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Getting Big Without the Big Three
A commonly held belief, especially among those on the internet, is that you must squat, deadlift, and bench press if you want to get as big and jacked as possible. It stands to reason. Take a look at successful bodybuilders’ training routines and you’ll find these movements over and over again. It’s not surprising – they’re very effective.
If you take a gander at Tom Platz’s stems, you know he’s spent hundreds of hours in the squat rack. Watch Ronnie Coleman deadlift 800lbs for reps and it becomes obvious what is responsible for a back that resembles the broad side of a house.
But what if these guys had injuries that kept them from performing the standard movements? What if Franco Columbu’s shoulder anatomy wasn’t equipped to handle the straight bar? What if Ronnie had some minor ankle injuries earlier on in life that hindered his flexibility? What if Tom had a spinal condition that kept him from spinal-loading movements?
Would this mean that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish such great feats? I think not.
Let’s look at the esteemed Dorian Yates…you know, the behemoth who approached 270 pounds in contest condition? For years, he was a religious squatter due to Tom Platz’s success with that movement, but he never experienced any major improvements until he started doing alternative exercises like Smith machine squats, leg presses, and hack squats. He also sustained a hip injury in 1986 that required him to abandon squats altogether and focus on alternatives because the free weight squat caused him nagging pain when he performed it.
Then we have Dante Trudel, whose name is forever eternal due to his training methods, known as DC (doggcrapp) training. Over the years, he developed a brutally intense protocol that has produced some very large competitors, such as Jason Wojciechowski and David Henry. Dante prescribes flat dumbbell bench presses, incline presses, machine presses, and decline presses (among other flat bench alternatives) for many trainees who must avoid the flat barbell bench press altogether due to experiences with injury as a result of this exercise.
The monstrous six time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates favoured leg presses
When The Big Three Matter
In the sport of powerlifting, the number one goal of every person at the meet is to bench, squat, and deadlift more than everyone else in a particular weight class. The person who does this wins the prize. In sports like football, the straight-bar bench press is used as a benchmark for on-field performance. During the NFL combine, players are tested on their ability to crank out as many reps possible with 225 pounds on the flat bench press. In Olympic weightlifting, while the squat is not a competitive lift, it’s essential to building strength for the lifts done on competition day.
But let’s get real here: if you’re not a competitive powerlifter or Olympic athlete, the big three have no real bearing on your exercise selection.
When The Big Three Don’t Matter
Contrary what some online fitness gurus might say, you’re not a lightweight if you choose not to squat, deadlift, or bench with a straight bar. It’s easy for folks who’ve never done anything other than the Big Three to look down on those who choose not to or cannot do certain exercises. If you’re not competing in powerlifting or a technical sport that requires specific movements, there’s nothing stating that you must perform a certain exercise regardless of your circumstances. Bodybuilding and vanity training are all about aesthetics and hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is a result of continuous progression (in some form or fashion) with the right stimulus plus adequate rest and nutrient intake.
Your pectorals won’t be able to tell the difference from a straight bar bench press and dumbbell floor presses. Your glutes don’t know that they’re firing as a result of heavy squats or heavy leg presses. The only part of you that notices the difference is your ego – the part of you that wants to tell all your friends how much you weight you threw around the day before.
Now, let’s take a look at each movement individually and dissect what’s going on, when the movement might not be a good idea, and alternatives for those who need them.
The Bench Press
Primary muscles worked: pectorals, front deltoids, and triceps.
Contrary to popular belief, the bench press is not, in fact, the ideal chest building movement, particularly in light of the substandard form used by most trainees. Many people learn how to bench press by watching others do it poorly. Most don’t have the luxury of a coach to teach them proper form, and thus the exercise contributes to a number of shoulder girdle injuries.
The bench press is an ego lift – most guys want to push the most weight possible. Folks will do anything to add a few pounds to the bar. It’s not uncommon to notice someone across the gym literally bouncing weight off their sternum.
Few trainees take the time to realistically assess their progress, let alone question the utility of a given movement like the bench press in their programs. Some trainees simply have anatomy that is not particularly suited for a straight bar. After my own personal research, various shoulder issues, and a few emails with Eric Cressey, I’ve come to realize the straight barbell bench press is an exercise of questionable efficacy for a vanity lifter.
The acromion process, a part of the scapula, varies in size and shape across individuals. The shape (straight, slightly curved, or very curved) of this structure will determine how likely someone is to incur a subacromial impingement. Some can manage to do the bench press with a wide grip and flared elbows over their entire lives without issue. For others, due to the shape of this particular piece of anatomy, the standard bench press can cause problems over time. If you watch trainees who are genetically predisposed to bench, their triceps will be about parallel with their back/top of the bench at the bottom of the lift, and not much lower. These folks usually have short(er) arms attached to a thick chest and back that naturally prevent any excessive range of motion and therefore, there is no excess stress on the shoulder joints.
For those with long(er) arms and less-than-beefy frames, the arms will to travel a bit further than that of the ideal bencher described above, which can aggravate the shoulder joint like nobody’s business. I just cringe at the thought of how I used to bench. For these folks, straight bar benching as a long-term movement is more of a detriment rather than a benefit.
Solutions and Alternatives
In the sport of bodybuilding and for those who simply lift for vanity, the vaunted purpose of the straight bar bench press is to build a large, square chest that screams “alpha male.” But for those trainees who suffer from less-than-ideal anatomy, or don’t have the means to develop proper form, well, they’re going to have to get cerebral with exercise selection.
A general rule of thumb (and something my mother always told me as I constantly burned my fingers with house candles as a kid) is “if it hurts, DON’T do it.” This applies to any chest-dominant movements. If the straight bar bench press hurts your shoulder girdle, don’t freakin’ do it. If it’s causing more harm than good, ditch the movement and switch to something that’s a better fit for you.
