The key to strength is in making compound lifts the basis of your training routine. Let’s break the term down. A lift is a strength exercise where you move a heavy weight from a stationary position to an elevated position, and back again. A compound lift is one which incorporates multiple different movements.
For example, a classic example of a simple lift is a bicep curl: a dumbbell is held in the hand with the weight resting stationary at the side of the body with arm perfectly straight; the lift comes from bending the elbow so the forearm moves toward the shoulder, with the upper arm staying where it is. This lift has a simple, single movement, which chiefly aids the bicep, although partially works the forearm as the hand grip keeps the dumbbell from falling to the ground. A compound lift has multiple movements, and thus works multiple muscles. The most important compound lifts are the ones which stress the muscles in the body’s core, the torso.
The main three compound lifts are the deadlift, squat, and bench press. In addition to the main muscles which they work, large parts of the body are involved in maintaining balance of the heavy, weighted barbell. A barbell is a long 7 foot (just over 2m) metal pole which is gripped with both hands by the lifter.
These aren’t the only compound lifts. You will likely also want to incorporate some of the following in a training routine: barbell rows, overhead presses, power cleans, power snatches. For now though, I’ll describe the basics of the main three that will be the cornerstone of any strength building training routine.
The deadlift is the most important of all lifts. Not only will it make you stronger, but lifting objects from the floor is something we need to do at regular times throughout our lives. Knowing how to deadlift will give you instinctive good form to protect yourself from injury when lifting and moving heavy objects. The deadlift begins with a laden barbell, gripped with both hands. The knees are slightly bent, the back straight, and the chest leaning forward a little so that the straight arms are perpendicular to the ground. The lifter straightens their legs and back so they are standing straight up in a perfect vertical line. The bar is then lowered to the ground in a reverse of the previous movement.
This lift strengthens the whole of the back, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as benefitting grip-strength. Most people should be able to aim toward lifting at least twice their body weight without requiring weightlifting belts or grip straps. Chalk may be required though if you cannot keep your hands dry… and deadlifting will definitely make you sweat.
There are multiple variations and decisions to make. There are Sumo and Romanian variants of the standard deadlift which affect the starting position of the feet, and the angle of the knees, respectively. When gripping the bar, you can grip with both hands facing in the way (knucles facing ahead), alternate grip (one hand facing in, the other facing out), or the hook grip. At the limit of lifting, the bar can easily slip from the hands owing to rolling. The alternative grip combats this rolling, but adds an unwanted asymmetry to the lift. The hook grip works by wrapping the index and middle finger around the thumb, crushing it against the bar. I won’t lie, lifting sets of 150kg deadlifts with the hook grip hurts. This grip is the one I recommend everybody use though. It allows a solid hold of the bar while ensuring you strengthen your forearm muscles.
A complex lift to perform correctly, this exercise works the entirety of the legs (calves, hamstrings, and quads), as well as the glutes. Without strengthening those things that actually transport the rest of your body, you will find progress in becoming stronger elsewhere much harder and slower. The squat begins with a weighted barbell placed in a rack somewhere around chest height. The lifter lightly grips the top of the barbell (no need to wrap the thumb around) and ducks their head underneath the bar and places their traps (just below the shoulder blades) to begin taking some of the strain of the bar. With feet placed at least shoulder distance apart angled at 45 degrees away from the body, and with a straight back, the lifter stands up to their full height, supporting the load of the weighted barbell.
Keeping a straight back and leaning forward as the lifter bends their knees, the bar is lowered in a straight vertical line until the lifter’s thighs are in a straight line parallel to the ground, ass as low as the knees. After steadying the bar to be stationary for a fraction of a second, the full effort of the lift begins as the glutes, quads, calves and lower back work in unison to drive the barbell back up. The squat, like the bench press to follow, are lifts that you must commit to before beginning. If you cannot perform a full deadlift, then the bar stays on the ground: no harm done. If you cannot perform a full squat, you’re a person squatting with knees bent with a ludicrously heavy bar pinning you in place. It’s important therefore to know how much you can squat before squatting, and not push your luck.
An exercise predominantly for the chest, this sees the lifter lying horizontally prone on a bench, knees bent with feet on the floor, and back arched. A much simpler lift than the other two but requires due care and attention all the same. Lying on your back with the barbell safely in the rack directly over your eyes, you grip the bar (again, prefer the hook grip) with elbows slightly bent. Straighten your arms to lift the barbell out of the rack and move it slightly down your body so your arms are perfectly perpendicular pointing straight up above your chest. Bend your elbows until the bar lowers to literally touch your chest, before pushing the barbell upwards to return to the starting position. As with the squat, the lifter must make sure they have the lift “in them” before attempting it because, especially without a ‘spotter’, the alternative is rolling the barbell down your body to your legs. The heavier the bar, the less fun it feels.
Learning these lifts
You now need to go and learn how to perform these lifts yourself. Good technique is the most important characteristic to begin with when you start training. More will be discussed about technique shortly, but it’s important to call out that the above descriptions are not a full set of instructions regarding to how to perform these lifts. I purposefully omitted diagrams of these lifts so that a novice isn’t tempted to read the above and jump straight into lifting without further research of their own. The reason I described the lifts is to point out that there is great variation in how the lifts are executed by the majority of lifters. Within your gym you’ll have lots of people lifting well, and probably the majority lifting poorly.
I recommend watching videos, and reading books on how to perform specific exercises. Mark Rippetoe has good detailed breakdowns of the various stages of each lift, and where the different parts of your body should be. You don’t have to listen to him though, you could learn from anyone. But if you do, know that bench pressing without the bar touching your chest is a half-done repetition, and a bad habit you should avoid from the start; resting the bar on or above you shoulder blades could damage your spine or otherwise limit the weight of your squat; using the alternating grip in the deadlift risks injury at the limit, and using straps to lift a weight as light as 100kg is cheating yourself. As always, stay skeptical, listen to lots of sources, and look for evidence.