Challenging the "Big 3"

Anyone who has spent time in the weight room knows the "Big Three" of lifting: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. As my clients know, I am a HUGE fan of these three movements and all the benefits they bring. But today I'm going to explain how the Big Three might not be for everyone and how you can discover your own Big Three for your training.

Of all the exercises, why these three?

These three movements are the easiest to quantify in strength and progress. They are the tell-all factors of the efficacy of a training program. These movements establish foundational strength and are excellent tools to getting bigger, stronger, and leaner. However, the Big Three require exceptional technique and consistency of practice in order to get good at them, but they're not the solution for everyone.

How do I know if I shouldn't be doing the Big Three? Do an assessment. Ask yourself questions like, do I have limited ankle/wrist mobility? Does my lower back hurt when I do squats or deadlifts? Would I classify my shoulders or knees as "bad"? Do I dread squats, deadlifts, or bench press? If your answer to any of these questions is "yes" to any of these questions, it's time to think a little more about your workouts. As I said earlier, these movements are tools, and we have many, many tools in the toolbox to pull out in order to achieve our fitness goals. Consider John, a 6ft 2in dad with some lifting background from his high school days. He wants to get into better shape but has a tight lower back, he's overweight, and not exceptionally mobile in the shoulders or ankles. Well, what does this mean?

We already know that hitting larger, compound movements (like the Big Three) provide optimal results for fat-loss, but we're working with some specific limitations, or parameters, with John. So where do we adjust?

Well first we have to consider the movements. What are they really? A chest press is an upper body horizontal-plane pressing movement. We can substitute any of these movements for a chest press:

  • Dumbell, Kettlebell or Barbell Floor Press

  • Half-Kneeling or Split Stance Cable Press

  • Rack Press

  • Single Arm DB Bench Press

  • Landmine Press

  • Close Grip Bench Press

A Squat is considered a lower body squatting movement (obviously, right?), and you can plug these tools in when needed:

  • Barbell Front squat

  • Goblet Squat

  • Dumbbell/Barbell or Kettlebell Split Squat

  • Rear leg elevated Split Squat (Bulgarian Split Squat)

  • Kettle Bell "Rack" Squats

A deadlift is a lower body hinging pattern movement. We can modify this pattern with the following movements:

  • Sumo Deadlift

  • Rack Pull

  • Deficit Deadlift

  • Block Pull

  • Cable Pull Throughs

  • Heavy Kettlebell Swings

  • Loaded Glute Bridges

Let's get back to John now that we can consider all of our tools and our limitations. He's got average mobility in his shulders and ankles, and he's got a tight lower back. Here's how John can adjust to ensure optimal results:

  • Upper body Pressing movement: Landmine Press

  • Lower Body Squatting Movement: Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift (this adds grip work as well)

  • Lower body Hinging pattern: Kettlebell Dead lifts

See that? All of these substitutions hit all three of the Big Three movement patterns but keep John safely out of injury's way.

What if I Like these movements?

Then do them! They're incredible movements, and I advocate for them. But only do them if you should. Consider your goals. Consider your limitations. If you're unsure, just let me know. I can help.

The great thing about having all of these tools is that when a movement starts to get stale or boring, switch it up! Watch your gains progress for years to come.

Try This for Fat Lass

Here's a sample workout for those of you targeting weight loss. Remember, these compound movements are your primary movement...they're your bread and butter. But you also need to tap into frequency and extended time under tension (define this here in parenthesis) as well.

A1) Trap Bar Deadlift (Compound Pull w/Hybrid Squat/Hinge Pattern): 15 Reps

A2) Plank or Ab Wheel out (core/anti extension): 1 min or 15 reps

A3) DB or Barbell Squat to Press (Squat w/Vertical Press): 15 reps

A4) Pullups or Inverted Row: To Failure

(Repeat for total of 5 rounds)

(Bonus Tip: Time how long it takes you to complete this workout. Your goal should be to beat that time each week for 3-4 consecutive weeks. If you do, it's working!)

What about Hypertrophy?

There are better tools for gains in size than the Big Three. The bench press is far inferior to other pressing variations for pec-activation, just like there are better "controlled lowering phase" (the growth phase) movements than the deadlift. Having said that, try this total-body workout on for SIZE...

A1) Trap Bar Deadlift or Barbell Rack Pull: 8 Reps (Explode up, Lower for 4 seconds)

A2) DB Bench Press: 10 reps (Explode up, Lower for 3 seconds each rep)

A3) Single Arm Row: 8 reps/arm (Drive weight up, Pause for 2 seconds at peak contraction, lower 2 seconds)

A4) Lateral Raise: 20 reps (Normal controlled tempo)

A5) Cable Straight Arm Pulldown: 20 reps (Normal Controlled tempo)

(Repeat 4-6 rounds)

So there you have it, it's true. There is lifting life outside of the Big Three. It's doesn't have to be all about powerlifting. Regardless of your goal, try something different. It's important to change your movements semi-regularly (think every 4-8 weeks) to give your joints a break, bring up lagging muscles, attack mobility issues, and to shake up the "same-ole, same-ole" workout. Now, get to work!

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