Written by Brittany Kohnke
For more than a decade I have coached hundreds of beginners in the weight room. As a high school Physical Education teacher and certified Personal Trainer & Coach, I have worked with hundreds of beginners in the weight room for over a decade now. There is something unique and truly special about this group. The eagerness, excitement, and sheer hunger of this subgroup is invigorating, but with the rise of sports such as weightlifting and powerlifting and increased publicity through social media I’m seeing a shift in how the mainstream is coaching beginners in their pursuit of strength.
Google search the phrase “beginning strength training” and hundreds of results will flood the page. Everything from sample training programs to “how to barbell back squat” can easily be accessed. The question must be asked though: is this information where beginners should really be looking? Is the strength community overlooking critical, rudimentary skills and concepts?
In a time of wanting “all the things yesterday”, this article is going to uncover the often overlooked (and unsexy) basics and pay homage to the fact these skills are critical for success and longevity in the pursuit of strength.
Before the case can be made justifying this importance, the concept of skill acquisition needs to be discussed. During childhood, movement patterns are developed. These patterns are classified as either gross or fine motor patterns. Gross motor patterns involve the major muscles of the body that allow us to walk, run, jump, etc. Whereas fine motor patterns require “higher level” skills such as coordination and balance; often needed by smaller muscle groups such as those in the hands, feet, etc.
So when we look at skill development from this standpoint, it makes sense. We would not ask a child to perform complicated agility exercises involving cutting and changing directions if the child could barely walk or run. The same construct should be considered when we are learning the skills of lifting. Adding weight through whether it be a barbell or dumbbell adds another layer of “skill” one must possess. The ability to stabilize the trunk while moving a separate part of the body, the coordination of multiple joints working synergistically, and the proprioception of one’s body in relation to said weight add a multitude of layers (aka skill). Therefore, if the gross motor pattern of squatting one’s bodyweight shows compensatory patterns or faulty form, is a barbell really the “right” element to add to a beginner’s training program?
With this understanding, one should start (or if you’re a seasoned veteran, take a step back) to critically analyze the following: can you perform bodyweight exercises correctly and proficiently? What does “perfecting the basics” even look like? The following section will give you a crash course on some of the most influential movement patterns as they relate to the “Big 3”.
If you want to barbell back squat you should be able to a:
BODY WEIGHT SQUAT
Every movement of the human body derives from one of two patterns: the ability to walk or the ability to sit and stand (aka squat). Simply put, this is one of the easiest yet best ways to develop a great squat. Incorporating a bar and depending on the placement of that bar, will yield a refinement of this skill, but generally speaking, when one performs a bodyweight squat many of the gross and critical elements of the exercise can be practiced in this fashion.
If you want to barbell bench press you should be able to a:
BODY WEIGHT PULL UP
Performing a bodyweight pull-up is a feat within itself, but when a focus on proper form is also added into the mix, this challenging exercise packs a punch. The pull-up shows great carry over into the barbell bench press due to the combination of necessary upper body strength and ability to effectively control and stabilize the important muscles of the back and shoulders. Additionally and perhaps most importantly, efficient pull-up mechanics require the ability to sustain a braced, engaged torso: an undoubted necessity when it comes to the bench press (or any of the Big 3 for that matter).
The pressing motion of the push up is very similar to that of the non-competition bench press. Although the hand positioning of each may vary slightly, the premise of “pushing the floor away” is used in both exercises. Just like the pull-up, the synergistic action of upper body movement while creating and sustaining torso stability and control is also practiced.
If you want to deadlift you should be able to do a:
PROPER GLUTE BRIDGE
Both the conventional and sumo deadlifts are movements in themselves requiring a unique skillset and understanding. However, there are key aspects of the glute bridge that prove worthy in terms of carryover to both variations of the deadlift. Similar to the pull-up and push-up, the synergistic movement and ability to maintain core stability can be practiced in this bodyweight exercise.
Bodyweight exercises have stood the test of time and for good reason; they are effective at instilling the basic movement patterns needed for all compound lifts, especially the Big 3. The strength community has overlooked the importance of mastery in these skills because let’s face it, selling a complicated program or manual is sexy and doing bodyweight stuff is basic and let’s face it, no one wants to be basic. Success aside, longevity in both the sport and life depend on this aspect. Move well with the basics to build a solid, efficient foundation that will carry over into compound, heavy lifts.
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