What if you only trained the squat, bench press, and the deadlift?
- What kind of results would you get?
- What would your body look like?
- What would you be missing out on?
The squat, bench press, and the deadlift are three great lifts, and they make an excellent foundation in most strength training programs. Usually, however, they are combined with other exercises to fill out the missing pieces.
But what if they were all you did?
In this article, I’ll go over ten pros and cons of only training the big three.
Let’s start off with the pros.
Five Benefits of Only Training Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts
1. Your Workouts Will Be Short and Effective
If all you did was these three exercises, no matter how you distribute them over a week, you’ll probably end up with quite a short total workout time.
You could for instance be doing two or three full-body workouts, each one containing all three exercises. The workouts themselves would be of average length (and pretty exhausting), but you wouldn’t have to do more than two or three per week to get a good training effect.
Alternatively, if you prefer really short but more frequent workouts, you could do one exercise every day and just alternate between them.
- Monday: Squat
- Tuesday: Bench Press
- Wednesday: Deadlift
- Thursday: Bench Press
- Friday: Squat
- Saturday: Bench Press
- Sunday: Rest
This is how I currently train. Seeing that I work from home, have a home gym, and have three kids under the age of seven, this is a perfect match for me right now. I can’t really fit in hour-long workouts, but I can find windows of 30–40 minutes almost every day.
2. You Work Many of Your Major Muscle Groups
If you open up your StrengthLog workout tracker and plug in a squat, bench press, and a deadlift into a workout, here’s what your muscle map would look like:
These are the muscles that would be primarily and secondarily worked.
What do we mean by that?
Let’s take the bench press as an example.
In one study, seven previously untrained participants trained the bench press three times per week for five months. During this time, their chest muscles grew by 43%, while their triceps only grew by 17%.
In this case, we label the chest muscles as a primarily working muscle and the triceps as a secondarily working muscle in the bench press.
So – training the squat, bench press, and deadlift will primarily work your:
And secondarily work your:
These are some of the largest muscle groups in your body, and strengthening these will go a very long way in giving you a strong, functional, and fit body.
Your legs, hip and lower back make up your body’s main engine for moving around, and the exercises themselves resemble many of the movements you do in your every day life.
3. You’ll See Quick Progress For a Long Time
The squat, bench press, and the deadlift are fun in the sense that you can get pretty darn strong in them. The weight ceiling, so to speak, is high, which means that if you follow a decent training program, you’ll not only gain strength quickly in the beginning, but you can also keep gaining strength for a very long time.
For the beginner, this is great news. Making quick, tangible gains (adding 2.5 kg or 5 lb) in the beginning is great for your motivation, and will stimulate your will to keep showing up in the gym long enough to make it a habit.
Even when you’re years into your training, adding just one additional 2.5 kg is still very feasible when your genetic max in these lifts is somewhere in the hundreds of kilos.
4. You’ll Be Part of a Large Community
Powerlifting, or at least powerlifting-like training, is pretty popular nowadays with lots of people doing it. This means that a large community (with several sub-communities) has formed around these three lifts, and if you train them too, then that is your ticket of inclusion in these communities.
That might not mean a lot to some of you, but for others (including me), being part of this community is a great pleasure and a rich source of friends and relationships.
We’re currently trying to build one such community in our facebook group StrengthLog Forum, and you’re welcome to join us.
5. You’ll Gain Mental Clarity
Perfect is the enemy of good. And sticking to a good training program is better than quitting three workouts in on a “perfect” training program. And these three exercises definitely hold in them the capacity of a good, even great, training program.
Much of what we do in pursuit of our goals is clutter. Declutter your training and keep the 20% that gives you 80% of your results.
Limitations set you free. When you are restricted to only using the squat, bench press, and deadlift, it forces you to really think about how you are going to use them to their fullest potential, and grow from them.
Five Drawbacks of Only Training Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts
1. You Won’t Work Your Whole Body
While you train a lot of your major muscle groups with the big three, you won’t train all of them.
What if we invert the muscle map from earlier?
Meaning that the muscles that weren’t marked as neither primary nor secondary earlier are now marked in primary red because they would need the most work to compensate. The muscles marked as secondary earlier are still marked as secondary, as they would only need a little extra work.
It would look like this:
Muscles primarily lacking training from only doing squats, bench press, and deadlifts are thus:
Muscles that are only worked secondarily from the big three, and that would require some more training for optimal development are:
And no, this isn’t meant to be a 100% perfect representation, but it does give you an idea of the muscles lacking.
At the end of this article, we’ll revisit this list and see what exercises we can use to cover up some more muscle ground. But for now, let’s move on with the list of cons.
2. You’re Not Doing Any Cardio
If you go from a sedentary lifestyle to start training squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, you are probably going to see some increase in your VO2max and your general cardiovascular function.
But you would still not be doing enough to cover your cardio base completely.
Both strength training and cardio offer fantastic health benefits, but these health benefits are also slightly different. In order to reap all of the rewards, you need to be doing some of both.
3. Monotony Is a Risk
Both physically and mentally.
Physically, some might conceive only doing the big three as a high risk of wearing out your joints in those same angles. But, even if you were to substitute squats for, say, leg presses, leg extensions, and hack squats, is the load on the knee joint really so different?
I don’t think so.
