Training | POSTED July 31, 2023

Raise the Bar: 6 Essential Movements

When it comes to strength training, there are certain exercises that stand out as foundational, efficient, and therefore, effective. These exercises quite literally, raise the bar. Check out our companion article for this month here for more insight into why. However, instead of throwing around buzz words, let’s get an operational definition of foundation and efficient for this article. Exercises which develop balance and stability and have transferrable movement patterns are foundational. Exercises that train multiple muscle groups at once through a large range of motion are efficient. There are 6 broad movements (with sub-categories and variations) that we believe fit these criteria and are therefore, effective and essential to any program. It’s time to raise the bar!

Essential Movement 1: The Squat

It wouldn’t be an Ivy Training blog without either barbells, sustainable health-promoting behaviours or… squats! The barbell squat is a potent lower body exercise. By placing a barbell across your upper back (in a high or low bar position) or on the front of your shoulders (which is known as the front squat) and descending into a deep squat position you engage a multitude of muscle groups. These include the quadriceps, inner thighs (adductors), glutes, and trunk muscles. A deep squat (at least parallel) will also promote flexibility useful for everyday tasks. These include sitting down, standing up and taking the stairs. There are many variations, and some even using different types of barbells like a safety bar. Fundamentally, the squat involves simultaneous hip, knee and ankle flexion and extension. Exercises such as lunges, and leg presses also fulfil the same criteria. That being said, we believe the barbell squat strikes the best balance between load and stability.

Squat with bar

Essential Movement 2: The Bench Press

We believe the barbell bench press is the go-to exercise for developing overall upper body strength and pushing power. By lying on a bench and pushing a loaded barbell away from your chest, you work the pecs, front of your shoulders (anterior delts) and triceps. Lying on a bench might sound lazy but the stability means more weight can be moved when we raise the bar. We can also use the bench to leverage leg drive, which involves driving your feet into the floor as you push the barbell up to its starting position, helping maintain your position and stability. Trust us, you’ll be working hard. Exercises such as push-ups and dumbbell pressing work the same muscle groups, so, why should we barbell bench press? Well, we love all of those exercises! However, bodyweight movements such as push-ups may actually be too hard at first for someone less trained. Dumbbells can have fixed increments that are hard to progress and eventually, move into position to press. We believe the barbell bench press is both for the beginner and advanced individual.

bench with bar

Essential Movement 3: The Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is a true test of full-body strength. By lifting a loaded barbell from the floor to a standing position, you engage the major muscle groups including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, lower back, trunk muscles, upper back and forearms. The deadlift is renowned for its ability to build posterior chain strength and reinforcing hip extension (also known as the hip hinge). Deadlifts can come in many shapes, sizes and popular derivatives. These include Romanian deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts and kettlebell swings. Importantly, deadlifts target the lower back and develop its work capacity. Many people fear bending over to pick something up or even tie their shoelace due to back pain. The deadlift won’t cure back pain by itself, but it will help develop the endurance and strength of trunk musculature, contributing to a more resilient back overall. It’s hard not to recommend everyone to deadlift one way or another.

Essential Movement 4: The Overhead Press

The barbell overhead press, also known as the press, targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper back. As you raise the bar overhead, you develop upper body strength, trunk stability, shoulder mobility. This exercise not only supplements the pressing strength developed from the bench press, but it also develops strength in a different plane of motion, being, above us! Forget ever struggling to get those heavy objects stacking on shelves up high. Additionally, the overhead press, as mentioned in our companion article, tangibly teaches technical efficiency. Lifting has a skill component and sometimes it can be hard to understand the nuances of the intersection between skill and effort. The overhead press is an object lesson in biomechanics, moment arms and physics. That understanding is transferable to other lifts and will improve your overall kinaesthetic awareness.

press with bar

Essential Movement 5: The Row

The barbell row is a companion exercise to the barbell deadlift. The row and deadlift both share the same start position. In contrast to the deadlift however, the trunk and legs remain relatively fixed, and the arms pull. The row is essential for developing a well-rounded back. By pulling a loaded barbell towards your torso (stopping at the chest), you engage the muscles of the upper back, including the middle back (latissimus dorsi), upper back (rhomboids), and back of the shoulder (rear deltoids). Not only will the row improve your pulling power and low back endurance, contributing to your deadlift, but it also improves your pressing movements. Individuals should find it easier to extend the upper back during the bench and shoulder press with a stronger row. Rows can be performed with many implements, but the ease of progression and standardised form makes barbells a great choice.

Essential Movement 6: The Chin-Up

Okay, we’re kind of cheating here. The chin-up doesn’t use a barbell, but it does use a bar! It also shares many of the common themes discussed in this article and our companion piece. By pulling up to the bar (or the bar down), the muscles of the anterior upper arm (biceps), middle and upper back work hard through a long range of motion. The trunk muscles stabilise the legs. With a weight belt, you can turn your body into a barbell and use increments as small as 0.25kg, but to be fair, weighted chin-ups are hard to get! Although pin loaded cable machines may have fixed increments, double progression (adding weight, then reps) can be used as a work around. Chin-ups (and pulldowns) are often the first accessory used to fill out a program before worrying about any extra arm, shoulder or ab-work.

chin-up to the bar

Focus on What’s Essential

At Ivy Training we certainly teach many other exercises and encourage people engage in a wide variety of movement patterns. Opportunity cost, fun and sustainability all impact exercise selection. Moreover, when discussing which essential lifts to pick, variations of these lifts absolutely count. We don’t mean exact variants like the low bar squat or conventional deadlift. But we do mean a barbell squat and a barbell deadlift – in whatever variation may be appropriate for the person under or behind the barbell. There is plenty of time over the course of one’s training career to experiment with all manner of exercises and implements but we believe the essential 6 patterns should form your foundation of strength. So, what’s stopping you raise the bar, today?