I have a confession to make, and it is kind of an embarrassing one, but you live and learn, right?
In the beginning of my career as a personal trainer, I subscribed to the belief that to get strong, build muscle, and be worth anything, you had to bench, squat, and deadlift. That’s all you needed. I have overhead guys repeating this same mantra in the gym where I work, and I look deep into my heart at my own journey and try not to let out an audible sigh.
These lifts are all fantastic exercises to be able to perform; however, if you do not have the strength or mobility to execute them properly, you are setting yourself up for eventual injury, and on a less serious note, not correctly engaging the proper muscles. I once saw a guy at the gym using his neck to hold the barbell on his ascent to standing positon from the squat because he was working with a load that was too heavy. I am not sure about you, but I do not want to go through rehabilitation for a cervical spine injury, surgery, or even worse.
I do now realize the error of my ways. There are methods to get strong, increase mobility, and build muscle without forcing one’s body into technically demanding lifts, that if not performed correctly, can lead to injury. That is not to say that these exercises cannot be performed safely. Some people have the mobility and strength to get into a deadlift position, get under that barbell on the squat rack, or the upper body mobility to bench press. The programs I am referring to also emphasize a much lower rep range.
It is important to note that these three movement patterns are a cornerstone for a solid training program. It is the movement pattern and not specific exercises that should be focused on when programming. Add in some lunging, loaded carries, pulling, core, and accessory exercises, and your program is made. I have read some of the programs based on the “big 3 lifts” and noticed that they do encourage accessory exercises to shore up any weaknesses in the deadlift, squat, and bench. I tried the programs myself earlier on, and my body was not happy with the exercises or intensity. I just did not feel good from my training, which is not a sustainable plan. Yes, I know this is just an anecdote, but after years of training people, I know that lots of folks simply do not have the mobility, core strength, or ability to perform these lifts right out of the gate. Also, these lifts are not the end all and be all of training to gain muscle, strength, and enhance performance. And you do have to ask yourself, “what are YOU training for?” Are you straining to be a strength athlete or compete? Most of us are not and should approach training accordingly.
There are many hip hinging variations that can fulfill the hip hinge the deadlift off of the floor satisfies, and many, many squat variations to strengthen the muscles of the quads. The hip hinge, which is the basis for the deadlift, is a movement pattern that many of my new clients struggle to perform properly. There is no reason to load up an exercise that has not been taken through the proper movement pattern. Squats are another exercise that are often improperly performed. Like the deadlift, many regressions and squat variations do exist.
The exercises that may be substituted out for the bench press are often a lot safer for the shoulders and ensure that with proper form, you will be lifting for years to come without taking time off for achy shoulders. I seldom perform the bench press myself and do not always program it for clients. We will often substitute dumbbell work, push-ups and their modifications, and add some overhead pressing, or variations on those, such as landmine presses. These are all effective ways to strengthen the upper body while avoiding problems that often accompany bench pressing or overhead presses.
The other emphasis of the bench, squat, and deadlift program is to lift VERY heavy. You are lifting at 80-90% of your one rep max, which is can be taxing and often requires longer recovery. Working in these rep ranges occasionally is beneficial for developing more power, but it is not necessary to develop muscle and strength. There has been some research performed by Brad Schoenfeld to suggest that that working with moderate (8-12 RM) and lighter loads (25-35 RM) yields approximately the same amount of muscle growth over the same training period. Maximal strength gains are found in the lowest rep ranges and muscular endurance is still the result of higher rep training, but that is not to say that between these rep ranges there is no gain in hypertrophy, strength, or endurance.
While these programs that focus on heavy weights can be incredible for building strength, they are not necessary for building muscle for most people. Every body is different, and there are exercises that work for those differences. To build muscle we do not need to work in a lower rep range at 80-90% of our 1 rep max. There are many rep range options for building muscle size, muscular endurance, and strength. Lowest rep ranges are optimal for strength gains, moderate rep ranges for hypertrophy, and the highest rep ranges work best for endurance. Just because something is optimized in a certain range does not mean the benefits do not occur in another range. As per the Schoenfeld study, there were no discernible differences in muscle growth between moderate and high rep ranges in young trained males. It is not as though your muscles simply quit doing any one of these things in a certain range, which is why it is important to train across different rep ranges and movement patterns. There will be a crossover between strength, endurance, and muscular gain at all of the mentioned rep ranges without the fatiguing long term effects of training heavily week in and week out. Remember that the best program and routines are the ones that are followed long term. Intensity is never a substitute for a routine that is consistent and able to be followed for the long haul.