7 Strength-Building Workouts to Do at the Gym

woman deadlifting

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Gym strength workouts are different than other forms of weight lifting. You may not need as much equipment as someone looking to grow muscle mass, but you do need the correct exercises and techniques. This includes a proper strength-building plan that progresses you toward your goals.

When you go to the gym, it is vital to have a plan in place. Recording and tracking your progress while performing the same exercises over a few weeks will help you see where you are advancing, how to keep progressing, and how far you have come. Below are some of the best strength training exercises you can do for your entire body while in the gym.

Why Strength Training is Important 

Strength training, which is also known as resistance training, is training with the aim of increasing overall strength, is essential for wellness. It also provides incredible benefits for your physical and mental health throughout your lifespan.

Likewise, weight-bearing exercise improves your daily functioning and promotes healthy aging outcomes by increasing bone mass and preventing bone loss. It also decreases the muscle loss that occurs with age, reducing your risk of losing independence, becoming injured, and losing mobility.

Before aging becomes a concern, increasing your strength improves your health and life by increasing metabolism, supporting a healthy weight, improving mental health and self-esteem, boosting motor control and performance, and reducing the risks of pain and injury.

One of the most common physical complaints—back pain—can be reduced and prevented through strength training. Strength training improves spine stability and protective musculature. If you have back pain, get clearance from a healthcare provider before lifting weights.

Strength Training Workouts for the Gym 

For building strength, focus on movements that work multiple body parts at once. Not only is this more efficient, but it is also more effective. Your body moves as a unit naturally, so training to build strength using fundamental human movement patterns is ideal. 

Below are the best compound movements you can do to build strength in the gym. These movements are most often performed using a barbell. If traditional Olympic-sized barbells are too heavy for you, check to see if your gym has lighter versions, such as standard bars or pre-loaded bars. Alternatively, you can perform these exercises using dumbbells.

What's the Best Rep Range for Strength?

While many rep ranges can help build strength, most experts recommend sticking to lower rep ranges of between 1 to 8 repetitions, with most strength-building programs aiming toward the 2 to 5 rep range. You should feel very challenged by the weight used and aim to increase it in each session. Be sure to use a spotter and use correct form.

Back Squat 

The back squat is one of the primary compound movements performed for strength training. It is a very effective and efficient, fundamental human movement that builds strength and stability in your legs and core. Becoming proficient at squats and practicing them consistently helps to reduce injuries, improves performance, and supports lifelong physical activity. Here's how to perform a back squat.

  1. Rack the barbell on a squat rack at upper-chest height.
  2. Get under the bar so your shoulders are underneath and your knees are slightly bent.
  3. Grasp the bar with palms facing out wider than shoulder-width, elbows pointing down.
  4. Push up, straightening your knees to lift the bar, and take a step back and position your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width (use your preferred squat stance, which depends on your anatomy and mobility).
  5. Take a deep breath and fill your body with air, bracing your core as if you expect an impact to your stomach. This protects the spine.
  6. Hinge your hips back, pressing your bum toward the wall behind you and bending your knees to lower toward the floor.
  7. Push your knees out in the direction of your feet, keeping your chest high and back as straight as you can.
  8. Continue lowering as far as your mobility allows with proper form. Do not flex your spine at the bottom (butt wink).
  9. Push up through your feet and straighten your knees and hips, until you come to standing. Do not shoot your hips up first, but push into the ground and raise as a single unit.
  10. Pause to reset, taking in your deep bracing breath before performing another rep.

Can My Knees Go Over My Toes?

The old adage of not allowing your knees to track over your toes is incorrect. Your anatomy will dictate whether or not your knees will track past your toes. Avoiding this may actually increase your risk of injury.


Deadlifts are another functional compound exercise that mimics movements you perform during daily tasks. While deadlifts may seem like a leg exercise, they are primarily a back strengthening movement. However, because they rely on multiple muscle groups and the entire kinetic chain, you will strengthen your entire body with heavy barbell deadlifts. Here is how to perform a deadlift.

  1. Place a barbell on the floor and stand facing it with your shins about 4 inches from the bar. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
  2. Squat down with a straight back and grip the bar overhand at shoulder width.
  3. Engage your glutes and legs, pull your hips down, and push your chest up.
  4. Pull up on the barbell, removing the slack. You will hear the barbell and plates connect.
  5. Keep your arms fully extended, flatten your back, engage your lats, and try to spread the floor apart between your feet as you turn your hips slightly outward to prepare.
  6. Stand up with the barbell by pushing through your feet and pushing your legs into the floor. Do not allow your hips to rise first. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible.
  7. Lift the barbell while your hips and shoulders rise in tandem. Keep your back straight and chest up.
  8. Push your hips forward to lock them out. Reverse the motion slowly and carefully, fulling controlling the weight on the way down. The bar should stay close to your shins.

How to Engage Your Lats for Deadlifts

If you have trouble engaging your lats effectively, try adding lat isolation exercises as part of your pre-deadlift warmup. Imagine pulling your scapula (shoulder blades) back and down as if you are trying to put them into your back pockets.

