The thing about being in the know when it comes to exercise and fitness, is that Joe and Jane Average will ask questions. Often. And if they don’t, they probably want to. This is generally because people fundamentally do want many of the things of what exercise can give. Better health, more confidence, better performance and fitness, clarity of mind, an altered aesthetic and the list goes on. This is also because somehow the main working how’s and why’s of exercise, fitness and training got lost on us and basically transformed into an overcomplicated curmudgeon of an organism all it’s own.
Thank you internet.
Anyways, often it leaves someone like me with a default rule of thumb “elevator pitch” type of spiel in regards to where folks can start – particularly someone who’s new to the caper. “Advanced” folk generally don’t ask training, especially weight training/gym stuff and especially dudes - as it is almost tantamount to a question of their manhood. You know who you are and it’s okay. Relax bro, relax.
So, what for the newbie to do? I will start in context of strength/resistance training type exercise, as that is probably the most impactful yet confusion riddled starting point for basically everybody. If you’re familiar with the likes of Dan John, John Rusin, Pavel, Jim Wendler (I’m missing probably so many more) and basically any type of credible (note: CREDIBLE) training forum/resource then you’d be half versed on these 5…
Squat, Hinge, Push, Pull & Carry.
You know, lower your ass closer to the floor, preferably below hip level and stand back up again. Yes that’s it. Provided that itself doesn’t cause any notable joint pain type issues for you initially, this is your number 1. There’s a reason it’s almost the first physical thing I’d ask anyone to do as it’s such a tell-all of where that person is physically. The fact it can tell so much also means that it can impact so much. Strength, multi-joint mobility, control, balance, coordination, general joint pain sensitivities and work capacity. Imagine a single exercise that can impact all those factors? Yes, master this – or at least become competent – and that single skill in itself will take you a long long way.
You will hopefully need to sit on the toilet for a while yet, no?
1. If you’re not confident in your technique (or know what YOUR good technique actually, you know, is…), have a coach assess it and teach you better technique.
2. If you get pain when squatting, have a well versed (well versed with strength training, lifting and squatting itself) allied health professional nut out the issues and work with you to get you squatting pain-free.
3. You should really invest in progressing this from a basic human movement, to a lift then to a strong lift. Becoming stronger with sound technique will only serve you for the better long-term - as with your pain-free, technically sound squat strength will come an overall physical robustness unlike any other manual therapy, pill or potion could possibly deliver. This is a fact.
4. The crap news. Aforementioned physical robustness and overall better health will take consistency, learning and a reasonable commitment to developing a strong and beautiful squat. This takes time and persistence. A principle that, unlike 99% of other stuff nowadays, cannot be shortcut or hacked.
AKA Deadlift, but to not scare the absolute shit out of patients, clients and anyone who’s ever met a physiotherapist, osteopath, chiropractor or GP (EP’s included – yes there are some uninitiated EP’s out there too!), I’ve decided for my own practice to label them as hinges. Somehow the mere word ‘deadlift’ became associated basically with nuclear destruction of your lower back and the mainstream medical/allied health world followed this flawed fallacy. I’ll be reasonable though, there are a lot of crap trainers out there teaching terrible technique** and dosing inappropriate loading and volume parametres – key factors to where the DL can potentially go wrong – and many of these medico’s are left to sort this mess. Often the baby does go out with the bathwater on this one though, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.
**Note – the scientific evidence around “optimal” or “correct” technique in regards to lifting something off the floor in relation to feeling pain seems to indicate that “perfect” technique for picking up something is fallacious as a concept - meaning that there’s no such thing as a correct way to lift something, despite all the manual handling posters, turns out you don’t need to imitate a robot with a stick up it’s ass to safely pick something up.
