Whether you are new to resistance training or need to brush up on techniques, it’s always a good idea to review set up, execution, safety guidelines and cues for basic exercises. In the early stages, one should focusing on learning and rehearsing proper motor patterns. If good form isn’t taught correctly to a beginner, it is harder to train and learn later on. Good technique is critical as it can prevent injuries by reducing excessive tissue loading that comes with bad form, so developing proper technique in the beginning stages will help prevent injury later. Also, it’s important to mention that poor technique can hinder strength, and thus athletes may only achieve strength (or 1RMs) that their technique allows.
So let’s get to it. Today we will cover presses, squats, deadlifts, step ups and pull ups (with variations).
Incline dumbbell press
Set Up: First, the lifter should hold a dumbbell in each hand with a pronated grip. Legs should be firmly planted into the floor, one leg on each side of the bench (about shoulder width or wider, apart). The lifter can start with the weights propped on the knees as they get in place on the bench. Making sure that the head, shoulder, glutes and feet are on the floor first, the lifter can get safely into the starting overhead position.
Execution: When the lifter is ready, an inhale should occur while the dumbbells are lowered in a slow controlled movement while keeping the wrists in neutral position. It’s important to watch for a perpendicular forearm line to the floor as they lower to just about shoulder height. During the press, the elbows will extend the dumbbells (not one faster than the other) as the lifter exhales to the starting position.
Safety: For safety, the spotter should stand behind the lifter ready to spot the lifters forearms with their hands near the wrist (closely following wrists). If needed, they can assist when the lifter is extending elbows into upright position. It’s important to watch the lifter to make sure they do not arch their back, lift their glutes off the bench, lift their head off the bench, or bounce the weights.
Set Up: The lifter should us an overhand grip with hands evenly spaced. As for width, generally they are slightly wider than shoulder width. It’s important to keep the elbows under the bar, instruct the lifter to slightly extend the wrists as the bar rests on the shoulders.
Execution: The lifter should push the bar in a straight, fluid line (emphasizing controlled manner) while keeping the torso tight with a pause at the top. It helps to instruct the lifter to move the head slightly backward, then push the chin through without leaning or arching the back. A neutral position with limited movement in the core (spine, pelvis) is key in this movement. The lifter should lower the weight slowly and in control back to the starting position to avoid injury.
Safety: The spotter should stand behind the lifter, ready to assist if needed. In a strict overhead press, the legs are not used, so it’s important to watch the athlete to make sure they do not turn it into a push press.
Set Up: When setting up for a conventional deadlift, the lifter should position their feet (about where ball of foot or where shoelaces start) under the bar. Depending on the lifter, toes can be straight forward or slightly pointed out. Feet should be firmly planted keeping big toe, pinky toe and heel (like a tripod) pressing into the ground at all times. Standing about shoulder width apart, the lifter should hinge themselves into the starting downward position. With a neutral head, flat back and arms stretched as straight as possible, the lifter can then reach for the bar using their preferred grip (over under, over or hook).
Execution: To execute the lift, the lifter should first pull the slack out of the bar to create pre pull tension. Taking the slack out will require pulling the bar with arms, chest and shoulders. Next, with a big inhale the lifter can begin the pull by pushing through the feet and legs. It’s important to instruct the lifter that legs and hips do most of the work (not arms). Keeping the bar close to the body, instruct the lifter that the bar path should be straight and vertical. At about knee height, the lifter can drive the hips forward while keeping the chest open until locking out knees. It’s important for the lifter not to use the back to finish the lift, but to push through the hips. Excessive arching of the lumbar spine at the top can cause injury. Also, instruct the lifter to keep head and neck in a neutral position.
Safety: The lifter should never jerk the weight off the floor. The back should not be in an overly rounded position, so the lifter should be instructed to keep lats engaged, bar closet to the body and chest open. When lowering the weight, it should be in a controlled manner, keeping the bar close to the body and hinging at the hips.
Note: Rounding or arching of the lower back is often seen when heavier loads are performed with poor torso control. So, it’s first important to understand that if the lifter cannot maintain a neutral position, the load will need to be lightened until the lumbar spine is in a safe position, then as the lifter practices consistently with good form, they can progress to heavier loads.
To help a lifter familiarize themselves with a neutral position, I like to have them first practice and master basic movements like planks, side planks and bird dogs, as they actively think of keeping their core (pelvis to neck) in a neutral position. Next, I also like to incorporate core stability movements for my athletes that build upon the squat, bench and deadlift positions in hopes to resist shear loads and minimize excessive spinal or joint movements. Overhead squats, dumbbell exercises and unilateral squats, presses and deadlifts are a few examples. Keeping in mind that core stability is always changing to meet the athlete’s postural adjustments, it may be beneficial to include additional core stability exercises that resist forces from all directions (anti-rotational, anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion). An example may be something like kettlebell marches or farmer’s carries, where the hip and shoulder position are challenged while the athlete tries to keep neutrality throughout the core. A beginning athlete may start by holding kettlebells to the side, where an advanced athlete can progress to a rack hold position.
Lastly, core stability is important to practice during lifts as well as out of lifts. Practicing creating this tension within the core musculature, can help increase compressive forces between the lumbar vertebrae. Doing this will stiffen the lumbar spine, create stability and keep the lifter safe. I like to teach my lifters diaphragmatic breathing and use abdominal bracing exercises activate deeper local core muscles. A typical bracing exercise is performed by pushing the abdomen out and holding for a period of time. For primary lifts (like the squat) that use heavy resistance like a 1RM, it’s important to focus on the breath. Once you step out of the rack, inhale as much air as possible to brace your abdominals, neck and back. As you hold your breath through the lift you can slowly exhale when you are nearly finished. By pushing into a belt (or imaginary belt), this will keep your trunk stacked and in a tight safe position.
