I’m a huge proponent of the basic barbell lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and bent-over row. The trouble is, the barbell lifts are highly technical. As such, unless you’re planning on competing in a powerlifting meet in the near future, there’s really no reason to insist on their use. In fact, there are plenty of exercises out there that work the same movements and muscles without the steep learning curve.
Below are my five favorite easy-to-learn, big-bang-for-the-buck moves.
1. Hex bar squat (in place of barbell squat)
Why: The barbell squat is, on average, probably the most poorly executed lift known to man. Due to the inherent shoulder mobility requirements, just assuming the bar-on-the-back position can be painfully challenging for many folks. Then there’s the issue of ego and depth, in which guys tend to load way too many plates on the bar and squat way too shallowly. The hex bar squat, on the other hand, allows for a more comfortable neutral grip (with the bar held at the sides of the body) and also standardizes depth. Best of all, with just a subtle change in execution, it can easily be made into a hip-dominant, deadift style lift (see #2 below).
Execution: Keeping the torso erect, squat to the bar, grab the handles, drive from the heels, and stand up.
Why: Due to the forward pull of the bar, barbell deadlift capacity is frequently limited by the strength of the upper back muscles to prevent rounding. Add to that the difficulty in getting the knees out of the way of the bar, and the scraped shins and technicality just aren’t worth it for the average trainee. As an alternative, the hex bar deadlift allows for a neutral grip (palms facing one another), distributes the load straight through the body’s center of gravity, and eliminates the funky business with the knees.
Execution: Push the butt back, grab the handles, drive from the heels, and stand up, maintaining a neutral neck throughout the lift.
3. Push-up (in place of bench press)
Why: Whereas in the bench press the shoulder blades remain pinned to the bench throughout the lift, in the push-up the shoulder blades are free to slide along the rib cage, making it easier on the shoulders. Also, from a functionality standpoint, if you’re on your back in sport, you’ve already lost. The push-up, meanwhile, is also a tremendous core stability exercise, since it’s really just a dynamic plank.
Execution: Assuming a high plank position (straight line from head to heels with abs, glutes, and quads tight), keep the elbows tucked at a 45-degree angle and slowly lower the chest to the floor. Pause for a second in the bottom position, and return to the start. To make easier, elevate the arms. To make more difficult, elevate the feet.
4. Landmine press (in place of overhead press)
Why: The overhead press tends to be a bear for the average desk jockey, whose characteristic rounded shoulder posture makes it nearly impossible to get the arms overhead (let alone while holding a heavy barbell) without arching the lower back excessively. It’s also hard on the wrists — and the nose if you’re unlucky enough to hit yourself in the face with the bar. Alternatively, the landmine press allows for a much more natural “line of push.” And since it’s performed one arm at a time, it teases out any asymmetries in strength that may be lurking from arm to arm.
Execution: With abs, glutes, and quads tight, push the bar away at a 45-degree angle and return to the start.
5. Inverted TRX row (in place of bent-over barbell row)
Why: The limiting factor for many lifters in the bent-over row is not the back muscles, but rather the hamstrings to maintain the correct position (if they can even get into it in the first place, that is). As the set progresses, they tend to become more upright and use more momentum, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise. Like the push-up, the inverted row is also a moving plank. Furthermore, due to the freely rotating handles of the TRX (or other suspension trainer), it allows for increased range of motion compared to the bent-over row. Finally, it’s easier to progress and regress simply by changing foot location with respect to the anchor.
Execution: Assuming an inverted plank position (straight line from head to heels with abs, glutes, and quads tight), squeeze the shoulder blades together and row the body into the handles, rotating the hands outward during the pull. Slowly reverse to lower. To make easier, walk the feet out. To make more difficult, elevate the feet.