Your favorite athlete continuously works on the fundamentals, so why don’t you?
Not to sound like an ass, but what do you think gives you the right to skip building a foundation?
Answer: No one has that right.
The strongest people in the world have built their strength through years of consistently training the foundational exercises and building a base. Without a base, you have nothing to build off of and rather than getting bigger and stronger, you crash and burn.
That’s the great part about training, eh? You can’t really trick your body. The iron is law and if you don’t follow the rules, there will be consequences. Some more severe than others, but you will pay.
Earn Your Right
The cons outweigh the pros (because there are none) when it comes to jumping prematurely into advanced, flashy exercises without first earning the right to do them. You have to earn the right to do a muscle up, a max effort deadlift, a snatch, or a pistol squat. These movements are demanding and therefore demand your respect. If respect is not given, then you’re going to pay for it.
It baffles me when someone walks into the gym with little to no experience lifting, and immediately wants to max out every exercise they can think of. A lot of us are so zoned in on maxing out or going to failure when it comes to weight training, rather than performing quality reps.
Rather than testing, focus on building your strength. Then, when the time comes and you are ready, test and retest to ensure you are making progress. If you’re always maxing out or doing exercises you aren’t ready to do, you aren’t building anything. You’re simply seeing what you’re capable of performing today, which can be a lot more if you focused on consistently working on building your foundation.
Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas
The time will come when it will be appropriate to incorporate some flare into your workouts, but if doing random exercises that look cool is your priority, I suggest you reconsider your approach.
Fundamental exercises can be broken down into some of the most primal movement patterns we as humans can perform. Today, we will focus on three of the most commonly used exercises seen in most gyms (squat, bench, deadlift) and discuss their major cues and benefits.
The king of all exercises, the crème de la crème. Man, are squats great. If you really work on improving your squat, the sky is the limit when it comes to your progress in the gym, seriously. The amount of strength and muscle you get from squatting is undeniable and cannot be replaced by any machine.
In the squat, your hips travel on a vertical plane, hence the up and down motion of the exercise. Depending on which variation you are performing, you will initiate and execute the squat using certain cues to ensure you are performing it optimally and targeting the appropriate muscle groups. We will break down the major cues used in the most classic variation of the squat seen in the strength world, the back squat.
Major muscles used:
Secondary muscles used:
- Lumbar spine (lower back)
- Mid/upper traps (upper back)
- Bodyweight squat
- Goblet squat
- Box squat
- Front squat
Cues for back squat:
- Grip the bar roughly shoulder width apart (everyone’s grip width will be different, find a position that is comfortable for you).
- Position yourself underneath the bar, directly in the center, with the bar resting on your upper traps.
- Take a big breath in, engage the core, hold your breath to remain tight and engaged, and un-rack the bar.
- Position your feet roughly shoulder width apart, angled out slightly (again, this will vary between lifters depending on limb length/height/etc).
- Slight breath out to regain your air, and another big breath in to engage the core.
- Hips back and sit back into your squat.
- Once you have hit at least parallel, push down through the floor and up with your arms.
- Continue to “spread the floor” by imagining you are standing on a sheet of paper and ripping it apart with your feet to avoid any knee caving.
- Squat up to full extension.
- Base/maximal level strength
- Increased power
- Improved jumping
This is the one that is usually overused and butchered by the majority. Similar to the squat, the bench press is a classic in any strength training repertoire. A lot of lifters tend to lag behind on this movement for a few reasons. Usually, they’re too concerned with lifting big weights so they stack on the plates and max out instead of working on volume. Similarly, their spotters will row up the weight, scream motivational quotes and tell them “that was all you, bro.”
This is a horizontal plane movement, similar to the push up, as opposed to a vertical plane press, which would be an overhead press variation. This means there are certain cues you are going to have to master in order to perform the bench correctly and target the muscles you want to target.
Major muscles used:
- Pectorals (major, minor)
- Anterior deltoids (shoulders)
Secondary muscles used:
- Upper back
- Quads, hamstrings, glutes
- Fundamental variations:
- Push up (floor, inclined, or weighted)
- Dumbbell bench press
- Close grip press
- Floor press
Cues for barbell bench press:
- Grip width will vary, you want your hands positioned on the bar so when you are at the bottom portion of the press, your forearms are vertical to the ceiling so the bar bath is travelling UP. If your hands are too close and your elbows flare out, your arms will point inward, which is going to put unwanted pressure on the elbows and skew the linear bar path.
- Root your feet to the floor with your toes angled out slightly.