Hex bar deadlift
Set Up: Using an overhand grip with palms facing the body, starting position should be standing inside the bar with feet shoulder width apart. With knees bent, hips back and torso tight, the head should stay in a neutral position. Again, you will want to create pre pull tension by pulling the slack out of the bar. Instruct the lifter to engage their lats (tuck them into back pockets works well) and as they are ready, the lifter can drive the feet into the floor by thinking of pushing the floor away from them.
Execution: Bar path and hip extension will be very similar to a conventional lift. The bar should not drift away from the body. Knees tracking correctly over the foot. Once hips are locked out, the weight can be lowered to the floor in a controlled manner by using the same path used in the concentric portion of the lift.
Safety: The hex bar should still be a hinge and not a squatting movement and works very similar to a conventional deadlift. At the top, it’s important to watch for excessive arch in the lumbar spine. The lifter should keep a neutral torso through the entire movement. Breathing pattern will be the same as the conventional deadlift.
Pull up/chin up
Set Up: Using an overhand grip for a pull up, or an underhand grip for a chin up, the starting position should be about shoulder width, hanging as long as possible by stretching through your arms, shoulders and lats.
Execution: Next, the lifter should pull the scapula down and back to avoid a rounded shoulder position. When ready, the lifter should inhale and pull themselves up by pulling elbows to floor until eyes are above the bar. At the top, the lifter should pause at the top squeezing the back, and then in a controlled manner return to starting position.
Safety: It’s important to make sure the lifter travels through a full range of motion (complete hang with arms fully extended at bottom). It’s also important that the lifter avoid arching their lower back or swinging.
Set Up: Barbell placement should start at about shoulder height. With evenly spaced hands in a pronated grip, take a step forward and pull yourself under the bar while placing bar evenly at shoulders (choosing either low bar or high bar position). Rotate hips slightly forward to use the hips as you stand and let the weight clear the rack. Taking 2-3 steps backwards, find your proper foot position (generally slightly wider than shoulder width) and root firmly into to ground. Note that stance can vary (wide, narrow) but generally the toes will turn out slightly from body.
Safety: With spotter arms in place, collars on the barbell, the spotter should then step behind athlete before they unrack. Follow the athlete in unison as close as possible during the lift without touching them. Under the arms with hands facing chest is a common and safe spotting position to choose. Help with racking or if they need assistance during the lift.
Execution: Keeping the weight evenly distributed in the feet, pull down on the bar to achieve upper back tightness and take a big bracing breath before starting the lift. Flex at hips and knees at the same time as you initiate the descent. Sitting down with hips back (similar to a chair position), maintain control of the weight instead of bouncing into the hole. Depending on the type of squat, generally a squat should be performed below parallel (can be above or at parallel depending on the goal of the lifter). Avoid excessive forward lean in torso before and after maintaining control in the hole as you drive through the hips to return to starting position. When finished, safely rerack the weight.
Cues: drive feet through the floor, think back into bar, knees tracking over big toe, neutral head and eyes, stand tall and drive with hips at lockout.
Set Up: while holding the bar in front of the body by either resting on shoulders with elbows in front or cross arms across the bar. Lift the bar off the rack using the hips and extending at the knees before stepping back into about shoulder width stance, toes slightly turned out position.
Safety: Will include the same instructions as the back squat. Follow the athlete in unison as close as possible during the lift without touching them. Under the arms with hands facing chest is a common and safe spotting position to choose. Help with racking or if they need assistance during the lift.
Execution: Much of the lift is similar to the back squat, with the exception of bar placement resting on the shoulders and the torso will maintain a more upright position. The athlete will be using more of the quadriceps during this variation. It’s important to actively keep the chest up and elbows high so the bar does not dip forward.
Cues: Keep elbows up, straight torso and chest high, keep weight evenly distributed in the feet.
Set Up: For resistance, you can use dumbbells held at the side or position barbell at shoulder height, then placed on upper back and shoulders. Keeping chest upright, legs should move to split stance (one leg in front of the other) staying about hip width apart.
Safety: Step behind athlete before they begin their descent in split position. Follow the athlete in unison as close as possible during the lift without touching them. Under the arms with hands facing chest is a common and safe spotting position to choose. Help with racking or if they need assistance during the lift.
Execution: Initiating the split squat will begin with knee flexion of the rear leg and descending straight down with a neutral torso. Controlling the weight and ensuring proper knee tracking over the big toe, the descent should travel until the front leg is parallel to the ground and the back knee is close to the ground (do not bounce knee into the ground). The lifter can then stand by driving weight through the lead foot to return to starting position.
Cues: straight torso, square hips and shoulders, avoid knee valgus and forward lean.
Weighted Step Ups
Set Up: stand in front of a box with chosen resistance (either barbell across shoulders or holding dumbbells).
Safety: Step behind athlete as they approach the box. Follow the athlete in unison in staggered stance without touching them. Under the arms with hands facing chest is a common and safe spotting position to choose. Help with racking or if they need assistance during the lift.
Execution: Placing lead foot on the box at about 90-degree angle, use the lead leg to lift body (avoid using back leg to assist). Keeping chest high and a neutral torso, stepping up to box with 1 leg until fully extended, the other foot will follow. Pause before then shifting weight, stepping down with the same lead leg followed by the second leg back to starting position.
Cues: watch knee tracking over toes, keep torso tall with chest high as you control the weight up and down.
There you have it!
Happy training friends!