In last week’s post I made the case to at least consider including strength training into your exercise routine.
Now the question comes down to what exercises do we need to do in order to reap the benefits of resistance training?
There are an endless number of exercises to choose from so this is a daunting question. However, they can almost all be grouped together under a select number of movement patterns.
In this blog post we are going to talk about the primary lower body movement patterns that will give you the most bang for your buck. Under each of these movement patterns we will talk about why these movement patterns are important and then provide some examples of exercises that you may choose to use. Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list of exercises, but these are common ones I tend to use with clients.
When we hear the word “squat” you might think of the traditional barbell back squat.
While this may be the pinnacle of the squat movement (for some) it does not mean that this is the only exercise for the squat movement pattern.
First, the squat shows up in many places in our life outside of the gym.
Getting in and out of a chair.
Getting on to and off the toilet.
Getting down to pick up your kids or grandkids.
Getting down to and up from the ground.
The squat appears to be a very instinctive movement for humans. If you have ever watched a child for any amount of time they squat constantly…and I guarantee their parents were not teaching them how to do it and they weren’t watching videos of proper form on YouTube either. They bend down and feet flat on the floor, back straight up, chest pointing in front of them and play…and they do that for several minutes at a time.
Ask an adult to do the same, and chances are they will bend forward (chest facing the ground), knees may collapse in, ankles may collapse in, hips won’t let them go down all the way, and they likely won’t be able to get back up after they squat down.
If this is you don’t worry, all hope is not lost.
Even if you never get to the point where you can squat all the way down with good form, doing some kind of squat variation is going to be very beneficial in your resistance training program.
So where do you begin then?
For someone who is new to strength training and/or has several movement limitations when it comes to squatting I usually try to do some kind of goblet and/or box squat. The simplest thing to do may be to do a goblet squat to a box or bench.
A goblet squat is a squat variation using a dumbbell or kettlebell with the weight out in front of you. This can help keep you from collapsing forward during the squat because you naturally will want to counteract the weight by leaning back.
Using a box or a bench to squat down gives you a target to shoot for and recreates a squat in real life (think getting into and out of a chair). Generally the lower people go in their squat the more issues start to show up so keeping your squat limited in the beginning can be a great idea.
Another beginner movement I like to use is a split squat with a dumbbell or kettlebell.
This is easier in some ways as the weight is to your sides and not out in front or behind you. The added challenge with this is the staggered stance so it requires more balance. In addition if you have knees that bother you, it might aggravate your knees a little bit.
If you do want to try a more traditional barbell back squat by all means give it a try and work towards doing one. However, know that it’s also not necessary to do a back squat in order to reap the benefits of the squat movement pattern. Unless your goal involves doing a back squat any kind of squat variation will be good enough.
Some of my other favorite squat variations include the barbell front squat, the zercher squat, and the safety bar squat. These are great alternatives to the traditional barbell back squat.
Here is some bonus material on the squat pattern I recently posted to my YouTube channel
The next resistance training movement that should be in your routine is some kind of hinge. The most common hinge exercise is the deadlift.
While we do not need to do a traditional deadlift as in the video above, there are plenty of variations we can use.
A deadlift is all about lifting something off the ground.
What’s more useful than that?
Picking up your child, your groceries, your luggage, the bag of dog food or cat litter, picking up wood, picking up your golf club bag from the ground. There are a ton of situations where you are picking up some kind of weight from the ground.
You might also think that deadlifts primarily work the legs, however just like the squat, it works pretty much all the muscles in your body. The deadlift works all your leg muscles, your entire back, your core, and your arms, especially your grip.
Besides the traditional deadlift what other deadlift variations are there?
The movement you want to master when it comes to doing a proper deadlift is the hinge. The raising and lowering of the weight in the deadlift is mostly due to your hinging at your hips. Many people, including myself, can struggle with the hinge movement so mastering it is quite important.
For people who are new to the deadlift I like to have them do movements that really emphasize the hinge. The deadlift variation I like to use for this is what’s called a Romanian deadlift (RDL).
There is much less leg movement in this deadlift variation and it’s almost entirely about the hinge motion to raise and lower the weight.
You can also do variations with dumbbells and kettlebells as well
My go to cue for people who are doing any kind of deadlift is to try and make your butt touch the wall behind you. I like to have people literally do this when they start. Basically you set up with the barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell or whatever weight you are using in front of a wall. Your goal is to make sure that your butt touches the wall behind you as you reach the bottom of your range of motion in the RDL and then come back up.
How do you know when you reach the bottom of your range of motion?
Basically once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. That may mean you just lower the weight to your knees and not even come close to touching the floor, and that is perfectly fine.
Once you have some practice with the hinge I think that the trap bar deadlift is a great next exercise to try.
The main reason I like this is the grip and weight position is a little bit easier on people. Also when you use a trap bar with raised handles in the picture above, the pick up point is a bit higher. This can be helpful if you have mobility limitations.
Whatever deadlift variation you choose, the cues are to hinge at the hips and then stand up by pushing your legs through the floor. For nearly everyone, it’s important to keep your back straight as you lift the weight. Many people tend to round their back as they lift the weight, so if you see rounding (record yourself) stop and lighten the load until you can lift the weight without rounding your back.
As with any exercise it’s not about how much weight you can lift, it’s how much weight you can lift with proper form.
For more details on the deadlift movement pattern you can check out this detailed video I made below
Some people consider lunges very similar to squats. They can be especially with the more traditional forms of lunges (moving forward and backward). However since they bias one leg there is a balancing component to them which adds a whole extra level of challenge. In addition you can lunge in pretty much every angle imaginable, you are not limited to forward and backward. In fact one of the most challenging exercises I have ever done is called a lunge matrix
As you can see we not only can go forward, backward and to the side but also every angle between. This challenges much more than our legs, it challenges our ankles, core, grip, and hips. It really ends up being a total body exercise.
Now a lunge matrix is an advanced version so I do not suggest you start there.
A “simple” bodyweight lunge is probably where you should start.
If you want to target the front of your leg (quads) you would choose a forward lunge. If you want to target the back of your legs (hamstrings and glute) you would choose a backward lunge.
Whether you choose a forward or backward lunge doesn’t matter much at the beginning, it’s more about doing one version consistently and mastering it.
The lunge replicates a very important movement pattern for humans…walking! In fact there is a lunge variation called a walking lunge 🙂
If a body weight lunge is too easy for you, that is when you can start to add load. Adding dumbbells or kettlebells is a great way to add load and challenge yourself. You can also use something like a weight vest or medicine ball to add weight. If you really want to load the lunge you can use a barbell or safety squat bar, but be careful as that can be very challenging.
Lunges are not sexy but they are very effective from a resistance training perspective.
Check out this more detailed video I created on the lunge.
That covers our essential lower body resistance training exercises. Yes there are many more exercises we could talk about but they are either just variations of the movement patterns above or do not provide as much bang for your buck when it comes to exercises. If you just pick some kind of squat, lunge, and deadlift and do those you are getting 95% of what you need for a lower body resistance training workout.
The next post will focus on the essential upper body movements you should focus on. If you want to be the first to know when that post is available be sure to sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will email you as soon as I post it!