I’m going to start this article by saying that powerlifting as a sport, is awesome. I have a massive amount of respect for those that compete or train as a powerlifter – the amount of weight some of these guys can lift is insane.

However, as much as I respect powerlifting, it’s not what I do. And it’s not what people follow me & read my content for (at least I hope not as I know nothing about it).

Now, the people that do follow me are mostly interested in building muscle and developing a physique, which is what I train for & what my clients train for.

There seems to be an ‘unwritten rule’ in gyms nowadays that if you want to get big, you’ve got to squat, bench and deadlift. These are all excellent exercises in their own right, but by focusing purely on these lifts, we cross over more into the strength training realm and stray from our original goal – building muscle.

I see this all the time with beginners. They come in the gym with the goal of building muscle, and immediately get caught up in how much weight they can move on the big power lifts.

If your goal is to get strong on the power lifts, fantastic. And good luck to you.

But if your goal is to build muscle, you need a slightly different approach in my opinion.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

Let’s strip this right down to basics and make things as simple as possible. If the goal is muscle building, every single time you step in the gym you need to be focused on contracting your muscle tissue as hard as you can. NOT how much weight you can lift (at least not in the early stages).

In last week’s article I mentioned execution of movements, and I’m going to stress the importance again today. You 100% need to be spending a certain amount of time (be that a week, a month or anywhere in between) learning proper muscular contraction and perfecting exercise execution.

In this period of training (which I’ll refer to as the ‘execution phase’), your goal should be to lighten the weights, learn how to properly contract your muscles and fatigue them against minimal load. You’re not looking to reach failure at all in this phase, the goal is to prime your nervous system to be able to contract muscles on queue so it takes a lot of focus and concentration (something most people lack).

Personally, and this is especially true for beginners, I don’t think you should be performing an awful lot of the deadlift, squat or bench press in this initial phase. While these ARE fantastic exercises (I’ll move on to the benefits later), they are extremely complex movements and are difficult to perform while properly contracting muscle tissue.

Beginners and people going through an execution phase (which I believe should be revisited every 12-16 weeks even for advanced trainees), are usually much better suited to a majority of machine work while in the gym. The reason for this is that a machine is usually on a fixed path or plane of movement, leaving no room for manoeuvre. This means you have much more control over the weight, and are able to learn how to contract muscles much faster, so you can progress onto different kinds of movement and translate what you learned in the early days.

But Don’t Big Weights = Big Muscles?

Yes, I hear you. There’s only so long you can spend priming your nervous system and lifting the pink dumbbells, at some point you need to be progressing the amount of load you’re lifting. HOWEVER…

This is all under the massive caveat that firstly, you’ve completed the execution phase that I outlined above and learned how to properly perform movements and contract muscle tissue.

Secondly, weight should not progress at the expense of technique. The moment form starts to break down in a set (i.e. swinging your hips on a bicep curl) you’re losing tension on the muscle and reaching a point of diminishing returns.

You should always be looking to get as strong as possible in the gym. Strength is a component that cannot be ignored by people wanting to build muscle if they want to make progress.

But – and this is a massive Kardashian-sized butt – you must remember that strength is RELATIVE to the goal (muscle building and physique development). The way you perform movements at the height of a strength or heavy lifting phase should look the EXACT same as when you’re learning the movements in the execution phase.

So if you want to progress lifts and make yourself stronger when you train chest, you must make sure that it’s actually your chest that’s getting stronger. It’s all well and good executing movements perfectly pressing 10kg dumbbells, but if you then try and lift the 40’s and use more delts and triceps than pecs – you’re completely defeating the object. Hopefully I’ve made my point and you’re not completely lost or bored at this point.

The Big 3 Lifts – When CAN I Use Them?

So in case of confusion here, I’m not ‘hating’ on the squat, deadlift an bench press for muscle building. There’s a reason these exercises have been a staple for bodybuilders for generations, and that reason is that they f*cking work. They’re big, energy expending lifts that have the potential to really help you add some quality mass to your frame. But when’s the best time to use them?

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The Squat

Well let’s start by using the squat as an example. The prime movers and muscles that are going to be under load when performing a squat are the quads and glutes. Depending on how you move, your lever length and biomechanical makeup (determined literally by your genetics), you will either naturally have a ‘quad dominant’ or ‘glute dominant’ way of squatting. The good news is there are things you can do to take the emphasis off or put it on to one muscle more or less than the other, but this takes time and practice.

So we’ve got the quads and glutes under load in a squat. Now, if you have a distinct inability to be able to contract your glutes, you’re not going to be able to develop them very well in a squat (bad news for all those girls who do 100000 squats trying to build ‘dat bootay’).

A possible solution here is to regress the complex exercise of a squat right back down to an isolation movement, like the glute bridge. Spend time learning this exercise and learning how to contract your glutes in a fully shortened position and make sure you can feel every single rep (even with no weight).

The same goes for quads – if you struggle to properly contract your quads, it might be worth regressing right back down to the leg extension and learning how to get your quads fully contracted.

