The deadlift, squat and bench press should form the foundation of your fitness routine. That said, they can still be tricky. Here’s how to nail them, and reap the benefits
Words: Tom Ward
Forget the clean and press. Wave goodbye to the muscle-up. Say adios to the superman push-up. Give up on that three-minute plank. Or at least, park all of that for a while. Because really, if we’re being honest, getting in shape isn’t about complex moves – it’s about consistently putting in the work day after day. Lifting stuff up and putting it down. Why overcomplicate it?
Fancy moves might look good on TikTok, but when it comes to building strength, mobility and a foundation of skill, there are only three moves you really need, whatever your gender or training level: the humble deadlift, squat, and bench press.
Worried your technique needs a tune-up? Or never quite got them down in the first place? Don’t worry, we got you.
The Expert: Tom Cuff-Burnett, PT and movement specialist, @tomcuff_fitness
“The bench press is one of the foundational compound movements you can do in the gym,” says Cuff-Burnett.
The bench press is great for both men and women. Yes, it builds your chest and shoulders, but you certainly don’t have to load it up with weight plates and go full Dwayne Johnson. Keep it light and you’ll reap the benefits without necessarily bulking out.
But, you ask: which benefits?
“In terms of its efficacy, it recruits nearly all of the muscles in your upper body; predominantly the chest, but also shoulders and triceps,” says Cuff-Burnett. “Being a compound movement, the bench press also works the core, the benefits of which translate to general improvements in balance, stability, spine and hip health.”
What’s more, by recruiting multiple muscle groups at once, you’ll be taxing your body long after you leave the gym. “After a strength-training session, your metabolism stays elevated through a process called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC),” explains Cuff-Burnett.
That means your muscles require more energy than usual as they recover, so you burn extra calories even when you’re not doing anything. You don’t get that with 20 minutes on the treadmill. And the same benefits apply to squats and deadlifts, too.
Lie flat on your back on a bench. Wiggle your bum and shoulders around a bit until you feel like you’ve built a solid platform, with your feet flat on the floor. Grip the bar shoulder-width apart; don’t go too wide, there should be smooth rings on the bar to give you an indication of where your thumbs should be.
With your hands directly above your elbows, extend your arms to push the bar overhead; you should feel an arch as your lower back comes away from the bench, but otherwise your torso and legs should stay firm. Exhale at the top of the motion then slowly lower the bar into the top of your chest, below your chin, then power it back up for one.
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“Keep your eyes open, focusing on a specific spot on the ceiling, be that a light fixture or roof tile in need of dusting. This will help you keep everything straight throughout the movement.”
Mastered that? Hit new different muscle groups in new ways with these smart tweaks.
The Narrow Grip Bench Press
To take things up a level, bring your hands together so they’re over your chest (but not quite touching). Figure out what hand position is comfortable for you, remembering that you still need a solid base from which to control the bar as you push it straight up. Complete your usual reps for an extra tricep and forearm boost. This is a lot tougher, so make sure to take some weight off the bar first.
The Incline Bench Press
Mix things up by angling the bench at between 45 and 60 degrees, so you’re slightly leaning forward. Complete the moment as normal, feeling an extra burn in your upper chest and shoulders.
The Expert: Ollie Weguelin, director at Sustain Performance Ltd
“The squat is one of the fundamental movement patterns in fitness,” says Weguelin. “Functionally, it transfers into everyday life for men and women alike.”
In other words, get the squat on lock and you’ll be generally more mobile and flexible in your daily tasks. “Squats are a vital part of our basic movements,” Weguelin continues. “They build strength in the quads, hamstrings and glutes and are great for core balance.”
Weguelin advises you to work some variation of the squat into your routine twice a week, alongside ‘accessory’ strengthening exercises like single leg split squats and lunges, to help avoid imbalances in one side of the body.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip width, toes facing forward. The barbell should rest on your shoulders, behind your neck. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width, your arms making a ‘W’ shape with your body in the middle.
Now, drive your hips back, bending at the knees as though sitting down on a low wall. Your weight should go down into your heels, with your entire foot flat on the ground, your chest and head up and facing forward, and your shoulders back. It goes without saying that your back needs to remain straight, right?
As a rule, deeper is better, but if you’re not flexible enough to get your thighs parallel with the floor then only sink as low as you can while still maintaining perfect form. If you start to bend forward at the hips, or your heel lifts, that's your limit and you probably need to stretch more. Hold the squat for a breath at the bottom, then push down through your heels as you straighten up, back to the start.
“My advice is don’t go too heavy too soon, and prioritise quality of movement over load,” advises Weguelin. “This will ensure you stay pain free and build your squat strength gradually.”
The Goblet Squat
“Repeat the same movement but holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you in both hands, as opposed to a barbell on your shoulders. The goblet squat should challenge your core strength and leg strength, laying a good foundation for progression,” says Weguelin. “Remember to avoid overextending your lower back or letting your knees cave in at the bottom of your squat.”
The Dual Kettlebell Front Squat
“This is the next progression from your goblet squat and sees you squatting while holding a kettlebell in each hand, the weight resting on your forearms,” says Weguelin. “It’s harder, so puts extra focus on stabilising your spine and hips simultaneously. Keep your ribs and pelvis stacked and the kettlebells racked in front of your shoulders. The aim here is to keep your torso upright by breaking at the groin and avoiding pushing your hips too far back.”
The Expert: Jason Bone, head of strength at FLEX Chelsea
“Deadlifts are arguably the biggest compound exercises of the lot. You are able to go heavier than any other exercise in the gym and you’ll use more muscle groups, which in turn requires the most effort and takes the most out of you,” argues deadlift-enthusiast Bone, explaining that it works the whole body, from your upper traps right down to your calves.
“For both men and women, a deadlift is one of the most natural and functional movements,” he continues. “The mechanics of a deadlift are used in everyday life, not only when lifting something from the floor but any hip-hinging movement.”
The benefits don’t just translate to lugging deliveries of Huel from your front steps, either; Bone explains that by building up your core and posterior chain you’ll be more comfortable sitting at your desk.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes under the barbell you’ve laid out on the mat in front of you. Bend at the hips and take a good grip on the bar – again, shoulder-width should do it.
Push your feet into the floor and hinge at the hips to stand up, bringing the barbell with you. It’s important to keep your arms and back straight as you push through your heels.
Give your abs and glutes a squeeze at the top of the movement, then tilt your pelvis down, pushing your hips backwards, allowing the barbell to run down your quads and keeping the bar in contact with your legs. Be conscious not to allow your knees to drop inwards, and don’t bend them until the bar is below them.
“An important cue I’ll always give for a first-timer is to learn to tilt your pelvis up and down, to help keep a neutral spine,” says Bone. “Don’t think of a deadlift as an up-and-down movement, rather it’s back-and-forth.”
The Sumo Deadlift
This is a great one for beginners, or if you’re having trouble with the first part of the movement. Widen your stance and point your toes out more, like a sumo wrestler's starting position – you shorten the range of motion, allowing you to lift the bar more easily, and with more weight on it. It also hits different muscles, engaging more of your legs and reducing the chance of injury to your lower back.
The Dumbbell Deadlift
This is another great one if you’re looking to focus on technique instead of lifting heavy. As the name implies, you swap out the barbell for a pair of dumbbells, but otherwise perform the movement in the same way. It may feel like you’re cheating slightly, but you’re actually working through a longer range of motion which is ideal for helping your body memorise the movement pattern. The simpler kit also makes it a great one to do at home between episodes of Euphoria, too.
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