These are the foundational exercises that come to mind when you think about getting big and strong.
Everyone’s seen pictures of Arnold and Franco Columbo squatting and deadlifting 500+ pounds. They’re jacked, so you have to do the same exercises the same way, right?
More so, a lot of traditional, effective training programs are rooted in them. Bill Starr’s 5×5, Stronglifts 5×5, and countless others are all great, straightforward, and time tested programs proven to increase strength and size.
Given all this, I understand why you feel that they’re “must do,” exercises.
Moving progressively heavier weights over time is how you build muscle and strength. There’s no denying that these exercises are great tools to accomplish this.
For some people. Mostly younger guys who haven’t accumulated much wear and tear yet.
For most people, especially as you pass 30, doing these exercises with a barbell feels terrible. They leave you with more soreness in the joints than anything else.
Training should never give you joint pain. You train to make them feel better, more durable, and to build muscle, not deteriorate your joints.
The big 3 aren’t bad exercises, but as you get older you need to be smarter about how you employ them to get maximal benefit.
Otherwise, you’ll be banging you head against a wall, suffering through a sore back, shoulder, or knees all in the pursuit of 5 or 10 more pounds on the bar.
Training is meant to amplify the stuff in your life that you like to do, not detract from it because you’re limping around for 4 days after a squat session with a sore hip.
There’s good news, though. You can still keep the lifts you love in your training, you just have to do them in a more thoughtful way. Here are 6 ways to do just that, making them safer and more effective.
Barbells are great tools in that they are easily loadable, but they wedge you into a more fixed movement pattern. Back squats, barbell bench presses, and conventional deadlifts aren’t inherently bad exercises, but show me someone who’s been hitting those lifts continuously for a few decades and I’ll show you their joint replacement rap sheet.
Add in bouncing, touch and go deadlifts where you lose a bit of tension when you make impact with the floor, or the deadly combo of beat up shoulders from benching but forcing them into an extremely externally rotated position to grip the bar on a back squat, and you’re upping the risk.
Instead, use specialty bars like safety squat bars, trap bars, and neutral grip or angled bars. They allow your joints to be in a more neutral, safer position so you can focus on putting forth maximal effort into the task at hand, and not on the searing pain in your shoulder or spine.
Front squatting and back squatting are incredibly similar in terms of muscle recruitment, but feel radically different.
Deadlifting off mats that are a few inches high can drastically improve your position and how your back feels. Trap bar deadlifting distributes the weight around you and feels better on the lower back as well. Maybe sumo deadlifting is a better option for your body type.
Perhaps benching with a slightly closer grip can alleviate your shoulder discomfort. Setting up a bench at a low incline in a power rack might work well too.
If your gym doesn’t have specialty bars, find one that does. If you can’t, then simply modifying the exercise can provide a ton of joint relief while still delivering the benefits.
Try different variations and give yourself time to actually get comfortable with them before you write them off. They’re bound to feel awkward at first. After all, you’ve been doing it a particular way for a few decades now, so any change to that will feel strange.
What you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing are often two different things. I mean, I think I look like Justin Timberlake on the dance floor, but in reality I just look like a drunk baby deer on ice skates.
Just look around most commercial gyms. Most people think they’re squatting deep, tucking their elbows when they bench, and keeping their backs straight when they deadlift. They’re not intentionally putting themselves in danger, but as the weight goes up, the range of motion tends to go down, technique gets compromised, and things often go to hell.
Combat this with paused reps. This forces you to control the eccentric portion of the lift more, then maintain complete tension to hold the bottom/weakest position for a 2-5 second count. Being in the right position at the bottom sets you up to remain in the right groove as you drive to the starting position.
Pauses will knock some weight off the bar, sure, but also really help to lock in picture perfect technique, which goes a lot further than ego driven weight chasing. Strive to add weight to the bar, but not at the expense of form!
Traditionally, benching, squatting, and deadlifting were done 1st in a training session when you are freshest, so you can handle the biggest weights.
While we still want to improve on them, as you get a little older moving them back to the 2nd or 3rd exercise of the day is a solid programming strategy.
You’ll be more warmed up, have some blood circulating, and the movements will feel a lot smoother and stronger.
Then, be sure to get some light sets in to really groove your technique and feel comfortable before getting to your heavier work sets.
It’s almost an epidemic these days, especially on bench pressing, to have a spotter wiggle his dirty little fingers under the bar to bump it along as you start to grind.
This “spotter,” isn’t your friend, he’s inhibiting your progress. Nobody ever got stronger by allowing someone else to lift their weight for them.
There’s a difference between a lift off and a spot. Getting a solid lift off is important because it helps you get into position without losing the tightness in your upper back.
This tension is of the utmost importance for perfect pressing technique. But if you need a spot, you screwed up in your weight selection.
Find a good partner to give you a lift off, and set expectations beforehand.
Having a spotter nudge the bar up or help you out means you bit off more than you can chew, and technique is bound to get less than ideal when things gets to this point.
If you feel like you need a true spotter, you shouldn’t be doing it anyway. You should always have at least 1 solid rep left in the tank. Grinding is ok, but grinding to the point where you lose position is a bona fide way to have negative repercussions.
Chains and bands are great tools to unload you at the bottom/weakest position of an exercise, as more of the chain is on the floor or the band has less tension. As you move through the range of motion, you get into stronger, more stable joint positions, and you get more chain weight or band tension.
Take a trap bar deadlift for example. Getting the bar moving off the floor from a dead stop is the hardest part. It’s also where you’re in the most precarious lower back position.
By using chains, the bar is lighter off the floor, and gets heavier as you get into a more upright position, where there’s less shear on your spine.
Just be sure that if you’re using chains, when you’re at the top position you have 1 or 2 links touching the floor. Otherwise, they’ll start to swing and make you unstable, which completely eliminates the point.
You don’t need to use barbells at all, of course, and can stick with dumbbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight exercises. These will still build strength and muscle, no question. In my experience, though, there are plenty of guys out there who just won’t ditch the traditional big 3. If you’re in this camp, these adjustments will definitely help you to train pain free, which keeps you training more consistently.
And consistency is the most important element to progress.
If you are looking for a comprehensive training program that will pack on muscle, bulletproof your joints, and have you ready to kick ass 365 days a year, check out my online performance coaching program. You can try it out for a free month by signing up for my weekly newsletter below.
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