How to Build Strength with the ‘Big 4’ Lifts

Build Strength

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The barbell squat, deadlift, bench and shoulder presses are the most effective strength building exercises.

Stop wasting your time with fad equipment because the barbell is the ‘King’ of all strength building equipment. Yes there is huge amount of barbell variations exercises for each major lift but it is recommended that you master them properly first before tackling their alternatives.

The correct ‘form’ when executing the big four will ensure that your strength gains are safe because this approach will reduce the wear and tear on your body.

Therefore the mechanics of each of the main lifts will be broken down in detail and feel free to print off this article and use it a quality reference point when at the gym. You will be surprised how much a little mechanical tweak will send your strength gains through the gym ceiling!

Why use the main lifts?

You may be thinking why should I bother incorporating all of these into my workout regime? It is quite simple – they are the best basic manoeuvres to build strength and when you feel that you have plateaued in your training you can add some variety into the equation.

You can also some add more weight on to the bar. However if your technique is poor and your kinetic chain is out of sync whilst performing these lifts; this will be sure road to injury and/or wasting your time at the gym.

In addition these four compound exercises are multi-jointed in nature, they go through a full range of motion when performed and they recruit a huge amount of fast twitch type 2 muscle fibres.

When performed with the correct ‘form’ and your mechanics through the whole range of motion are seamless; you can then add more weight onto the bar. This does translate to an increase in strength gains.

Let’s not forget that the ‘big 4‘ can also increase your metabolism due to the increase in muscle fibre recruited and the extra energy required to lift the bar. There is evident to suggest that by performing the ‘big 4’ triggers the after burn effect up to 24 hours post exercise.

The Correct Technique for the ‘Big 4

Barbell Bench Press

The bench press is an upper body strength exercise that works the pectoral muscles in the chest, biceps and triceps in the arm and the shoulder muscles such as the anterior deltoids, traps and the scapulae fixers.

Starting Position

  • Lie flat on the bench, feet flat firmly on the floor and toes pointing straight ahead
  • Your knees should be about 80 degrees and never under the bench
  • Place your palms at the back of the bar with a medium grip
  • Then without releasing the grip, rotate bar so that palms are directly under the bar
  • This helps to lock down the shoulders, then lift torso and slightly pull your shoulder blades together under your torso
  • Engage your core muscles

Lowering Position

  • Inhale a large breath
  • Slowly lower bar towards the chest by flexing the elbows
  • Avoid letting the back arch and ensure that the back of head in contact with bench at all times
  • Only lower the bar to the chest and/or as far you can so that it is still under control

Finishing Position

  • Exhale your breath
  • Press the bar back up, extending arms and contracting chest until arms fully extended
  • Keep the feet on floor as they act as stabilisers
  • The bar should follow a slight arc as you push it back up moving from lower sternum to over your face

Barbell Deadlifts

The deadlift is a whole body exercise that predominately works the back, glutes, core, shoulders, arms and leg muscles. Basically it engages a whole host of muscles that would be a never ending list if all written down singularly!

BarbellStarting Position

  • Your feet should be narrow width hip apart with toes facing forwards
  • Your shin should be close to the bar
  • Hold your breath, engage your core and ensure a midsection tightness
  • Maintain a neural spine which is not excessively arched or rounded
  • Hinge at your hips and not at your knees or lower back
  • Grip the barbell with an overhand grip with hands directly under your shoulders
  • Pull your shoulder blades together whilst taking the slack out of the bar

Next Phase

  • Keep close to the bar and tight throughout whole deadlift motion
  • Pull the bar into your body and not upwards
  • Visualise driving your feet through the floor
  • Once bar leaves the ground, press your feet into ground and move chest upwards
  • Keep you back tight, always lead with back and drive hips towards the bar
  • Lock out by extending knees and hips fully
  • Your shoulders should be tight
  • Squeeze your glutes together at the top of the deadlift


  • Lower barbell to floor by hinging hips, then bring the hips back and stop at the knees controlling the bar back down to the starting position.

Barbell Shoulder Press

The barbell shoulder press works the majority of the muscles in the shoulders and the chest muscles and the triceps.

Starting Position

  • Sit on bench with a straight back support (on the bench) and place in the squat rack
  • Place the barbell on rack just above head height
  • Grab the bar with palms facing forwards and shoulder width apart
  • Lift the bar overhead by extending your arms fully
  • Hold the bar about shoulder level and slighting in front of your head

Next Phase

  • Lower the bar downwards to shoulders and breath in
  • Try not to over flex your elbows and keep the bar under control

Finish Position

  • Raise the bar upwards to the starting position and breath out
  • Try not to over extend your elbows and keep the bar under control

Barbell Squats

The barbell squat is a quad dominant exercise but it also works the lower back, hamstrings, glutes and the calf muscles.

Starting Position

  • This exercise is best performed inside a squat rack
  • Place the bar at shoulder height and once loaded step under the bar
  • Place your hands on the barbell, a little wider than shoulder width apart
  • Step under the barbell and place it behind your head and across the back of your shoulders
  • Your legs should be shoulder width apart with toes pointing forwards
  • Lift bar by pushing with your legs and straighten your trunk
  • Step away from rack and keep your head up
  • Maintain a straight back throughout

Finishing Position

  • Lower the bar by bending your knees and hips
  • Stop when the angle between your calves and upper legs is around 90 degrees
  • Your knees should never go past your toes
  • Raise the bar by pushing your body weight through your heels as you straighten your legs
  • Breathe out on the way up

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Hi, my name is Jonathan, a fitness blogger and bodybuilding enthusiast and I am the founder of Skinny2Fit. I want to provide you with easy access to good advice that is both simple and to the point. Helping you gain muscle mass and strength!


    • Dips would be a good alternative as they not only work the chest but also recruit the muscles of your shoulders and triceps. 🙂

  1. Yea, these movements are essential. But you must add a few others too. Especially if you have areas that are lacking. I find my arms need a little extra.


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