The most important exercises for new lifters are the primary compound movements that engage several muscle groups at once.
If you’re new to the gym and you have no idea where to start, you’re in luck — I’m going to show you.
It can be intimidating for new lifters to join a gym because they see rows of machines but have no idea how to use any of them or what those machines even do.
You don’t want to show up to the gym with no clue what you’re doing.
And if you do the exercises outlined in this article, the exact opposite will happen — people will notice that you are well-informed and serious about getting results because they see you working on the most important exercises.
Let’s get started!
Compound movements are the foundation of every great training program.
They typically train one large muscle group along with multiple smaller muscle groups at the same.
The most common examples of compound movements are the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
These are the lifts you want to primarily focus on early in your lifting journey because they will help you gain the most muscle mass and strength in the shortest amount of time.
Plus, these are the primal movements with real world application.
The squat is one of the most important exercises because it’s a primal movement — sitting down and standing up.
The squat is known as the “king of all exercises” because it engages the entire body.
It’s also one of the most difficult exercises to perform correctly and one of the more dangerous exercises regarding injury risk.
However, with proper form and reasonable weight on the bar, squats are completely safe for everyone without serious back or knee injuries.
There are two variations of the squat — the high bar squat and the low bar squat.
The high bar squat is used in Olympic weightlifting, and the low bar squat is used in powerlifting.
For bodybuilding purposes, both work great. However, the high bar tends to focus more on your quads, while the low bar focuses more on hamstrings.
I personally find the low bar squat more comfortable, but I have also squatted high bar at times.
Here is a great tutorial of the high bar squat from Jonnie Candito:
Here is Candito’s low bar squat tutorial:
Whether you have lingering injuries that prevent you from squatting or you want to focus on slightly different muscle groups, there are a couple of other squat alternatives you should consider.
The front squat is great for focusing on the quads and taking a lot of the pressure off your lower back while squatting.
The front squat is also amazing for improving posture because it forces you to maintain good, strong posture to perform the lift correctly.
Here is a front squat tutorial from Omar Isuf:
The goblet squat is similar to the front squat, except you aren’t using a barbell. I enjoy the front squat, but I prefer the goblet squat.
The goblet squat also engages the core really well.
Here is a goblet squat tutorial from Marc Lobliner:
The deadlift is another primal movement — picking something up and setting it down.
Personally, I think the deadlift is more important than the squat, but that’s just an opinion.
And while there is still some risk for injury with bad form, the deadlift is generally safer than the squat because you aren’t loading the weight on top of your body.
Here is a conventional deadlift tutorial from Omar Isuf:
Everyone is different. We have different body types, different leverages, etc.
The conventional squat is a great exercise, but it’s not always the best version of the deadlift for each person.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift (or hex bar deadlift) is a version of the deadlift that takes pressure off the lower back and focuses more on the quads.
Regardless of whether you deadlift conventional or not, the trap bar deadlift is a great exercise to add to your routine.
Here is a trap bar deadlift tutorial from Chris Barnard:
Sumo deadlift is a wide-stance deadlift often favored by taller athletes.
Sumo is my favorite version of the deadlift, and at 6’2″, it’s also the most comfortable for me naturally.
Here is a sumo deadlift tutorial from Mark Bell, Silent Mike, and Alan Thrall:
Stiff Leg Deadlift (or Romanian Deadlift)
The stiff leg deadlift is exactly what it sounds like — deadlifting with your legs straight or slightly bent.
This variation of the deadlift focuses mostly and hamstrings and glutes.
Here is a stiff leg deadlift tutorial from Omar Isuf:
3. Bench Press
I’m sure you know what the bench press is, but just in case you aren’t familiar, the bench press is the primary exercise used for chest development, along with shoulders and triceps.
Believe it or not, the bench press is actually one of the most dangerous exercises when done improperly regarding injury risk. That’s why it’s important to master the form like you would for squat or deadlift.
Here is Jonnie Candito’s bench press tutorial:
Bench Press Variations
Since the bench press is arguably the most popular exercise in the world, it only makes sense that there would be several variations.
Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press focuses more on the upper chest than the flat bench press.
Here is Omar Isuf’s incline bench press tutorial:
Decline Bench Press
The decline bench press focuses more on the lower chest than the other variations.
Here is an incline bench press tutorial by Joe from Health4Thought:
The dumbbell press is similar to the bench press, except you’re using dumbbells instead of a barbell. You can do flat, incline, or decline dumbbell press.
Here is a dumbbell bench press tutorial from Mark Bell:
4. Overhead Press
The overhead press might be the least popular of the major lifts — probably because most people are significantly weaker on the OHP than their other big pressing movements.
Don’t let that deter you because the overhead press is a great movement for the entire shoulder, along with the triceps.
Here’s an overhead press tutorial from Omar Isuf:
Overhead Press Alternatives
The strict overhead press is great, but there are other options to choose from as well.
The push press allows you to lift more weight by adding a little momentum to the movement. This is a great movement for generating power.
Here is a push press tutorial from Chris Barnard:
Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press
If overhead pressing with a barbell is uncomfortable, you can use dumbbells instead.
I like dumbbells because I can get a better stretch at the bottom of the movement.
Here is a standing dumbbell press tutorial by Silent Mike:
5. Barbell Row
The barbell row is one of the best exercises for your back. While the deadlift will build up back thickness, the bent over row will add thickness as well as width to your back.
Here is a push press tutorial from Chris Barnard:
Some people can’t do a barbell row properly, or it puts too much pressure on their lower back. The following are great alternatives to the bent over barbell row.
The t-bar row is great because loading weight on and off is easier, you can pull the weight with different types of grips, and it takes tension off of the lower back.
Here is a t-bar row tutorial from Seth Feroce:
The Yates row is similar to a standard barbell row, except you use an underhand grip and don’t set the bar down on the ground with each rep. This variation is great for the lower lats and biceps.
Here is a tutorial of the Yates row by Marc Lobliner:
The cable row is the easiest row variation, but that doesn’t mean it’s less effective. The cable row helps you target the back in a seated position that takes your lower body out of the movement (for the most part).
Here is a cable row tutorial from Chris Barnard:
The following exercises are still compound movements, but they’re more often used as accessory exercises for the primary movements listed above.
6. Pull Up or Chin Up
The pull-up is one of the most useful exercises, and also one of the most difficult when you’re getting started.
Here is a great pull up tutorial from Strength Project:
7. Push Up
The push-up is more than a chest exercise — it works the chest and triceps, but it’s also healthier for your shoulders than the bench press. Plus, you get some involvement from your core muscles because you are stabilizing yourself.
Here is a push-up tutorial by Scott Malin:
8. Inverted Row
The inverted row is a bodyweight version of the row, and it’s easily one of the most underrated movements.
Here is a tutorial of an inverted row by Nick Tumminello:
The dip is a great exercise for the triceps and lower chest, but it’s not as popular as it used to be because they put your shoulders at risk of injury when done improperly.
Here is a dip tutorial by Omar Isuf:
The lunge is a great exercise for legs. If you can’t (or refuse to) do squats, you need to do a lot of lunges.
Here is a lunge tutorial from Barstarzz:
There are many, many other great exercises, but these are the best and most fundamental exercsises you want to master first.
Once you have all of these down, I would suggest exploring other acccessory movements to complement whatever training style you prefer.
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