Developing a strong, capable body goes far beyond achieving personal records in the gym. Those who dedicate themselves to strength training gain bigger muscles and more resilient tendons and ligaments.
They also have a better metabolism, less body fat, and improved mental health.
Despite what you may have heard, strength training for men and women is identical, and that goes for older adults, too.
The 10 movements in this guide are phenomenal for building a strong body and mind at any age.
Benefits of Strength Training
Regular strength training is crucial for everyone because your muscles play a significant role in metabolism, injury prevention, and quality of life.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults strength train 2-3 times weekly.
In my experience as a personal trainer, 3-4 weekly workouts hit the sweet spot for anyone looking to pursue a well-rounded strength training program.
Muscular Strength and Size
While it's important to note that optimal training for improving strength and growing maximum muscle are different, it is possible to do both simultaneously as a beginner.
This is crucial because beginners often need to grow bigger muscles to balance their physique and address common muscle imbalances.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise examined 28 research articles and compared the effectiveness of different resistance training styles.
They found moderate to heavy resistance training was overwhelmingly more effective for increasing strength and gaining muscle.
Better Bone Density
Regular strength training has also been shown to be effective in fighting off age-related bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. You benefit most from combining strength training with some form of plyometric exercise, such as jumping.
A landmark paper published in Current Sports Medicine Reports looked at all the research around resistance training and summarized its health benefits. Those researchers found resistance training so effective they suggested it should be used as medicine.
The key findings were that strength training is highly effective for fighting diabetes, heart disease, and stroke and improving overall heart and vessel health.
Better Metabolism & Weight Management
Regular strength training is highly effective in improving body composition by decreasing fat and increasing lean mass.
In addition, strength training improves resting metabolism and body mass index (BMI).
Improved Coordination & Injury Prevention
Strength training, especially for beginners, elicits a host of neural adaptations. It also forces your tendons and ligaments to adapt to new load forces. In combination, all of these changes improve coordination and physical resilience. These adaptations improve your ability to recruit your muscles and your reaction time.
Whether blocking a shot in soccer or catching yourself from falling, everyone benefits from improved coordination. Regular strength training can help everyone, from athletes to older adults, prevent injuries and enjoy life more.
A physical benefit from balanced strength training for many is improved posture. While poor posture does not cause pain or dysfunction for everyone, it does for some.
You can improve posture and body mechanics by strengthening weak or underactive muscles like the lower trapezius and glutes. Not only does this relieve pain for many, but it can also improve breathing and balance.
Better Mental Health
One of my favorite benefits of lifting is the tremendous mental health benefits I experience, and the data supports my feelings.
A groundbreaking study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that physical activity is up to 1.5 times more effective for treating depression, anxiety, and stress than medication or therapy alone.
Resistance training, in particular, was the single most effective exercise for treating depression.
Lifting for Strength vs. Bigger Muscles
If you're new to strength training, you may wonder: Doesn't all weight training make my muscles bigger and stronger? The answer is yes… up to a point.
While training for strength and training for muscle size has a lot of overlap, there are differences. Especially as you advance in your training and move out of the beginner phase.
Loading, Volume, & Progression Differences
The difference between optimizing your training for maximum strength gains versus muscle growth (also called hypertrophy) is evident because each pursuit has a different sport whose athletes train very differently.
Both train using many of the same exercises, but they use them in different ways. The most apparent difference between optimized strength and hypertrophy training is the load and volume used.
Fundamental strength is built in the 3-6 rep range, while hypertrophy is optimized in the 5-30 rep range. Thus, strength training is performed with higher weights for fewer repetitions. Because the load is much higher with strength, it's more taxing on your nervous system, and you need a lower training volume than with hypertrophy.
You progress in strength training by lifting more weights, making progression more straightforward to assess.
A difference between optimized strength and hypertrophy training is exercise selection. If you're training for a particular strength sport, such as powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, then most of your training will focus on those movements.
To develop your overall strength, you will focus primarily on compound movements like the 10 covered in this article.
Get our fitness newsletter
Stay on track with your fitness goals and get inspired! Sign up for the GymBird newsletter for twice-monthly expert fitness and nutrition tips.
Key Principles of Strength Training
You only need to understand a few principles of strength training to jump-start your strength journey.
The human body is incredibly crafty when it comes to physical change. It's designed to quickly adapt to new requirements and keep rolling. It adjusts quickly to new stimuli, and that requirement becomes the new norm. Regarding strength, we must continue to up the ante to see progress.
Progressive overload states that we must continue increasing our training stimulus to drive physiological adaptation. In other words, you need to lift heavier and heavier to continue to see progress.
Periodization and Phase Potentiation
For the muscle enthusiast, there is an endless amount of science you can geek out about on how to create the perfect strength program, with evangelists swearing they alone know the secret to optimal gains.
Words like periodization, specificity, variation, and phase potentiation get thrown around, and suddenly, it feels like you're in freshman biology class. If you're into that kind of thing, have a blast!However, like most people, if you just want to get stronger, healthier, and look a little better, here's the scoop.
Periodization: Describes the manipulation of training variables to reduce injury risk and optimize performance.
