Do you really need to squat, bench, and deadlift?

written by Philip Stefanov  |  FEBRUARY 7, 2023

Squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting for optimal muscle and strength gain is one of the oldest ideas, but how true is it?

Let’s talk about it.

Squat + Bench + Deadlift = Optimal Results?

At first glance, it certainly seems so. These three exercises recruit a large percentage of your muscles and build strength. Plus, powerlifters who primarily do the big three and close variations are pretty big, right?

Here’s the deal:

The squat, bench press and deadlift are three good exercises. Including them in an intelligent training plan is probably going to bring results. Shocking, right?

However, two questions arise:

  1. Are the big three the best exercises to make progress in your case?
  2. Might there be less demanding exercises that provide a similar stimulus without causing as much fatigue?

First, we must determine the value of these three exercises on a personal level. Do you find the squat, bench press, and deadlift stimulative? Do these exercises train the right muscles, build strength, and carry over to other activities? More importantly, can you do each of these exercises safely, which proper form, and through a full range of motion without experiencing pain?

For example, prevailing wisdom suggests that the bench press is a must-do exercise for a big chest, but would that be the case for you? Maybe it bothers your shoulders, or you simply don’t feel it in your chest. In that case, do you think continuing to do it is going to deliver any benefits?

Second, we must compare the benefits against the cost of doing these exercises. For instance, it’s common knowledge that heavy deadlifts build a big back, and I’m not here to dispute that claim.

But are deadlifts the best exercise for people looking to build a big back? I’d say no. First, the movement is incredibly fatiguing, and most trainees can’t do it more than once per week without overtraining.

Second, deadlifts are incredibly technical. Getting tired can affect your form, especially if you do more than 5 reps per set.

Third, deadlifts train a range of other muscles aside from the back, so you must be careful how you include them in your weekly training. You might do them on back day, but they could leave your entire posterior chain feeling sore for days, preventing you from training your legs 48 hours later.

The Problem With The Big Three

As mentioned in the previous point, the big three are good exercises that can deliver decent results for many people.

The problem is that some trainees fall for the false idea that they must do these exercises to progress optimally. This often means looking for ways to make these movements work in a training plan and potentially not doing exercises that would make more sense in the specific context.

For example, the dumbbell press might feel much better on your joints and activate your chest, but you could avoid doing it because you think that barbell pressing is more effective, even though it doesn’t feel as good on your body.

In addition to making your training unnecessarily more challenging and (possibly) less effective, you might also be at a higher risk of getting injured.

Plus, we also have to consider the enjoyment factor. People are more likely to repeat activities that feel good and avoid those that don’t. So why insist on doing something you don’t genuinely enjoy? It’s only a matter of time before you get tired of it and quit.

If Not The Big Three, Then What?

Here’s the cool thing:

You can do plenty of fun, challenging, and effective exercises to train the same muscles as the big three without getting as tired or putting yourself at risk. Plus, you might enjoy your workouts more, train harder, and make even more progress in the long run.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Barbell back squat substitutes - hack squat, leg press, belt squat, goblet squat, Bulgarian split squat, step-up, lunge variations (forward, reverse, walking, etc.), etc.

  • Flat barbell bench press substitutes - incline presses, dips, floor press, push-up variations (standard, decline, weighted, plyometric, etc.)

  • Barbell deadlift substitutes - rack pulls, bent-over row, Pendlay row, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, Romanian deadlift, hip thrust, reverse hyperextensions, etc.

The bottom line? There are no must-do exercises. Select movements that feel good on your body, allow you to train with proper form, and engage the correct muscles.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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