Squats, Presses, and Deadlifts: Why Gyms Don't Teach the Only Exercises You Need

Starting Strength Seminar

(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)

Strength training is quite popular these days, and is getting more popular as people realize the benefits of approaching their exercise program with a definite goal in mind. Stronger is more useful. Stronger is better. Stronger even looks better. And stronger is a straightforward process -- lift a little more weight today than you did last time, and keep doing so for as long as possible.

But as simple as this process is, it can become unnecessarily complicated without a basic understanding of the nature of the exercises that make you strong most efficiently. The best exercises to use are the ones that involve the most muscle mass, the greatest number of joints, and that require you to balance yourself while you’re doing them. Put a bar on your back and squat below parallel, press a bar overhead, pick a bar up from the ground and set it back down. These are normal human movement patterns that can be turned into progressively heavier exercises that make you strong the way your body moves naturally.

You normally use your strength while standing on the ground and applying force with your hands and upper body. The hips and legs generate the force, it is transmitted up your torso and out through your arms. The press and deadlift are perfect examples of this precise application, and the squat is the best way to build strength in the hips, legs, and back. Add the bench press for upper body strength, and chin-ups for arm and upper back strength, and you have all the bases covered.

But if that’s true, why is it that when you go to the gym you are immediately shown two hours worth of movements that are not deadlifting, pressing, or squatting?

Why are you shown an array of exercise machines that divide the body into small groups of muscles to be worked separately, when the body actually uses them all at the same time? And when the Certified Trainers move you over to the large colorful balls and have you do balancing tricks on them, one foot at a time, is it really an improvement?

No, it’s not. Here’s why: