Monday, June 30, 2014


As I progress further along my training and start reaching goals that at one point seemed impossible, I find myself reflecting upon past decisions made and the ones that hindered my progress more than helped it.  Of these, I think the one I regret the most is my adamant refusal to ever abandon “The Big 3” in my training, insisting that I always have them included in any program that I run.  I am not alone in this dogmatic approach to training, and it is because of this that I must now ask the question that I should have asked myself before: why?

In general, I find my questions seem more profound when posed by a psychotic clown trying to kill Batman

The squat, bench press and deadlift are absolutely movements that can develop size and strength.  There is no questioning this reality.  However, we as a lifting culture have somehow concluded that, since these movements are evaluated as measures of strength in the sport of powerlifting, there must be some magical property that they possess in terms of strength development, and as such, they must be included in any program if strength is the goal.  We fall victim to accepting convention as intention, believing that by sheer nature of the fact that these 3 movements have been selected, it must have been by nature of the fact that they are superior to any and all other movements, and thus the training of them will ensure that one becomes strong.

Additionally, we confuse the outcome of the trainees as a reflection of the benefit of the lifts themselves.  Comically enough, about 10 years ago, the idea of “looking like a powerlifter” was rarely the goal of a trainee, as the stereotype was that of a goatee sporting 300lb sphere of flesh covered in tattoos with a shaved head and about 30% bodyfat.  Regardless of the veracity of that perspective, in the modern era of powerlifting we have impressive physical specimens such as Dan Green, the Lilliebridge family, Stan Efferding, Matt Kroczaleski (even before he became a bodybuilder), Konstantin Konstantinovs, and a sheer litany of others.  This has in turn provided a convenient avenue for trainees to pursue the powerlifts as an end goal, for it is considered non-masculine to be concerned about appearance and ubermasculine to be concerned about strength, and as such they can now convince themselves that, if they become strong on the powerlifts and maintain an appearance of masculinity among their peers, they can in turn achieve their hidden and “shameful” desire of also looking good.  All the while, they can chide and deride bodybuilders for being “weak” and vain, caring only for looks while they are pursuing something “worthwhile”.

"Those silly bodybuilders.  Give me a sport where I have to wear kevlar underwear."

I contend, however, that we are confusing the end for the means here, oversimplifying the entire process to believe that those who got strong at the big 3 did so by doing the big 3, and that since the big 3 is what is used to measure strength, it is the only measure of strength possible.  In reality, strength and size can easily be developed without ever performing the squat, bench press or deadlift, a statement of heresy to many but regardless, still reality.  Furthermore, I believe that is most cases, if the goal is simply to become bigger and stronger with no aspiration of competing in powerlifting, a trainees time could be spent performing better movements than the squat, bench press and deadlift as they are defined in powerlifting.  Though fine movements in and of themselves, they are far from the alpha and omega of training.

Fundamentally, many of the issues I witness in the training of others is that they attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole when it comes to the powerlifts.  Some people are simply not constructed to perform these lifts well, whether it be due to unique leverages, height, mobility issues, prior injuries, or a variety of other reasons.  These trainees beat their heads against walls for years, if not longer, trying their hardest to be able to squat, bench press or deadlift effectively, when all the while they could have easily employed some manner of substitute that would have been just as, if not MORE effective for simply becoming bigger and stronger.  With no aspirations of powerlifting, it seems silly to invest so much time developing proficiency in these three lifts when others will suffice.

This appears to be working just fine

By what other lifts do I speak of?  Having any familiarity with my previous writing, I imagine it would be of no shock to others what I would suggest, but ultimately I believe that a non-competitive trainee would be far better off seeking less technical alternatives to these lifts.  I have written about this previously in my two entries about what lifts I would do if I did not compete in strength sports (located here and here, but those were more personal choices.  The big takeaway is that the powerlifting definition of how these lifts are to be performed are not all inclusive, but simply parameters established by competition.  For a trainee seeking to get bigger and stronger, one must instead perform these lifts in a manner that suits their goals, not instead change their goals to a manner that suits these lifts.