But, I will say – in the context of progression and gradual improvement at that lift i.e. increasing strength, repeatability, robustness of direct and peripheral tissues and therefore reasonable overall health – your technical prowess absolutely will matter. Sound technique enhances a balanced recruitment of levers and musculature and provides reasonable structural integrity within the lift to ensure that there’s minimal adverse overloading of structures and residual pain sensations (not necessarily damage) – as can be the case with crap technique mixed with heavy loads. Tightening one’s technique means there’s only one other variable that needs manipulation in order to systematically improve – load.
But the hinge/deadlift as a fundamental movement to be taught, learned and loaded cannot be overstated for long term health, strength and fitness. The hinge basically constitutes the forward bending (or flexion) at the hips, with sturdy and neutral spine, knees slightly bent, shins pretty vertical and feet facing forward, shoulders back and chest pronounced, neck and head neutral. Sort of like a twerk and a bow all rolled into one. Add a bar at about mid-shin height sitting over mid-foot, grab it with both hands about shoulder width apart and you’re ready to roll.
Pick it up. Hit reverse and place it back down.
Sounds complex. When explained, yes it can be and granted when its first taught many people will find it somewhat unnatural and therefore needs to be coached. Without trying to over-complicate it though, once it’s seen it can be reasonably easy to replicate. In terms of hip mechanics, mobility and strength of muscle at the hip, a properly executed and skilful hinge can and will change everything. The hips are a highly mobile and complex joint structure – thus many things can impede it’s doing everything we’d like it to do. The hips are also the strongest and most powerful major joint complex, therefore is key for centralized force production through the whole body, thus making basic things like walking, running, sitting, standing, stepping, jumping, bending and many other basic human movements remotely possible or effective. Maintaining and developing adequate mobility and strength of this key joint structure therefore is massively important for your basic ability to improve, your trainability and thus health in the long-term yadda yadda we’ve been over this already…
If that weren’t enough, the best thing about hinge/deadlift is that it’s probably (for most) the most progressable lift. As in you’ll get strongest fastest through this. In terms of health, robustness, fitness, strength and yadda yadda again this is the reason why this guy/gal is in the top 5 for anyone and if you stay in the lifting caper in any capacity for a while, you’ll never not see some type of derivative of a hinge/deadlift programmed.
To clarify – upper body pushing. Any movement which will emphasize pushing a load away from the body with the shoulders and arms. Things like bench press, overhead press, push-ups and dips are generally your tried and true, basic and most familiar exercises which fall in this camp. Normally when we prescribe the pushing movements – particularly for the newbie, it will be bi-lateral or both hands/arm at the same time type movements. This is because this fashion is the best, most trainable and most progressable way forward in terms of strength. Again, if I hadn’t harped on this already – if we’re talking health, fitness, robustness and longevity (which we are), our strength is a major MAJOR component and attribute that needs to be developed (Remember that anti-frailty thing??). Therefore, for the upper body, many 2 armed pushing movements qualify as being solid and key strength builders.
The base or primary structure(s) to the push pattern and any push/pressing exercise there onwards are the shoulders. Strong shoulders generally means strong pushing. Our shoulders are sorta like the hips of the upper body, in that they’re strong yes, but also quite mobile – therefore can enable many things and movements to happen but this can also mean, like the hips, there are things that can impede their optimal functioning. This, again like the hips, is where technical aptitude comes in. Do you see a pattern with this whole thing now? Technique matters, yeah?
Teaching a good pushing pattern, and handling load with this technique generally goes hand in hand with nice, smooth mobility and sound shoulder mechanics otherwise known as glenohumeral rhythm… oohh big words. Mechanics like retraction, depression, protraction, rotation and elevation allowing for shoulder packing, weight stacking and other strength coach vernacular that goes into sturdy shoulders with ample capacity to push heavy stuff. These are all important, trust me. An often overlooked feature of the shoulder mechanics/function that is important is the relation of the shoulders to the thoracic spine and rib cage. The shoulder blade is congruent with the ribs at the thoracic spine (upper/mid-back) and if your thoracic spine mobility is limited, then this can be a hamper on pressing motions. Thoracic mobility in terms of, extension, rotation and general malleability, if you will, is often an important trait for a nice thoracic base and scapular relation for pressing, but the cool thing about pressing or being taught to press well is that it can almost reverse-engineer the mobility attainment process. Much like squatting for the hips, decent thoracic spine and shoulder mobility can aide a good press, but also, learning and working a good press groove can often aide better thoraco-scap (shoulder & upper/mid-back area) mobility in return.
