Weight Training 101: The Key To Consistent Progress
This article fleshes out why it's essential to structure your weight training program around a handful of heavy compound movements. Think the deadlift, front squat, bench press, hanging leg raises, etc. Focusing on key lifts ensures progress by giving you a trackable performance metric and by forcing you to develop strong technique while you strengthen your muscles.
Strength is a skill to be practiced
When we think of motor coordination we tend to think in terms of highly complicated movement patterns like dribbling a basketball or swinging a baseball bat. The bench press, barbell squat, and bent over row may be relatively simple movement patterns, but even simple movements need to be practiced if they are to be performed under hundreds of pounds of external load.
You absolutely do NOT need to know how to do 50 different exercises for every major muscle group to get bigger and stronger. Instead of striving to confuse your muscles (whatever that means), pick a handful of foundational exercises and focus on mastering them. These foundational compound movements are listed below.
the Exercise Isn’t Messed Up - you are!
Before you go through the list of essential compound movements below, it must be stated that these movements are difficult to do properly - especially with a lot of weight. It follows that a lot of people avoid these compound movements because they think that the exercise isn't right for their body. Unless you have a serious musculoskeletal deformity (which your doctor would've told you about) it's not the exercise that's messed up, it's your body! Yeah, that's harsh, but sometimes you have to take some time to sharpen your axe before you cut down the next tree.
Elite strength athletes (think strongmen and olympic lifters) spend decades to master just a handful of exercises. If you don't do front squats because the bar slips off your shoulders, you don't deadlift because you can't keep your shoulders pinned back, or you don't bench because it hurts your shoulders, you probably have poor posture and faulty muscular recruitment patterns. In other words, your body compensates for weakness, tightness, or injury in certain muscles by over-activating other muscles to do the job for them. Over time, the weak muscles get weaker and the strong ones get tight and become prone to injury. For more info on that and how to fix it, check out this article:
The Essential Compound Movements
For the ENTIRE BODY: The Deadlift
If you're not deadlifting, you should be. In my experience, deadlifts have proven to be the best exercise for adding strength, size, and most importantly, improving structural integrity. To clear the air, I'm sure you've heard of people hurting their backs deadlifting. It wasn't the deadlift that hurt them, it was doing the deadlift incorrectly. Watch some youtube videos about deadlift form, variations, and progressions and then slap some weight on the bar - you'll be amazed by the results.
For the Lower Body and Core: The Front Squat
The front squat is daunting. It's hard to keep your chest up, the bar digs into your shoulders, your knees want to flare out, breathing gets tough, and you're going to be sore - but that's the point. The front squat challenges your postural strength and your coordinated mobility, both of which are critical for making consistent progress in all your other lifts. For the front squat, start slow and start light. if you can't get the form down, take the time to figure out where you're muscle imbalances are and get the form down, you'll thank yourself in the long run.
For Chest, Front Shoulder, and Triceps: The Bench Press
You're probably already benching. Everyone benches, but only a distinct population of seasoned veterans actually bench properly. Most of those veterans bench properly because they had to re-learn the technique after thoroughly messing up their shoulders in the past. It's not difficult to avoid this problem, but it will likely require a couple of steps backwards before you continue forward. Without being too specific, you should be benching like a powerlifter, not a bodybuilder. Google "powerlifting vs. bodybuilding bench press" and you'll get the idea. The difference is subtle, but it makes a huge difference.
For the Back, Biceps and Rear Shoulder: The (weighted) Pull-up
No, lat pulldowns are not a substitute for pull-ups. Hanging from the bar (and not swinging around like a crazy person) forces you to recruit all of the muscles of your back and shoulder girdle in the proper sequence. Building up to bodyweight pull-ups provides a functional edge to your back workouts. Even if you can do 20+ bodyweight pull-ups, the pull-up should remain a staple in your routine. Put a dumbbell between your legs or buy a weight belt and do weighted pull-ups. Pulling the whole stack on the lat pulldown machine is great, but do that after your weighted pull-ups. Get the movement pattern down, strengthen the crap out of it, then move on to isolation exercises for more hypertrophy training if desired.
Some Other Great Compound Movements
By no means are the four exercises above an exhaustive list. Some other compound movements that deserve considerable attention include:
The (weighted) dip
The Back Squat
The Standing Shoulder Press
The Bent Over Row
The Hanging Leg Raise
The Hang Clean
Programming Consistently: What It Looks Like For You
So how do you program these exercises into your workouts? Simply put, your workout should start with a warm up, then a couple warm up sets of the compound movement, and then 3-5 heavy sets of the compound movement. Then you move on to your accessory movements and isolation exercises.
To reiterate, you want to structure your workouts around these compound movements. If it's back day, do deadlifts or weighted pull-ups first. Leg day? Front squats first. Chest and shoulders? Start with bench. Remember, CONSISTENCY is key. Always start with your compound movement and watch yourself improve, both in terms of technique and strength. Here are the details:
A dynamic warm up: get your core temperature up and prepare the tissue and joints for maximum exertion. Go through some simple bodyweight exercises like squats and pushups to get the muscles working together. My personal favorite warm-up for lower body exercises are squat jumps and split squats. For upper body, pull-ups and pushups.
2-3 Warm Up Sets: Set up the bar with a sub-maximal amount of weight and go through a couple of progressively more difficult, but still easy sets with perfect form. Don't go anywhere near failure, you want to stay fresh for your work sets. Feel the movement and get in the groove of it, let those recruitment patterns take over.
3-5 Sets of the Compound Movement: this is where a majority of your effort for your workout is going to be invested. Take long rests between sets, stay loose, throw on your favorite playlist, and go all out on these sets. Keep your reps in the 4-12 range, but remember, your muscles can't count reps or see how much weight is on the bar. If you want to get stronger, it needs to be challenging. For more info on rep ranges, check out the article below
Accessory and Isolation Exercises: The bulk of your effort has been given, now it's time to work on the fun stuff. Lighter weights, higher reps, and keeping the heart up. Generally speaking, workouts should start heavy with low reps and progress towards higher rep ranges and lower resistance as you fatigue.
Stretching and Cool Down
Summing It Up: Consistent Progressive Overload
To sum it all up, weight training, like any motor skill, requires both technique and strength. Strong technique allows for the development of strong muscles and strong muscles allow for the development of strong technique. Progressive overload works because it consistently challenges the muscles and the technique. If technique gets neglected, progress stops.
Disclaimer - Exercise Images Not My Own