- Create an arch in your back by hugging the bench with your shoulder blades (there’s a reason bridges have arch designs, it’s a strong support system).
- Take a big breath in, engage the core, and pull the bar off the rack (your forehead should be positioned under the bar so you are pulling it off the rack and engaging the upper back/lats).
- Draw the bar down to your chest by pulling it apart or bending the bar. This will create tension in the supportive upper back muscles and maintain a consistent linear bar path.
- Once you reach optimal depth (touching your chest or an inch above the chest depending on your shoulder range of motion), drive the bar up.
- Drive your feet through the floor and your shoulders back into the bench. This will make you one strong, stable unit. All power is generated from the ground up.
- Maintain your arched position with your feet pushing through the floor and your shoulders back into the bench until you lock out. A lot of lifters get anxious and, for some reason, lift their feet off the floor and roll their shoulders forward. This is doing nothing for you other than ensuring you will not complete the rep.
- Base/maximal level strength
- Triceps/chest hypertrophy
- Transferability to overhead pressing
I will paraphrase Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell when he says, “the guys who can deadlift, those are the guys you don’t mess with at the bar.” As a trainer who has basically lived inside the gym for the past ten plus years, the deadlift is by the far the most brutally executed lift I have seen performed in the gym. People think it’s as simple as picking a weight up and putting it back down. In an essence, it is, but it’s also much more than that.
There are so many little things going on when performing deadlifts that I don’t think a lot of people understand. When you are picking up weight from the floor, you have to position your body in a way that is optimal for strength output and will also protect your back as you perform the movement. We pick shit up every day, so learning how to do this fundamental exercise optimally is only going to help our performance in and out of the gym.
Major muscles used:
- Lumbar (lower back muscles)
- Lats/upper back muscles
- Kettlebell/dumbbell deadlift
- Sumo deadlift
- Romanian deadlift
Cues for conventional deadlift:
- Stance will vary depending on limb length/height ratios, but a good way to determine where to stand is to step back from the bar, jump as high as you can, and see where your feet land. This is your optimal stance for power and strength output, and will translate directly to the deadlift.
- Position your feet underneath the bar, keeping it close to the shins. Have you seen real lifters’ shins? Yeah, they keep it close.
- Push your hips back, hinge over at the hip, and grip the bar about shoulder width apart.
- Turn the inside of your elbows forward by squeezing the bar and engaging the lats and upper back muscles.
- Take a deep breath in and engage the core.
- Keeping extension in the upper back and your core engaged, push through the floor with your feet and “squat” the bar up to your mid-shin/knees.
- Begin to push your hips forward and extend, while simultaneously pulling the bar into your hip with your lats and upper back muscles.
- Push your hips through to full extension, squeezing your glutes to support the lumbar spine. Do not hyperextend the lower back by excessively pushing it forward.
Bonus cue: If you are performing a stiff legged deadlift or Romanian deadlift variation, I love this cue used by Dr. Joel Seedman of Advanced Human Performance. Imagine two strings attached to your body.
One is attached to your chest, pulling you forward on an angle towards the floor. The other is attached to your hip, pulling you up towards the ceiling. This is one of my favourite cues to use with clients and will help reiterate hip involvement in the deadlift while maintaining an optimal position in the spine.
Key Benefits of Fundamental Movements
- Variety: These movements can be performed a ton of different ways, and can be scaled from beginner to advanced variations.
- Compound: Fundamental exercises like the squat are compound (multi-joint) movements that engage multiple muscle groups. That is what gets you strong and jacked, not cable curls or kipping pull-ups.
- Core: These big body movements require core engagement in one way or another. Whether it’s supporting a weight above your head during an overhead press, keeping your core active during squats or deadlifts, or focusing on diaphragmatic breathing for stronger pull ups, your core is an integral component when performing the fundamentals.
- Base Strength: Build your base. Say it again out loud. Build your base! You will not be able to look or perform as good as you want to for as long as you want to without first having a base level of strength. That is non-negotiable.
- Transferability: When you work on mastering the basics, the application it has to other areas of your health and performance is huge. Not only do you get stronger and add muscle, your coordination, balance, motor patterns, athletic performance, speed, and recovery improve. That’s a pretty sweet deal, eh?
Take note of these takeaway points in order to build your base and maintain your strength.
- Focus on performing the basic compound exercises and base the majority of your training around variations of these movements (squat, bench, deadlift).
- Earn the right to progress to advanced variations of exercises before adding flash to your program.
- Focus on building your base rather than testing your strength.
- Consistent effort and variety in the fundamental exercises is what is going to make you stronger and add muscle.