Getting strong isn’t complicated. You don’t need to learn 30 different lifts to properly exercise your body when you should be focusing on normal, natural, human movements like squatting, pulling, pressing things overhead, etc… That is the focus of this article. I break down the ability to get strong in to 4 basic lifts: Squats, Deadlifts, Press and Bench Press and I add a 5th for those who haven’t eclipsed the half century mark to help maintain power production
The vast majority of this content is based on the Starting Strength model. This article is a brief introduction to that model.
For any standard human being starting out on their journey towards strength, there really are only 5 lifts that need to be performed (possibly 4 if your a Master lifter). All of these lifts follow 3 basic guidelines.
1. Recruit the most amount of muscle
2. Over the longest effective range of motion
3. Using the most amount of weight
I would add to this that we are not trying to train the bicep or the triceps or the traps or the … You get the point. Getting strong is about training movements. Natural human movements, not invented limited range of motion exercises on machines that focus on singular muscles or muscle groups. At no point in your life do you need to curl your hamstring or extend your quads in isolation but you sure do squat down a lot. You also don’t pick things up with your arms extended out to the side but you sure do lift things over your head on a regular basis.
The last thought before we dig in is balance. We all know (or maybe we are) someone with balance issues. Sitting down on the hamstring curl machine requires absolutely no balance, so it cannot train it. Standing with a heavy weight over your head does require balance and will; in fact, train your body to balance.
So … On to the lifts
Squats – Squats are exactly what they sound like. Load a barbell with a weight that you can handle and squat. Yes, there is a bit more to it than that but in the end, it is a very natural and simple movement. The squat is the absolute king of the lifts and causes the most reaction to the organism (that’s you) because of the sheer amount of musculature involved. It works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back, calves, etc… The best part is that it does it in a completely balanced way and if done with proper form is completely neutral to the knee joint and is 100% safe for anyone of any age. Even Masters lifters in their 90’s can find a weight that will work for them to start even if its simply sitting down and getting up again until they can add weight to the movement.
How to do a proper squat with Matt Reynolds, Starting Strength Online Coaching (SSOC)
Deadlfts – There’s something awesome about lifting heavy things off of the ground. It’s very primal yet the vast majority of Americans have extremely weak backs. We use our backs every single day but we do nothing to ensure that it’s ready for use so instead, we hurt it and then rest it when we should be training it. A properly performed deadlift works the entire back along with a bit of quads, hamstrings and glutes to boot. Improving deadlifts means improving squats and that’s a win win.
How to Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe (Starting Strength) and Brett McKay (Art of Manliness)
Press – The press is actually more beneficial for most people than the bench press, mainly because your standing when your doing it. Learning how to balance a heavy weight over your head will improve your balance overall by strengthening and training the muscles that keep you from falling over. We don’t generally push things away from us on a normal basis but we do lift things over our heads … a lot.
The Press with Brent Carter (Starting Strength Coach)
Bench Press – The bench press is the primary upper body lift and helps drive development quickly because the short range of motion allows you to lift a lot of weight. It also helps drive the Press …!!!
How to Bench Press with Mark Rippetoe and Brett McKay
Power Clean – The power clean; while not allowing us to lift as much weight as we can deadlift, is useful in allowing us to train our power (how fast we can display our strength) to keep up with our increased strength. It is a fairly technical movement that can be taught to almost anyone if they follow the steps in the video below but it hard to master. For those of us that have gotten to the far side of the half century mark, It isn’t likely that we will need or be able to benefit that much from Power Cleans but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them if you want.
How to Power Clean with Mark Rippetoe and Brett McKay
And that’s it …!!! These 5 lifts are all that anyone one of us will need for quite a long time (and ever for some). I know you are asking: What about barbell curls? What about Rows? etc… The answer is very simple. You don’t need them … At least for now. As explained above, we want to train movements, not muscles. The muscles train normally and in balance if we train movements. Now … Is there a time for other lifts? The answer to that is also yes but with a caveat. Why would we add complexity to our lifting program when it only slows down our progress? As a new lifter, you have been given a gift that complexity will ruin. As a novice, you can walk in to the gym and add more weight to the bar every time. Your ability to recover from the previous workout is at a level that it will never be at again and slowing that progress down with unnecessary assistance exercises designed to help more advanced lifters recover from a heavy workout is just silly. Your goal in the gym will be to remain a novice for as long as you can possibly maintain it and there are some methodologies to do that including changing the rep schema or reducing the amount of weight increase between workouts to assist in this.
Here is the standard 3 days a week workout plan for a novice:
Squat 3×5 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Press 3×5 (3 sets of 5 reps)
Deadlift 1×5 (1 set of 5 reps)
Bench Press 3×5
Alternate between these two workout’s (sometimes pressing twice a week and sometimes benching twice a week) adding 5 lbs to the bar for the press, squat and the bench every workout and 10lbs (as long as you can and 5lbs after that) to the deadlift for as long as you can. The deadlift will outrun all the other lifts rather quickly and will start to become hard to recover from within a few weeks on this program. At that point, you can add Power Cleans and alternate them for deadlifts so that your only pulling every other workout. If Power Cleans aren’t your cup of tea, then adding Chin-Ups might be the right call.
Once you run out of the ability to progress from workout to workout, the programming will need to get more complicated to allow for more stress and recovery over longer periods of time but Intermediate programming is beyond the scope of this article.
So … There you have it. Simple and effective and no excuses. Get under the bar …!!!