If one cannot squat to depth with a powerlifting style squat, one need not engage in hours of mobility training, stretching, warming up, form practice, etc.  One can simply squat to the depth that they find to be comfortable.  Or they can squat to a box, or perform a box squat proper.  Or, this trainee could use a safety squat bar, or a front squat or high bar squat, or even a power squat machine.  As long as some manner of squatting is being performed, the trainee will get the benefits of a squat, as the movement pattern itself is far more vital than the specifics of competition form.  One need not deadlift from the floor if it causes pain or anxiety, as a partial pull will develop great size and strength, as would a top down deadlift with no breaking off the floor, and a romainian deadlift, or a stiff legged deadlift.  A bench press need not be performed with a barbell as a powerlifter would in order to be effective, as one can also gain the benefits from an incline press, or using dumbbells, or a swiss bar, or even completely abandoning the bench entirely for dips or focusing purely on overhead pressing.  Without any goal of competing in powerlifting, all one does is limit themselves by handcuffing themselves to the powerlifts, refusing to ever abandon them even if a better alternative exists.

Handcuffed to the bench!  You get it?!

On the topic of the powerlifts producing a certain “look” and how we now see an era of powerlifters with impressive physiques, we once again must realize that we cannot confuse cause for effect here.  We must not deduce that powerlifting must make you have a good physique, but instead that this is the physique that produces good powerlifters.  This is one of those mistakes that is only made with some sports and not others, and I believe it’s because the absurdity only becomes apparent within certain parameters.  For example, the fitness community is also led to believe that long distance running makes one skinny, because they observe successful long distances runners, note that they are skinny, and deduce that this must be a result of their training/competition.  However, no one ever deduces that playing basketball must make you tall, even though we can once again observe a common shared characteristic among successful basketball players.  The point here is that, when observing physical characteristics of athletes, one must understand that they are witnessing a process akin to natural selection, wherein only those most adequately constructed to thrive in the environment will do so, and those who cannot will be weeded out before they can reach the higher echelons.  Go to any marathon and you will see dozens, if not hundreds of runners that would be considered “obese”, but still regularly engage in running training.  They will never be elite, but they still perform the activity that the elite perform.

Extrapolating this to powerlifting, we must also understand that the current era of powerlifting physique is also a recent phenomenon due to the increased popularity of raw powerlifting (note the absence of my use of RAW, because I am not using the acronym for “Redeemed Among the World”, which is what the RAW federation stands for and many seem to mistakenly employ when they wish to talk about powerlifting without equipment).  Prior to this increase in popularity, the word powerlifting inherently referred to equipped powerlifting, as there was no possible option to compete without equipment.  Your options instead were based purely around how much equipment you wanted to use, from single ply to multi ply.  Those who competed in equipment (especially in the heaviest weight classes) had the physique that was the most successful for an equipped lifter, one where leverages were maximized and the effect of the suit/shirt could be maximized by having as much size as possible.  The images of an overfat lifter squishing their mass down into a way too tight suit can still be seen on youtube and the internet in general, and as a strategy, it worked, meaning more weight got moved.  Additionally, the suits and shirts altered the mechanics of the lift, placing vital importance on the ability to essentially explode a lift from a deadstop or maximize the reversal strength of the equipment, in many cases fighting the actual eccentric of the lift.  This in turn placed an increased importance on the posterior chain for squats and deads with the deprioritization of the quads, along with increased significance on the lats and triceps in the bench at the expense of the pecs and shoulders.  As raw powerlifting has become more popular, we are now witnessing the physiques that are necessary to move heavy weights without assistance, meaning that extra squishiness is of no benefit, while increasing quad and pec work becomes vital since there is no suit or shirt to assist at the start of the lift.

This got a 3000lb total in multi ply

However, we must again understand then that it was not the competition lifts in and of themselves that created these physiques, but instead the need to succeed in these lifts and developing the body that was necessary in order to do so.  It’s not that being strong at the raw bench makes one have bulbous shoulders, pecs and triceps, but instead that these muscles must be significantly developed in order to be successful.  A strong deadlift does not necessarily give you a big back, but instead it is the case that a big back becomes necessary for a strong deadlift.  We must not confuse the end for the means here, and instead must understand that it is the pursuit of strength that necessitates building the physique that will support it, which means that in many cases, rather than it being the big 3 that makes us bigger and stronger, it is all of those things we do to get better at the big 3 that we can attribute to our success.

