Beginning a Training Program – Finding Your Base

Posted: 09/06/2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

So you want to build muscle? Get fit? Look good?

Good. You’ve taken the first step.

But what will you do? How will you go about meeting your goals? Where in the world is the start line and how do you get there?

Don’t worry, I gotcha. The starting line is what we in the business call “functional strength.” You need to build up a base before you go building huge biceps and flashing your pecs off to girls. How to acquire this base? The “big three:” Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift. They’ll get you mad strong. Like, wicked strong. Gnarly strong. They’re the lifts that all serious lifters use as the base of their muscle-blasting arsenal. Another reason? Compound lifts like these will drive your during and post-workout testosterone levels through the roof. This means that your muscles will experience hypertrophy (as well as hyperplasia to a small degree) to a far greater extent than if you performed isolation with all of the same muscles. High-volume, heavy weight compound lifts influence testosterone and IGF-I (Insulin-like growth factor I, which causes muscular protein synthesis) to such a degree that in a study done in Denmark, I believe, two groups of lifters, one that did compounds in their workout and one that didn’t (everything else about the work set the same), showed something like 27% difference in gains in favor to the compound lift group. Impressive? Yes. Very much so.

To the ladies: don’t be intimidated by these lifts – in fact, embrace them. The squat and the deadlift are the two unequivocal best exercises for shaping the glutes and thighs. Strong thighs are sexy, yes? Need another reason? Well-developed leg muscles are hungry muscles. They need food, all day every day. Around 80% of the calories you will burn in a day are spent maintaining your Basal Metabolic Rate (which means feeding your muscles and the rest of your body), and when strong leg muscles are added into the mix, they drive up the amount of calories you burn, even if you’re just sitting down. Worried about looking like a muscle freak? Girls don’t have testosterone in anywhere near the amounts that males do, even during the aforementioned workout Test and IGF-I boost. While they do build muscle, they don’t hypertrophy nearly to the extent that males can. Women can become wicked strong, I’ve seen a girl at the gym that can squat more than most guys could ever hope to, but to become as big as a male bodybuilder? That takes steroids.

Now, the reason these lifts work? They develop all of the most important muscle groups in your body: the front delts and pecs (bench press); the trapezius and spinal arrectors as well as the hamstrings and glutes (Deadlift – some of the most important muscles for a healthy back); and the quadriceps, glutes, and core (Squat – healthy legs and a testosterone boost after you complete them). Developing all of the aforementioned muscle groups is absolutely integral to a good training program, as having strong, conditioned muscles in these groups will be your greatest ally in defense of future injury.

They also mimic natural motions, and, as your muscles develop and become stronger, the tension they exert on your skeletal system will help to pull your body into alignment. The Squat and the DL are excellent exercises to help fix posture deficiencies.

How to do the lifts:

Bench Press:

  1. Begin on a standard bench press with a standard olympic barbell (28-32 mm will work), loaded with whatever weight is comfortable. For beginners, this should be just the bar or slightly above.
  2. Pull yourself under the bar to where the barbell is racked directly above your neck, plant your feet firmly on the ground, at a comfortable distance from your body. The ideal foot placement will feel “powerful.”
  3. Grasp the barbell, thumbs opposed to the other 4 fingers of your hands, standard power grip.
  4. let go, from this position, pull your forearms back towards the floor, keeping your hands in the same plane, lateral to your solar plexus (just below your nipples). This is to determine the ideal hand spacing. At the “bottom” of the press, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor, pointing straight up and your hands exactly lateral to the aforementioned solar plexus.
  5. Grab the bar with the width you determined earlier, and, with a spotter, unrack the weight and hold it, arms extended, over your chest just below the nipple line.
  6. Inhale
  7. Bring the bar down to your chest (the line the barbell follows should be in all ways perpendicular to the ground).
  8. DO NOT rest the bar on your chest. Not only will you risk breaking your sternum or ribs, but you also release any stored elastic tension your muscles collected upon descent of the barbell which is essential for a good drive back up on your standard BP.
  9. Drive through your feet, to the hips, using the chest to push the barbell up to the starting position. Exhale as you do this.

Common Mistakes:

  • Pushing the bar from shoulder level: DO NOT DO THIS. Though some trainers will argue that this is a legitimate exercise, like the rear shoulder press, I have found that more often than not this is the way that people either: A) Absolutely destroy their shoulder joint and end up with a SLAP tear (torn glenoid labrum), B) cause their anterior deltoid to become incredibly tight, causing any other chest exercise that day to be almost unbearably painful, or C) develop bicep tendonitis at its origin near the deltoid muscle.
  • “Suicide grip:” Just don’t. I’m only going to tell you what it is so you never do it. Promise me. It refers to a grip where the thumb does not oppose the other fingers, but lies under the bar. There is no palmar opposition to bar roll and thus you risk getting a “guillotine,” where the bar rolls off your hands, pushes your arms up, and lands directly on your neck. The only time this grip is even remotely acceptable from a risk-reward standpoint is if you have two hyper-vigilant spotters ready to catch the bar before you  kill yourself.

The Squat:

  1. Begin with the bar racked in the squat rack, bar catches at three to four inches below shoulder height, bar safeties (the cross-bars) about 4 inches below the bottom of your squat (Read onward and perform an imaginary squat with no weight, doesn’t need to be exact)
  2. Get yourself under the bar (the middle, smart guy)
  3. The middle of the bar should rest across your shoulders, either where the muscle of your trapezius meets the neck (on top of the bony process that can be felt just inferior to the dorsal neck, known as a “high bar” squat) or in the “cleft” that is formed between the trapezius muscle and the rear deltoid (big middle neck muscle and back of the shoulder muscle, also known as a “low bar” squat).
  4. The hands rest a comfortable distance from the shoulders on the bar. In this case, “rest” means “holding on to firmly.” Bear in mind that the farther your hands “rest” from the centerline of the bar, the less you will be able to counteract bar roll.
  5. Party time. Lift the bar from the bar catches in the squat rack, step away staying balanced. Now is the time to determine if the bar is balanced correctly on your back.
  6. Stand up straight, look straight ahead or at the floor an imaginary 5-6 feet from you. Feet should be approximately shoulder width or slightly wider, feet angled about 25-40 degrees from straight ahead (will vary with foot distance)
  7. Inhale
  8. Begin the squat by “breaking the hips.” Hips go back. Back stays straight or slightly hyperextended (This means the low back arches slightly toward your gut)
  9. The feeling you should get from the descent from hips going back is the feeling of sitting on a toilet without using your hands. You don’t crash your ass on the toilet, you go down slowly.
  10. As the hips descend, the knees “track” over the toes, following exactly the “line” that the toes point. Mark Rippetoe, an excellent strength coach, describes the proper squat feeling as having the squatter “Drop his D**k between his knees.”
  11. Your knees need to be out of the way during the squat. As long as you track them over your toes, there will be little longitudinal tension on them, and it is actually safer to have them wider as opposed to narrow, as getting the knees apart allows you to drop into a deeper squat and remove strain from the knees.
  12. The bottom of the squat is accepted as having your femur parallel to the floor or lower. Beginning to squat, memorize the feeling by squatting and having someone form check you until you are able to go to parallel or below.
  13. Your back should still be straight or hyperextended, femur parallel, knees the same distance apart when you reach the bottom. The lower back should never curve away from your gut.
  14. Drive through the hips, heels hard on the ground, pushing your hips forward while the weight is driven upwards. The back should remain as upright as possible, but should not move as the hips are driven forward. The knees to not come together. The knees must only act as a hinge through which the power from the quadriceps is transferred to the ground.
  15. At the top of the squat, the body is the same as when the squat began.


  • If you are falling forward on your squat, chances are you aren’t going down far enough and the squat is operating more from your hips and knees than your quads. Try opening your stance a little bit, making sure the power transfer occurs in the heels and middle of your feet, not the toes.
  • If you’re falling backwards, work on your balance. Not necessarily a bad thing, but make sure you are coming forward enough during the squat to offset the “sitting down” feeling.
  • Watch for unevenness in leg power. You can really hurt yourself if you drive with one leg and use the other to take up the slack at the end of the squat.

The DL, the deadlift:

  1. Begin with the barbell resting on the ground, supported about 6 inches from the ground by plates on either side. Use a comfortable weight to start off.
  2. legs slightly wider than your hips, bend at the waist and knees, to grab the bar an inch wider than your feet (the aim is to not drag your hands up your legs on the drive).
  3. your stance should aim to have the bar above the exact middle of your feet, your scapulae (shoulderblades) directly over the bar, arms hanging straight down onto the bar.
  4. knees should be bent, over the bar, the bar will be resting on your shins. Back should be at approximately 15-45 degree angle to the ground (the angle will differ based on genetics, femur length, torso length, etc.)
  5. Grip should be hard on the bar, either under-overhand (alternating grip to reduce bar roll) or hook grip (with the thumb hooking under the bar, opposing the fingers, with the index finger and sometimes the middle finger grasping over the thumb.
  6. Inhale
  7. tighten the legs, drive through the hips
  8. The back does not move yet, but stays fully straight and extended, ass-end out.
  9. pulling the “weight up the shins,” using the hips to drive, as you pass the knees (which will usually be when the knees are fully extended or close to), activate the back, pulling the weight up using the HIPS as the hinge you use.
  10. back straight, use the same path and muscle groups in reverse to descend the bar.
  11. You just deadlifted!


  • DO NOT EVER ROUND THE LOWER BACK. You will snap yourself up. This puts incredible stress on the lumbar cartilaginous disks, and risks herniating one and causing permanent damage.
  • Be careful using alternating grip. There have been cases where people have destroyed their biceps brachii insertion tendon on the arm that lifts the bar underhand. Just a word of caution.
  • This is a stressful lift. You will be uncomfortable. But know the difference between strain and pain. If something specific hurts, stop the lift immediately, especially if the pain is in your back or tailbone. Remember, when in doubt, FORM CHECK.

There you go, kids. The most important lifts you can do. From this starting position, you can start to develop your routine from a base of confident power and strength. These lifts will work your core as well, so for the vain ones out there, I can tell you I’ve seen guys that never do abdominal isolation, but just from deadlifts and squats, these guys have abs that could block a shotgun slug.

A word on recovery: these lifts are intense. As you start to go up in weight, you’ll feel the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after you sleep. For ideal programming for beginners, try the lifts every other day and take the weekend off. If you do them right with weight enough to push yourself, you’ll understand the need for these rest days. You’ll “feel it in your bones.” Ha Ha. Also of note, try and get 30g of protein after your workout and some carbs and fat (not too much). I’ve found this along with some calcium and vitamin C proves to be a good post-workout recovery mix. A steak would be great. Chicken – awesome. Greek yogurt? Sweet. You choose, but if you’re looking to build real muscle, force yourself to get that extra protein and stay hydrated.

I strongly suggest reading Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s “Encyclopedia Of Modern Bodybuilding,” Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength” as well as the NSCA’s “Strength Training” and Frederic Delavier’s “Strength Training Anatomy.” All are excellent sources of info.

Till next time,


  1. evie burch says:

    can i share this with james

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