My Favourite Foundational Exercises – 7 Sensational Standards

7 exercises you MUST do for optimal strength, symmetry and balance.

Symmetry and balance in overall physical development is so important in building an aesthetically appealing body with an edge and there are definitely some key foundational building exercises that you must include in your training and some important concepts to keep in mind.  Overall strength is best developed through the execution of compound movements, which are exercises that involve more than one muscle group as well as multiple joints. 

These compound exercises also serve to benefit us functionally in the execution of movements in our everyday life. Performing any exercise first requires vital basic knowledge such as knowing what muscles are directly involved and how to properly execute the movement, where you should be feeling it, knowing the crucial difference between good and bad pain, locking the core to protect the back, and knowing when to abort the exercise altogether, if necessary.

There’s a lot to consider and simply getting to the gym and winging it, can get you seriously hurt. Do your homework or better yet, hire a reputable Personal Trainer until you develop the knowledge and confidence to go it alone. 

Here are those 7 fundamental and foundational MUST DO exercises:

Let’s start with the #1 exercise you MUST perform and execute with exceptional form, and that is the SQUAT! 

The SQUAT is a must! It is a functional movement that uses large muscles that are involved in everyday function and sports. The squat simply mimics the movement of sitting down and getting up out of a chair.  It is an excellent exercise for building core and overall strength. It involves total muscle recruitment of the legs, gluteals, uses your back, core, and so many stabilizing smaller muscles, and because so many muscle groups are involved, this makes for a mega high calorie burning exercise!  

Begin this exercise in front of a mirror in order to monitor correct execution and start with no added weight. Position yourself in front of a chair or bench and simply stand up and sit down focusing on using the legs and keeping your chest lifted, while remaining tall through the upper body. Strive to keep your back straight/flat and avoid leaning forward during the movement.

Think about dropping down and sitting on the chair by bending your knees and it also helps to envision a cup of water on your head to illustrate staying tall and keeping the back straight, not rounded. Progress to where you’re dropping down, but not quite sitting on the chair and then finally, add weight. Hold dumbbells in each hand, held at your sides or position a bar behind your upper back/shoulders/neck area and practice the squat as described above, beginning with the chair/bench option.

Adding static holds is also an excellent way to add challenge and strength. This static hold at the bottom of the squat position especially serves as an essential skill for women where public washrooms are concerned.;-)  Ladies, I know you’re hip to what I’m talking about! 

PUSH-UPS require no equipment and are an excellent overall upper body strength building exercise involving the chest, arms, shoulders, back and core. Practice them first against a wall on an incline and then progress to doing them on the floor from the knees with the abs and core engaged, incorporating the draw-in and keeping the back flat.

The movement requires you to lower the body down towards the floor and lift the body back up using the arms only while keeping the back and legs straight. Use a mirror (look sideways, not up) to monitor your alignment.

The PULL-UP/CHIN-UP is a more advanced movement requiring strength in the back, arms, shoulders and core and being able to perform at least one without assistance should be considered essential. It’s your body and you should be able to lift it, should you ever be in a life or death situation!

Pulling your body weight up with relative ease should be a goal to strive for. The pull-up (palms down with a grip wider than shoulder-distance apart) is also great for improving grip strength. Because it’s an advanced move, you need to start with progressions. The best way to work at developing strength for this exercise is by either using an assisted pull up machine, a pull-down machine, having someone spot/assist you, using a band-assist, and/or the simplest; start at the top of the move with a static hold and as slowly as possible, let yourself down to the bottom hanging position while staying in scapular retraction

This puts the focus on the eccentric/lowering portion of the movement, which is a very effective method for building strength. Another great reason for learning the pull-up and developing the latissimus dorsi muscle is it’s an exceptional exercise for developing that wide ‘V’ shape in your back, which helps to give you the appearance of a smaller waist!  

Another favourite upper body resistance exercise is the PARALLEL BAR DIPS. You may come across an apparatus at an outdoor playground that is similar.  This exercise, again, requires being able to lower and lift your own bodyweight and is a great upper body strength developer that involves the shoulders, chest, back, arms and core.

Start the move with simple static holds and then progress to lowering yourself just an inch and finally until you can lower down to where your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle; never more than that, as it is counter-productive and puts far too much stress on the shoulder joint and the focus is to target the muscles without trauma to the shoulder girdle.

The general rule of thumb is that you want to isolate and challenge the muscle without over-stressing the joint (the reason scapular retraction is so important to learn how to execute). Beginning with chair dips is also helpful as a starting exercise to doing the parallel bar dips.  

Performing and perfecting the basic ABDOMINAL CRUNCH movement is vital for strengthening the midsection/core and providing low back protection as your deep abdominal muscle layers are connected to the lower back and they’re involved in all movements. Do it right and keep your neck out of the move as much as possible.  INSERT Do this, not that abdominal crunch

LUNGES mimic the movement of taking a giant step forward and are excellent butt shapers. The key with performing lunges correctly and avoiding knee injury is to lower the body using the legs while being conscious of the angle of your knee.

Take a step forward and lower your body position by dropping your weight down without leaning forward, keeping your shoulders lined up over your hips, back flat and upright and keeping the knee of the forward stepping leg in line with your ankle (or slightly behind), but not allowing your knee to extend past your toes. Angles are important for keeping joints safe.

If you’re just starting out, begin with a stationary lunge (having the back leg closer to the forward leg makes it easier to balance) and no weight and master that before progressing to a forward stepping lunge. The lunge requires balance and careful monitoring of body alignment.  It ranks high as one of the most incorrectly executed exercises and consequently, can lead to serious knee trauma over time.

Although the side lateral raise is considered an isolated movement (involves only one muscle and joint), it is a wonderful exercise for adding shape and definition to the shoulders and happens to be one of my favourite shoulder shaping exercises. It helps to give your shoulders that nice rounded shape (what shoulder pads in the fashion world during the 80’s used to provide). Development of the shoulder muscles can also help give the illusion of a smaller waist; woohoo! 

At the onset of my training journey, I recall many of these exercises as not being big favourites of mine, but tackling your weak areas can turn things around and eventually transform them into areas of strength, and then of course, you won’t dislike them anymore! Tackle them with fervour and prioritize your weak areas.

Be sure to regularly incorporate all these foundational movements in your workouts and strive to build a symmetrical physique.

The beautiful thing about resistance training is that you can literally sculpt and shape your body to look the way you want, which reminds me of the Michelangelo quote, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”  

Lift that iron and build the body of your dreams!