The Essential Six

September 15, 2021

A common request among my clientele is the desire to learn how to lift weights. Many of them come from various backgrounds of fitness however regardless of this fact it all comes down to one thing: Fundamentals. Whether you are an expert lifter or a novice, all compound exercises can be derived from some variation of the essential six lifts (I will list them shortly). For those interested in learning Olympic lifting, it is even more important that one grasps the foundation of each movement to then combine and apply to one explosive lift. I find it to be poor judgment on the trainer or coach to allow any client or athlete to become involved in Olympic lifting without proper progression and assessment.

I am excited that so many people want to learn these lifts, I truly am. That being said, if a client cannot execute fundamental movements properly, they are being setup for frustration and/or injury.

The essential six lifts are as follows:

Squat-Lower PushDeadlift-Lower PullChest Press-Horizontal PushRow-Horizontal PullShoulder Press-Vertical PushPull Up-Vertical Pull You will notice that all planes of motion are covered using these lifts. You may also notice how many common exercises use variations of positions related to the essential six movements. The goal for any client looking to learn how to lift is to get them to a point where they can perform all six with proper form. For those looking to do Olympic lifting, it is even more important to master the essential six lifts. Essentially, proper technique can be summarized as two things: Posture and Breathing

Posture is what I would think to be the most important factor when it comes to compound lifting movements. Without a strong base of support, the lifts become more difficult and the chance of injury is high (if you have read my Crossfit article, I emphasize this heavily in much more relaxed terms). Typically, proper posture involves the lifter to have a set core (flexed essentially) and neutral spine (aligned or straight). This includes the head and neck (even during a bench press) and especially the lower lumbar area (lower back). The pelvis should have a slight anterior tilt to ensure a neutral spine. The reason for all this is to reduce extreme forces being localized to one area during a lift and to ensure that the spine is in the strongest position possible.

With poor posture the majority of force being distributed typically ends up funneled to the point where the chain is curved, most cases the lower back. Specifically with squats or deadlifts, this may lead to muscle damage in the back or spinal disc herniation. I believe that all lifters be taught proper posture during all lifts and that clients are properly progressed into doing so. If a client is more advanced, simple cues to remind them will ensure that they are performing the lifts properly. It must be understood that many people may have weaknesses or body types that could make the ideal posture difficult. If this is the case, use caution and simple body weight variations to better build core strength and flexibility to allow the client to do so. Many trainers are eager to let their clients just dive on in without first confirming basic fundamentals.

I can understand that a trainer or coach wants to get to the fun stuff, but when it comes to lifting there is a very simple philosophy: Quality over Quantity. That’s right, it is more important that the lifter perform the movement properly at a lighter intensity with a slower tempo than with heavier weights and no tempo. Proper rest time should be given so that postural fatigue is minimized so that the lifter can perform the movement again without their form breaking (for those who Crossfit, take note). Here’s the reality: I don’t care how strong your legs are. If you squat and your lower back is weak, your legs will never get the chance to demonstrate their true strength. This can also be true for deadlifts and even shoulder presses.

Breathing is a factor I find is often overlooked. By utilizing proper breathing mechanics, you not only maximize your lifts but also reduce the chance of injury. I can understand that some lifts are confusing when trying to figure out when to inhale, exhale, etc. The simplest rule is this: breath out when it gets hard. Using the bench press as an example, you would inhale during the eccentric (lowering) phase and exhale during the concentric (pushing up) phase. For a row, you would inhale on the lowering of the bar and exhale during the pull movement. Proper mechanics result in an engaged core and maximal effort.

Breathing technique is essential to not only these six lifts, but any movement where maximal effort is required. Think about when you jump for height or distance, trying to throw a punch, swinging a bat. All movements can be better performed if breathing mechanics are enforced. Although some lifts look simple, many require a great deal of technique and base strength. That’s not trying to scare off those looking to attempt to learn but rather enlighten them to appreciate the work that must go in to trying. For trainers, this means proper assessment, progression and maybe even regression in some cases if advanced movements prove difficult.

Just remember the fundamental rule. It is always quality over quantity. It’s better to do it light and right than hard and scarred. Keep that in mind and happy lifting! We want to see you get started on the right track so Iron Athletics is offering you a free fitness kit. It includes our eBook for muscle building and a downloadable template to create your own workouts. Best part? It's completely free.