Weightlifting and the Top 5 Lifts You Should Know

Posted January 12, 2021

Most people who are beginning their fitness journey are always confronted with the same question — should they focus on cardio or weight training?

If your main interest is seeing the number drop on the scale, just cardio is enough, but if you are working to change your body composition — to lose fat and gain muscle — the combination of cardio and weightlifting might just be for you.

When you lift weights, you are breaking down muscle fibers. The body “builds“ muscle by going in and repairing these broken down fibers. Increasing your muscle mass elevates your resting metabolism, which in turn allows your body to continue to burn calories long after your work out is over with. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you are able to burn at rest while doing nothing!

Not only do you get the long term health benefits from lifting weights like increased bone density, stability, improved posture, and decreasing risk of chronic disease, among other benefits, you are also able to sculpt your body while simultaneously burning fat.

Whether you're a seasoned lifter or a complete beginner looking for a place to start, there are five main movements that should be incorporated in everyone's weightlifting tool box.

“The Big Five“

“The Big Five“ is a term used to describe the five main compound lifts of weight lifting and body building. Compound lifts are exercises that engage multiple muscle groups at one time. The five main compound lifts are:

1. Squats
2. Deadlifts
3. Bench Press
4. Overhead Press
5. Bent-Over Rows

These compound lifts should be the foundation for any well-rounded strength training regime. Because they involve multiple muscle groups and joints, they are excellent in increasing overall muscle mass and calories burned.

We will go over form utilizing a barbell for most of these movements, but keep in mind that positioning will remain constant regardless of whether you are utilizing dumbbells, kettle bells, or any other weight lifting tools.

1. Squat

Often when we think of a lower body exercise, the squat is the first one that comes to mind—and for good reason!

The squat involves flexing at the hips and knees to lower down from a standing position to a squat, and then standing right back up. Simple, but works wonders for increasing strength in the lower body, particularly in the quadriceps, adductor magnus, and gluteus maximus. The core also plays a big role in this lift to keep your upper body stable and neutral.

Positioning and Form

Begin standing, feet about shoulder width apart, toes pointed out slightly. Initiate the movement by moving the hips back and down while simultaneously bending at the knees. Control the descent to the bottom of the movement, keeping your core engaged.

Take notice of the positioning of your knees. If the knees are sliding forward or caving in towards each other, it means muscle tension is lost in the hamstrings and glutes and hinders the power needed to ascend back up. Squeeze your glutes and think about driving your knees out when coming back up from the squat.

If flexibility is a weakness of yours, it's best to start squatting down to a higher target such as a chair or tall box and work your way down as you increase flexibility.

Squat Alternatives

Goblet Squat

Hold the kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest when you squat.

Front Squat*

In this variation, the weight is loaded across the front of your body resting on your shoulders. It's especially important that the core is active throughout the whole movement to ensure the body maintains an upright position and not allowing the upper body to slump forward with the weight.


Keeping upper body straight up and engaged, step forward with one leg and lower body down until both knees are bent at about a 90 degree angle.

Bulgarian Split Squat

Same positioning as the lunge, but in this variation the back foot is elevated onto a surface like a chair or box so that the majority of your weight is in the heel of the front foot when you lower do

Pistol Squat*

This is an advanced variation that involves balancing on one leg with the opposite leg extended straight in front of you as high as possible. Squat down as far as possible while keeping the elevated leg off the floor. Utilize a target, like a chair, to help with balance. Once you tap or sit on your target, dig through the heel to raise body back up to the original position. Modify this by holding on to a TRX strap or a wall to help with balance.

2. Deadlifts

There are very few lifts that are more functional in everyday life than deadlifts. A variety of lower and upper body muscle groups are at play here, including the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, adductor magnus, erector spinae, and core.

Lifting things up off the ground is apart of almost anyone's daily routine, whether you're picking your child up or just bending down to grab something you dropped. Doing these everyday tasks with proper form can be the difference of a serious back injury or a lifetime free of injury.

Positioning and Form

Get set up behind your barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. The bar should be in line with the top of your shoelaces. Begin by hinging at the hips and knees, keeping most of your weight in the heels of your feet. Your spine should be long and straight, with your knees tracking forward over your toes as your hips hinge back.

When you pull the bar off of the ground, you should simultaneously be pushing your heels into the ground while pulling up and forward with the hips and legs in order to stand up. Keeping the muscles in the back contracted and a long, tense spine is crucial in order to keep a safe posture throughout the movement.

