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Have You Mastered The Basics?

Mastering the basics... Laying the foundation... Learning the Big Lifts.

If you have been around the iron game for any amount of time, you have heard that these are the most important principles for any beginning lifter, and many advanced guys and gals say they stray from these and have to "get back to it." It seems that beginners don't know how to do it, Intermediates may know them but try to complicate things to much and stray from them, and advanced lifters are the ones who recognize their benefit and rely on them.

So important is the idea of "Mastering The Basics" that it's not just part of lifting culture, it literally permeates every endeavor that humans take part in. Painting, carpentry, and hell I'm even sure Lumberjacks have their basics that need mastered. Martial arts are a prime example of this, and I think Bruce Lee said it best when he said:

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity.

bruce-lee-one-inch-punchWhen it comes to lifting this poses two questions... Just what exactly are "the basics" and how the heck do you know if you have them mastered.

The Basics of the Basics - Exercise Selection

Many an expert has put forth their idea of what The Basics are, be it a series of lifts or movements or goals. I tend to favor Iron Veteran and Coach Dan Johns simple list of basic human movement patterns:

1. Push
2. Pull
3. Hinge
4. Squat

Anyone who has ever set foot in a gym can look at that list and notice a problem right away... It's a bit too simple. Does it mean horizontal push? Push Press? Row? Deadlift? So to expand on it a little bit I follow the following general rules to make up the list of "the basics"

- Include one movement from the horizontal and vertical plane for the push and pull

- The "most basic" exercise is generally the one that allows the most weight progression, and is most applicable to your goal as a lifter

Using these guiding principles as a good starting point, a list of The Basics might look like this:

1. Push: Standing or Seated Overhead Press, Bench Press
2. Pull: Bent Over Row (BB or DB), Pull Up (weighted if possible)
3. Hinge: Dead Lift (Regular, Sumo, Stiff Legged), Good Morning
4. Squat: Back Squat, Front Squat

Obviously we can be more detailed and nuanced as we individualize an exercise selection for a specific individual, but in general this is a great starting point and the closer your lifts resemble these in general the more progress you will make. I'm not saying 1 armed DB presses on a Bosu Ball are worthless... But they aren't going to do nearly as much for you as a bench press.

How To Tell If You Have Mastered Them

This is a slightly misleading title, because any advanced lifter will tell you that they are always looking to make improvements wherever they can, so the term "mastery" doesnt mean you have no more room for improvement. It's more of a base level of technical proficiency that lets you know you have the lift down solidly.

  • Consistent Form Throughout The Set

A telltale sign of a novice is that their form is not only bad, it's inconsistent. When they squat their knees are pointed a different direction every rep, when they bench the bar touches a different point on their chest, when they press their elbows are all over the place, and when they dead lift their back does who knows what.

Part of mastering a lift is being able to perform your reps with consistent form throughout a set. That's not to say you shouldn't ever struggle, or slow down as you fatigue, but imagine the bar makes a line on your shirt when you bench, you should essentially have only 1 line on your shirt after a set of 10 reps... not 10 lines at all different spots and at differing angles.

Same Spot... Every Time

Same Spot... Every Time

Newbies are so often rushing to add weight that they sacrifice form, and when you practice bad form it cements that technique in your brain. Stay at the right weight until you are consistent throughout the set, that is how you know you are ready to move up and have earned the right.

  • Getting The Desired Effect From An Exercise

In lifting circles it is generally regarded that there are various different versions of certain lifts: Power lifting bench and Body Building bench, Seated/Standing Press in front or behind the neck, Squats for BBers, Power lifters, and Oly lifters. My oh my, which one to use?

Part of having mastery over the lift is using the right form for your goal. The body builder knows that for the bench press you want to use the form that places maximum stress on the pecs and maybe even lower it slowly, while the power lifter knows to get tight, tuck the elbows a bit, distribute the load to as many muscles as possible, and explode up.

If you can pick the right movement, and adjust your form to get the desired effect you want, that's a very good sign you are closing in on mastery of the movement.

  • Knowing When and How To Make Little Changes

The exercise list I present above is a great list, no doubt... But sometimes you have to adjust the lift to suit your personal needs, limitations, and equipment. Maybe you have a bad hip and cant do a regular back squat, so you change the form a tad bit or use a Safety Squat Bar to shift the load to the quads a bit.

Perhaps a wide grip on the bench press stresses your shoulders too much, so you move your grip in a bit more narrow.

Knowing when to make a small tweak instead of beating your head into a wall is a great sign that you are learning the lifts, learning your body, and are one step closer to mastery of the basics.

Keep it Basic, Keep it Moving

While not exhaustive, this is a great starting point and these three guide lines will provide a good rule of thumb for you to follow should you find yourself questioning your results lately. Are you using the right exercise or are you getting "too fancy?" Are you doing that exercise in the form that most advances your goals? Do you need to make a small change in form because of your unique situation?

When you find yourself deep into training and have been adding too much fluff, refer back to this article and get back on track.

Don't know where to begin, check out the Mastering the Basics Manual right here to get started using the best exercises.


All the Basics Covered Right Here

All the Basics Covered Right Here


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