Coach Baz Wakelin at Strong Lean Fit gym in Loughborough, United Kingdom
One thing I have certainly noticed through this long fitness journey is this almost firm and staunch commitment to the ''big lifts.'' Many gym goers with a poorly executed plan to train using the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press yet performing these movements is something their body is not ready to complete.
I mean who would have a leg day and not squat, right?
While I am certainly an advocate of free weights, compound movements and regularly train them myself; I would not instantly recommend a beginner to go to the gym to hit those movements as soon as they join the gym.
The Big Three
Ok, let's go through a scenario. You are new to the gym, main goals being: fat loss, strength, and overall fitness. You have gone in armed with your new workout. Part of this workout involves the squat and deadlift—arguably two movements that require a fluid posterior movement pattern. You have read that these exercises are a must in any workout routine.
To a degree, I would agree they are a must; the muscle recruitment required is substantial. However, when taken into account the amount of potential force directed through the lumbar erector spinae of a new lifter, then I would suggest other smaller accessory movements have a place instead.
Although the objective is simply to get the bar from the ground, to just above the knees, the mechanics involved isn't so simple. The substantial muscle recruitment involved would require a solid posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves, upper, and lower back). Also, working and developing your hip hinge movement is also essential.
Consider smaller accessory movements first, as a way of preparing the body for this more complex of move. Here are some beginner/pre-deadlift exercises:
- Back hyperextension
- Single arm row
- Barbell bentover row
- Kettlebell swing
The Back Squat
If some people consider deadlift to be the king of exercises, then the squat is certainly the next in line as the heir to the throne. As with the deadlift, it requires a strong posterior chain, as well as strong and mobile hip, knee, and ankle flexors.
One problem with the newbie squatter is the tendency to lean forward at the bottom phase of the squat. This is sometimes down to the ''knee buckle.''
This can occur when your posterior muscles are not quite strong enough for the load, creating a chain reaction that usually results in more of a ''good morning'' looking squat than an actual squat; placing an unnecessary load on the lower back. Poor dorsiflexion (ankle mobility) can also be a factor when looking for posture and depth on your squat.
One good place to start on improving this is to work on the external hip rotators; this will help you with the knees-out type of squat. The knees-in squat does have its place, however, as we are all anatomically and physiologically built differently—especially in regard to hip structure. Finding out where your body's preference lies will take time to experiment with and assess. In my experience, knees-out squats have better improved the ''valgus knee'' problem.
Shoulder mobility can also be a factor in the back squat, which can give the elbows the appearance of ''winging''—essentially the elbows pointing backwards, resulting in a forward lean with the upper body. Guess where the body ends up at the bottom stage of the squat? Exactly, forward on the toes, with the hips lifting first on the upward stage of the squat, giving the impression, once again, of a ''good morning.'' Here are some beginner/pre-squat exercises:
- Goblet squat (dumbbell or kettlebell)
- Suspension squat (TRX)
- Banded lateral walk
- Shoulder dislocations
The Bench Press
When any new lifter enters the fray, inevitably you will be drawn, instantly, to the bench press. With many beginner lifters being motivated by looking better in a t-shirt, then it is understandable why so many would want to start here.
However, is it just a case of unrack the bar, lower the bar down to your chest, then grunt it back up? Well, it may seem that way. Again, it is a case of your upper anterior muscles and connective tissue being able to cope with the demand of a heavy load. Poor form on this lift, over time, can create a shoulder impingement; making other lifts such as overhead press and so forth, more difficult.
Don't let your ego win on this lift and practice with an empty bar. You are trying to avoid having your arms at a 90-degree angle on the lowering phase; this can place an unnecessary load on the shoulders. Aim to start vertical after unracking the bar, then follow a slight diagonal path; with elbows tucking in at around 75 degrees, and bar travelling to the center of the chest. Here are some beginner/pre-bench exercises:
- Dumbbell bench press
- Banded flye
- Barbell bench press (with an empty bar for movement pattern)
Start with the Basics
So, are they essential? As always I have gone off tangent and almost turned this post into an ''introduction to the big lifts'' kind of article, which wasn't my intention.
No, would be the short answer to the question of the three big lifts being essential, especially if you are going to the gym just to lose a little weight and change your physique. To say that there is only one move for a body part is a very ''tunnel vision'' way of thinking.
So, take your time and enjoy the whole process of learning different movement patterns. When you have mastered the basics, and have created a fluid movement pattern, then move on to the more difficult of lifts. When first starting at the gym, your intention should be to train long-term, safely, and effectively as possible.