by Robert Maxwell
In the last instalment of THE BASICS, I shared five things I wish I'd known before I started training. Now comes the topic you've probably been waiting for; working out. What exercises should you do? How should you structure your training program? What's the proper way to deadlift? I get these sorts of questions all the time, and I'm going to answer them here. This post will focus on barbell training, since that's the most efficient way to get stronger and build muscle.
Most novice lifters fall victim to frequent program swaps, while agonizing over each exercise. If you haven't lifted before but plan to, be ready for this temptation. Resist it. The program you use isn't that important, as long as it follows a few basic principles. There are no magic programs that will turn you into a bodybuilder in 6 to 12 weeks. Don't kid yourself. Building serious strength and muscle takes lots of time, sweat, and dedication. To quote The Princess Bride, anyone who tells you differently is selling something. This is especially true in fitness. Regardless of the training program you choose, here are the principles it should always follow. Train at least three times per week. Do deadlifts, squats, overhead press and bench press at least once per week. Do assistance exercises to support these main lifts. Train to failure. Gradually lift more weight. Take occasional deload weeks. Do at least 3 working sets of each exercise. Rest adequately between sets. Don't train more than two days in a row. If your program satisfies these requirements don't waste time worrying about it. Just do it.
DEADLIFT - This exercise works your whole body. It's a pulling movement that strengthens your lower back, legs, glutes, and grip. Many articles have been written about how to deadlift correctly, so I won't give an exhaustive explanation here. The main things to remember are to keep your back straight, flex your entire body and especially your core, and pull the bar up slowly to waist height. Use your hips to follow through. Like most barbell movements, during deadlift the bar should always move in a straight vertical path directly above the middle of your foot. This is your centre.
SQUAT - The barbell back squat has been called the king of exercises. If that's true, it's a cruel king. Proper, full depth squats to failure are some of the most painful and challenging movements you'll experience in the gym. They're also essential. Nothing strengthens and thickens your legs like heavy barbell squats. Place the bar comfortably on your back, and take two careful steps backwards, away from the rack. Take a deep breath, and squat down like you're sitting back in a chair. Keep your core flexed and straight the whole time. Squat down until the crease of your hips drops below the top of your kneecaps. Then come back up, driving your feet into the floor. Squatting well takes practice, so don't expect to be a pro the first time you try. Mobility is key for successful squatting, so do plenty of hip and leg stretching before getting under the bar. Air squats are a great way to practice proper form.
OVERHEAD PRESS - Most guys prefer the bench press, but the standing overhead press is a more accurate reading of your upper body strength. Unlike bench press which is done lying on your back, the overhead press incorporates your whole body and has a much longer kinetic chain, since more joints are involved. That's why every lifter can bench press much more than they can press overhead. Unrack the bar at the same height you have it for squatting, and hold it in balance on your upper chest. Contract your upper back muscles to shove your chest out and create a platform for the bar. Step back from the rack, and plant your feet wider than your shoulders. Flex your glutes and push your hips forward. This will make you lean back, which is safe and healthy. Just don't hyperextend your lower back. Hold the bar so your elbows are slightly in front of it. Take a deep breath, flex your quads and core, and press the bar towards your nose. Your head should be held back at first, so the bar won't actually hit your nose, although it should be close. While keeping your whole body flexed, get yourself under the bar as you press it all the way up.
BENCH PRESS - There's more to this exercise than just lying on the bench and pressing the barbell up. First, you should contract your upper back and plant your feet firmly on the floor. Arch your back so there's space between your mid back and the bench. You should be in firm contact with the bench in two places: your butt and upper back. Unrack the bar with straight arms, and carefully bring it into balance over your shoulder joints. Slowly bring the bar down to nipple height on your chest, touching it lightly to your pecs. Keeping your elbows slightly in front the bar, press it up to the exact balance point you just found above your shoulders.
The four exercises above should be the basis of your training program. Doing them will make you strong. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do anything else. There are plenty of secondary barbell and dumbbell movements you should include in your program, too. These are known as "assistance" exercises, because they will assist you in improving at the main lifts. Tricep dips, curls, leg curls, Romanian deadlift, and front squats are all great assistance lifts that will help you get stronger in the main four. Do them after the main lifts, and focus on exercises that complement the work you've already done. Segregating workouts by upper and lower body is a good place to start.
If you deadlift 150 pounds for 10 reps this week, and 150 pounds for 10 reps next week, you're not getting any stronger. The only way you'll get stronger and build more muscle is progressive overload. In other words, gradually increasing the weight you lift. Barbell training makes us stronger because of our bodies' adaptive response to the stress we place on it in the gym. If this stress never increases, our strength won't increase either. If your goal is to deadlift 150 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, and you're successful, next week you should try 155 pounds for 3 sets of 10. If you do it, try 160 the week after that.