Start Small To Lift Big: How To Master 4 Fundamental Exercises

Quarterbacks rehearse throws over and over in order to complete touchdowns in the game. Take the same approach to make the most of the push-up, dumbbell row, squat, and deadlift!

It's easy to look at complex movements like dribbling a soccer ball, throwing a baseball, or handling a hockey puck and see how that took years to perfect. Athletes rehearse these movements endlessly, stick to the fundamentals, and trust that practice will improve execution in game situations. One day it finally does, but this happens over time, not overnight.

The same theory should apply to weight training. In a perfect world, we would all practice and progress safely, building the type of strength that allows us to handle heavy loads without injuries or negative compensation patterns.

Nevertheless, there's almost always a look of befuddlement on a trainee's face when I explain that they must first build a foundation with basic exercises. They simply don't believe the basics will increase their arm size, build chiseled abs, or sculpt jean-busting legs. They want quick results from extreme plans like they see on television.

It sounds simple, I'll admit, but my formula for success is this: commit to long-term training goals, and get the most out of the staple lifts like the push-up, dumbbell row, squat, and deadlift. These four are probably the most common exercises within weight training circles, and they're included in nearly all of the programs you'll see on this site.

Believe it or not, these exercises are enough to put you on the road to physique of your dreams, if you do them right. However, despite their popularity, they're very technical movements that can be easy to butcher.

It's easy to attribute technique flaws to a lack of mobility, but here's what that excuse overlooks: Most exercises are corrective in nature and relatively easy to master, provided you take the time to progress through them and learn them properly.

Let's go upstream and solve these problems before they start! Here's what I see going wrong with the way most people perform the four fundamental lifts, and how you can perform them to get the most bang for your buck in the gym.

Exercise 1 Push-ups

Many push-up issues start when people focus on what muscle groups the push-up "works." If you're thinking all about chest, arms, and shoulders, you'll forget to keep the rest of the body tense and stable. This should be a full-body lift!

Make sure your hips and shoulders are lined up your arms and are in the best position to develop true pressing strength. This will help you build the most force at the bottom push-up position.

Push-Up Fixes
Watch The Video - 02:06

Push-up coaching points
  • Squeeze your glutes and abs to lock your hips to your core.
  • Keep your arm tight to the armpits.
  • Hit the ground with your chest before your head.

Exercise 2 Dumbbell Rows

Most issues dumbbell rows happen when the spine is held in a flexed and rounded-back position, rather than a neutral position. Improper spine positioning causes the shoulder blade to move up instead of down when the upper back is rounded, which forces the upper traps to work instead of the lats.

Focus on keeping a long, tight spine during the movement, and you should feel the burn directly below your shoulder blade, into to your tailbone, and through the lats.

Breaking Down The Dumbbell Row
Watch The Video - 02:17

Dumbbell row coaching points
  • Take a wider stance than you think you need.
  • Keep the spine long and straight with the chest up.
  • Let the shoulder blade do the work. The wrist and elbow follow the shoulder.

Exercise 3 Squats

Problematic squatters generally fall into two camps: those who are stiff and tight, and those who are mobile but have trouble controlling the movement. I discussed squatting issues before in a power panel with my fellow strength training coaches, but this never-ending battle is always worth discussing.

Squatting is very technical and involves many moving parts. The best plan: Don't jump into heavy weight too quickly. Start by doing bodyweight reps within your scope of control. Once you add weight, focus on getting comfortable at hitting depth and building a more effective range of motion.

Before you even think of going heavy, ensure that you can control the movement with your heels on the floor, hamstrings resting on your calves, and your torso positioned long and tall.

Squat Fix: Low Mobility
Watch The Video - 05:12

Squat coaching points
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and press evenly throughout.
  • Create force through the hips to drive the movement.
  • Lean the torso forward as your hips move into the rep.
  • Keep the core tense without restricting airflow.
  • Keep the shoulders vertical over the middle of the foot.

Exercise 4 Deadlift

The deadlift is a skill-based movement that takes reps and consistent practice to improve. Most common deadlifting issues derive from the spine doing too much work instead of the hips, which are supposed to drive the movement. The spine should be a rigid lever that transfers force from the legs and hips up through the arms, thereby moving the weight.

Get your core and shoulders tight and keep the spine stiff to assist the movement. The deadlift isn't easy, but once you perfect your technique, you'd better believe it can be fun to lift a heavy weight off the ground.

Deadlift Tutorial
Watch The Video - 05:23

Deadlift coaching points
  • Keep the spine straight and drive the movement from your hips.
  • Set the bar close to your shins at the start of the movement and keep the shin vertical, without positioning the knee ahead of the bar.
  • Brace your abs, squeeze your arms down tight to your ribs, and stand tall without over-extending at lockout.

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