In closing, I acknowledge that some trainees grow very well using the powerlifts.  Some trainees even grow very well using only the powerlifts, altering their programs by changing volume, rep ranges, rep speeds, frequency of training, etc, while keeping the movements the same.  However, I contend that, like many things in training, it’s going to boil down to the individual, and the sheer statistical probability that the powerlifts are exactly the right thing for you are pretty slim, simply because most humans are unique in terms of leverages, limb length, mobility, prior injuries, and a variety of other factors, and as such different lifts will have different “fits” for each lifter.  You may need to squat as a powerlifter would, or maybe you need to squat like an Olympic lifter, or front squat, or use a safety squat bar, or squat above depth, or make usage of a multitude of other options to be able to maximize your potential with squatting.  If you have no need to compete in the big 3, you do not need to do them in order to be successful.


  1. I agree 100% and have noticed that a huge culprit in this is toxic internet/forum culture, where everyone seems to judge each other based on their total in the big 3 even though in an entire discussion, not a single person has or ever will wear the singlet on the platform.

    It's also kind of funny because the "powerlifting squat" is not particularly effective at building lower body strength compared to high bar, safety bar, hack squats, etc etc, nor are the bench or deadlift particularly good mass builders by themselves. We're in a weird era were wanna-be bodybuilders are obsessing about their "gym total", which is essentially meaningless unless you're training for a meet.

    1. To continue even further with that, many fail to realize that an actual powerlifting total is rarely ever your 3 best lifts on their best days, but instead all 3 lifts done in one day under the same conditions. Folks will have a "total" in their mind that is based off their all time super awesome high school squat of 700lbs before they "hurt their knee", a 400lb bench done last summer where the spotter swore it was "all them", and a 600lb deadlift that they extrapolated from a trap bar lift they did that one time at that gym that had a trap bar. Even as a strength measurement, it's become flawed in this way.

      The internet breeds a constant need for validation, and this has become an easy go to in the lifting community, along with a great method to critique others from the safety of a keyboard.

    2. Oh man, I was SO guilty of this when I was training in the gym but had never stepped on the platform, I took my 3 best lifts spread across 2 years and about 15-20lbs, and then at my first meet, hit basically 88-90% of my best lifts, it was a huge wake up call.

      If you are going to count a gym total, at least have the guts to do all 3 lifts in the same day or have your best lifts occur within the same weight class and relatively close timeline, if you're going to bother at all.

      The internet does seem to breed a sort of bullying where instead of encouraging people for adopting good habits, people elevate themselves by tearing down everyone who isn't as advanced as they are in the popular metrics. It's really a shame too because if someone has an impressive front squat, push press, and Atlas Stone pick up, that's a perfectly valid display of strength, technique, and muscle, but a lot of people will never bother with those lifts because these non-powerlifters are dominating the conversation.

    3. It's generally a self perpetuating situation. The people inclined to even post with high volume on forums are those with something to prove, because their success isn't immediately apparent and requires constant affirmation and reinforcement. To these people, everyone is a potential threat, and it becomes necessary to tear down everyone else and build up yourself to protect your ego and maintain the self image you have constructed. The people who are successful are rarely, if ever, on forums, because there is nothing there for them. Consequently, this is why they are such poor sources of information. It's also why, as you noted, it means the less educated and successful tend to be the loudest, and why I advocate specifically to not train by democracy and that, whatever is the most popular approach online is most likely the least successful.

    4. I really love that point you made, as it goes against so much that is written. So many things are taken for granted as self evident even among commentators who try to provide information that is above the usual chatter, but they fall into the same trap of suggesting cookie cutter popular programming simply because most people have done SS/531/whatever, rather than realizing that populism is usually the worst, not the best, reason to pick a program.

  2. Great article and very much agreed. Ben Bruno utilizes and writes on this subject quite a bit. You would probably like these two articles.

    Again great article. Well thought out. In regards to your thoughts on the block pull/deadlift from the floor. Do you think the lower back would be at all neglected due to the lack of range of motion? Obviously for one with mobility issues with the full range deadlift it is a great substitute. But for a trainee such as myself with no mobility issue, but also no desire to compete in powerlifting in the near future. Would you reason I would develop more usable strength using the blocks instead of the floor?

    1. Thank you for your accolades, they mean a lot.

      As for your question, if anything, I think the lower back would be even more recruited, due to the incredibly heavy load you would be taxing it to support. Keep in mind that you would be training this movement in conjunction with a squat type movement (and ideally, it would be the safety squat bar), and there is still room for assistance work (wherein the reverse hyper and kettlebell swing would work great), but I don't really think of the deadlift as a lower back strengthener in the first place. Your lower back should not be flexing/contracting to complete the lift, the action should be in your hips. The function of the lower back should be to provide support/stabilization, which means that a heavy block/mat pull would do a great job in training this, as you will need to really heavily brace before you break the weight off the floor before you get anything moving.

