20 Tips to Master the Big Four

During the years I’ve worked as a strength coach/personal trainer I’ve helped hundreds – if not thousands – of people learn how to train effectively and correctly. I’ve done a long range of strength and conditioning exercises with my clients; everything from push-ups to kettlebell swings to indoor rowing to the clean and jerk. However, I generally prioritize big, multi-joint movements, such as the squat, press, and pull-up.

These types of exercises strengthen major muscle groups, improve body composition, enhance bone density and strength, and reduce age-related muscle loss, among other things. I think virtually everyone can benefit from including them into their training program. But unfortunately, not everyone knows how to do exercises such as the squat and deadlift correctly. A lot of gym goers lift with poor technique, typically because they put on too much weight and/or haven’t learned how to perform the lifts with good form.

Even many coaches and trainers don’t do these lifts correctly. Personally, I know I’m not always performing these types of lifts with perfect form; particularly when it gets heavy, I may get negligent about my form and have to remind myself to straighten up, squeeze the glutes and/or otherwise get back into a good posture.

One of the observations I’ve made during the process of teaching and watching people train is that there are clear patterns as to the mistakes and problems lifters make and experience when they perform strength exercises such as the squat and deadlift. There are many different ways to perform these lifts. Also, the movement pattern of each lifter will vary depending on bone structure and flexibility, among other things. That said, there are certain general rules regarding lifting technique that apply almost across the board.

Here on the blog I’ve written several articles about strength training and fitness, and I’ve shared many strength training tips. In the infographic below, I’ve summarized some of my best tips for mastering the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press; exercises that are sometimes collectively referred to as the big four.

I hope you like the infographic. Let me know if you disagree with any of the tips or have anything to add.




  1. Kyle barichello says:

    I think the principles of these lifts are an extremely important part of all exercise programming and would agree with your observations and technique tips. However, i would argue that the complexity of the big 4 make them extremely hard to execute properly. Any imbalance or lack of engagement in one area can cause overcompensation in another which leads to a breakdown in form resulting in possible injury. Focusing on the muscle stability, mobility, and core strength is essential for performing correctly and something I always pay attention to. Nevertheless I am a firm believer that these exercises should be at the foundation of all weightlifting programs But also believe that an increase in weight should only be pushed if form is perfect. Great topic!

  2. Hi Eirik, I gave up my bodybuilding programs since I turned into the evolutionary perspective. We are wired to do multijoints exercises as you pointed out in a powerful way, i.e. mostly avoiding lactacid metabolism, a must in bodybuilding.
    Our ancestors hardly went around doing high reps with little rest between “sets”.
    In nature animals tend to avoid lactacid metabolism since it leads to suffering and it requires glycogen as fuel, needing to replace the depleted reserve.
    I also avoid many 1RM and failures in the week cycle, because it was hardly the norm as well.
    When our ancestors were moving an heavy object (a stone, a prey), they hardly reached the failure every time.
    Indeed, the confirmation comes from the overtraining that is easily reached when you push it too far within a week.
    Overtraining provokes a great stress and even leaky gut.
    A last thought, aside from the big 4 you talked about, I rediscovered olympic weightlifting that is great as well.
    I put clean and jerk and snatch at the same level of the others.
    Not only they make work the entire body, but beyond that they hugelt stimulate proprioception and balance.
    Your thoughts?

    • Same here, Alessio. I stopped following bodybuilding-type training programs (i.e., blast every muscle group once a week) several years back.

      I absolutely agree that the clean, jerk, snatch, and other similar power exercises are great. The reason I didn’t include them in the infographic is that these types of exercises are quite complicated. Most gym goers don’t do them – and the ones that do, typically don’t do them correctly. I think everyone who wants to learn those lifts should get hands-on supervision from a trainer/coach.


  1. […] natural movement patterns Replace machine exercises with bodyweight exercises, barbell movements, and other exercises that are performed in a natural movement […]

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