across the body out of any single exercise, and will therefore also burn more calories. This makes it a great exercise for those looking to lose weight and build muscle at the same time.


To Perform the Deadlift (Conventional):


  1. Start with the bar on the ground.

  2. Place your feet slightly less than shoulder width apart at the center of the bar and make sure they're pointing straight forwards.

  3. Have your arms hanging straight down under your shoulders.

  4. Bend down towards the bar by pushing your hips back, with knees slightly bent.

  5. Once you can't reach down any further, bend at the knees for the rest of the distance until you can grab onto the bar with a strong, comfortable grip.

  6. Keep a neutral (straight) spine.

  7. Take a big breath in a hold it, bracing your core to prepare for the lift.

  8. Keeping the neutral spine, drive your feet into the ground hard, and push your hips forward until you're standing straight up. That's your finished lockout position.

  9. Lower the bar back down onto the ground with slight guidance from your hands (drop it, but keep the bar in your hands).


See the great demonstration video by Rogue Fitness!



Bench Press


Next up we have the barbell bench press. It's your foundational upper body pressing movement, and it great for building muscle in the chest, shoulders and triceps.


This is also likely your strongest upper body free weight movement, and you'll definitely want to include this in your program, or some variation of it at least.


It's one of the most popular exercises in the gym, especially among men, looking to build up their masculine looking physiques.


If done correctly and paired with appropriate training, the barbell bench press is safe to perform, and provides huge benefits to the lifter.


You'll increase overall pressing strength, as well as help round out your physique by building loads of muscle across the front side of your upper body. You'll also build strength in your wrists and elbows, which can be beneficial in lots of everyday activities.


If you were to pick the single best upper body pressing exercise to do, this would be it. The barbell bench press.


To Perform the Barbell Bench Press:


  1. Ensure you have an experienced spotter with you if you're going heavy, or if this is your first time.

  2. Lay down on the bench, back completely flat. You should be completely relaxed to start with.

  3. Grab the bar with a strong grip just outside of shoulder width. Wrap your thumb around the bar to enclose and help secure your grip.

  4. Arch your back slightly to create a small gap between your spine and the bench.

  5. Place your feet firmly on the ground.

  6. Lift the bar off the rack, and bring it to just over your collarbone.

  7. Lower the bar until it gently touches your lower chest area (sternum).

  8. Press back up by drive your elbows forward, and lock them out at the top.

  9. Keep your head and glutes on the bench, as well as feet on the ground at all times.


Check out this video by CrossFit® on YouTube to see what it looks like!



Squat


The squat is your foundational lower body exercise, as it engages every muscle in your lower half of the body. Your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves and everything in between will be activated in this movement. Many people regard it to be the king of lower body exercises.


Like the deadlift, the squat is effectively a full body exercise due to the high engagement of the spinal erectors and upper back in addition to the lower body.


Squatting will help build strength in lots of your other compound exercises as well, such as your bent over row, your deadlift, and even your overhead press.


It's safe for most people to perform the squat, provided they have the mobility and flexibility demands required. However it is still important that you lift with proper form, as like any other exercise, the squat can be dangerous if not performed sensibly and seriously. Under heavy loads, failure to lift with proper form can destroy your knees in a single rep, and cause life altering injuries.


You have to sure to lift with proper form. Start with just bodyweight, or very very light squats if you're a beginner. And make sure to have an experienced spotter with you so that you don't end up hurting yourself.


Otherwise, the squat is a terrific lower body exercise, and definitely one of the top 7 that you should be looking t include in your program.


To Perform the Squat:


  1. Set the squat rack to shoulder height.

  2. Make sure you have a spotter with you.

  3. Step under the back, and either place it on your upper traps for a high bar squat (slightly more quad dominant and less posterior chain), or place it between your shoulder blades for a low bar squat (more glute, hamstring and hip focused).

  4. Walk the bar out slowly with one foot at a time.

  5. Breathe in and hold your breath for the lift.

  6. Brace your core and lower yourself until your thighs reach parallel with the ground. (Preferable but don't attempt if it causes pain or discomfort).

  7. Maintain a strong and neutral spine throughout the entire lift.

  8. Push back up by driving your feet hard into the ground.

  9. Drive your knees out towards your small toes on the way up to avoid knee valgus. This will protect your joints.

  10. Breathe out.


See the video by Scott Herman below to see a demonstration!



Overhead Press


Next up we have the overhead press. It's another major upper body pressing compound, and is great for building both strength and size in primarily the delts, with some great engagement from the triceps and some activation in the upper chest.


