The Big 3: Bench Press, Deadlift and Back Squat

The Big 3: Bench Press, Deadlift and Back Squat

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the big 3 exercises

If you go to the gym enough you may hear people talking about the big 3. They are the Bench Press, Deadlift, and Back Squat. They are, what’s called, a compound lift. A compound lift is working for two or more muscle groups VS isolation exercises that only work one.

So what makes the top three the best compound movements?

Well, for one, one of the most popular bodybuilders, Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke very highly of the three movements.

In his book, The Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, Arnold confesses to the beginning as a power-lifter and said it gave him the “thickness“. His classic work also references scientific studies proving that compound movements with free weights increase testosterone.

Every lifter can benefit a lot from the big 3 to include Soldiers, Policemen, Firemen, Men, Women, and everyone in between.

I will go over some benefits of the big 3 and then I will go over some key things to think about when lifting, such as breathing, bracing and rooting.

Benefits of The Big 3

Some benefits of the big 3 are:

    • Testosterone.  The big three, when performed with free weight, will cause the body to increase production of testosterone. This, in turn, gives the athlete strength and muscle growth. Using all those muscles in a compound movement and increased testosterone will result in more muscle mass.
    • Core Strength
      The big three, especially the squat and deadlift increase core strength. Having strong back and abdominal muscles have benefits. For military and first responders, this will help with the added weight you would carry. Having core strength would alleviate a lot of back pain.
    • Hormone Level
      Studies have shown big, compound movements, such as the big 3, raise levels of hormones that are responsible for muscular hypertrophy that work much better than isolation exercises.

The Big 3 Common Mistakes

I have seen some common mistakes when it comes to the big 3 and lifting overall. I will go over some of them. These mistakes can be avoided by leaving your ego at the door when stepping into the gym.

      • Back Squat– buckle of the knees, arch of the back, and squat too shallow.
      • Deadlift– People tend to pull instead of push when dead-lifting. I think of pushing my feet through the floor. People also arch their back, bend their arms, round their backs and look up to the sky.
      • Bench Press– I see people who chicken wing the lift, which puts a huge burden on their shoulders. Too much or too little arch in their backs and their wrists are bent back vs straight.

These are just some of the common mistakes I see, there are plenty more that I am sure you can list.

I will now discuss three key techniques to use to be successful in lifting the big 3 and in any other lift.

Technique

An important fact with any movement done in the gym is proper technique. As I wrote above, there is a saying “leave your ego at the door,” which rings true. I have seen too many guys and gals get hurt just because they wanted to show-off. Don’t fall into those traps. If you see someone lift more than you, it means they put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to where they are. Admire that, appreciate the work that person put in and then continue with your lifts.

There are three things I would like to go over when it comes to lifting. They are breathing, rooting and bracing. They are probably the three most important part of lifting.

      • Breathing
        If you watch enough videos of Olympic athletes prepare for their lifting, you see them take these deep breaths before they commit to the lift. They take one final breath and execute their lift.

A common mistake, when it comes to breathing, is when you take a deep breath, you breathe into your chest.

In reality, you should breathe into your stomach. The reason for that is so when you take that deep breath it forces your organs to move over so you can stabilize your spine when you brace. I will get into bracing in a minute.

I know it doesn’t “look good” when your stomach is pushed out. In the world of self-image and having that “perfect body”, breathing into your stomach isn’t an ideal look but it’s about doing your lifts safely rather than sloppy.

How should your stomach look when you take that deep breath?

It should look like a basketball.

When taking your deep breath, think of breathing into the bottom of your stomach to the top.

How to work on your breathing?

There are several exercises you could do to help you work on your breathing. One of my favorite ones and lying on the floor face down. Take a deep breath into your stomach and try to expand your belly all the way around. Think of an alligator and think of what it looks like when it breaths and mimic that.

      • Rooting
        What is Rooting? Rooting is getting a solid foundation between your foot and the floor. Many lifters do not really think about how important this connection is, especially when doing lifts like the squat and deadlift. When executing those lifts, we drive against the floor to move the weights upward. The feet must be “rooted” correctly to transfer maximum power up from the bottom of your feet, up to the bar.

Rooting also causes the activation of the muscles used in the lift just by rooting your feet to the floor.

So when you get under the bar and begin your squat, for example, you constantly remind yourself “knees out” or “sit back.” Those are great reminders to help you “root” to the floor.

How does rooting start?

We always hear from trainers to “drive with your heels”, that is correct in one part of the lift but it sometimes causes us to forget about the rest of the foot.

So you get up to the bar, whether you are squatting or deadlifting, Once in position for the lift, you will have weight through the whole foot but most of the weight will still be on the heels. You will then spread our toes out as wide as you can and grip the floor with them. You are now trying to grip the floor with the whole foot and not just the toes.

Another way to think about this is to think of as a bird standing on a branch. A bird grips the branch with its talons. So now picture yourself on that branch and you are gripping the branch with your toes and rest of your foot.

If this is done correctly all the muscles in your legs will activate. Putting the foot in the correct position and rooting it to the floor automatically engages all the muscles needed to generate the power you need to lift.

      • Bracing
        Bracing is a key building block in the foundation of strength. It is one of the most important aspects of lifting and is an easy concept but usually takes a fair amount of work and practice to master.

I am going to list some common mistakes I have seen, when it comes to bracing:

People breathing into their lunges vs their stomachs. Like I wrote above, you need to breathe into your stomach.

Some gym goers think breathing is bracing, which is not the case.

People sucking in their abs in and trying to tighten them. This is very dangerous and it takes stability away from your core.

How do you Brace?

When you breathe into your stomach you have to expand all the muscles of the midsection while pushing them all out as far as possible. This does not mean pushing your belly out. Your whole midsection should be expanding to include your sides and back. It’s just like blowing up a balloon. Bracing occurs when you actively expand your entire midsection out in all directions to include your back to help stabilize your spine.

 

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Conclusion

We went over a lot of information in regards to the big 3. The most important takeaways of what I discussed is not just the benefits but also the techniques to think about while working on the big 3. Bracing, Breathing and Rooting are all important when lifting. You can use them in any of your lifts. You can even practice them outside the gym, when lifting groceries, picking up your kids, etc. For cops, firefighters and military members that carry a lot of gear those three techniques will save your back.

If you have any other questions please feel free to reach out to me through my Instagram and I will try to help any way that I can.

So enjoy your lifting, leave your ego at the door, and as always have fun.

-Detective Ayman Kafel

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Ayman Kafel

Contributor at Gym Junkies LLC
Ayman is a US Army veteran, served in Iraq, over 10 years in law enforcement and on SWAT. He has dedicated his life to helping others. After seeing other cops let themselves go after the police academy, he became inspired to keep pushing himself and be an example for his fellow officers to stay healthy. He has inspired many in his Police Department to begin or re-ignite their fitness journey. He continues to help other veteran and first responders by designing a customized workout program. He encourages, he motivates and he pushes people to not quit on themselves. If you have any questions feel free to reach out on Instagram @American Iron Savage.
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