For years, lifters have treated the "big 3" lifts – squat, deadlift, and bench press – as if they're sacred. Just like the powerlifters, bro.
And I get it. These movements are prime strength developers. And sure, it's in a lifter's best interest to become proficient at them.
But This is Real Life
With real life comes a few important realizations:
- Ninety percent of us aren't powerlifters. Not currently and not aspiring to be. And even if we think we are, we aren't.
- No matter how much knowledge that contraindicates doing the barbell bench press(because of the vulnerability it places lifters under), most men will still piss their pants to get under the bar and do it anyway. Go to your globo gym on a Monday and try to prove me wrong.
- Most lifting injuries tend to occur while performing one of the renowned "big 3" movements.
None of this is to say that the classic big 3 are bad, but when literally hundreds of exercises are at your disposal, those particular three just might not deserve the manic attention that many serious, non-competitive lifters are prepared to give them.
We don't have to copy powerlifters. And if we're going to put our focus into getting really strong in certain lifts, then it's worth giving our attention, our training volume, and our number-chasing to some other movements.
But What's Wrong with Barbell Squats and Deads?
We already mentioned a problem with the bench press, but squats and deads are the other cornerstones of most training programs. Depending on factors like your leverages, history of injuries, and even your training age, these movements may not be keeping you as high up on the winning end of the risk/reward continuum as they used to.
Heavy squats can strengthen bad knees, or they can keep you fighting through pain workout after workout... without having much to speak for as far as day-to-day improvement goes (aside from a new grinder PR).
Force feeding a conventional barbell deadlift pattern to taller lifters can be difficult and dangerous as the weight starts to get heavy. If you don't compete in lifts that require straight barbell training, then it's a good idea to give those lifts a bit less of your time and instead focus on getting as strong as possible in the following three movements.
1 – Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is the king lift for keeping a healthy spine while pulling a stack of weight off the floor in a functional pattern. It checks all the boxes for health, strength training, and maintaining general badassery.
There are several reasons why it's superior to barbell pulls. First, you have no bar blocking your shins, which is a saving grace for longer-legged lifters, lifters with back problems, or lifters with mobility restrictions. This also allows the shins to migrate forward, allowing the hips to sit lower and the spine to remain more vertical when pulling. It also helps hit the quads harder.
Second, you're using a neutral grip. That means no mixed grip (which has a high risk of biceps tears) and a posture that more easily engages your upper back and keeps you closer to anatomical position. That's huge.
Third, you get to pull from a slightly higher point (at least when you go high-handle). Football and basketball players everywhere are rejoicing in the fact that they don't have to crumple their bodies into a deep pulling position, like when they use a barbell.
But most people already know all this. The true reason they won't make the switch is bro-based stubbornness, not because a barbell "works better for them." They think that it's not a true deadlift if you don't pull with a straight bar from the floor. Those are the same people who don't have long-term health, strength, and wellness in mind. Are you sure you want to be one of them?
Of course, if it gets too easy, just flip the bar and go low handle. Problem solved.
2 – Neutral Grip Chin-Up
Based on the flailing debacles I see around the gym that are supposed to pass as pull-ups, it's safe to say that most people need to work on the quality of their pulls or chins. In my previous article, 5 Realistic Tests of Strength, I wrote that achieving 10 GOOD-quality, bodyweight pull-ups or chin-ups is a good standard.
Chin-ups are the absolute king of upper body movements. Not the bench press. They provide far more benefits, affecting the health of the shoulder joint, development of the entire back, strengthening the core, and creating a pleasing V-taper and building biceps in the process.
Using a neutral grip (palms facing one another) keeps you even further out of harm's way by keeping the wrists happy – many muscular lifters have issues with supine grip chin-ups due to the twisting force they places on the elbow joint.
This is a movement almost everyone needs to be doing, using full range of motion. Yeah, I'm talking to you, half-reppers who load lifting belts with 90 pounds and never break 90 degrees in either direction. Lighten up the load and get 10 good quality reps. And when that gets easy, manipulate the tempo (lower slowly etc.)
If you're one of the poor souls who can't do a single pull-up, then approach things the right way by starting with eccentrics. Emphasizing the negative rep will recruit your strongest muscle fibers and make them stronger over time.
Once you can do a single, full 30-second eccentric, chances are you'll be able to do one good pull-up.
3 – Weighted Dips
I don't mean the thing people normally call dips, where they plank themselves across two benches and have their spotter stack six plates on their lap as they pulsate a little bit with rounded shoulders and a sunken chest. I'm talking about real, upright, bodyweight dips using parallel bars.
This is a pressing pattern that doesn't get nearly as much love as it should. Dips are supreme chest and triceps developers that take advantage of a neutral grip and a large range of motion. You'll notice that most people opt to stop at 90 degrees, a similar cheat tactic to what they use with pull-ups that results in the same incomplete development.
Adding weight to your dips once you've learned to use full range of motion is a much healthier movement pattern than a bench press. Dips encourage the shoulder blade to move with the upper arm as it goes through its range of motion, creating the proper synchronization and thus strengthening the lower traps and rotator cuff muscles.
And it all comes without the compressive forces that an overhead press places on the spine or shoulder capsule. If you've got a bum shoulder, the dip pattern is possibly the main movement you should be working on to rehab your shoulder.
As a bonus, the dip is a great movement for the core. That's why your 300-pound bench press doesn't stand up to your shaky, 35-pound weighted dip, even though the primary emphasis is mostly on the same muscles. Funny how that works.
Get Real-Life Strong
You need to acknowledge that there are plenty of benefits to be attained when you stray from the big 3 barbell movements. By all means, you can still squat, deadlift, and bench, but if you don't compete, do yourself a favor and diversify your portfolio.
Your body will thank you for it. And your physique will most likely do the same – especially if you add these three movements and become a monster at them.