Bench Press

Bench presses are another compound movement that primarily strengthens your chest. You will also hit your shoulders and triceps with the bench press. For variation, this movement can be performed with dumbbells as well. Dumbbells also work well for anyone who is not yet strong enough to use a barbell. Try incline press variations or, to target your triceps, try a close-grip variation. Here's how to do a bench press.

  1. Lie on your back on a flat bench under an appropriately wracked bar, and grasp the bar using an underhand grip, wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Take a deep breath in and brace your core.
  3. Extend your elbows to lift the bar from the rack. Take another deep breath and brace.
  4. Lower the weight down to your chest, keeping your elbows pointing at an angle, not straight out to the sides.
  5. Pause once the bar comes to your chest, without bouncing, and press directly up while exhaling.

Shoulder Press

Shoulder presses help build strength in your entire shoulder complex, which is essential for preventing injuries. The shoulders are very injury prone, so strengthening them with correct form is imperative. Along with your shoulder muscles, you'll strengthen your traps, triceps, and core as you brace. It is an excellent movement for improving spinal stability, movement, and posture. Here's how to do shoulder presses.

  1. Hold a racked barbell with an overhand grip and stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Brace your core and keep your spine in a neutral position. Don't swing your hips or arch your back to lift the weight.
  3. Unrack the barbell at shoulder height and push it straight overhead.
  4. Contract your shoulders, and move your head out of the way by pushing your head backward slightly.
  5. Reverse the barbell slowly to the starting position, remembering to move your head out of the way. Do not rest the barbell on your shoulders, push back to complete the next rep.

Barbell Row 

Barbell rows are a pulling compound movement that will strengthen your mid and upper back. They also engage your core and glutes as you brace. You can also perform these with dumbbells, either double or single arm. Barbell rows are a functional movement that improves stability in your spine and pelvis for a less injury-prone, strong, and stable body. Here's how to do a barbell row.

  1. Place a barbell on the floor and stand facing it, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and a slight bend in your knees.
  2. Hinge at the hips to grip the barbell overhand.
  3. Keep your lower back slightly hyperextended (arched inward) to compensate for the tendency to round the lower spine during heavy rows.
  4. Breathe in and brace your core, and look at the floor ahead with your neck in line with your spine.
  5. Bring the bar toward your torso, retracting your shoulder blades and keeping your elbows tucked in.
  6. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to feel your back muscles contract at the top of the movement.
  7. Reverse the motion with control.

Farmer's Walk

Farmer's walks are a functional exercise that builds strength in your entire body. They are especially beneficial for increasing your overall core strength and stability. As a bonus, loaded carries like the farmer's walk will improve your grip strength, which translates to better deadlifts, pullups, and more. Grip strength is also vital for healthy, independent aging and is associated with better quality of life. Here is how to do a farmer's walk.

  1. Position a set of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells at your feet.
  2. Brace your core and bend to pick up the weights, keeping a straight back.
  3. Stand holding the weights at your sides and walk straight forward for the desired distance.
  4. Make sure you feel very challenged, with your core needing to brace hard to keep you moving forward with the weights. Once you feel they might slip, lower them safely to the ground.
  5. Take a short rest, then pick them up and return to the start.


Lunges are a unilateral movement that is both functional and strength-building. They work the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and core. Lunges counteract the effects of sitting for long periods and improve your performance and movement patterns. Here is how to do a lunge.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and stand with your feet shoulder-width distance. Rotate your shoulders back and down and brace your core.
  2. Step forward in a big stride with your right leg, leaving your left leg behind.
  3. Bend your knees slowly, keeping your back straight, until your left back knee is almost touching the floor.
  4. Straighten your legs by pushing through your front foot, and rise to stand.
  5.  Repeat all reps then switch legs.

Other Strength Building Exercises

  • Pull-Ups
  • Incline chest press
  • Walking lunges
  • Stiff-legged deadlift
  • Front squat
  • Sumo deadlift

A Word From Verywell

Strength-building workouts are essential for optimal health and wellness, including physical health and mental health. Strength improves outcomes for active, independent aging and daily living.

The best strength exercises are compound movements performed with a heavy, challenging weight that increases over time. If you are unsure how to perform any of these movements, seek the guidance of a personal trainer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some strength training exercises for beginners? 

    Strength training exercises for beginners include bodyweight, dumbbell, and light barbell squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench presses, shoulder presses, loaded carries, and rows. There's no reason to avoid the most effective compound exercises as a beginner so long as you have the correct form. This can mean practicing with a broomstick or other unloaded object first and getting help from a personal trainer.

  • Is HIIT strength training? 

    While HIIT can include traditional strength training exercises, it is not considered strength training. To build strength, you need to perform heavy exercises that increase in weight over time with a plan for progression and careful tracking.

  • How often should I strength train? 

    You should perform strength-based workouts at least twice per week for each body part. Most people will do best with 3 to 4 strength based workouts per week.

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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.