      For me, pulling off the floor is probably the easiest time I have with the lift. The hardest is trying to break the weight off a 4 mat height.

  3. I get what your saying. Good points, I plan on playing with the idea of an alt big 3/4 in my future training. I recently had a conversation with a friend where I stated I believed the floor press could act as sub-statue for benching when training athletes and general population. I personally use it as a main pressing movement. What are your thoughts on it over benching?

    1. I generally don't think of movements in a versus context, as I don't find the process beneficial. Movements are simply different, not necessarily better or worse. If the floor press is able to meet whatever goals you have in implementing it, it's the right choice. If not, it's the wrong choice. I think the key is to not be married to any one movement, and instead constantly be rotating and assessing movements as needed. You don't have to bench, just like how you don't have to floor press, but if it's the one movement you need to do to meet your goals, you should do it.

  4. As a non-competitive general strength trainee, these are thoughts that I have been bouncing around in my head for a while.
    The main thing that has been keeping me from moving away from a big3-centric program is that I'm at a loss how to design a program that rotates through movements in an effective manner and I have no clue how I will be able to measure the effectiveness of my training. One benefit of using the big 3 is that it also offers a metric through which I can evaluate if I am actually getting stronger. If I rotate my movements with no emphasis on any, how do I know if I am getting stronger?
    My thoughts on an effective program for a non-competitive lifter is that a westside-esque me/de system with rotating movements would be best. Perhaps modify the rep schemes slightly, and change the de day movements away from strictly box squats or strictly sets of 2-3. . .

    I would love to hear your thoughts on how to program for a non-competitive trainee and how to evaluate progress.

    1. You'll have to keep in mind that I wasn't speaking about a "Big 3 centric program" here, but about the Big 3 proper. You can definitely still have a program based around 3 big lifts, it just doesn't necessarily have to be squat, bench press and deadlift as it's performed in a powerlifting meet. Small variations like box squat, close grip bench and deficit deadlift would still be measurable and beneficial, but may more specifically meet the exact needs you have for your training.

      As a self described non-competitive general strength trainee, you are fortunate in that you can choose ANY movements you want to meet your goals, and so it comes down to you to find the ones that fit your body mechanics and individual considerations the best. If you just plain can't figure out how to deadlift with a barbell, you can use a trap bar. If squatting with a bar on your back causes you agony, you can do belt squats.

      You can rotate lifts while still knowing if you are getting stronger. The simplest way would be that, if the lift you rotated to is going up, you are getting stronger. However, if you wish to have a sense of continual progress toward strength in one specific movement, you would simply need to establish the 3 or 4 movements that you consider to be adequate strength metrics for you personally and use those as measurements. I use a dead bench from chest as my horizontal pressing strength metric, and I know that if I can keep adding weight to that, I am getting stronger, even if that isn't a powerlifting bench press.

      I can't personally vouch for dynamic effort work. I have never seen any benefit to it whenever I implemented it, and have never missed a lift from not being fast enough. That said, programming is going to be very personal, and it'll be up to the trainee to figure out what works for them.

      When it comes to rotating movements, my favorite way to do that is through range of motion progression. Each week, I keep the weight the same but slightly increase the range of motion until I eventually progress to a full ROM. In doing so, I am performing a slightly different movement each week and avoiding stagnation, while at the same time training a very similar motor pattern and contributing toward my overall goals.

    2. That's a good answer.
      Is there any benefit to rotating movements? Eg, to set up a three week rotation of the back squat, front squat and box squat then start the rotation over.

    3. Definitely give it a try and see what happens. Right now, I rotate in a slightly different lift each week and make great progress that way. I imagine you could do the same with greater variations.

  5. There is a guy here in New Zealand who gave up lifting barbells because his passion is lifting natural stones, the powerlift training was only hindering his recovery and not making him better at his goal which was to lift big rocks. Last I heard he was loading well over double body weight boulders to a waist height platform and doing what he loves. There's something to admire in that.

    1. That's awesome, and totally demonstrates the point here. The squat, bench and deadlift are fine movements, but not at all required, and in many cases can actually detract from meeting one's goals. Gotta admire someone that does what it takes in spite of all the naysayers and know it alls. Great link.

  6. His name is Regan Bridge. Here's a link to him lifting a 500 pound stone if you're interested