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:

Seatlle Starting Strength Seminar

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

1. Deadlifting, pressing, and squatting are fundamental barbell exercises, but they are perceived as dangerous, complicated, and difficult to learn — and therefore difficult to teach.

It requires some personal experience under the bar to coach barbell exercises, but you should reasonably expect a paid consultant in strength training to have that experience. The movements themselves are simple to learn and perfectly safe when performed correctly. More importantly, they are so much more effective than isolation-type exercises that you waste your time and money if your program is not based on barbell training.

When you develop the ability to squat, press, and deadlift, you are developing a skilled movement pattern, one that must be practiced and perfected as well as made stronger. The movement pattern you perform is controlled by you, and you alone. It is important to note that when you do a standing barbell exercise, you can fall down — learning to balance is perhaps the most important and beneficial part of the initial stages of the exercise.



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

2. Machines involve no risk of falling down, because the only movement pattern you can make is the one the machine is designed to produce — one or two joints moving the load along a predetermined pathway.

Balance is not trained with exercise machines, and using your strength in a situation where balance is also required is precisely what happens when you use your body. Barbells force you to control the movement pattern and the load on the bar, while machines only permit the control of the load.

The big secret: exercise machines make life much easier for the staff of the fitness club.

Any exercise that uses one joint at a time is much less complicated to instruct than a movement pattern that uses all the major joints and muscles of the body at the same time.

In fact, the development of the modern fitness industry was made possible by the development of modern exercise machines, most notably the Nautilus line of equipment. These devices made it possible to staff the club with young, attractive, and — most importantly — affordable people. The machine-based club with cheap dues is thus a viable business model.

Coaches that have sufficient experience and expertise to teach barbell training are not cheap to hire. So the fitness industry model has consistently favored isolation-type exercise, and a whole body of popular literature has been written to support the concept.



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

3. The latest iteration of isolation-type exercise is sometimes called “functional training,” best described as an attempt get stronger with light weights and balance devices of various types. The equipment is cheap, it is perceived to be innovative and highly advanced — and it is still much easier to teach than barbells.

A position of instability — seated, for instance, on a brightly-colored rubber ball — makes the use of light weights and limited ranges of motion necessary, and this is explained as beneficial due to the large amount of work supposedly necessary to counter the instability.

Please remember: you can fall down with a barbell, and the fact that you didn’t means you worked your balance.

Squats, presses, and deadlifts work lots of muscles at once, and since so much muscle mass is being used, these exercises have far more potential to make you strong. After all, the world record in the deadlift is over 1000 pounds. What is the world record for the Swiss Ball lunge?

Strength is the ability to produce force, and increased strength requires the use of progressively heavier weights. Light weights cannot make you strong. It really is that simple. When you make your squat a little stronger every time you train, for weeks, months, and even years, your strength and your balance improve. Since small-muscle isolation exercises and balancing with light weights lack the potential for this type of improvement, your time is better spent under the bar.



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