The whys of the lifts

Published: 2023-06-20

Even before I started emailing training programs to people who want to be strong for life I had put a lot of thought into what lifts make the most sense. We’re not powerlifters, so we shouldn’t train like powerlifters. Strongman equipment is great but not exactly readily available. We certainly shouldn’t emulate the muscle rags. Today I’ll explain some of the choices I made.

Table of Contents:

Deadlift, or how to measure strength

Few things scream “strength” as much as deadlifts. But it’s more than just a measurement of strength, it’s flat out one of the best lifts for a large group of the population.

  • It trains muscles from your ankles to your neck. There’s simply not much of your backside that isn’t trained to some degree from deadlifting. It also does wonders for your grip and abdominals.
  • Something I noticed the first time I deadlifted years ago was that my horrible hunchback of Notre Dame posture improved immediately.
  • You know all those pain and aches in the back that middle aged office workers complain about? They just about disappear a lot of times. Funny how strengthening the back makes it ache less, right? It’s almost as we should train to be strong for life.

I’ve trained many very strong deadlifters, as in champion powerlifters. For the general population this is not what I go for. For “the rest of us”, so to speak, there’s a point of diminishing returns of adding weight to the deadlift. It becomes a lift with too much risk and too little reward. Don’t worry though, you’re probably not there and you’ll be plenty strong when you do get there.

Press… After cleaning it

If picking something off the floor isn’t the definition of strength, perhaps lifting it over your head is - especially if you picked it off the floor first! Guys love their bench pressing but I favor the press for most folks. Adding a clean - typically the no touch muscle clean - in order to get it to the shoulders just makes it even better.

FYI: By “press” I mean pressing overhead. There is no “overhead press” because the word “overhead” is completely unnecessary. It would be like calling bench press “bench press over chest”, it makes no sense. Nor is it called a military press because that’s a very specific form of press. And by the way, the press was an Olympic event up until 1972. It was called clean & press, not “clean & overhead press” or “clean & military press”… Because that would be silly.

  • Doing any type of clean & press gives you the rare combination of push and pull in the same exercise. Dan John once said something to the effect of: if all you did was clean & press you would be awesome. Well, I think it’s too little, but the point is well taken!
  • Muscle clean & press builds pretty much your entire upper body. Back, shoulders, arms, yes even the chest.
  • Much less equipment is needed compared to bench pressing. No rack, no bench, no spotter necessary - just clean & press!
  • You can progress from the press to even heavier lifting through push presses and jerks.
  • Stand up! Lying is for the bed and the couch, you lazy bum. I kid of course, but still there will always be something odd to go train lying down.

Bench pressing is a fine and valid lift to do but it’s not the be all end all that western culture have made it out to be. The press is a fine lift too, now add a clean variation to it and it’s damn great!

Front squats over back squats

Everyone should be able to do full squats and even sit comfortably in the position. It will improve your life. I think everyone should even be able to squat their bodyweight. It might seem like a lot to a beginner but honestly, with correct training and proper dedication it won’t take too long to achieve. Now as for the type of squat, I favor the front squat which makes the weight goal plenty harder but has other benefits.

  • Front squats are harder to mess up. When the weights get really heavy in back squats (simply “squats” from here on) many tend to lean forward into ugly good mornings, sometimes called “squat mornings”, putting a lot of strain on the lower back or even injuring it. You can’t do this in front squats because you will - and should! - drop the bar if you get into that position.
  • Speaking of which, failing in front squats is a lot less scary and you don’t need a power rack. Just drop the weight! I know, weighlifters drop the weight in squats too, but believe me, that’s not something most are comfortable with.
  • Less dependencies because you don’t need a spotter or a power rack. Heck, if you know how to clean you don’t even need a rack because you can clean the bar to the shoulders!
  • Most people naturally squat deeper in front squats. In squats the opposite tend to happen: as the weight gets heavier many skimp on the depth.
  • Front squats is a natural progression from the previous two movements in the progression hierarchy: prayer squats and goblet squats. Prayer squats is my own naming, think of it as a goblet squat witout the weight. Have you ever taught a complete newbie the goblet squat and then put a bar on their back for squats? If you have you’ll know that many times they’re completely lost and all that you’ve taught them in terms of squatting is instantly gone. Put it in front of them and the movement is much more natural because it’s largely the same.
  • The front rack position becomes natural when you rely not only on front squats but also presses and muscle cleans or variations of the two.

Now, I won’t scold anyone for picking squats over front squats, they’re both fine for simply being strong. I will teach people both. But for our purposes of what we’re doing right now at 4Life, front squat is the easier choice with less dependencies.

Chins, you really should know how to do them

As you’ve seen in the introduction email if you’re signed up to receive training programs to your inbox, I suggest anyone who can’t do chins should prioritize them above all else. I think they’re that good for our purposes.

FYI: Chins is a name for a group of exercises. Chinup is a type of chinning where your palms are facing towards you. Pullup is another type of chinning where the palms face away from you. For most people they’re about 20% harder than chinups but I have met exactly one person (and I’ve trained well over a hundred) who found them easier! Neutral chins means the palms face each other. They’re typically around the same difficulty as chinups.

  • Like all bodyweight movements, chins promote good body composition: less fat and more muscle makes them easier.
  • Chins are a tremendous back exercise. You often hear it’s great for lats, which is certainly true, but for the rest of the upper back as well because the body doesn’t work in isolation (regardless of what muscle magazines have told you).
  • Chins are among the best movements for strengthening your abdominals until you’re strong enough to rep them.
  • Chinups and neutral chins are amazing for arm development. Ask arm wrestlers. If you can’t do chinups, focus on them, not on curls.
  • Progressions are damn near infinite. There are so many type of chins you probably won’t ever get to doing them all. I’ve even invented some myself.
  • If you think you’re too strong for chins, hang some weight around your waist. Or do them single arm with one hand behind your back and get back to me after about how you’re too strong.

If you want to be strong for life: learn to do chins. Once you can rep them it’s a different matter. While you could add weight or do harder variations, you could also decide to go a completely different route and focus on something else. It’s very easy to maintain your chinning ability, keep them in the warmup or the endurance training and you’ll be fine while doing other stuff. But as someone who used to be seriously strong in chins then for years didn’t do any I will say this: do not neglect them completely! You will regret it. At the very least spend the effort to maintain them.

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