Phase Potentiation: This means breaking your training into distinct phases to improve your performance later.
A common strategy in strength sports is dedicating one training cycle to building muscle and then the next to building strength.
Setting Goals and Tracking Progress for Strength
In athletics, every part of your training program needs to prepare you for your sport. This is the idea of training specificity.
If you're a powerlifter, all your workouts will be designed to make you stronger on the three lifts you will compete in, i.e., the squat, bench, and deadlift.But if your goal is general strength–how will you measure progress? There are no wrong answers.
You can train like a powerlifter even if you never want to compete and test your one rep max those lifts. Or you can focus on your maximum strength in different lifts. What matters is that you choose those goals ahead of time.
The higher your level of competition or dedication to a goal, the more specific your training program should be. If you're just lifting to have fun and be healthy, you can afford less specificity in return for fun/novelty, etc.
Goal Setting 101
When setting any health goal, make sure it's SMART.
S - Specific
M - Measurable
R - Relevant
T - Time-bound
You're much more likely to stick with a health habit if your goals are reasonable and documented.
Tips for Tracking Workouts
Keep track of the weights you use each week so you can measure your progress over time. You can jot these down in a notebook or use an app.
What About Other Sports? Can't I Crosstrain?
Can you swim/dance/Crossfit/do gymnastics? Absolutely. Will it slow down your progress? Probably.
This comes back to the principle of specificity. There is a massive difference between a strength program optimized for strength and one that will produce some strength gains.
If your goal is getting as strong as possible, dedicate yourself to a training program for at least three months.
Strength takes time to build, and hopping around from one exercise to another is not training; it's just working out.
1RM Testing and RPE
The best way to test your strength progress is by testing your 1 rep max in one of the barbell movements. This allows you to program future workouts more precisely by using that number to calculate your working sets moving forward.
Another helpful tool is the rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE). RPE allows you to rate how difficult an exercise feels at any given point, which is incredibly useful.
This scale helps track our progress in all exercises, not just our main compound lifts.
The Only Compound Lifts You'll Ever Need
The following exercises can be done in any commercial gym and are unbeatable for developing strength and building muscle. I include multiple regressions–or steps you can work on for each exercise to build up to the traditional movement.
I want to stress the importance of exercise regression and progression versus choosing a less effective exercise. While I absolutely believe you should start where you are and do what you can, the benefits of lifting heavy using compound exercises cannot be overstated.
Every time you walk in the gym, you have a finite amount of time. Think about it like a dollar amount. You could do a million bodyweight exercises or lightly-banded movements, but you wouldn't be buying much in terms of the physical and hormonal effects those moves elicit. Which is what ultimately determines the progress you see and feel.
When you build your training program centering around the movements in this article, you get the biggest possible bang for your buck and the best results.
Known as the King of All Exercises, squats live up to the hype.
The squat and its many variations are phenomenal because it works so many muscles and can be heavily loaded.
Squats work your quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, back, and adductors.
Can't squat with a barbell yet? No problem.
Check out these squat regressions.
If you can sit, you can squat. So the key is finding the best variation that works for your current mobility and fitness level and progressing from there.
- Sit to stand
- Stability ball wall sit
- Bodyweight box squat
- Bodyweight squat
- Goblet squat
- Barbell box squat
- Barbell tempo squats
Many argue that deadlifts are just as great as squats, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Deadlifts blast your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back while challenging your grip strength.
While almost everyone can and should deadlift with a barbell, know there is a
deadlift variation you can start, no matter your current strength or skill level.
The bench press is a foundational upper body movement that works your pecs and triceps and also helps develop strength and shoulder stability.
Lunges are another challenging lower body exercise with an added bonus: they target one leg at a time.
Unilateral training is crucial for developing equal strength and muscle size, athletic performance, and injury prevention.
Lunges primarily target the quads and glutes but also hit the hamstrings, core, and stabilizing muscles of the lower leg.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Also known as a rear foot elevated split squat, this exercise is incredible for building muscle mass in the quad and glutes while blasting your core with a challenging balance demand.
You can prioritize your quads by staying upright or your glutes by leaning forward.
This exercise is deceptively simple: you pick a weight and walk with it. How hard can it be?
The farmer carry, or farmer walk is a total body movement that challenges every muscle in your body to fight the pull of the weights in your hands and remain upright while you propel forward.
It's especially effective for your abs, back, arms, and grip strength.
Rows are the second essential upper body movement that works your back and biceps muscles.
There are numerous rowing variations because your back has so many different muscles.
You didn't think there would be any bodyweight exercises on this list, did you?
While many bodyweight exercises don't provide enough stimulus to drive strength adaptations for long, the pull-up is an exception.
This is a highly challenging move that most untrained people cannot execute because it takes the perfect coordination of almost every muscle in your body and a lot of strength to pull your weight up.
Pull-ups are excellent at building your lats, traps, forearms, biceps, and rhomboids.
Don't get discouraged if, like most people, you cannot do one yet. Instead, start incorporating training drills into your workout to build the skills and strength you need to master them.
