Just as there is no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners, there are no unsafe exercises, only poorly selected ones. You didn’t hurt yourself because of deadlifts; you hurt yourself because you’re not ready for deadlifts. If your back is a mess because you didn’t spend enough time learning how to move properly or build the required strength, it’s your fault for trying to sprint before you could even crawl.
There’s a hierarchy of exercises, an order of operations that exists on a continuum of simplicity. This hierarchy exists for your safety, and smart trainers will insist clients spend a decent amount of time at each rung of the ladder. The returns on this time investment – technical proficiency, increased confidence, greater strength – are huge.
On one end of this lifting spectrum, we have low-intensity exercises such as bodyweight squats and incline push-ups. On the other are advanced lifts such as deadlifts, squats and the bench press. Collectively referred to by powerlifters and muscleheads as “the big three,” these barbell lifts allow for you to move serious weight.
If your training goals involve building mounds of muscle and maximum strength, then mastering the big three is a must. But before you get ahead of yourself, first familiarize yourself with these foundational exercises.
Goblet squat before squat
For me, squats have always been psychologically daunting. The exercise is simple enough – you place a loaded barbell across your shoulders, drop your butt to the ground, then stand back up. There’s something about having all that weight on my back, though, that triggers a primordial response. My caveman brain kicks into action and panicked voices begin to whisper in my ear.
One exercise has helped me overcome this fear: the goblet squat. Performed by holding either a dumbbell or kettlebell tight to your sternum and squatting with an upright posture, the goblet squat does a great job of training the upper back and core, two areas that need to be strong in order to shoulder significant weight during a barbell squat. The goblet squat also allows you to drop your butt deep to the floor with greater ease; when loaded with a heavy dumbbell, this helps to build the explosive strength needed to stand up from the floor.
Floor press before bench press
The bench press is a great exercise for building upper body strength ... provided you actually have upper body strength to build in the first place. I see it every day: people on their backs, their noodle arms barely able to support the weight, their entire body trembling as they squeak out a clumsy half-rep before racking the barbell. These misguided lifters, they never make any progress. Their physiques never change. Their numbers never improve. They’re an injury waiting to happen.
What’s that you say? You’re the uncrowned king of push-ups? That’s excellent news and helpful information, but sadly, push-ups alone are not an ideal lead-in to the bench press. That title belongs to an old school staple called the floor press.
I love the floor press for a bunch of reasons. First, it’s as basic as exercises get: lie down on the floor with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, arms extended to the ceiling; lower your elbows to the floor, then press the weight back up. Second, it’s safe. With your back on the floor, there isn’t a lot that can wrong; if you can’t press the weight, just extend your forearms and drop the dumbbells. Third, the floor press teaches you how to handle heavy weights. In order to bench press, you need to use both the bench and the floor to help generate enough force to move the barbell. The floor press is the ideal environment for learning this technique.
Sumo deadlift before deadlift
Much is made of the technical complexity of the deadlift, and for good reason. There’s a lot going on in this exercise: You need to hinge at the hips, break at the knees, activate your lats, brace your core – all of this and we haven’t even begun the lift!
The sumo deadlift presents its own unique set of complexities, but it’s arguably an easier exercise for beginners. Unlike traditional deadlifts, the sumo variation is performed with a wide stance and an almost upright posture, making it an ideal alternative for lifters with lower back issues. But what I like about sumo deadlifts is the emphasis the exercise places on the hips.
For athletes, the hips are everything. Running, jumping, cutting left and right – if your hips are tight and weak, none of these are possible. Even if you’re not an athlete, sumo deadlifts help counter the damage caused by all the sitting modern life imposes upon us.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator.