Any trainer worth his salt will say the big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses deserve an important place in your program. They deliver the most dividends for strength development, calorie burning, fat loss, and even carry over into hypertrophy (size gains).
The problem is, this applies predominantly to beginners. They work best for folks who need to build a solid foundation of muscle and strength.
But look at what happens when lifters approach intermediate or advanced status: They often eat up 45 minutes of their hour-long lunch break workout just ramping up to their working weight for their squats and deadlifts, where they stay for 5 or so sets.
The uncomfortable truth is that many lifters spend way too much time squatting and deadlifting.
No Dis. Just Truth
I'm not here to discount the big lifts that built your foundation. Nor am I saying that you should forego those lifts altogether. But I will say that the stronger you get at squatting, deadlifting, and barbell pressing, the less you need them in every last corner of your programming, at least if your goal is general health, fitness, and hypertrophy.
Once we become better lifters, we seem to forget to add variety to our training. Instead we focus on not placing a ceiling on how good we get at just 3 or 4 particular skills, which often leads to some form of injury. At the very least, it creates lesser returns for the investment made.
It took me a double knee injury, the most invasive of surgeries, and a summer in a wheelchair to see the reality in these truths, and you shouldn't have to experience the same thing to learn the lessons I learned.
If you want, you can instead depend on people who've gone spiralling down a rabbit hole of all-or-nothing barbell strength training for advice. But these are often the same folks who think you're making a grave compromise simply by using a trap bar instead of a regular bar to do deadlifts.
In this game, don't miss the forest for the trees. If your goal is to be stronger than most people, respect your own maturation in the weight room and provide it with more challenges than just the "big 3."
No Squats, No Problem
Now that you've (hopefully) made the mental adjustment and are willing to spend less time on the big 3, it's time to gain some perspective on other movements that deserve some of your attention.
For instance, it says a lot if you can squat or deadlift a ton of weight, but a simple stability-based trunk training drill leaves you shaking like a leaf! Try these:
1 – Lateral Plane Exercises
Stuff like Cossack squats and the glute L-bridges in the video would be a good place to start.
2 – Lunge Patterns
Whether we're talking forward, reverse, deficit, lateral, walking, or drop lunges, lunges are a prime unilateral movement pattern that often gets forgotten in strength training programs.
3 – Leg Presses
Stop hating on them. They're a staple in many bodybuilders' routines for a reason. There are few exercises that allow you to really isolate the muscles of the lower body while also moving a ton of weight in the process. If great quads are your goal, then it's time to recognize the benefits leg presses can bring.
4 – Swiss Ball Curl (2 up, 1 down)
This is one of the most deceptively challenging movements to do really well, especially if you're a big, muscular lifter. Pairing this with high reps of kettlebell swings will leave your hamstrings torched for days.
5 – Chinese Plank Variations
You'll be surprised how fast your hips sag with this movement that's largely based around using just bodyweight or light loads. It's times like this when you realize that the big lifts alone just aren't enough to cut it.
6 – Hip Thrusts/Back Extensions/Swings
All three of these movements enforce the same biomechanics as a deadlift while utilizing different force angles and curves.
7 – Sled Pushes/Tows/Loaded Carries
If you really want to make heavy weight training the basis of your conditioning work, then don't just pick it up, try moving it somewhere. Take a page out of the strongman book.
Embrace the Suck
Look, when you choose a new skill that you're not yet good at, your body has a harder time being efficient at that movement, and that's something we should welcome.
If you're a strength training hobbyist who strictly wants to improve performance of the big lifts, that's one thing, but if you're a health-oriented lifter who's looking to have skin in the game for life, you need to build some perspective.
The amount of good training that strong, experienced people everywhere are foregoing in order to protect the sanctity of their precious squats and deadlifts is exactly what's holding back plenty of their gains.
The truth is, most people don't have the time (or the energy) to do a two-hour workout, especially when doing barbell squats takes up three quarters of their training time. Hell, most would be lucky to squeeze in two extra exercises before it was time to hit the showers and head to work.
Just applying lower volume to exercises you've never done before can be very eye-opening. They'll test your true levels of strength, stability, and even athleticism.
Calm Down. You Won't Lose All Your Gains.
To the folks who are crying that their precious lifting numbers will go down to zero the second they reduce the volume or spend a little time away from the big 3 movements, I ask this:
Are you really saying you're going to get weaker in those movements, despite the fact that you're going to the gym and training just as frequently, challenging the same muscles in different ways, and finally addressing weak links through multiple planes of motion?
Deep down, I'm sure you know you're speaking out of nothing more than fear and an attachment to the lifts.
Even if you took three entire months off from training – I mean being completely sedentary for 90 days – you've practiced for so long and built so much muscle and muscle memory that you'd bounce back after three weeks of training.
The thing that would take the biggest hit would probably be your muscular endurance and aerobic capacity... and maybe your lifetime PR would take a 5% hit. Big deal.
You Get the Idea
Once you've built your foundation, think of it as your rite of passage, the one that gives you the right to add variety to your training regime.
You can still train the same muscle groups just as hard while attacking some serious weaknesses in the process. You're severely limiting yourself if you're a recreational lifter who's drank the "squats are everything" Kool-Aid. Welcome some change.
To be honest, putting the 500-pound squat or deadlift on the backburner in favor of incorporating change may be what ends up turning into the very thing that eventually allows you get your big lifts past 500. If that's your thing.