I never deadlift. I don’t squat. I occasionally bench press, but I’m not a huge fan. I’ve got nothing against these lifts or anyone who does them— they are great movements for any athlete. Compound lifts incorporate a lot of muscles and can be great cornerstones. So, if you enjoy them or need to do them for a sport, I urge you to do them and give it all you’ve got. They’re referred to as the “Big 3” for a reason. I just won’t be joining you is all.
Why do I avoid these lifts? Well, to start, I just don’t like deadlifting. Yes, feel free to call me whatever name you want. I’ve just never enjoyed deadlifting, and since I’m not a powerlifter, I don’t do it. Is it a great back exercise? For sure, and I’m never going to tell anyone not to do it. Heck, I probably should do it, but I can still target my lower back with other movements (although whether or not I actually hold to that every back day is a whole other subject).
I don’t squat because it hurts my knee. I already know someone just shouted to themselves, “squatting isn’t bad for your knees!” And I hear you— I know that proper squat form can help avoid knee injuries and a lot of the perceived negatives that come with it. But, I’ve had powerlifting coaches check my form and say it’s spot on, and my still knee hurts during and/or after them, regardless. I was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter and patellar tendinitis in my right knee almost 10 years ago (but I’m still convinced they missed something more severe) and prolonged jumping or any similar motions with a load have caused it pain. I tried PT a couple times, but I’ve never been able to squat pain-free since the injury. Thus, I avoid the squat.
Powerlifting Bench Press Form. While good for strength gain, it may not be optimal for muscle growth.
By now, you may be thinking, “okay, one of your reasons is legit. But there’s no way you’ll convince me you have a good reason not to bench, bro!” Well, brethren, here are my thoughts on the bench press. I’ve been trying it out more lately, and it’s alright— it’s just not my favorite. I don’t feel the muscle contractions in my chest with the barbell bench press as much as I do with dumbbells or hammer strength machines. I never really have, and that’s why I moved away from it in the first place. Another gripe I have with the flat bench is that arching your back correctly (as shown above) can help increase the weight you can push, but it will create less work for the pecs. That can result in having to sacrifice either the big numbers or a good muscle contraction, a trade-off that can be tough to balance. In that same vein, it’s the main lift (even more so than squat and deadlift) that people tend to take pride in the most. “How much can you bench?” is probably the most common weight-lifting related question ever asked, and it’s one that I always respond to with “I’ve got no clue.” I’m okay with not knowing my one rep max if it means I’ll avoid tearing a pec trying to impress someone by pushing more weight than I actually can. There’s also some research (and I love some good scientific research) suggesting it may be better to do separate incline and decline movements as opposed to a flat movement.
So, if I avoid the Big 3, how do I replace them? How can you make up for the muscle growth (or fat loss) potential that these lifts provide? There are a few staples I have for my back, legs, and chest that I’ll share, along with some other movements to supplement them.
For back, pull-ups are my #1 go-to. They’re awesome and you’ll look super cool once you’re able to add weight to them. But, aside from the optics, they work your back like crazy. There’s a reason most people can’t do a single pull-up, and that same reason is why you should put them in your workouts. Pull-ups are tough; they incorporate several muscles in the back, along with your biceps and even your shoulders. Heck, they work your abs, too. Just make sure you’re using proper form; it’s better to use more of the assist and do them right than it is to flop your body up using momentum. Look for an upcoming video on our YouTube channel on how to properly perform pull-ups and dips (which will be discussed in the chest section).
If you want to make sure your lower back keeps up, I recommend adding in back extensions (pictured below). Once again (and as usual), these are tougher and more rewarding if you go through the full range of motion. When you come back up, really try to feel the muscle contraction at the top. You know that stretch you do when you get out of bed in the morning? It should feel kind of like that; try to squeeze your glutes together (without using your hands) and hold the position for a couple seconds. After about ten of these, you will probably start to feel a bit of a pump in your lower back muscles. Along with these, I also like to throw in various rowing motions to make sure the middle of my back gets worked. Pull-ups will work several parts of the back, but rows will mostly target the middle of your back while pull-ups primarily target the lats. The cable machine row is actually one of my favorites because you can use different handles/grips to target specific areas of your back. Check out this YouTube video on our channel for an in-depth description on the cable row.
For legs, my main exercise is the leg press. This exercise does not bother my knee at all, and it is the closest thing to the squat that you’ll get in terms of muscle activation and achievable volume for legs. There isn’t a whole lot to say on the leg press, but here are a few key points: get your legs to a 90 degree angle on the way down (if you’re flexible enough/able to), don’t lock out at the top, and don’t let your butt come all the way up off the pad. If you barely move the weight down, you won’t be giving the muscles enough work. Locking out at the top is what causes those freak leg press accident videos you’ll see, and letting your butt become airborne will cause your lower back to bare all of the weight (which is bad).
It’s also important to not ignore the calves. Calf raises are the way to hit them, but make sure you go all the way up and all the way down, briefly pausing at each point. Take a look at this YouTube video to watch us perform these exercises and give tips on them. And yes, I did squat in this video for the first time in a while. However, my knee ended up bothering me a fair amount over the next couple days despite not hurting during the lift. Needless to say, I resumed my squat hiatus after that.
I use a variety of chest exercises to replace the bench press. Despite being super popular, the flat barbell bench press isn’t necessarily the best chest-building lift. Now, that’s not to say that it can’t work or that it doesn’t have a place. What I am saying is that you can’t expect to get away with it being your only pressing motion like I see done all too often. What I prefer to do is to hit the chest from all angles; I like to include an incline, a decline, and a flat movement in my workouts if possible. My favorites are the incline dumbbell press, dips, and the flat hammer strength chest press. This YouTube video shows me performing the incline dumbbell press and explaining how to do it.
Dips are my staple chest exercise. I am at the point where I am able to add weight to them, but I always make sure my form is correct before I go up in resistance. For me, I focus on hitting 90 degrees at the bottom of the movement and fully extending at the top without locking out. I do not go much past 90 degrees because that is when I start to feel more tension in my elbows and shoulders. You also want to try to keep your elbows tucked in some, as letting them flare out too much will transfer a lot of the load to your shoulders. The upcoming pull-up tutorial video will also include a dip tutorial, so be on the lookout for that.
On the flat hammer strength chest press, you’re essentially emulating a flat bench press. So, why do I not just do a regular flat bench? Well, there are a couple reasons. The first (and most important) is that I feel the muscles working better when I am pushing separate loads with each arm as opposed to using both arms to move the same load. Along with that, I find that I can focus more on isolating my chest when I’m just pushing straight out and not worrying about a barbell falling back onto me. The hammer strength machine is also a nice way to conclude a chest workout. Even if you’re taxed, it’s a good way to still move sufficient weight since you don’t have to focus on as many things as you do during a flat barbell bench. Your body also won’t be recruiting as many stabilizing muscles as it would with the flat dumbbell press, which can be seen as a positive or a negative, depending on where you are in your training session.
Even if you do perform the Big 3, the workouts described in this article can be a great addition to any training program. If you’re like me and do not do any of the Big 3, then I recommend including some of these as a staple in your workouts like I do. They have helped me pack on size on strength and I’ve avoided any getting any new injuries in my time of lifting while heavily relying on pull-ups, dips, and leg pressing.