I’ve been training for so long at this point that it’s difficult to recall those first moments I entered a gym. I can, however, remember the way I executed technique the wrong way, which led to slower strength gains and my non-existent “program” when I started lifting in seventh grade. Now that I’m a trainer it’s clear that people still make the same mistakes when beginning their fitness journey. If you’re a beginner you absolutely need to perfect the following five exercises to build a strong foundation.
I know you’ve seen all the funny pictures about not letting your bro forget leg day, but prioritizing the squat goes beyond aesthetics. If there was only one exercise I was allowed to perform for the rest of my life, it would be the squat. From a functional point of view, the squat works your entire body, especially your core, and enables you to move more effortlessly through life. Standing, walking, running and jumping all become easier when you squat correctly and frequently in your program. Additionally, if your intentions are geared toward aesthetics, there’s nothing like heavy squatting to help your abs, butt, and back look great.
Let’s not forget to mention that when you can load your squat and work reps with high intensity, your body has no choice but to respond with a release of hormones. The stress that you can create with the squat requires your body to go into overdrive for recovery. This response is how you organically get your testosterone and growth hormones pumping.
Keyword: standing. When seated, you can press into the bench for leverage and use it to help stabilize your body and push the weight up. When you’re standing with nothing to lean against and drawing energy from nothing but the floor, it’s an entirely different ball game.
The overhead press is the only exercise that forces me to get tighter than the squat. If you want to train your core, try holding a heavy weight over your head. You have to fire every muscle in your body to get through a set of overheads. Understanding the biomechanics of this exercise will directly translate to better benching, pullups and pushups.
Shoulders are interesting. They have a ton of mobility and not much stability. For this reason, pressing overhead is integral. I’ve encountered so many people who have sustained shoulder injuries, suffer from chronic shoulder pain, or have horrible range of motion in their shoulders. These kinds of things can be avoided, or possibly even eliminated all together, by adding overhead pressing with excellent technique to your program.
Many people hate pullups because they’re hard. Avoiding “hard” exercises will only lead to weakness and a poor physique. While pullups may be the most important upper body exercise, they are often over looked for benching, seated shoulder press, or seated rows. Why? Because those exercise are easier. You can move more weight in those exercises because you can either get better leverage, or cheat. When it comes to pullups, there’s no faking it. You need powerful grip strength just to hold on, strong arms to make it through the full range of motion, excellent core control so you don’t swing and waste energy, and you need a unique mental toughness to continuously hang on and pull through a brutal set.
If pullups are challenging for you, it’s worth doing less reps and more sets until you can execute them with great form. The longer you put them off by doing only pulldowns, the longer it will take to develop that upper body power. Please, don’t do kipping pullups. Do strict pullups and squeeze the reps to get stronger and really build your back.
I wish someone would’ve taught me how to do this basic exercise long ago. It seems easy but the subtleties are important and planks are often performed incorrectly. When executed with proper form, they’ll be the only core exercise you’ll need. In fact, the only time I use situps or crunches with clients is if they are an athlete of a specific sport. For example, an MMA fighter can often find themselves on their back working against aggressive resistance. For that specific type of training, crunches can be useful. For most of us, we need to train our core as an anti-flexor, anti-extender and anti-rotator. In other words, we need to train our core as a stabilizer. Planks are excellent for this and they can be done anywhere because all you need is your body weight. Dialing in your form and holding it perfectly for 2 mins will help your posture and aid you in your other lifts. Staying tight and stabilizing is a critical part of lifting weights.
Mobility should be considered a priority in everyone’s fitness program. I find that warming up, stretching, and mobilizing are often over looked. If you can’t perform each and every exercise with full range of motion, you’re severely missing out on gains. You should be stretching all of your muscles, however, I stress the hip flexors because rarely do I meet anyone who actually knows how to stretch them. Even people I would consider experienced don’t address the hip flexors as much as they should.
Your hip flexors are part of your core. They are used a tremendous amount through your day, and during your training. When they’re over-worked, weak, or tight, they can cause back pain and general poor mobility. Not being able to move well will ruin your workout and the back pain can ruin your day. Learn to stretch your hip flexors and remember to do it often.
It can be overwhelming when you start anything new. Starting simple with a great foundation is the most important thing you can do. Keep it simple and perfect these important exercises so you can effortlessly progress through your program.