To engage more of the body in this movement, you should look to perform it standing. However if you are solely looking to build muscle, and don't care as much about building a functional body, doing them seated on a shoulder press machine will be your better option.


If you were to only pick one exercise to do for the shoulders, this would be it. Either the standing or seated barbell military press.


To Perform the Overhead Press:


  1. Set the rack to shoulder height.

  2. Step behind the bar, gripping it in front of you, almost like you would do in a front squat.

  3. Walk the bar out slowly one foot at a time.

  4. Breathe in and brace your core.

  5. Press the bar upwards, directly over your head. You may have to push your head back slightly to get it out of the way.

  6. Lock out your elbows at the top.

  7. Lower the bar back down to your collarbone in a controlled manner, and repeat.


See the video below by Rogue Fitness to see what this looks like!



Bent Over Row


Next up in this list we have the bent over barbell row. This is a great exercise to build both strength and size in your back and arms. It'll primarily target the lats of the upper back, depending on your arm angle, as well as recruit the muscles of the spinal erectors, biceps, forearms (grip strength) and rear delts.


Doing this exercise can have direct roll over into your other compound exercises like the squat, deadlift and bench press. It's definitely one of the best and most classic movements you can do to build up your back, and achieve that popular wide, V-taper look.


Now there are a million variations to this exercise, but if you were to pick just one, for general strength and size gain, the bent over barbell row would be your best bet.


To Perform the Bent Over Row:


  1. Grab the bar securely with a shoulder width grip.

  2. Start with a standing position, bar in your hands. Just like you would be after locking out a deadlift.

  3. Bend down at the hips by pushing your butt back, with your knees slightly bent.

  4. Let the bar travel down, and hanging off your arms.

  5. Pull your shoulders back slightly before initiating the lift.

  6. Drive the bar up and into your lower chest area, keeping your elbows flexed at a 45 degree angle to start with. This shifts the emphasis away from either part of the back, and is the best general place to have your elbows positioned.

  7. Once the bar touches your chest, lower it back down in a controlled manner.

  8. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift.

  9. Stretch the lats at the bottom of the movement.


See the video by Jeremy Ethier below to see what this looks like!


Pull Up


When it comes to back training, the pull up is arguably one of the best exercises you can do. Having the ability to pull your own bodyweight (and extra if you're strong!) is a great way to train for both functional strength and muscle development in the back, biceps and forearms.


Generally there are two types of back movements, horizontal and vertical pulls. We already covered horizontal pulls with the bent over rows, and now we're addressing the vertical pull with the pull up.


It's a great exercise that you can do almost anywhere, provided you have a place where you can comfortably grip onto and perform pull ups from.


There are also lots of variations you can use to make the pull up easier, harder or work different parts of the back. For example you could use archer pull ups to bias one side of the back more, or single arm pull ups if you're a freak!


Due to its versatility and low equipment required, the pull up is one of the best exercises you can do, both in and out of the gym.


To Perform the Pull Up:


  1. Start by hanging on the bar, completely relaxed. Hands should be just outside of shoulder width to start.

  2. Pull your shoulder blades back and down, retracting the scapula. You should no longer be in a relaxed position.

  3. Pull yourself up by thinking about drawing the elbows downwards.

  4. Keep your scapula retracted.

  5. Go up until your chest reaches just below the bar, and think about squeezing your back muscles.

  6. Lower yourself back down with control.

  7. Ideally you should go fully back down to a dead hang. That's a full rep.


Video by Calisthenicmovement


Incline Bench Press


Our last exercise for this list is the incline bench press. It doesn't really matter whether you perform this with dumbbells or barbells, it's a great movement either way.


It's very similar to the flat bench press, but instead will work more of your upper chest (clavicular head), and engage the shoulders a little more. You'll still build great overall pushing strength, and build lots of muscle in the upper body.


Building up your upper chest is crucial if you want a fuller looking chest, as it'll fill up the area around your collarbone and help your torso look thicker and stronger.


To Perform the Incline Bench Press:


  1. Set the bench to a 20-30 degree incline. Doing too much of an incline will let the shoulders take over.

  2. Try to have a spotter with you if you can.

  3. Grab your barbell or dumbbells, and hold it above your collarbone like you would in a flat bench press.

  4. Lower it down with control until your elbows just go past 90 degree flexion, and press back up with force.

  5. Keep your elbows tucked in at a 45 degree angle the entire movement.

  6. Think about squeezing the muscles in the upper chest at the top of the movement.