The other thing to consider with this exercise is squatting with a bar across your back isn’t the ONLY way to squat. If, biomechanically speaking, you’re not really ‘set up’ to squat optimally with a bar across your back, you don’t need to do it for leg development. It IS a fantastic exercise if you can execute it properly, but if you can’t it’s not a signal to give up on leg day, have a massive strop and hit chest and biceps every day for a month (again).

Front squats, dumbbell squats (quad or glute emphasis), hack squats, box squats, V-squats, pendulum squats… the list goes on. So it puzzles me why we seem to be so fixated on this one exercise when there are so many alternatives. Yes, the back squat has it’s place. Of course it does. But, like I said, if your priority isn’t to get really strong at that specific lift – you might not need to hit it every single session.

The Deadlift

“Not a lot of people have the flexibility, mobility, strength and training experience to deadlift clean off the floor”

– Mark Coles

Before I start here I’m going to precursor this part of the article by saying I’m not just some jumped up kid that’s never stepped in a gym before, I have actually been there and done it, tried things out for myself & I’m talking from a position of some experience here.

I used to go in the gym and start every back and leg day with max deadlifts (the exact thing I’m telling you not to do), so I’m encouraging you to learn from my mistakes so you don’t end up with the faulty movement patterns and injuries that I’ve had to work through (trust me, they’re annoying).

If I acquire a new client who’s primary goal is to build muscle, I ain’t gonna start them off on a deadlift, that’s one thing I can guarantee.

What I will do, is break down their movement patterns and teach them elements that might be involved in a deadlift, and the first of which is a very simple one, but most people can’t do it: The hip hinge.

This basically, as the name suggests, involves you flexing and extending at the hip joint separate to anything else. It teaches you proper glute activation, strength through the spinal erectors and can even contribute to better posture if you’re performing it properly.

So initially I’d go for something like a 45 degree hip extension, isolate movement at the hip joint and then progress on to things like the straight leg deadlift, good mornings, Romanian deadlifts etc.

Once you’re a few weeks down the line & have developed some good movement patterns through the hips and surrounding musculature, you can then consider progressing to something called a Rack Pull.

The rack pull is essentially the ‘top part’ of a deadlift, where the bar sits on the safety bars of a squat rack at around knee height, and is a great tool to help you get some awesome contractions and tension through the glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps… All of the posterior chain really.

After you’ve mastered the rack pull, it totally depends on your strength and mobility through the hips, ankles etc as to whether the deadlift would be a good option for your physique development.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Can you get an incredible physique without deadlifting? Yes. Can you get an incredible physique with the deadlift as a major part of your training? Yes. It’s all individual dependant. It’s also all relative to your goals. As I said at the beginning of this article, if your goal is to be a powerlifter you kinda need to deadlift. If you goal is muscle building, it’s not quite as essential and you need to look at what exercises will be most effective for your muscular development.

The Bench Press

The bench press is probably the most ‘go to’ exercise for lads to start every chest day.

Again, excellent exercise to stack some mass on the ol’ pecs when done correctly. But the issue with this one is, it’s probably the most ‘ego lifter’ abused exercise in the gym (I’m not comparing ego lifting to powerlifting, two separate things).

If your goal is to build muscle and nothing else, why you’re going in the gym and testing your 1 rep max bench press is quite honestly beyond me. You are not going to get sufficient muscular stimulation from doing sets of 1 rep to elicit growth. Sure, you might get stronger at doing sets of 1, but you’ve got to look at your goal. And for the 100000th time this article (real stat), I’ll say that if that’s your goal then cool – you don’t need to be reading my stuff. If you goal is to build muscle, when you train chest you need to be concerned with how hard you can contract your pecs against a load, and how long you can keep them under consistent tension for.

Let’s break down chest training for a second so you get a clearer picture of what’s going on:

The function of the pec is to bring the arm towards the midline of the body. So the pec is there to perform an ‘out to in’ movement of the arm, not an ‘up and down’ movement which normally happens when the bench press gets too heavy.

So with that in mind, all chest exercises can largely be grouped together as essentially doing the same thing: bringing the elbow away from the body (stretching the pec), and back towards the midline (contracting the pec). Obviously different angles (incline, decline) hit different fibres of the pecs, but the framework remains the same.

Now, let’s return to the bench press. With what we know about pec function in mind, the bench press becomes a very different exercise.

The lowest point we need to go on a bench press then becomes how wide we can get our elbows while keeping tension on the pecs (which isn’t always ‘touching’ the bar to your chest as we’ve always been told). From this bottom position, the object then becomes to drive our elbows across our body, rather than simply to push the weight up. Hopefully that makes sense.

Wrapping Up

So if you’ve made it this far down the page, fair play to you. I hope the information I’ve spewed out has firstly made sense, and secondly helped you have a clearer picture of where to add these lifts into your training programme (if at all).

Like I’ve said throughout this piece, I’m not against big lifting. I’m not against heavy lifting. They all have their place in physique development & I am a big fan of incorporating them when needed.

However, you’ve got to remember that it all must stay relative to the goal, muscle building.

Don’t get caught up in the numbers on the bar, don’t just chase weight all the time at the expense of technique and tension – and if you do decide to use the big lifts make sure they’re productive & structured towards getting you closer to YOUR goal, not somebody else’s.



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