If you want to know how to build strength, there are two rules: lift heavy and use compound lifts with the proper form. There are hundreds of exercises and workout routines that can help you get bigger and stronger, but when you’re limited on time or equipment, there are four important exercises that you should add to your strength training program: squats, deadlifts, bench press, and barbell rows.

Since your body is comprised of muscles that help you push and pull, you have to work them all to maximize strength. To do this effectively, choose the whole-body push exercise that is generally considered the king of all lifts: the squat. Couple that with the high demand of a whole-body “push-pull” like the deadlift and both your core and lower body muscle training is complete. For the upper body, the main two lifts to incorporate are the bench press and the barbell row.

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Monster Lifts

Here are a few extra tips to help you get the most out of these four strength moves:

How to: Squat Tips

  • Keep your head neutral and chest high during the entire movement.
  • Your first movement should be back with your glutes, as if to sit in a chair.
  • Maintain a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Your feet should be placed slightly wider then shoulder width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.

How to: Deadlift Tips

  • Think of the move as a push and a pull—you are pushing through the floor with your heels and pulling the bar up your body using your grip and back.
  • Don’t use momentum to get into your next rep. Deadlift equals a dead stop on each rep.
  • Once the bar is off the floor, drive hard into the floor extending your entire body at once.
  • The completed concentric portion of the lift occurs when the body is fully erect. Do not hyperextend your back at the top.

How to: Bench Press Tips

  • Grab a hold of the bar with hands about 6-8 inches outside of shoulder width on each side to keep the emphasis on your pecs.
  • At this bottom position, the bar should cross, or be slightly above, the nipples.
  • Avoid bouncing the bar off your chest, which can reduce muscle recruitment and put your joints at risk.
  • Exhale forcefully as you pass the most difficult part of the movement.

How to: Barbell Row Tips

  • Your body position should remain constant for the entire lift.
  • Flare your elbows out to the side (making about a 45 degree angle) and begin pulling the bar hard to your lower sternum-upper stomach.
  • A little “cheat pull” on the last rep or two is okay for experienced lifters, but even then it is not advisable on every rep.
  • An underhand grip shifts the emphasis to the lower lats and more heavily enlists the help of the biceps.

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Monster Lifts for Monster Gains

Shoot for 5-8 reps for 3-5 sets per exercise. And don’t cheat yourself—make sure that those weight loads help take your muscles to near failure on each set. When training for strength, a bit more rest is recommended. Aim for 2-3 minutes between sets and increase the weight if you are having an easy time getting to eight reps on each set. All big strength lifts should come early in your workout routine if you are using them in conjunction with other lifts for a specific muscle group. If you build a program around the following major movements, you can minimize the use of “finishing exercises” for the arms, calves and abdominals.

So if strength is your goal in the gym, try doing all four lifts in one workout twice a week, leaving plenty of room between workout days (3-4 days) for maximal strength. Try the following full-body strength workout on Monday and Thursday for four weeks and watch your strength go through the roof. Try to increase strength by adding 5 pounds per workout on upper body moves and 10 pounds on lower body moves.

Excercise Sets Reps
Squat 5 6
Deadlift 4 6
Barbell Row 5 6
Bench Press 5 6
Triceps Pressdown 3 8
Barbell Curl 3 8
Calf Raise 3 8
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