for vets

Brilliance in the Basics

(Cover photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brianna Gaudi, April, 2016)

When I was a young Marine I had a platoon sergeant who drove into our heads “brilliance in the basics”.  Sure we went off to the cool shooting schools, sure we deployed with Force Recon and SEALT Team 3, sure we had (at the time) what seemed like the cool gear, but if we couldn’t recognize the difference between cover and concealment, how to set up a linear ambush, or execute a rush from the squad size to a buddy rush, we were pretty useless and might as well forget about going on a ship takedown, oil platform takedown, or hostage rescue.  BRILLIANCE IN THE BASICS!  BRILLIANCE IN THE BASICS!  BRILLIANCE IN THE BASICS!

Once we had mastered the basics, then we could turn our focus to the sexier aspects of our specialized training and eventually we found a way to blend the precision shooting and moving we learned in close quarters battle (CQB) school to convention missions including trench clearing.  This same principle of “brilliance in the basics” applies to physical fitness.

In a world dominated by quick fixes and social media fitness trends, the fundamental principles of strength training often get overshadowed by flashy workouts and unverified advice. However, for those in the know, especially military personnel, first responders, and elite athletes, the importance of building a solid training foundation cannot be overstated. This foundation is built upon a core set of exercises known as compound movements.

What is a Compound Movement?

At its core, a compound movement is an exercise that engages multiple muscle groups across more than one joint. Unlike isolation exercises that focus on a single muscle group, compound movements provide a comprehensive workout that improves overall strength, coordination, and functionality.

The Big Five: A Solid Foundation

The cornerstone of any effective strength training program lies in the mastery of the big five compound movements: the bench press, deadlift, squat, bent-over row, and overhead press. These exercises are not just movements but are pillars that support the development of real-world strength and resilience.

Bench Press

Targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps, improving upper body strength essential for pushing movements.


Engages the entire posterior chain, including the back, glutes, and hamstrings, crucial for lifting and carrying.*


Develops the core and lower body, enhancing stability, and mobility.

Bent-over Row

Strengthens the back and biceps, crucial for pulling actions.

Overhead Press

Improves shoulder stability and strength, necessary for overhead lifting.

*On a side note, at some point in your health and fitness journey, whether you’re just beginning or have been at it for a while, you may have heard the terms like “posterior chain” on your favorite podcast or an IG account you follow.  If you’re like I was in the beginning posterior chain may sound pretty intense and you may have thought, “oh, my posterior chain… what the hell is a posterior chain?”  The posterior chain refers to the group of muscles on the backside of the body, including the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, which play a crucial role in various movements like running, jumping, and lifting.  It is referred to as a “chain” because it comprises interconnected muscles and tendons that work together synergistically to facilitate movements such as hip extension, knee flexion, and ankle plantarflexion. This interconnectedness resembles a chain in which each muscle and tendon plays a vital role in supporting and enhancing the overall function and strength of the posterior aspect of the body.

Beyond the Hype: The Reality of Social Media Workouts

While social media can be a source of inspiration, it’s important to differentiate between what’s effective and what’s sensational. Many influencer-led workouts prioritize novelty over functionality, often neglecting the foundational exercises that truly build strength and endurance.

Functional Training and Neuromuscular Connection

Incorporating compound movements into a training program isn’t just about building muscle; it’s about enhancing the neuromuscular connection and preparing the body for real-life challenges. For tactical athletes, this means developing the strength, agility, and endurance to perform under pressure.

Building Your Program

Starting with weights that feel manageable, gradually increase the load to find your one-repetition maximum (1RM). This benchmark is crucial for tailoring your program to specific goals, whether it’s building strength, endurance, or muscle mass. Regularly testing your 1RM ensures that your training remains challenging and effective.

Deep Dive into Molecular Mechanisms

At the intersection of physiology and biochemistry lies the fascinating world of molecular mechanisms, which underpin the benefits of compound movements. Understanding these mechanisms, including mechanotransduction, and the neuromuscular connection, provides a window into the profound effects of strength training beyond muscle growth.

Mechanotransduction and Bone Health

Mechanotransduction refers to the process by which cells convert mechanical stimulus into chemical activity. This is particularly relevant in bone remodelling and growth. When you engage in compound movements, the forces exerted on the bones stimulate osteocytes, the bone cells responsible for bone maintenance. These cells then signal osteoblasts (cells that form new bone) and osteoclasts (cells that resorb bone) to remodel the bone in response to mechanical stress. This not only strengthens the bone but also optimizes its architecture for the loads it experiences. The implication of this process extends to enhancing bone density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis, showcasing the integral role of resistance training in skeletal health.

Neuromuscular Connection: Bridging the Gap Between Mind and Muscle

The neuromuscular connection refers to the communication between your brain and muscles. “Neuro,” referring to the nervous system, and “muscular,” pertaining to muscles.  It denotes the intricate communication and interaction between the nervous system (specifically, motor neurons, and muscles) facilitating coordinated movement, muscle contraction, and motor control.  Compound movements require coordinated action across multiple muscle groups, enhancing this communication. This not only improves muscle recruitment and efficiency but also heightens proprioception – the body’s ability to sense its position, movement, and equilibrium. Strengthening the neuromuscular connection through compound exercises enhances motor learning and muscle memory, crucial for athletic performance and functional daily activities.

Key Takeaways

As the fitness industry continues to evolve, it’s essential to remember the basics. Compound movements, backed by science and tested by time, remain the most effective way to build a strong, capable body ready to face any challenge.

  • Compound movements provide the foundation for a solid training program, emphasizing functionality and overall strength.
  • The big five exercises should be the cornerstone of any strength training regimen, especially for those in physically demanding professions.
  • Understanding the biochemical basis of strength training, including the role of signaling pathways and mechanotransduction, can enhance training outcomes.
  • Functional training should prioritize real-world strength and resilience over aesthetics.
  • Mechanotransduction plays a pivotal role in bone health, emphasizing the importance of strength training for skeletal integrity.
  • Strengthening the neuromuscular connection improves motor learning, muscle recruitment, and overall functional performance.

By delving deeper into these molecular mechanisms, we appreciate the profound impact of compound movements on our body’s structural and functional integrity. This science-backed understanding reinforces the importance of incorporating these foundational exercises into training regimens, especially for those in demanding physical professions.

DISCLAIMER: Content on this website is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Please see a physician or mental health specialist before making any medical or lifestyle decisions. Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Products recommended on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

James Conner , USMC (Ret.)
I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I earned a BSc. in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Limerick (Ireland), and am currently living in the Netherlands where I am pursuing a MSc in Biomedicine specializing in Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Metabolism. I am a Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist, Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach, and Cancer Exercise Specialist.
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