When you lower the weight back down, perform those steps in the reverse order, ensuring your back remains tight and upright.

Deadlift Alternatives

Single Leg Deadlift

This deadlift variation is great for stabilization and improving balance. Balancing on one foot, focus on keeping most of your weight in that heel as you hinge forward.

Kettlebell Swing

This is not a dead lift variation, but fires up the same muscles along the posterior chain—muscles along the back side of the body—as a deadlift does. Hinge at the hips, keeping a slight bend in the knee, grasp the kettle bell and pull it back between your legs to create momentum. Drive your hips forward to send the kettle bell up to shoulder-height.

Romanian Deadlift

This deadlift variation begins at the top of a normal deadlift, slowly lowering the weight and then returning to an upright position. Observe all proper form to pick the barbell off the ground before beginning your reps.

3. Bench Press

The bench press is one of the main upper body compound lifts that builds strength in the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps.

Positioning and Form

Lying on your back, the barbell should be at eye level. Grip the bar the same distance apart on each side—typically a little wider than shoulder-distance. Unrack the bar by straightening your arms until the bar is directly over your shoulders. Lower the bar down to mid chest, then push back up—making sure to not let your elbows go beyond ninety degrees when at the bottom of the motion.

There are three types of bench presses: incline, flat, and decline. All share the same rules for form.

Bench Press Alternatives

Push Ups

Hands are positioned on the ground directly under your shoulders. Lower your body down until chest is hovering right over the floor, pause, then push yourself back up. Avoid arching your back by keeping the belly button squeezed in and core engaged. Drop to your knees as a modification. Ensure your elbows stay tucked close to your body and are not flaring out to the sides.

Tricep Dips

Grip the front edges of a chair or bench with your hands and extend legs out in front of you. Bend at the elbows to lower your butt towards the ground until your arms form 90 degree angles, then straighten your arms and engage your triceps to push back up.

4. Overhead Press

The overhead press primarily focuses on building strength in the shoulders, triceps, and upper back. Although this exercise is often performed sitting, if you perform this movement standing, your core is also engaged in order to keep you balanced and stable.

Positioning and Form

Hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart when you grip the bar. Bring the bar to your collarbone to begin the movement. Brace your core, squeeze your butt, and tilt your head back slightly so you can drive the bar straight up towards the ceiling.

Once the bar passes your forehead, return head back to a neutral position before locking your arms overhead.

Lower the bar back down by performing those steps in reverse. Remember to keep your elbows directly underneath your wrists for the entirety of the movement.

Overhead Press Alternatives

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Same as the barbell overhead press, but utilizing two dumb bells or one dumbbell at a time.

Pike Push Up

This is an advanced movement that requires getting into a somewhat inverted position. Start in a standard push up position, then lift your hips so that your body forms an inverted V. Your legs and arms should be as straight as possible. Bend your elbows and lower your body towards the floor until your head lightly touches the ground, then push back up until your arms are straight.

5. Bent-Over Rows

Bent-over rows are a staple movement for building strength and muscles primarily in the back, including the latisimuss dorsi, trapezius, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, erector spinae, scapular stabilizers, biceps, and core.

Positioning and Form

Hinging at the hips, bring your torso parallel to the floor and grip the bar shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest lifted and upper back tight by pulling the shoulder blades back. Pull the bar up until it touches your lower chest, then lower down maintaining the same posture.

Bent-Over Row Alternatives

Single Arm Bent-Over Row

Similar to the bent over row, but only working one side of the body at a time. To modify, you can rest your opposite knee and hand on a bench to stabilize the body as you row up with the other side.

TRX or Ring Row

Grab the TRX straps and walk feet forward until there is tension in the straps. Body should be in a straight line, like an inverted plank. The farther your walk your feet out, the more difficult the row. To initiate the movement, pull torso towards your hands, keeping your elbows tucked in close to your body. Be sure to lower back down slowly and controlled.

Pull Up

Grab an overhead bar about shoulder-width apart, hang down until your arms are straight and your feet are not touching the ground, then pull yourself up until your chin passes over the bar. Pull ups are challenging, but can be modified by wrapping a band around the bar and stepping into it before pulling up to help provide assistance.

Weightlifting is a necessary part of your overall fitness and it’s important to know how to weight train safely and correctly to avoid injury. The most important step is to just get started. For more weightlifting tips, try our workout and meal plans today!

Comments have been closed for this post.