Make sure you can do these fundamental moves absolutely perfectly—they'll forge the foundation of your strength and muscle gains.
Matthew Basso for Muscle & Fitness 1 / 6
Strength Training 101
The first time most guys walk into a gym, they usually just take a look around, watch the most jacked guy in the gym, and do the exact same thing he's doing. Usually that ends badly: They'll end up wandering around the gym for months with no real knowledge of form or programming, and/or they'll just get themselves hurt.
It’s clear that people still make the same mistakes when beginning their fitness journey. Whether you’re a beginner or you just want to improve your technical ability and strength as a lifter, you absolutely need to perfect the following five exercises to build a strong foundation.
You’ve seen the memes: Friends don't let friends skip leg day. But prioritizing the essential squat goes far beyond aesthetics. If there were only one exercise you were allowed to perform for the rest of my life, you couldn't go wrong with the squat. Functionally, the squat works your entire body, especially your core, and enables you to move more effortlessly. Standing, walking, running and jumping all become easier when you squat correctly and frequently in your program. And if you just want to look good (and who doesn't?), there’s nothing like heavy squatting to help your abs, butt, and back look great.
Plus: When you can squat heavy loads at 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.
The key word here is "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, however, you have to fire every muscle in your body.
If you want to train your core, try holding a heavy weight over your head. Understanding the biomechanics of this exercise will directly translate to better benching, pullups and pushups.
The overhead press is especially important because shoulders, anatomically speaking, are highly mobile but not especially stabile. That's why pressing overhead is vital. Lots of guys sustain shoulder injuries, suffer from chronic shoulder pain, or have a horrible range of motion in their shoulders. You can avoid those problems, or maybe even eliminate them altogether, by adding overhead pressing with excellent technique to your program.
Many people hate pullups because they’re difficult, but we all know that avoiding difficult exercises will only lead to weakness and a poor physique.
While pullups may be the most important upper body exercise, they are often overlooked in favor of benching, seated shoulder presses, or seated rows. Why? Because those exercises are easier. You can move more weight in those exercises because you can either get better leverage, or cheat.
But 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 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.
Oh, and 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 himself on his back, working against aggressive resistance, and crunches can be useful in that kind of training.)
But most of us need to train our core as an anti-flexor, anti-extender and anti-rotator—a stabilizer, in other words. Planks are excellent for this—and better yet, you can do them anywhere, because all you need is your body weight. Dialing in your form and holding it perfectly for 2 minutes 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, even though most guys couldn't care less about staying flexible. 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.
And of all the muscles you can stretch, none is more important than hip flexors. It's rare to meet anyone who actually knows how to stretch them. Even experienced lifters don’t address 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.