Barbell by Josh Dunn on Flickr

The Basic Lifts

Strip away the countless variations, methods and programs and you’re left with a handful of core exercises. To build overall strength there are really only 4 main lifts you need to master; the squat, the deadlift, the press and the bench press. These four lifts are known as compound lifts/movements in that they work multiple muscle groups and their joints simultaneously. There are many benefits of using compound movements

  • They better simulate real-world movements
  • They save time by working multiple muscles in a single movement meaning less time spent in the gym
  • They help improve balance and co-ordination
  • They help to prevent injuries by strengthening muscles proportionally within natural ranges and movements
  • They allow you to lift heavier loads and thus build strength

The Squat

Though the squat is a considered a whole body exercise the specific focus of this lift is what’s known as the posterior chain.

The posterior chain essentially consists of the rear muscles, ligaments and tendons involved extending the hip; the glutes, hamstrings, calves, adductors, spinal erectors.

Our sedentary lifestyles involve spending huge amounts of time sitting, this,  combined with the fact that we simply can’t see these muscles tend to mean that they are often neglected. Whilst you will find many body building sites talk about power and size, and their importance in sports and dominated your opponent ultimately these muscles are vital for just about every aspect of our life and neglecting them leads to infirmity, poor balance, weakness, back pain so on and so forth.

The Press

The press is an often overlooked lift and many programs fail to include citing ‘the big 3’ lifts yet the press, or shoulder press, where the barbell is pressed into an overhead position is key to building upper body strength.

The press is a fantastic whole body exercise, let alone upper body lift. As it’s done from standing it incorporates practically every muscle in the body requiring the lower body to stabilise and support the upper half through the movement. For the upper body it strengthens the trunk, the abs, costals,  obliques and back. Where it really comes into its own though is at the shoulders.

When many people think of lifting, the bench press tends to come to mind, and whilst it’s a great lift for developing strength and power, benching can, over time, produce issues with the shoulder as the front shoulder becomes overworked at the expense of the rear creating an imbalance which often leads to injury. The press serves to work all the muscles of the shoulder helping not only to build strength, but to prevent injuries.

The Deadlift

Yet another whole body affair the deadlift, a lift which simply requires that the barbell be lifted from the floor up the legs until the knees and hips are locked out, can be a very difficult lift at heavier weights. Indeed, if previous injury has occurred it might be that it shouldn’t even be attempted.

That said, if you are reasonably fit with no prior injuries the deadlift is a must do movement, Even at relatively light weights, you may feel like you’ve been wrestling a bear, if you’ve never tried it before. Progress can be quickly but form is everything and I would also advise to err on the side of caution and take your time with such lifts.

The Bench Press

The staple of gym goers everywhere is a great upper body exercise, but as with all lifts form is everything and poor form is an easy way to get yourself injured.

I have personally witnessed a number of incidents in gyms involving people lifting weight that is far beyond them or using poor form. In once instance an entirely inappropriate grip which led to the dropping of the and a narrowly avoided serious injury.


Proper form cannot be over emphasised enough, which is why I haven’t gone into too much detail above. Good form can be simplicity itself but achieving that simplicity may take a fair amount of practice and, ideally, feedback.

In the first instance I would always advise to seek out an experienced coach or trainer as, even with the best of intentions, getting form right on your own can be a very tricky thing for many.

Failing that I would suggest reading through a good book on the subject, I recommend Starting Strength 3rd Edition by Mark Rippetoe. You can read the review of it here. Read it and then re-read it. Take it to the gym if you must and pay attention to every point.

Also watch videos, there are DVD’s available and you will find snippets of them on youtube, again I would recommend Mark Rippetoe’s series but there are many other good coaches out there besides.

Got a question or maybe something to add? Leave a comment and let me know!

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