If performing simple movements that use a lot of muscle groups is the key to training efficiently, you’ll get the most bang for your buck from the ‘big three’ – the squat, the deadlift and the bench press.
As most trainers will agree, people come up with some pretty creative exercises in order to work lots of muscles at once. My personal favourite so far involved someone balancing on a dumbbell, while switching single-arm bicep curls with a second dumbbell, and doing leg kicks at the same time.
This ‘workout’ took home maximum bravery points, as it was an accident waiting to happen. Style points were up there too, as the leg kicks looked pretty good. But effectivity was way down because the movements being performed were totally unrelated. If all the muscles had been working together on the same move, it would have been far more useful. Aside from improving his balance, my bicep-curling, kicking friend wasn’t achieving much.
If your goal is to improve strength and develop muscle (whether or not you want to bulk up), you’ll want to look to the three main lifts in weightlifting: the bench press, deadlift and squat. Known as the ‘big three’, these exercises truly measure your strength because they are compound movements, involving two or more body parts. You are working more than one joint to move a load, and engaging a lot of different muscles in one focused task.
The deadlift is considered the most impressive of the big three because it involves explosive strength and overall power. Lifting the barbell, from the ground to your hips, works every muscle in your body.
The main movers are your quads, glutes and lower back. The main stabilisers are your hamstrings, calves and upper back, along with your abs and (isometrically contracted) biceps.
Note that if you don’t know what you’re doing, there is injury risk involved with deadlifts and all other weight training exercises. But technique is not something I can describe to you in words – you’ll need to watch others, and have your trainer watch you, for the best and safest results.
Books have been written on the squat alone, and many people argue that it is the most important exercise of all. Whether you use a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell, or just your bodyweight, you’ll be working all the muscles in your body. If you are serious about your training, you need to love squats.
The main movers are the glutes and quads; the main stabilisers are the hamstrings, back and abs.
The important difference between a squat and a deadlift is that you can control what depth you squat to. Some people advise you to squat all the way to the ground, while others say you should squat until your knees are bent at 90 degrees. What’s important is that you squat as low as your hip flexibility allows – and if you’re in good shape you’ll be in the ‘bum to the floor’ and ‘knees at 90 degrees’ zone, anyway. If you’re struggling to squat to 90 degrees, I’d suggest you see a physiotherapist and do some flexibility/ rehab work.
The bench press
Weightlifting is about building stamina and strength not just body mass, so don’t be daunted by this exercise. Note that doing a push-up requires an almost identical movement to the bench press; and a full push-up requires you to ‘lift’ about 65% of your bodyweight.
People generally measure their upper-body strength on the bench press, although military press exercises and chin-ups have their place too. The main movers are the pecs, triceps and deltoids. The stabilisers are the abs and biceps.
With the bench press you can control the depth of the barbell, and you need to bring it as low as possible. Ideally, it will just touch your chest before you push it away. In the gym, I often see people who are not lowering the weight deep enough to engage their pecs. If this is happening then the barbell is too heavy.
Optimising the big three
Between these three exercises, we have all the muscle groups in the body covered. Calves, glutes, hamstrings, quads, abs, lower back and upper back are all getting worked by the deadlifts and squats. The bench press takes care of the chest, shoulders, arms and abs.
To get all you can out of these exercises, you need a customised programme to suit your individual goals. For example, you do low reps with big weights to focus on strength, or use a higher rep count with less weight to focus on endurance. You’ll progress fast, so it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve through your training.
I’d suggest that beginners start by doing all three lifts in the same session, following the ‘five sets of five’ method. More advanced weightlifters are better off splitting the lifts between sessions, with for instance, an upper-body day, lower-body day and whole-body day.
Make these exercises the basis of your routine and you’ll be on track, and remember this is just the start. Having good form over the big three opens up a plethora of new moves to learn, from front squats, to power cleans and bent-over rows.
These lifts will provide you with the strength foundation to perform well in the gym and get the most out of your body. Have a great summer and happy lifting!
Jamie McGregor is a personal trainer with Perun Fitness, which runs classes in Tung Chung and South Lantau. You can call him on 6443 6597, or visit www.perunfitness.com.
Photos courtesy of wikimedia.org.