Four Ws + an H: The “Big 3” Lifts (And Their Siblings)

Squat. Bench. Deadlift.

If you’ve ever so much as glimpsed a powerlifting Instagram account, you know what these three lifts look like at their absolute peak and at their abysmal worst. But outside of powerlifting and training athletes who compete in sports considered “tougher”, how can these three lift be applied?

White Lion coaches are, at the most basic level, realistic, so that’s how we are going to dissect these lifts. Let’s take a real look at how the Big 3 (and their relatives) work into anyone’s daily training for the most gain.

The Big 3. 

Who: The back squat, bench press and deadlift are for any and everyone, athlete or not. If you can bend at the knee and drop your hips to a chair while maintaining an open chest and without pain, you can squat. If you can hold a parallel body position and bend your elbows next to your torso, you can bench. If you can bend at the hips and keep a flat back, you can deadlift. If you are serious about your strength training with goals such as health, strength and maybe a dose of aesthetic, these movements and their variations should be staples of your program.

What: Increasing absolute strength. Stronger bones. Healthy hips. Powerful glutes and back. Who doesn’t want to reap these benefits? Answer: we all do (or should). Because of the dynamics of these three movements and the planes on which they are performed, we can receive balanced, full-body benefits from properly utilizing these lifts. To be more specific, the squat is a lower-body push, the bench press is an upper-body push, and the deadlift is a lower-body pull (and upper-body push). You just covered the most important movements and planes of motion in three lifts. Congratulations on the most efficient workout ever.

When: In strength & conditioning, we most often place the most emphasis on the “Big 3” during strength blocks, when our athletes are off-season and can turn their focus from power and sport-specific performance to gaining strength. However, that’s not to say they become unnecessary during pre- and in-season; quite the opposite! The transition of the season merely means we change the purpose of the lifts, not entirely remove them. The same is true with everyday lifters and Weekend Warriors; as long as they do not cause you pain (soreness doesn’t count), the “Big 3” are appropriate tools to help you gain strength on a regular basis.

Where: For these three staple lifts, you’re going to need a barbell for all three, a bench for the press that allows your feet to touch the ground, and a rack to place the bar. Fancy extras: weight plates, squat shoes, wrist wraps and belts. As needed!

How Much/How Often: The current science suggests that a good rule for frequency of these lifts is 2x/wk for each. This gives each muscle group (and, you know, your nervous system) adequate time to recover between sessions for each specific lift. More likely than not, unless you are a competitive or serious powerlifter, you won’t be doing all three lifts in one session, so you can spread your lifts across multiple days for the highest-qualify effort. For absolute starters, a 5×5 rep scheme is regarded as king for neuromuscular development.

The Relatives.

If you are uncomfortable with or unable to execute the Back Squat, Bench Press or Deadlift, you experience pain while executing them, or you simply don’t need the strictness of these movements in your program every week, never fear! There are many alternatives to the “Big 3” lifts, which work the same muscles across the same planes. Sometimes we, as coaches, find these movement variations more appropriate or applicable in any given scenario.

No rack and can’t back squat? Add in a bodyweight squat, a goblet squat, a front-rack dumbbell squat, a barbell clean + front squat, an overhead squat, a TRX or strap-assisted squat, a box squat, a single-leg squat or a medicine-ball or sandbag squat.

Your dad’s rusty bench finally broke and you can’t bench? Modify to a narrow or wide-grip pushup, a floor press, a banded press, a block press, a dumbbell incline or decline press, or a flat bench or legless press.

Just really tired of conventional deadlifts? Try PVC hinges, dumbbell or kettlebell deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, hex-bar deadlifts, snatch-grip deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, or sliding lunge deadlifts.


The Big 3 lifts deserve a place in nearly every program, as the benefits to both sports and general physical training are undeniable. However, anyone who trains can reap the rewards of these movements even while using variations or modifications in their program. You might surprise yourself and find that, before long, you become good friends with your barbell, as so many of us have in the last century. After all, who doesn’t want a healthy nervous system, strong mind, and a durable body?


Whatever you are, be a good one.
Julia Eyre, CSCS/FMS-2/USAW