The 5 Super-Important Lifts to Master

Most Important Lifts
Photo: Pond5

While nearly any movement can leave lifters lying in a pool of sweat riddled with soreness, some are simply more important than others. Bicep curls may be key for building a set of bulging arms, but they do little when it comes time to move that heavy couch. By comparison, total-body exercises like squats and deadlifts come in handy on a daily basis. From the muscles they work to the functions they serve, the following exercises form the foundation for any successful routine. Read on to find out how you can incorporate them into your workout, no matter your fitness level.

1. Deadlift

While the name of the exercise certainly doesn’t imply “fun,” the deadlift is one of the most popular exercises among trainers for one reason — it’s effective. By forcing lifters to pick up a weight from the floor, this complex exercise works nearly every muscle in the body and builds on a fundamental movement pattern: the hip hinge. According to Tony Gentilcore, CSCS and co-founder of Cressey Performance, the deadlift is “a key component for general movement quality” that’s crucial for coordination, posture and alignment. And, whereas most lifters are inherently quad-dominant (meaning their quads are stronger than their hamstrings), the deadlift emphasizes development of the posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes and hips, which can help prevent injuries down the road. Keep in mind: Since the deadlift is extremely technical, it’s important to start with a light weight to really emphasize form.

How to: Starting with feet shoulder-width apart, lower into the down position (thighs parallel to the floor, knees directly over your feet), and grip the barbell with both hands, spaced slightly outside your legs (a). Using your glutes and quads (not your arms), explode the weight off of the floor so that the bar clears your knees and comes to rest at your upper thigh (b). Throughout the lift, focus on pushing your weight back onto your heels and keeping your chest up and back flat. Some individuals (particularly taller lifters) may find it easier to get into proper position by starting with the bar at knee-level on blocks or to sub out the barbell for a Trap bar, which offers raised handles. Once you’ve learned to properly execute the hip hinge, the exercise can be progressed by either challenging balance (single-leg deadlift) or even complexity (sumo deadlift high pull).

2. Squat

Alongside deadlifts, the squat completes the dynamic duo for lower-body training. Regardless of the variety (back, front, overhead, Zercher, etc.), squats are essential for anyone looking to build muscle and move better overall. Often referred to as a “functional movement” — meaning it transfers well to normal, everyday tasks — the squat works every major muscle group in the body, while boosting the heart rate as well.

How to: Bodyweight squats aside, one of the easiest squatting variation when starting out is the goblet squat, which allows lifters to sit back farther onto their heels, engaging the glutes and hamstrings. To perform this exercise, hold dumbbell or kettlebell against your chest, just below the chin, with both hands. From a standing position, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, sit back and down, being sure to keep your torso up (a). Then, drive through your heels to stand back up tall (b). After learning the basic squatting pattern, you can branch off into single leg variations or load up the bar and practice some traditional back or front squats.

RELATED: 6 Squat Variations for Total-Body Strength

3. Push-Up

“Drop down and give me 20” may sound simple enough, but the truth is many people likely can’t do 20 push-ups — at least not correctly. At the onset of fatigue, lifters can lose tension in their core, ultimately leading to a breakdown in form and increased pressure in the lower back. Alongside a dip in the lower back, improper neck posture and poor shoulder mobility round out the most common errors with this seemingly simple — but fundamental — full-body exercise. Dean Somerset, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), says that proper form is a must, both for strength and effectiveness. “The body should essentially be in a fairly straight line, from the head through the shoulders, hips and knees,” Somerset says. “By getting into [proper] alignment, you can get much more core work and help to position your shoulders so you can get the most out of your pecs.”

How to: Start with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and engage the midsection as if you were doing a plank (a). Focus on maintaining a straight line from the head all the way through the heels of the feet (no looking up!). From this position, slowly lower your chest to the ground before pressing your body back to the starting position in one movement (b).

Need to modify? Keep in mind the most popular modification — dropping the knees to the ground — isn’t always best. By bending at the knees, lifters are breaking the full-body tension required to maintain proper form. Instead, lifters should look to incline their upper body (by placing their hands on a bench or other steady surface) to decrease the difficulty. And for those who want a challenge: Try single-arm push-ups, handstand push-ups and feet-inclined push-ups when you’re ready to progress.

RELATED: 5 Advanced Push-Up Variations to Try Now

4. Pull-Up

Forget pulling yourself up and over a cliff, the pull-up offers far more uses than simply saving your life in time of peril (although that’s not a bad use). Whereas many main lifts in the gym strengthen the mirror muscles (those on the front of the body), the pull-up is an essential move to train the upper back, crucial for proper posture and prevention of shoulder injury. Similar to the push-up, this upper-back builder requires tension throughout the entire body — not just the arms — making it more of a full-body exercise. And, since the pull-up requires lifters to move their own bodyweight, it builds relative strength (i.e. how strong someone is relative to their own bodyweight), an important asset especially for endurance athletes.

How to: Whereas “grip it and rip it” may apply to some athletic endeavors, it certainly doesn’t bode well when attempting the pull-up. To get started, grab a bar with both hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you. While engaging your core, pull your chin over the bar focusing on depressing the shoulder blades during the movement (a). When your arms are fully extended at the bottom of the movement, raise back up as fast as you can (b).

Pro tip: For those who can’t get up and over the bar with proper form, assisted pull-up machines may not the best spot to start learning the movement. Instead, Gentilcore advocates the use of bands and TRX straps to mimic the movement with a bit of help. “I prefer the band assisted variations because it takes advantage of what’s called accommodating resistance… which is geek speak for ‘the band gives the most assistance at the joint angles where we’re weakest, and the least assistance at the joint angles where we’re strongest.’” This leads to less help overall when compared to the machine assistance. If bands don’t work (or aren’t available), TRX variations are a suitable substitute. “I really like TRX progressions as I feel the entire body has to come into play to not only stabilize the body, but to actually help complete the task.  In short, it makes you work more,” says Gentilcore.

5. Side Lunge

With walking, running, pressing, pulling, rowing and most other exercises moving the body forwards and backwards, the side lunge provides some much needed variety. The lateral movement strengthens the gluteus medius, a powerful stabilizer on the outside of the hip. Unfortunately though, many lifters don’t have the strength to push their weight over far enough so they end up reverting back to a traditional lunge variation by pivoting their feet.

How to: Get started with the side lunge step the right foot out wide (about twice as wide as a regular hip-width stance) keeping both feet pointed forward. Begin to shift your weight toward the right foot, bending the right knee and pushing the hips back (a). Continue to lunge until your shinbone is vertical to the floor and your right knee is aligned with the second toe of your right foot.sit back to one side, bending the knee while keeping the other leg straight. At the bottom portion of the exercise, you will know you’ve done it right if your leading foot, knee, hip and shoulder are all in a straight line (b). Next, push off firmly with your right foot, returning to starting position and repeat on the other side (c). After mastering the basics, dumbbells can be added to increase the difficulty without changing the actual motion.

There are many different exercises to include in your strength training routine, but these five form the basis for a successful strength training routine. For those new to strength training, these moves will serve as a starting point for many other progressions and exercise varieties down the line. By mastering the basics, you’ll soon have more tools necessary to conquer the more complicated and advanced exercises that lie ahead!

Originally published on September 10, 2013. 

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