The Only 5 Exercises You Need to Get Strong

athlete doing dumbbell row on a bench at the gym
The best exercises to build strength are compound movements because they target multiple muscle groups at once.
Image Credit: Halfpoint/iStock/GettyImages

Getting stronger requires progressively lifting heavier weight, and the best strength-training exercises are those that challenge your muscles, balance and coordination. By focusing on these three things, you'll build functional strength that carries over to everyday life.

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The best exercises to build strength are compound movements, says Teddy Savage, CPT, the head of health and fitness at Planet Fitness. Unlike isolation exercises that only target one muscle group at a time — like the biceps curl — compound exercises, such as squats and deadlifts, involve multiple muscle groups and mimic everyday activities, Savage says.

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Compound movements are ideal for lifting heavy weights, but if you're new to strength training, Savage recommends focusing on technique over how much weight you can lift. Proper form helps minimize injuries and build strength more quickly.

Here, we tapped experts for the best exercises for building muscular strength. Demonstrated by Jared Evans, CSCS, these moves will help you get stronger from top to bottom.

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1. Barbell Back Squat

With a barbell on your back instead of in front of your shoulders (aka front squat), you can lift more weight and therefore, build more strength in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves and even your core.

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Your lower body is home to the largest muscle group, so zeroing in on this area means you're shoring up one of your biggest sources of strength.

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Activity Barbell Workout
Region Lower Body
  1. Set up in a squat rack with your feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands on the barbell, about six inches wider than your shoulders.
  2. Duck under the bar and place it on the soft muscles above your shoulder blades.
  3. Unrack the bar carefully and take a step back.
  4. Plant your feet on the ground slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and upper back.
  5. Keeping your weight in your heels, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower as far as comfortable or until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your chest up and spine flat as you descend.
  6. Press your heels into the ground to stand back up.

Modifications and Variations

If you're not ready to lift a barbell or don't have access to one, you can hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell with both hands in front of your chest to perform a goblet squat. This squat variation is taxing on your arms and core as well as your legs. It's also helpful for beginners to nail the movement pattern.

Take things up a notch by loading more weight or trying the overhead squat (extending your arms to hold the bar directly overhead), which requires shoulder stability.

2. Barbell Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is a compound move that builds strength all over, particularly your glutes, back and core. It also challenges your grip strength and improves athletic performance. That's why Jarrod Saracco, COO of World Gym International and a medical exercise specialist, lists the deadlift as one of his favorite movements for building strength.

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Activity Barbell Workout
Region Full Body
  1. Fix the weight plates on your barbell and position it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Stand in the middle of the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shins close to the bar.
  3. Push your hips back and bend your knees so you can reach down to grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open and shoulders back.
  5. Grip the bar firmly with both hands.
  6. Bracing your core and keeping your chest up, press your feet into the ground as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  7. Engage your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  8. Reverse the motion to return the bar to the ground.

Modifications and Variations

The trap bar deadlift, also known as the hex bar deadlift, is similar to the barbell deadlift. Josh Schlottman, CSCS, likes this movement for beginners because it works the same muscles as the barbell deadlift, but it's slightly easier to learn and has less risk of injury.

To step things up, consider doing a single-leg deadlift with a dumbbell or kettlebell before using a barbell to build up your single-leg strength.

3. Pull-Up

Although this movement is quite advanced, Caleb Backe, CPT, says it's great for strengthening your back, shoulders, triceps and core, which are essential for pulling and pushing movements.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part Abs, Back, Shoulders and Arms
  1. Stand under the pull-up bar and grab it with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing forward.
  2. If your legs aren't off the floor, bend your knees and pick your feet up.
  3. Pull yourself up and lean back slightly. Keep pulling until your chin is over the bar.
  4. Slowly lower yourself back down, swaying back and forth as little as possible, until your arms are fully extended at the bottom position.

Modifications and Variations

If you're new to pull-ups, try an assisted version, using a resistance band. You can also work on building up your back muscles with inverted rows. Backe also recommends using an assisted pull-up machine until you're able to lift your own body weight.

4. Lawnmower Row

This dumbbell exercise allows you to train your scapular stabilizers — the muscles around your shoulder blade — as well as your posterior deltoid, says Kasia Gondek, DPT. Because you're working one side at a time, it's an opportunity to note imbalances between each side and work on correcting them.

For instance, if you can do 5 reps with the right arm but only 3 with the left, lower the weight until you can do 5 reps on both arms.

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Back and Shoulders
  1. Start in a lunge position with one foot forward and one foot back.
  2. Place a dumbbell inside your front foot.
  3. Lean on your front leg using your front forearm for stability. With your other hand, reach down and grab the dumbbell on the inside of your front foot.
  4. Pull the weight up toward your stomach by bending your elbow. Your arm should graze your ribs as you bring the weight up.
  5. Slowly and with control, return the weight to the ground.

Variations and Modifications

If you have access to a cable machine, you can recreate this exercise. Use a handle attachment and put the cable at the lowest height setting. From there, follow the same instructions as the dumbbell exercise.

For more support, you can perform a row with one hand on a bench. Stand perpendicular to the bench with one hand on the surface and hold the weight with your other hand. Your feet should be squared to the bench.

5. Dumbbell Overhead Press

LA-based sports performance coach James Shapiro, CPT, likes this move because it builds a strong core, shoulders, back and triceps.

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Shoulders
  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bring them up to your shoulders, palms facing forward.
  2. Bracing your core, press the dumbbells overhead until your elbows are straight but not locked out.
  3. Then, lower the dumbbells until the weights reach your shoulders.

Modifications and Variations

You can also do the overhead press with a kettlebell or barbell, Shapiro says. For a kettlebell press, the bells rest on the outside of your forearms. For a barbell press, grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

If you have difficulty pressing the weights at the same time, try alternating presses. Press with one side first, return the weight to your shoulder, then press with the other side.

Lifting Weights to Build Strength vs. Muscle

Lifting weights helps you build muscle and get stronger, but there are different approaches. A December 2017 meta-analysis in the ​Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research​ compared two styles of training: one with heavy weight but lower sets and reps and the other with light weight but higher sets and reps.

Researchers found that training with light weight and high reps and sets was effective for building muscle but not strength. So if you want to build strength and aren't so focused on growing big muscles, lift heavier weights with lower sets and reps.

The best rep range for building strength is between 1 to 5 reps, according to a February 2021 review in ​Sports​, but strength gains are still possible at higher reps.

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