For the newbie, this is where I might refer to a coach/someone who genuinely knows what they’re talking about in regards to which property takes precedence, initial mobility or initial technique? (if there are indeed some limitations). But overall, it’s the cool chicken-and-egg type thing in which actually learning the proper execution of the lift (and this applies to all lifts) will generally also reap the benefits of better/more functional joint complex mobility – an inherent, important and clinically desirable factor relating to joint health and function. And again, we’re talking health, fitness and longevity so mobility matters and this is day 1 of physio school type stuff. This only further outlines a stated fact of progression that good technique always wins and must be emphasised, learnt and executed.
Will not start a rant, I promise…
Everything pertaining to the pull pattern almost applies the same way that it applies to pushing patterns, as stated above. I’m not actively trying to be lazy (this time..), it’s just pretty much true. Nice technically sound and strong upper body pulling motions (pulling weight toward the body, in various directions) will usually equate to stable and smooth gleno-humeral (shoulder) and scapulo-thoracic (mid/upper back) rhythms and strong, powerful musculature surrounding the shoulder. The usual suspects that feature in regards to your fundamental upper-body pull type movements/lifts are pull-up, chin-up, pull-down and rows. Rows, rows, rows… When in doubt, row! Pulling movements will generally be naturally stronger than your pressing motions, so newbies will almost always progress faster in terms of loading than your pushing variants, something to consider for the relative lifting newbs prescription and programming.
The only thing that is of note regarding pull vs push is relating to more occupational variances of modern life. Due to our penchant for mirror muscles, overuse of screen based technology and sitting postures*** is that the musculature of the rear shoulders and thoracic spine can be not as strong or is just chronically under-utilized. I’m pretty sure, or maybe it’s just that I read somewhere, that the muscle volume of the upper back and rear shoulders is greater than that of the front. And considering that the bulk of our power and strength is generated from the posterior chain, the development and strength of the muscles of the upper back will probably do more for your overall upper-body strength and probably overall full-body strength. I’m talking traps, lats, rhomboid, rear deltoid, rotators and erectors – the group that will really keep the shoulder girdle sturdy from the rear and generate stability, strength and power from the usually stronger pulling motion.
So, because of the stated importance of this normally underutilized group and it’s greater potential for early and more sustained progress, usually when programming the push and pull movements/lifts, one would normally favour more pulling than pushing. I try to keep this in mind to more or less keep the strength around the girdle more in balance with how we are throughout the day (probably sitting or stooped), or how much action that rear group has seen vs the front group (“The Daily Bencher & Curler” factor) and how much progress there is to tap into there. Plus, pulling type movements and lifts can be excellent teachers of active shoulder dynamics and control for the lifter – things like retraction, protraction and depression. Rows kick-ass at this, hence the row is a staple of nearly every assessment I will undertake. Actively being able to control the position of your shoulder girdle (and pelvic girdle, mind you…) is an essential control skill for lifters moving forward and trying to progress with quality technique. Certain lifts and/or drills will teach this and the row is usually one of them.
Some say a decent rule of thumb is 2:1 pull:push, others say 3:1. For the sake of simplicity for the newb, or if training the newb (because let’s face it, any actual newbs quit reading this ages ago…) don’t neglect your rear shoulder/back work and if in doubt, rows, rows, rows.