Alternative movements: neutral grip decline and flat bench dumbbell presses, neutral grip floor presses, weighted push-ups (chains work well for loading), and weighted dips (limit range of motion to 90 degrees at the elbow). Hammer Strength Iso-Lateral cable machines, and plate loaded machines are absolutely wonderful. On some of the machines, you can make adjustments to fit you more comfortably as well as to vary your grip.
If weighted dips were good enough for Arnold, they’re good enough for you
Primary muscles worked: quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and core.
Without proper form, the squat is another lift that can lead to more nagging injuries and muscle imbalances. Learning the squat is not difficult, but the learning curve can be shortened if you have a coach as a guide. However, outside of athletics, it’s often hard to find a competent coach or trainer. If you’re looking to learn properly, one solution the internet has provided is the ability to record and upload videos of your squat performance in order to receive critique and feedback.
Again, as with the bench press, anatomy plays a role in the effectiveness of the squat for a given trainee. Some folks who have long femurs and short torsos may experience unnecessary strain on the lower back when performing the movement. I’ve also known guys who’ve sustained multiple ankle or knee injuries. Their workouts that included the squat were ineffective; each time they performed the squat, their minds were focused on their weak knee or ankle, making improvement on the lift difficult for fear of injury.
Solutions and Alternatives
If you’re not built for the squat and have no one competent to teach it to you, or if you have previous injuries that make the movement difficult or painful, there’s no reason to waste your time squatting. Your muscles don’t know whether you’re doing a free weight squat or using a machine.
The goal of the squat is to work your quads, hamstrings, and glutes while you also get some abdominal and lower back work as a result of balancing the weight on your shoulders.
Alternative movements: Angled leg press, hack squat, belt squats, belt squats with bands, DB split squat. The advantage of a leg press or a hack squat is that they both replicate the squatting movement.
The leg press takes the stress and pressure off the back and allows the lifter to focus on steady progress and strength work as opposed to worrying incessantly about form or stability, especially if a previous injury or lack of flexibility is a limiting factor. The hack squat also takes pressure off the back because it’s usually positioned at an angle and allows the lifter to focus on depth and range of motion with a bit more stability than with a free weight squat.
Dumbbell split squats allow the trainee to work on each leg individually. A common problem with regular squats is the rounding of the lumbar spine that can occur at the bottom of the movement. This can become especially dangerous as weights get heavier. When doing split squats, one leg is back which helps keep the lumbar spine rigid and prevents it from rounding, leaving you with a safer exercise overall. The split squat will also improve range of motion and hip flexibility.
Belt squats are also a great alternative as they pose no loading issues for the spine. Finding a place and/or the equipment to do them can sometimes be a task, however.
The Hack Squat allows the lifter to focus on depth and range of motion with a bit more stability
Primary muscles worked: posterior chain, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, mid back, traps, and core.
Just as with the squat and the bench press, some people just aren’t built for the deadlift. It’s particularly an issue for those with long femurs and a short torso (just like the squat example). Getting into a conventional position can pose a leverage problem. The hips should be lower than the scapulae, which may not possible for someone with the anatomy described above
When performing the deadlift, a rigid, tight back is imperative to proper execution of the lift. Folks who can’t perform the deadlift correctly are inviting future complications Heavy weight plus a rounded back plus time will most definitely lead to a spinal injury.
This warning also applies to individuals with ankle and hamstring flexibility issues. If your hamstrings are tight when setting up, it’s likely that your butt will tuck under, causing the lower back to round. If this is the case, even folks who are well-suited for the movement should do something else until they’ve increased flexibility to a point where they can perform the movement properly.
Solutions and Alternatives
Luckily, there’s a whole slew of movements that can take the place of the deadlift and still deliver all the benefits.
Alternative Movements: One alternative to the conventional deadlift is to perform the movement from blocks or from a rack. Setting the bar 6-8 inches above the ground will provide additional deadlift safety for those lacking proper flexibility. Other alternatives include the RDL and glute-ham raises, which are both fine movements for working the glutes and hamstrings. For a pure hamstring movement, lying leg curls are always an option.
To make up for any lost gluteal stimulation, try out the barbell glute bridge exercise. It’s absolutely fantastic for working the hamstrings as well, so ladies, get started…
Depending on your training program and scheduling, make sure you throw in some lower back extensions and dumbbell shrugs to take care of some of the deadlift’s more ancillary benefits for your musculature, to address the lower back and traps in particular.
Deadlifts from the rack can be safer for individuals lacking proper flexibility
The Big Three are some of the best mass and strength builders around. Despite how great they may be, they’re not always the best fit for every bodybuilder. Just because you decide to forego the squat or deadlift, that doesn’t make you a wuss. The next time someone says that to you in the gym or on the internet, you have my permission to tell them where to get off.
Your ass doesn’t know the difference between a deadlift and a glute bridge. Your chest doesn’t know the difference between a machine press and the barbell bench press. What determines gains in strength and hypertrophy is a combination of time, progressive overload, and an adequate diet rich in protein and calories.
So, if you’ve been hard-headed about sticking to a certain movement due to preconceived notions and paying a painful price for it, I encourage you to take a look at some of these alternative movements and give them a try. I think you’ll be more than happy you did.
Written by JC Deen
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About JC Deen
JC Deen is the consumer advocate for all things fitness-related. His no-B.S. approach to fitness and physique improvement stems from the competitive spirit he garnered as a young athlete.
He has worked as a fitness consultant, and has written for numerous online fitness, bodybuilding, nutrition, and personal development blogs.