Think of strength as the foundation of your house...
The more sturdy, the larger the foundation, the more durable and long-lasting it will be. Being strong improves your ability to do cool stuff and not get as worn out. Being strong is cool and leads to a healthy life.
You don’t need to be strong like the feats of strength in the CrossFit Open or Powerlifter strong. But you should be strong enough to complete daily tasks without too many issues. At times, strength and size are often confused. You can be strong and not bulky, and you can be bulky without being strong.
This article isn’t a deep dive into the science of strength and hypertrophy, so for now, I’m listing my go-to exercises for total body strength. You can input these into your programs or, better yet, use these as your main lifts and fill in the rest.
Over time, these three exercises will significantly increase your strength and ability to do cool stuff.
Rarely do you walk into a gym and see anyone front squatting. Come to think of it; I don’t think I ever have seen it. Regardless, the front squat is superior to the back squat in many ways.
First, the front squat is better at targeting the quads, which is why you squat. A study by Yavuz et al. (2015) found that the Vastus Medialis (quad) was targeted more during the whole motion of the front squat than in the back squat. (1) Second, the location of the barbell takes any direct loading off of your spine (yay for no back pain) and puts you in a more upright position.
Good for your quads, abs, and range of motion.
You may think, “Well, I can squat more weight with the back squat; won’t that get me stronger?”
You’re totally right! You can add more weight to the back squat than the front squat. But load doesn’t always get you stronger, especially when it leads to poor form.
Instead, what drives results is the motor unit activity during the lift. Less load is required in the front squat to get the same amount of activity in the back squat (Gullett et al., 2008). (2)
The front squat will place less overall stress on your body but give you the same results.
The front squat’s added benefit is that it further strengthens the upper back and anterior core due to the difference in the bar placement, which helps you build some solid abs and upper back strength.
Use the front squat as your main lift. Since you’re going for strength, it should be programmed by itself and with plenty of rest breaks. For instance:
Warm-up sets: 2-3×5
Working Sets: 3×5 @ 75%-85% of 1RM
Rest: 1:30-2:00 minutes between sets
You must rest at least a minute and a half between working sets to recover enough for quality reps on your next set.
Chin-ups will build a rock-solid upper back and give you wings, especially as you add load. When performing a chin-up, keeping a neutral (or supinated grip palms facing you) is best. These are easier on the shoulder joint because it is not externally rotated, where problems can occur.
Chin-ups are great for most strength programs because
If you’re looking to up your chin-up game, aim to complete a set of 10 chin-ups with a full range of motion unbroken. Not only will this light up your biceps, but you’ll feel it up your back and through your abs.
Treat chin-ups just like any other main lift. When going for strength, keep the reps low but the quality high. You’ll copy the same reps and sets from above, starting at three sets with five reps, resting around 60-90 seconds between sets.
Once five reps feel easy, you can start adding weight. If you haven’t been able to get five chin-ups or are struggling to get your first, you should begin with eccentric-only chin-ups. To do this, you’ll jump to the top position, hold for a 1-2 count, and slowly lower yourself to the bottom of the movement. The eccentric portion should be anywhere from 3-5 seconds.
Here are a few considerations for when you perform eccentric chin-ups.
First, you should control the eccentric portion of the chin up. Stop if you cannot hold yourself without dropping, as you could injure yourself. Second, your grip will be toast after one set; if you have chalk, great. If not, I would start with 1 to 2 sets.
Third, any lift’s eccentric portion makes you sore the next day. If you’re brand new to chin-ups or haven’t hit your back muscles in a while, I highly recommend you start with only 1 set.
If you stumble into a fitness bar (fake, but still sounds cool), you’ll probably hear some debate over the trap bar deadlift and conventional deadlift. The haters will say that a trap bar is a beginner’s exercise. Well, I laugh in the face of those people because the trap bar is anything but a beginner’s exercise.
The trap bar has a crazy amount of benefits, including:
More people should use the trap bar for functionality and the decrease injury risk.
If you’re looking for performance improvements, a study by Lake et al. (2017) found that mean force, velocity, power, total work, and time spent accelerating were much higher in the trap bar than in a conventional deadlift. (3) This was true even when the subjects used the same percentage of their 1RM.
As mentioned in my article, power tends to be the first characteristic to diminish in adults. Knowing how much the trap bar deadlift contributes to improving power and strength, it’s an excellent strength exercise to add to your program.
There’s nothing new here. Start with 2-3 sets of 5 reps if you’re a beginner to the trap bar. This will provide enough stimulus to start building muscle and allow you to work on your form. If you’re more advanced, you can still go with 3 sets of 5 reps or look to get even heavier with a 4×3 day.
There’s no need to go above six reps for the trap bar, as your low back will fatigue earlier than your legs and upper back, which could lead to pain or discomfort.
There are plenty of exercises you can utilize to build strength. As I approach 30, my exercise selection has shifted to choosing exercises that will give my body longevity and increase performance. You shouldn’t be chasing exercises solely based on the person in front of us doing them, but instead, what works best for you and your goals.
If you have any questions on these, feel free to reach out and send any technique videos you’d want me to look at.