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
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.