I was once new to strength training, too, so I know that the fear of looking stupid, or that feelings of unease about not performing a movement correctly is reason enough to keep prospective lifters out of the gym. As a trainer, it’s my job (and deep passion) to show you that strength training is accessible and doable for everyone, no matter your starting point.
Happily, learning how to lift is not as confusing as you might expect!
If you take a step back and look, the same movement patterns occur across many different exercise variations housed under the umbrella components of every good exercise program: hinging, squatting, pressing, pulling, and rotating and stabilizing your core.
Give the video below a watch to see how it’s done, and then dig into the deeper explanation below to learn the building-block cues for each program component so that the next time you head to the gym you know exactly how to nail your lifts.
Gymtimidation no more!
Hinge exercises are any during which you bend from the hips and push your booty back while keeping your back flat. Hinge movements target the entire posterior, including your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors.
Examples of exercises to which you can apply these cues are the barbell sumo deadlift, kettlebell Romanian deadlift, kettlebell swing, and weighted or unweighted good morning, to name a few.
Big-rock cues for hinge exercises:
- Brace: Before you begin your first rep, brace your abdominals like you would if you got the jump on someone about to punch you in the belly.
- Stand tall and set your shoulder blades in your back pockets by drawing your shoulders blades downward.
- Reach your butt back toward the wall behind you while keeping your back flat and your abdominals braced.
- If you’re deadlifting. push your feet into the ground to break the weight off the floor, and if you’re performing a good morning, stand up tall with the weight low on the backs of your shoulders.
Squats are wonderful for strengthening your quads, glutes, and core. These cues cover squat variations like the back squat, pistol squat, Bulgarian split squat, skater squat, and Cossack squat.
For each squat variation here’s what you need to remember:
- Brace: Before you begin your first rep, brace your abdominals like you would if you got the jump on someone about to sucker punch you in the belly. (Sounds familiar, right? We joke at The Movement Minneapolis that we can turn every exercise into an ab exercise.)
- Foot Position: Position your feet in what feels to you like your most stable base of support. Don’t be afraid to experiment with wider or narrower stances for what feels most comfortable
- Sit down, not back. Think about pulling your butt down, while still keeping your abs braced and chest up.
- Squat as low as you can while still feeling stable and in control, with your knees tracking right in line with your toes.
Here’s something that may surprise you: pressing a weight overhead will go so much better for you if you brace your abs and squeeze your glutes. Upper-body press exercises — like barbell military presses, one-armed dumbbell presses, and double kettlebell presses — build functional-for-life strength and beautifully sculpted muscles in your upper arms and shoulders.
Here’s how to vertically or horizontally press a challenging (but doable!) weight safely and under control:
- Grip the weight or weights tightly in your hand(s).
- When holding a dumbbell or kettlebell, point your knuckles to the ceiling so that if you were to balance a shoe on your fist, the bottom of the shoe would be parallel to the floor. If you are working with a barbell, position the barbell low in your palm (think right below that deep crease that runs from one side of your palm to the other, instead of up high by your first knuckles) to avoid overly flexing the wrists.
- Position your shoulder blades in your back pockets. Brace your abs and glutes to give the weight a strong column to rest on and keep them tight from start to finish.
Pssst: Is your movement unilateral? (Think dumbbell one-arm strict press or kettlebell one-arm floor press.) To help you move the weight faster and more efficiently, get tight: make a fist with your free hand and squeeze it like you’ve got an orange in your hand and you’re squeezing out all of the juice.
Upper-body pulling exercises are especially good for anyone yoked to a desk and computer all day because they strengthen the muscles that give you great posture. Suspension trainer inverted rows, one-armed bent-over rows, and horizontal cable rows, all fall this category that is going give you the sort of posture to make mom proud.
Here’s how to make the most out of your pulling exercises:
- Make the movement start and end with your shoulder blade(s). At the bottom of the movement, allow your shoulder blade to fully come out of your back pocket by relaxing the muscles of your upper back.
- Fully extend your arm(s) at the start, and then pull the weight up to your ribs by drawing your elbows straight back, and tucking your shoulders back into your back pocket(s) to finish the exercise.
Psst: Is your movement unilateral? (Think dumbbell one-arm bent-over row.) Make your core fire extra hard and keep your shoulders and hips square by not letting your torso rotate to avoid stressing your lower back.
Rotational exercises train the muscles of your core and there is just one important point for you to remember: Do not let the movement initiate from your lower back.
For rotational movements like the Russian twist, horizontal cable twist, and wood chop:
- Keep your lower back in a neutral position and move from your thoracic spine (your mid-back; technically, the 12 vertebrae that run between your cervical and lumbar spine).
For more ballistic rotational exercises, such as the Landmine Full-Contact Twist:
- Generate the movement from your glutes and hamstrings. Move explosively from your hips, only using your arms as a guide to direct the weight where you want it to go.
Core stabilization exercises are your money movements when it comes to building 360 degrees of core stability. The exercises under this program component are numerous and include side plank (anti-lateral flexion), superpeople (anti-flexion), and RKC plank (anti-extension).
To do any core stabilization exercise well, generate total body tension by:
- Bracing your abs, hard.
- Contracting your glutes.
- Engaging your quads by pulling up your kneecaps.
- Hold that tension from start to finish, whether you’re performing the exercise for time or for reps.
Ready to become Bedrock Strong?
If you’re a new lifter interested in getting strong, or someone who wants to build more balanced strength, we’ve put together a brand-new 12-week strength training program for you, Bedrock Strength. Complete with a full exercise glossary that includes written descriptions and photographic demonstrations of every single exercise in the program and user manual that guides you through every step of the program from A to Z, Jen Sinkler and I have combined our years of coaching and training to design the program we wish we would have had as beginners ourselves. This is a clear-cut, easy-to-use resource that will build a foundation of strength to last a lifetime.
Bedrock Strength is available now: Check it out here!