Sunday, December 9, 2012

Weightlifting Primer: The Layman's Guide to the Big Three

Getting stronger is simple…  Pick up something heavy, don't hurt yourself, and after resting repeat with something heavier.  This simple idea is how athletes have been building their strength for ages.  It's called "Progressive Loading". 

Progressive loading's roots begin with the story of Milo.  In the ancient Greek myth a boy named Milo carried his pet calf to town each day. Each day the calf grew larger and Milo continued carrying it until he was hefting a full-size bull to town each day.  While it is not recommended using a cow as a strength training device, the idea remains the same… Start with a weight that is manageable yet challenging and each workout gradually increase the weight. 

Over the years many institutions have tested out several methods of training.  By knowing an estimated 1-repetition max of a trainee and knowing their goals a progressive plan can be designed.  As a general rule , to keep progressing with a resistance exercise each workout add an incremental amount of weight (2 ½ to 5 lbs). 

For most people it comes down to either wanting to increase their Muscle Strength or their Muscle Size.  For those who want to maximize strength (Powerlifters and Strongmen), it has been proven that training with more weight vs. less reps works best.  For those focused solely on muscle size (Fitness Models and Bodybuilders) it is better to train with more repetitions at a weight that is still challenging. 

For Joe and Jane Fitness who are usually just wanting to "tone up", training somewhere in the middle is best.  There is less risk of injury and overtraining while still building strength and muscle definition (though not as quickly as those training in the extremities).  When a person is just starting out, sets of 8-to-12 repetitions are recommended (usually 1-3 sets total).  

Proper form is as important as the weight a person lifts.  If a lift is executed wrong, shearing forces in the joints and on tissues can cause serious damage.

A good example of this is with the Squat.  Most novices let their knees bow in too much, which puts excessive force on the ligaments and meniscus, which can tear both. 

An experienced lifting coach is a tool for success with resistance training.  Compound lifts such as the Squat, Dead Lift, or Bench Press are complex movements and without an experienced coach to make sure the lifter is performing them properly mistakes can—and will—be made.  Those mistakes are hard to spot while the person is in the middle of a lift and can result in injury once the resistance is increased.  Try to find an experience coach at your gym when starting out to mentor you. 

There are three important lifts for anyone to learn; the Squat, the Dead Lift, and the Bench Press.  These three lift provide the core to any good weight lifting routine. 

Knowing the proper form for each of the three big lifts is essential for success.  If the form is off even by a small fraction with little weight, the malfunction will be exaggerated at heavier weights. 

If you cannot do the exercise with perfect form, then you cannot do it at that weight.  Bad form will result in injury.

The following section details the Three Big Lifts, accessory exercises, and making a routine.


Known as the King of Lifts, the Squat when performed correctly requires great leg and core strength. 

The exercise sounds easy; however, most people do not have the flexibility, core strength, or balance required to do weighted squats.  It is recommended that a person master a body weight squat before attempting a weighted squat.  

THE BARBELL SQUAT is performed by stepping into the rack and position the bar at back of shoulders, just below the bottom of the neck (on the Trapezius, avoiding any bony structures), grasping the bar on the sides.  When gripping the bar, have the thumbs on the outside of the bar, this will reduce the chance of the bar "rolling" and injuring the wrists.

Pushing elbows up maintains bar stability and comfort. Making sure to keep the chest up, dismount from the rack and position heels shoulder width apart, facing 45 degrees out.
As you descend, push your knees out in line with your toes and allow your hips to bend out while keeping your chest and elbows up. Descend to full range of motion and then push up through your heels, driving through your hips and keeping your chest up. 

Remember, the bar will be traveling with your body in a virtually straight "up and down" line.  If you feel the bar pulling you forward or backward during the lift, reset with a lighter weight and practice your form.

If you find yourself doing any of the following, focus on your form extensively. 
            -not reaching at least parallel with your hips.    
            -knees bowing in or out.
            -weight shifting to the balls of your toes.
            -pain in the knees or ankles.
            -looking down at feet while squatting.
            -losing balance.
            -not able to "sit" in bottom position.


"What's your Bench?" is one of the first questions any decently muscled guy gets asked about weightlifting. 

The Bench Press is an effective exercise for building the chest, shoulders, and arms.  Maintaining proper form is essential as overloading the shoulder can result in serious injury.

THE BARBELL BENCH PRESS is performed laying flat on a bench.  Your chest should be pushed slightly out and shoulders square. Maintain a natural back arch (a hand should be able to slip between the arch and the bench).  Grip the Barbell around shoulder width.   

Dismount the barbell from the rack with an overhand grip. Bring the barbell down to your middle chest, then press up until your arms are fully extended over the shoulders.  Do not lock your elbows.

The forearms should always remain in line under the bar.  If the forearm becomes out of alignment, the weight will be unevenly distributed and carry the weight towards the head or the waist. 

Arms and chest aside, the back and feet are just as important in the lift. 

The back and feet act as a giant stabilizer during the lift.  A weak back will limit the lifter's ability to maintain control of the weight.  The Feet should remain firmly against the ground throughout the lift to maintain balance. 


You pick it up and put it down…  It's that simple.

Unfortunately, most people don't know how to lift things off the ground properly to begin with; pulling straight-legged with the back arched twisting and jerking.  Herniated disks and pulled muscles await those who try to go heavy and not learn proper form. 

THE BARBELL DEADLIFT starts with positioning yourself over the middle of the bar with feet shoulder width apart. Make sure the bar is parallel to the middle of your feet, close to your ankles.

Bend down and grab the bar with an Overhand or alternating grip, slightly bend your knees bringing your shins forward till they touch the bar and look straight. 

Keep your chest up so that you maintain a straight posture with your back. Lift the bar by extending the hips pulling the chest up, keeping it in contact with your shins on the way up and making sure to retain that straight posture.

Lock out at the top of the movement and put the bar back down keeping it close to your shins. 

For beginners, the Deadlift can be uncomfortable as the bar scrapes up the legs.  If this becomes a problem, wear long socks or pants to guard the shins.   


While virtually every muscle is taxed using the Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press it is still good to round out a routine with accessory lifts.

While you cannot spot reduce fat, you can enhance specific muscle groups through isolation exercises.  If you focus on a lot of curls and triceps extensions, your arms will get bigger.  The key is to look in the mirror, figure out what you want to enhance, and work on it.


The key to progress is to know where you have been.

Keep track of each workout; every rep counts.  Every time you come in to the gym, look at what you did the workout before, add some more weight to what you did before (2 ½ lbs to 10 lbs), and lift.   

These exercises are the basics of weight lifting.  A personal trainer can help you decide if other exercises will benefit you and how to get the most out of your workouts. 

DISCLAIMER: These exercises are intended for healthy adults.  Perform these exercises at your own risk.  Consult your trainer, physical therapist, or doctor before starting a new exercise program. 

Sources: Hatfield, Frederick C.; Fitness: The Complete Guide; I.S.S.A.; 2009 

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