More over, one of the best protections against an overuse injury from an exercise is to already be adapted to a high training volume of that particular exercise.
This means that if you can start with a low volume and gradually work your way up to a high volume of squats, bench presses, and deadlifts without doing too much too soon along the way, you are probably going to have a pretty good insurance against further overuse injuries.
How about mental monotony?
It is said that “a change is as good as a rest”, and sometimes that is definitely true. Additionally, some people thrive on variation more than others.
Personally, I believe that there are several variations of the big three that are close enough to still be “squat, bench press, and deadlift”, but different enough to provide novelty and variety.
Here are some examples of variations you could rotate in and out of your training routine:
Bench press variations:
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Feet-Up Bench Press
- Close-Grip Feet-Up Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Floor Press
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- Romanian Deadlift
- Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Pause Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift (or conventional if you’re used to doing sumo)
- Rack Pull
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Snatch Grip Deadlift
That’s quite a list. Pick and chose from that, and you can vary your big three training a lot.
4. You Might Become a One (… or Three) Trick Pony
If you only train the squat, bench press, and deadlift, you are going to get really good at those three movements.
But as soon as you venture outside those three exercises, you might see a big drop in strength and control, which in and of itself might leave you prone to injury or accidents.
Here are some things you never practice if you only train the big three:
- You’re never training with your arms above your head. All you do is horizontal pressing while lying down. Examples of exercises that might rectify this: overhead presses and lat pulldowns.
- You always train your legs while standing with your feet parallel. Never do you train in a staggered stance where most of your weight is on one leg. The latter is a very common position both in sports and in real life. Just think about team sports, hiking, carrying something up or down the stairs, etc. Examples of exercises that rectify this: Bulgarian split squats, barbell lunges, and one-legged squats.
- You’re never training balance. You always train standing on two legs, lifting fairly stable implements. Sure, I enjoy mocking unstable “functional training” as much as the next powerlifting meathead, but never challenging your balance might leave a glaring weakness in your otherwise sturdy armour. Examples of exercises that rectify this: Bulgarian split squats and barbell lunges (again, yes), one-handed overhead presses, box jumps, and one-legged deadlifts.
5. More Difficulty Getting Around Bottlenecks and Weak Links
If you’re stalling in the bench press, you might simply need to make your pecs, front delts, and triceps bigger and stronger. While the bench press is great for this, so is exercises like dumbbell flyes and tricep pushdowns. And the latter might be a little less taxing to add on top of an already large bench press training volume.
And we can find similar examples for the squat and deadlift.
The exercises themselves will of course primarily work the muscles that are most important for the lift. But what if that is not enough?
Having more tools in your toolbox gives you more opportunities for finding just what you need to progress further. And while simplicity can bring clarity (like we talked about earlier), limiting yourself for no good reason is stupid rather than smart. You can be a purist and still add in some accessory work every now and then when you need it.
What Are Some Low-Hanging Fruits to Complement the Big Three in Terms of Training?
So we’ve been through the pros and cons of only training the squat, bench press, and the deadlift.
You might be intrigued by the simplicity and minimalism of going with only the big three, but yet still acknowledge the drawbacks enough to not want to go the purist route completely.
What are some stuff you can add to quickly make your big three-training more comprehensive?
1. Add Some Cardio, Buddy
Even if this is primarily a site about strength training, there are no two ways about it: adding in some cardio training just a few times per week is probably the biggest improvement you can make on the big three approach in regard to your health and wellbeing.
Walk, jog, run, bike, swim, row – it doesn’t matter all too much, and something is better than nothing.
2. Exercises to Cover Those Missing Muscle Groups
Let’s recap by bringing back the muscle maps from before.
Here’s the muscles primarily and secondarily worked by squats, bench presses, and deadlifts.
And here is the inverse of that:
What exercises can we add to cover some of the muscles that don’t get enough love from the big three?
Here are some examples:
- Crunches. Works your abs and obliques, that, contrary to popular belief, don’t get worked very hard in the squat and deadlift.
- Leg curl. Works your hamstrings‘ knee flexing part that gets missed in the deadlift.
- Lat pulldown and/or barbell row. Works your lats, rear delts, rotator cuffs, and biceps.
- Overhead press or dumbbell lateral raise. These complement your training by working your lateral delts, although the overhead press of course works more muscles than that. If you find that the overhead press takes away too much from your bench press volume, the dumbbell lateral raise is a more economic alternative.
- Bulgarian split squats or barbell lunges. Works much of the same muscles as the squat, but they do so unilaterally, meaning one leg at a time. This trains your balance, and can help even out side to side strength imbalances.
- Barbell curl and tricep pushdown. Do you even bro, bro? These exercises will pump up your arms, if you’re into that kind of thing. And the bench press alone isn’t enough for big triceps.
- Calf raises. Works your baby cows.
That’s a Wrap
At the end of the day, only you can decide where you are going to draw the line in terms of specificity and simplicity in your training.
Don’t want to come up with a training program by yourself?
Here are some programs aimed at improving your strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift:
- Powerlifting ABC: A Complete Training Program for Powerlifting
- Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) Program for Powerlifting
- Powerlifting Polka (available in the app, article coming soon!)
Or, you can see all of our training programs for different goals here.
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Best of luck with your training, buddy.