Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to squat, bench, and deadlift with a barbell to gain size and strength. This narrow way of thinking is precisely why so many lifters are always banged up and not getting the progress they want.
Too many people are performing lifts their bodies aren't (yet) capable of performing. If you can't do a pain-free bodyweight squat, you have no business loading a barbell and forcing yourself into a shitty position... at least not until you've met the mobility requirements to do so optimally and without pain.
But you have plenty of options. There are lots of lifts you can do to make gains without exacerbating any pain or injuries.
Before we dive in to some pain-free alternatives, let's talk about why the classic lifts may cause pain for some people:
1. Barbell Bench Press
It's an internal rotator of the shoulders. Due to the constant seated/hunched position many people are in for the most of the day, the shoulders become excessively internally rotated. Well, the bench press promotes further internal rotation of the shoulders.
Couple that with the fact that the barbell doesn't offer much freedom of movement in the glenohumeral joint, it's no wonder so many people complain about shoulder pain.
2. Strict Overhead Barbell Press
A very, very small percentage of people can actually overhead press optimally without pain. Why? This lift requires you to press overhead while maintaining a braced core (ribs down position) to protect the spine. And since most people don't have the ability to do so, hyperextension in the lower back occurs with sheer force created on the spine. Not good.
To press overhead without pain, you need adequate shoulder and thoracic mobility while maintaining core/glute engagement throughout your set.
3. Straight Bar Deadlift
This is probably the most detrimental to the spine if you do it poorly. Bending down to pick up a load (like a barbell) in front of the body places great demands on your ankles, hips, and spine to get into the right position that's conducive to spinal integrity.
I rarely have clients deadlift with a straight bar. There are plenty of safer alternatives that don't put the spine in a vulnerable position... and you'll still build strength and muscle.
4. Back Squat
I love squatting, but that doesn't mean everyone should do it with a bar behind their neck. Without the bar, the squat requires good ankle, hip, and thoracic mobility to hit optimal depth. And most people can't even do a bodyweight squat that would pass at your local powerlifting meet.
Add a barbell and (to borrow from Gray Cook) you're loading a dysfunctional movement pattern. Not good.
Now let's get into some of the safer alternatives you can use to keep the gains coming and bring your nagging pain to a stop.
Bench Press Alternatives
1. Swiss Bar Floor Press
Any floor press variation you do limits the range of motion your shoulders have to go through, which is beneficial from an injury and pain-prevention standpoint.
You can use a neutral grip with the Swiss bar, which externally rotates the shoulders (as opposed to the internal rotation you'd be using with the straight bar). You also have the ability to load more weight than you potentially could with dumbbells.
2. Dumbbell Floor Press (with External Rotation)
You'll use a reduced range of motion in the shoulders and engage your triceps more with this variation. Turning your palms in toward each other externally rotates the shoulders and alleviates pain/unwanted tension in the shoulders as you press.
3. Dumbbell Press (with Slight Decline)
Slap a plate or two underneath the front of the bench so you're on a slight decline angle. This reduces shoulder stress and emphasizes pec engagement during the bench press.
Overhead Press Alternatives
1. Banded Single-Arm Overhead Landmine Press
Any bilateral (two-sided) press variation places greater demand on the body to get into a safe, optimal overhead position without adding sheer force on the spine. Pressing directly overhead (as with the strict straight bar variation) requires a combo of shoulder and thoracic mobility.
Since most people lack these prerequisites, this single-arm landmine variation is a great alternative. Leaning forward into the press with your torso and arm angle at a similar diagonal line reduces the range of motion your shoulders have to go through in an overhead position. It also minimizes hyperextension in the lower back, taking stress out of the spine.
You can do this variation with or without a resistance band. The band simply has more resistance during the lockout of the press.
2. Overhead Trap Bar Pin Press
It's easier (from a mobility perspective) to do overhead lifts in a staggered or half-kneeling stance as opposed to a bilateral standing position. What's more, a neutral grip (palms in) overhead position is safer on the shoulders as opposed to a pronated (palms forward) grip as seen in the strict barbell press.
The overhead trap bar press looks funky, but it's pretty damn awesome. It'll feel less shitty on the shoulders in comparison to strict overhead bar presses.
1. Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is my go-to for developing ridiculous strength and muscle gains for my clients without putting their spines at risk.
Why? Weight distribution. Having the handles at your sides requires less mobility to get into an optimal set up and allows you to use more leg strength instead of just pulling with your back.
Yes, the straight bar deadlift is a good lift for anyone who can get into an optimal position without putting their spine in harm's way. But for the masses, this isn't the case. And the straight bar variation does more harm than good.
The trap bar deadlift is a safer alternative that allows lifters to increase their strength and size while greatly reducing the potential stress on the spine.
Back Squat Alternatives
1. Landmine Box Squat
This is one of my favorite squat variations for a few reasons:
- Healthy shoulder positioning: Front-loading weight in a landmine squat is easier on the shoulders than the classic front squat.
- Core engagement: Your core is working hard to stabilize the spine with the weight distributed in front of the body.
- Loading potential: You can load more weight with landmine squats compared to goblet squats with a dumbbell or kettlebell.
Read my full breakdown of the landmine box squat.
2. Landmine Hang Squat
This variation puts even less stress on the spine, since the weight is distributed between the legs directly in the center. This requires less effort from your back and you depend completely on your legs to do the work.
You aren't limited to squatting, benching, and deadlifting with a straight bar to get stronger and bigger. These are great ways to achieve these goals, but they're not the only way. Work with lifts you can do pain-free and stop forcing your body into risky positions.