The core of any good exercise program should be built around the 6 basic compound lifts. These are the basis of weightlifting, the cornerstone of muscle building, the mecca of mass, the… well, you get the idea.
Must you do all of these? No. Nothing is a “must”. But instead of wasting countless hours doing 45 degree back hyper-extensions, concentration curls, and pec-dec flyes, you should try these first. If you do these as the core of your workout you can, and you will, get stronger and see results - faster.
Now, without further ado, let’s meet these key components.
Included with each of the movements is a video demonstrating and explaining the lift. If you are viewing this post through Tumblr then the videos will be seen as small boxes. Just click the box to be taken to the video.
Most people begin with the Back Squat, and therefore that’s what we’ll focus on here. Start with this one, and then later you can move on to Front Squats, Hack Squats, Box Squats, one-legged hungarian death squats, or whatever floats your boat.
Keep in mind also that the style of back squat can vary greatly. Olympic high-bar squatting with a narrow stance is much different than a powerlifting style low-bar back squat. Both have their places in training and are utilized primarily based on the way a person is genetically built.
The Back Squat:
- Your lower back should maintain a natural curve inward throughout the movement. Do not “bend over” and arch your back or you risk a back injury.
- Go as deep as your flexibility allows. Ideally, you will squat until your thighs are below parallel to the floor. But if you lack the proper degree of flexibility, going deeper causes your hips to tuck in under you and your back to round. If this is the case, then go as deep as you can while maintaining a proper curve to your spine. Work on hip flexibility to allow you to squat progressively deeper.
- Good form is key. Do not use a weight which you cannot handle with proper form. If your form is compromised, drop the weight until you can maintain good form.
- Your knees should point the same direction as your toes throughout the entire movement.
- Have someone watch you squat and critique your form until you are sure you are doing this exercise correctly. There are many threads on bb.com about squatting - so do your research.
- Stay tight. Draw in a breath before you descend and keep your core tight throughout. As your ascend release the air.
For more information:
Like Squats, there are many forms of the deadlift. The basic form is presented here, but there are also Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Rack Deadlifts, etc.
The Traditional/Basic Deadlift:
- Like the squat, make sure you maintain a natural curve in your back. Do not bend over and round your back or your risk an injury.
- The barbell should remain close to your legs through the entire movement. You don’t have to drag it along your shins like a cheese-grater (unless you want the street cred), but it should remain in light contact over very near your legs.
- For heavy weights it is very helpful to use an overhand-underhand grip on the barbell. (One hand grips overhand, one hand grips underhand). This will help keep the barbell from rolling out of your hands.
For More Information:
3. Bench Press
The bench press is every newbies favorite exercise. Those who claim it’s not are lying. Do this one, if for no other reason than to be able to answer the perennial gym favorite: “How much do you bench?”. FYI, I think almost everyone does this exercise “incorrectly” to some degree.
The Bench Press:
- Use a weight you can control. Do not “bounce” the bar off your chest.
- Do not allow your elbows to flare outward so that your upper arms are perpendicular to your body. They should be “tucked in” toward your body at an angle.
- Do some research on this one too, since it’s easy to do this exercise incorrectly. Generally, you’ll be fine, but some form issues can cause RC (rotator cuff) injuries, especially at higher weights.
- You can also substitute Dumbbell bench presses. These allow you to work your stabilizers, and allow you more freedom to move your arms in a natural path - use these especially if you have shoulder issues with barbell bench pressing.
For More Information:
To fully work your back, you need a muscle-building rowing exercise. Bent-Over Barbell Rows, T-Bar Rows, or Dumbell Rows are staples.
Bent-Over Barbell Row:
- For most rowing exercises, it helps to visualize your hands as hooks and think about pulling your arm backward from your elbow. You want to minimize the involvement of the bicep, and instead concentrate on contracting your back.
- Generally speaking, think of pulling the weight upward to your hip joint or lower abdomen. In the basic form of the exercises you aren’t pulling to your chest.
5. Pullups & Chinups
Pullups (palms facing away) and Chinups (palms facing toward you), are also good muscle-building exercises for your back. We all know how to do these from grade school along with the Flex-arm-hang, right?
There’s not a lot of mystery here. Grab a bar and pull yourself up. If you can’t do a pullup/chinup (or can’t do many), place a chair under the bar and put one foot on the chair. As you pull yourself up, use your leg to assist you. When you reach the top, stop assisting yourself and lower yourself using just your arms.
Think about bringing the bar to your chest (not just eye level), and lean back slightly at the top of the movement. Don’t swing your body, or “kip” yourself up with your hips. Use slow, controlled movements.
Once these become easy to do with just body weight, you can do them weighted with a dip belt, or with a dumbell between your feet. (Or small children hanging from you).
For More Information:
6. Military Press / Overhead Press
The Overhead barbell press or Military Press (the Military Press is a specific version of an Overhead press) are usually referred to interchangeably. The Overhead press can be done seated or standing - your preference.
The Overhead Press:
- Overhead presses can be done standing, seated, with a barbell, or with Dumbells. There are numerous variants including Arnold presses.
- Keep the weight directly over the shoulders. As you drive the weight upward for a standing overhead press, think about moving your upper body forward under the weight.
- Some people like to place one foot forward and one rearward instead of just having them side by side. They find this helps with balance. I stick to side-by-side.
- Like everything else, keep a natural curve in your back.
Notes & Final Thoughts
1. The videos chosen were picked quickly to show the basics. I’m sure there are better ones out there, but these should give the basic idea of proper form. Like anything make sure you view multiple sources to get a full-spectrum of knowledge for the process.
2. This is meant to be a guide for beginners’, outlining the basic lifts, how to do them, and general form tips as a starting point. It’s not an academic dissertation on the most advanced forms and techniques.
3. If you want to know which muscles each exercise works, follow the www.exrx.net link.
4. There is a great degree of variation and subtlety that can be incorporated into each of these lifts. However, I would suggest learning the basic form first - and correctly.
5. Start with a weight you know you can handle, and progress upward steadily workout to workout. There is no need to “ego” lift and just throw as much weight on the bar as you can handle. This often leads to form errors and injuries.
Good starting programs which incorporate these lifts:
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