***”Ideal” posture has been proven to be another somewhat mythical creature in terms of causative of pain, therefore for the lifter with the traditional kyphotic posture there is no real rationale that stands up that would suggest that this is truly an issue from a pain/injury perspective. Limited shoulder and overhead ROM may be a problem for executing specific lifts, but having said that, many people with issues like scheuermanns disease or just simple congenital kyphotic postures have been shown to still execute overhead movements, pressing and the traditional “red-flag” type lifts and movements associated with weird postures. Just more rhyme and reason to work and deal with the person, not their “limitations”, “symptoms” or whatever.
When referring to a carry, basically it’s simply that. Carry something, hold it and preferably walk around with it. Some type of load that is of a challenging nature of course, like, walking around with a pencil doesn’t really cut it. Maybe that’s why the predominant mainstream medical fraternity weren’t sold on strength training as a remedial thing… burn? Anyway, whatever. Lift some heavier than usual crap, hold it and walk around a while. Like anything, we want it to not be totally sloppy, so yes, technique does matter even with this simple but not easy task.
The most go-to movement for this protocol is the farmers carry. This is simply walking around with a heavy thing in each hand, like it was 2 buckets of dirt or something. Nowadays we work with dumbbells, but you get the gist… Hold them by your side, grip tightly with your whole hand, shoulders centred, posture upright and straight, look forward and walk in a straight line, taking even and rhythmic steps. These cues alone will or should ensure your entire body is pretty much switched onto this and soon 2 items of not significant load will seem like quite the challenge and you will definitely begin to notice how difficult it is to both hold on and maintain decent uprightedness.
Your shoulders will be on, your trunk will be on, your hips will notice, your grip will be on fire and you might feel some cardiovascular/metabolic workload building also. The multi-factorial and systemic impact makes this task as effective and complimentary to all of the aforementioned basics in that everything works, but nothing (apart from probably your grip) will be directly destroyed. Adding to it’s effectiveness, the teaching aspect of this is so straight forward. What human has never lifted and carried 2 things simultaneously in their life?
Well…. Wait. What human older than at least 26 nowadays hasn’t lifted 2 things in each hand simultaneously in their life?
The mere naturalness and familiarity of this exercise as an actual task makes it one of the things that if you had absolutely nothing else to prescribe, it would still give so much more back than you need to invest to get good at it.
This exercise is the epitome of simple but not easy.
TO ROUND OUT
Well, this was meant to be something pretty short and sweet for Average Schmuck and/or the uninitiated allied health lay person to quickly consume and have a slightly better directive on what are the most fundamental and effective pillars of basic strength exercise for the newbie. It probably turned itself into a bit heavier/longer than originally planned. My bad.
Maybe I’ll release a more easily digestible editors cut or something.
To recap though, the elements within the article are ultimately useful and will serve as an excellent reference point for where to go and what to learn in terms of strength training for your health. If you only remember Squat, Hinge, Push, Pull and Carry and do the follow-up googling of better and more concise websites and coaches – then my goal is achieved. Knowing and recognizing the value of these 5 basics can give you just about everything you could ever need out of resistance training and strength exercise for your health.
1. Refer to the caveats in first section and apply across to all movements/patterns. Those 3 principles cannot be emphasized enough for your long term success.
2. Footnotes included because pain and it’s complex and multidimensional properties is certainly something that shouldn’t be taken lightly and therefore acknowledged, explained and somewhat elaborated on and referenced. As the traditional narrative and psychosocial approaches around pain has been as debilitating as an injury itself - particularly pertaining to activities like lifting and strength training. Therefore this is taken seriously enough to disclaim so as to provide some broadness and light on the less-simplistic nature of the issue than is the traditional pain paradigm.
**This is a nice round-up of historical evidence and, I guess, narrative around back pain and injury and lifting techniques. This article more shines a light in terms of a work/occupational context, but it’s a decent read into the overall fallacious concepts of “ideal” technique in regards to purely back pain and injury. The science is cited within the article.
***Here is an excellent article as a catch-all of evidence regarding the traditional postural myth and relation to pain, injuries and dysfunction. Again, the science is cited within the article.