Whether you want to pack on muscle, burn fat, or just fend off the decrepitude that comes with aging, the list of exercises that will help you make the most progress in the least time is surprisingly short. When done properly, the good-old squat, bench press, and deadlift each draw on miles of muscle fibers, toughen up bones and tendons, and light a raging fire under your metabolism. To master these three all important lifts, follow these steps—and watch your fitness goals fall into place.
Rest the bar on your traps (the muscles above your shoulders that you shrug with) or as low as your rear deltoids (the back of your shoulders). Find the option that’s most comfortable for you. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed together throughout your set to create a stable shelf for the bar to comfortably rest on, and get into position with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes turned slightly outward. “Keep your elbows pointing down and your chest up and out,” says Smith. “This prevents you from falling forward in the bottom of the squat.”
Begin each rep by taking a big breath into your belly, then sit back as you descend, actively pushing your knees apart (imagine you’re lowering yourself onto a chair). Go as low as you can without losing the natural arch in your lower back (ideally to where your thighs are parallel to the floor). Drive your heels into the floor as you come up.
“Most lifters train in the five- to 12-rep range, using moderate weights,” says Smith. “Increasing weight and decreasing reps does more to improve absolute strength.” Work on sets of three reps and one rep for a while. Take plenty of warmup sets to gradually work up to the appropriate weight (use a rep range of three to five for your warmup sets), and have a spotter present if possible. At the very least, use the squat rack’s spotter bars in case you fail to complete a rep.
Make the bench press a full-body lift. “Force must transfer through your hips and torso into the bar,” says New York City personal trainer Bryan Krahn, C.S.C.S. Start by getting your back involved. Lie on the bench, draw your shoulder blades together, and arch your entire back so your ribs point to the ceiling and your lower back is off the bench. Position your feet so they’re flat on the floor and stable. Grasp the bar with hands just outside shoulder width and squeeze it hard. Focus on pulling it forward out of the rack; don’t press the bar out— you risk losing your arched position.
Tighten your back, abs, glutes, and legs, and lower the bar to your solar plexus, tucking your elbows close to your sides as the bar comes down. Your upper arms should form a 45-degree angle with your torso in the bottom position. The moment the bar touches your chest, drive your feet into the floor and press it back up.
“The strongest guys on earth dedicate one day a week to pushing moderate weights as fast as possible,” says Krahn. Sketch out an eight-week schedule in which you do your normal bench-press workout one day a week, then, three days later, a dynamic session where you do eight sets of five reps with 50% of your one rep- max (1RM) weight, performing each rep explosively but with control. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Increase the percentage of the 1RM weight that you lift by 2% each week and drop your reps down to four in Week 2, and three in Weeks 3 and 4. In Week 5, begin the rep cycle again using 50% of your 1RM. After eight weeks, your previous one-rep max will be an embarrassing memory.
Deadlifting correctly will strengthen everything from your traps down to your calves; poor form, conversely, can mess you up bad. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and bend your hips back as you reach down and grasp the bar just outside your knees. Pull the bar into your body—you should feel your lats (the muscles on the sides of your back) contracting. Your shoulders should be directly over or a little behind the bar. Focus your eyes on the floor in front of you.
Take a deep breath and, keeping your lower back in its natural arch, drive through your heels to stand up. Think about falling backward as you begin to pull—this will help keep your weight on your heels and ensure proper use of the glutes and hamstrings. Extend your hips forcefully when the bar passes your knees.