- HOW TO GET YOUR FIRST PULL-UP | Most Common Weakpoints, Progression + Accessories
- Renaissance Periodization | How to do more pull-ups
Push-ups are another bodyweight exercise that is definitely worth your time. You can do them anywhere, and they effectively work your pecs, triceps, and core.
They are also easy to regress if you cannot do a strict push-up yet.
Nutrition and Recovery for Strength
If you're chasing strength, then you're a performance athlete. This means that when it comes to nutrition, the rules are straightforward.
The food we eat is made up of three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
You need enough of each category to fuel your metabolism and movement.
Protein is King
Protein is paramount for strength training.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)-or the minimum amount to stay alive–for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound.
This amount is woefully inadequate for athletes and anyone trying to gain muscle.
Strength athletes should shoot for 1 gram per pound of body weight, split throughout all your meals and snacks. For a 150 lb human, that would be 150 grams of protein each day.
Nutrition for Beginners
Aside from hitting your protein goals, it's also essential you eat enough carbs to fuel your performance and get healthy fats, too.
Many macro calculators exist, but remember, these are all just estimates. If you are underperforming in the gym, cranky, or shaky–eat more.
My Favorite Macro Calculators
Hydration and Supplementation
Two areas of performance that people love to pick apart and overanalyze are hydration and supplementation.
Most humans benefit from drinking a few liters of water daily, but substantial individual differences in requirements exist.
As a general hydration rule of thumb:
- If you're thirsty, drink.
- If you sweat a ton, drink.
- If it's hot, drink.
- Otherwise, let thirst be your guide.
Simplicity rules regarding recovery for strength athletes, so ensure you sleep enough at night. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
Because heavy strength training is so taxing on the nervous system, musculature, and supporting tissues, it's crucial you get enough rest time between workouts.
The name of the game for strength training is consistency, so you don't get points for suffering through a brutal workout and never coming back.
Resources for Strength Training
- Juggernaut: Training Considerations for Beginners
- Stronger by Science: The Complete Strength Training Guide
- Barbell Logic: Best Exercises for Strength
- Best Beginner Barbell Program: Get Strong Fast
- BARBELL WORKOUT for Beginners | 13 Essential Exercises for Total Body Training
- BEFORE THE BARBELL | Exercises to master and try before barbell training
- How to Squat Properly | Form Fixes + Tips + Myths
- How to Deadlift Properly - Form Fixes for Conventional and Sumo
- HOW TO GET YOUR FIRST PULL-UP | Most Common Weakpoints, Progression + Accessories
- Muscle & Strength: Super Strength: 8-Week Strength Building Workout for Beginners
- Stronger by Science: Free Training Programs
Strength Training Q&A
What are the benefits of strength training?
- Bigger, stronger muscles
- Reduced risk of chronic diseases
- Better bone density
- Better metabolism
- Fat loss and weight management
- Improved coordination
- Reduced injury risk
- Better posture
- Improved mental health
Is it necessary to use free weights for strength training?
While brand-new exercisers can see progress with bodyweight exercises and light resistance, such as bands, most people will quickly require much more resistance to continue to get stronger.
So yes, most people need free weights to continue seeing strength progress.
Are there any specific strength training exercises for women?
No! The training principles and exercise selection for men and women are identical.
Are there any specific strength training exercises for older adults?
No again! I have trained 70-year-olds on barbell exercises.
Exercise selection is primarily based on your goals (strength vs. hypertrophy vs. athletic performance, etc.) NOT gender or age.
Exercisers with mobility or frailty issues should perform movement regressions wherever needed and progress as far as possible.
Can strength training help with weight loss?
Yes, strength training can absolutely help you achieve fat loss.
Research shows that a calorie deficit combined with strength training is the single most effective strategy for losing weight and changing the way your body looks.
What are some tips for staying motivated with strength training?
Spend some time writing down your reasons for strength training.
Remember that its benefits are so much bigger than changing your appearance.
Strength training is required to keep us healthy and strong and has enormous mental health benefits.
The best advice I can give anyone starting a health journey is to never let your mood dictate your actions.
Don't wait for some magical motivation to grip you. Act first, and the motivation to continue will follow.
Strength training has incredible mental and physical benefits, including bigger muscles, easier fat loss and weight management, better bone density, and improved mental health.
Heavy compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, rows, and presses stimulate better strength and hypertrophy adaptations. They should be the center of your program.
Exercise selection for strength is the same for men and women, young and old.
If you can't perform these moves yet, opt for a simplified version of the movement, called a regression, and build strength slowly with proper form.
More Strength Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- Ultimate Guide to Strength Training
- Ultimate Kettlebell Strength Training Guide
- Optimal Strength Training Frequency
- Functional Strength Training Benefits
- Resistance Band Strength Training
- Understanding Reps in Strength Training
- Ultimate Guide to Olympic Weight Lifting
- Building the Ultimate Powerlifting Home Gym
- How to Start Powerlifting
- Bodybuilding Guide
American College of Sports Medicine. Guidelines for Strength Training.
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Resistance Training Load Effects on Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain: Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis.
Current Sports Medicine Reports. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health.