The Big Three

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For anyone who has ever used any type of workout program, you most likely have heard of the big three.  I am referring to the “three kings” of exercises. The Squat, the DeadLift, and the Bench Press are the exercises I am referring to. Without these three exercises power lifting would not even exist. These exercises are not only considered the exercises of the manly man but they are also three of the best exercises, if not the best exercises for improving fitness goals. So if you’re not a power lifter why should you even care about “the big three”, because they are the most effective and versatile exercises a person can have in their workout. The “Big Three” can also be referred to as Upper Body, Lower Body, and All Around cause that is what these three exercises do. You could make some pretty significant changes to your body using a program that only had these three exercises in them.


So what makes them better than any other old exercise? First off they are what you call compound exercises. Compound exercises are exercises that work a lot of muscle groups and joints at one time. A few things about compound movements:


  • Compound movements use more muscle fibers to complete a movement

Isolation movements like leg extensions target one muscle area the quads, when you do a compound movement like a squat you hit your quads, hamstrings, butt, adductors, adductors, calves, and various other muscles in the legs. You get more bang for your buck.

  • Compound movements give you more results in less time

You get more results in less time with compound movements because you end up working harder with each lift. When you use more muscle groups your energy output is more, by outputting more energy each lift you end up spending less time in the gym. So whether your goal is to lose weight or gain muscle by outputting more energy you can achieve one or the other or both in less time.

  • Compound movements  give a greater release of hormones

The more stressful an exercise is on the body the more the body will release hormones. One prime example is Growth Hormones. Growth Hormone helps burn body fat and build more muscle.

  • Compound movements give you more time to focus on other things

When you achieve better results in less time you have more time to focus on other aspects of your training. You can have more time to dedicate to your diet, cardio ,and or muscle stretching.

  • Compound movements teach better balance and stability

Most compound movements are done with free weights. When your body uses free weights it has to stabilize and balance on it’s own unlike machines. Since you are already using more muscles by doing compound exercises, you build stability and balance in more areas.

  • Compound movements help you burn fat better

By working harder and using more muscles you also burn more calories. By burning more calories you can burn fat easier. A second compound movements help you burn fat better is because you can build muscle faster with compound movements. Whenever you have more muscle, you can burn body fat easier. More muscle equals more fat burning.


Now lets look at the “Big Three” individually and some of their benefits.


The Squat- The squat is by far the king of the lower body. Squats build strength and size in your lower body and define your gluts. They increase jumping ability, lower body stability total power. Squats also strengthen your upper body to a degree and help strengthen and improve joint mobility. Squats can be so taxing that they also help cardiovascular function.


Unfortunately the King of the lower body is plagued with bad rumors about him.

 There are men and women who routinely perform squats with hundreds of pounds over their body weight incident free. Everyone should be able to free weight squat their bodyweight at least once in good form. If you can’t, there is a goal for you. When performed properly there is no better exercise for the lower body than the squat. The key to great gains from squats is proper technique.

“Squats are more harm than good.”

People who get hurt from squatting are people who either use bad technique, too much weight, or improper mechanics. This is also a great excuse for people who do not like squatting. If something is bad for you why do it, that is much easier than saying these are good for you but can be really really hard. How many times do you see people in the gym with well developed upper bodies but lacking in the leg department.

 The first thing they usually say is “I work my legs but they just do not grow!”

The first thing I ask is do you squat. Usually you will get a response like “No squatting is not for me or sometimes but not often.”

If you do get a yes, I ask to see them squat and when you see their technique you can see the problem right away. Usually their legs don’t grow because their technique is off.

“Squats are bad for your knees.”

Guess what; leg presses, leg extentions, or any leg exercise done incorrectly can be hell on your knees. Squats get a bad rap for this because bad squatting technique does tend to put more stress on the knees than any other leg exercise. Add the fact that squats are hard anyway and here is the urban legend about how bad squats are for you. Squatting with proper technique not only build and strengthen your legs but actually improve your knee joint strength and flexibility.

I worked with a client who constantly complained she could not do squats because they hurt her knees. After working with her and improving her technique, she routinely free weight squats around two hundred pounds for reps.

Three of the worst offenders of the knees with squatting are:

  • Positioning of the knees when squatting

When squatting your toes should be pointed slightly outward. Your knees should follow your toes. By pushing the knees outwards, it takes a lot of pressure off of the knees when they are pointed forward. Make sure to also keep pushing your knees out when coming up from a squat. Knees buckling in place a lot of tork on the knees.

  • Stopping at parallel when squatting

Think of your knee joint as a door hinge. A door hinge is strongest fully opened or fully closed. When a door hinge is at 90* it is at it’s weakest point. The same can be said for the knee joint. At 90* the hamstrings are not allowed a full stretch. This places most of the force applied against the leg forward and upward from the quad and their attachment to the front of the leg below the knee. This places a tremendous shearing force on the kneecap. Squats should always be taken just below parallel or as deep as you can comfortably go. If you can not hit below parallel with the weight your using then you need to drop the weight till you can get down in the right range of motion. Squats tend to be safer than even leg extentions for knees but that is another discussion for another time.

  • Weak muscles

Inflexible muscles also put a ton of force on your knees. Try squatting with really tight hamstrings and see how productive that is. In the same token if a muscle is weak another muscle usually compensates by taking over most of the work. If you squat and your thighs and lower back are doing most of the work it means your hamstring and glutes are weak. Glutes and hamstrings play a big role in knee flexibility, so if your not getting proper strength or flexibility from either your knees will hurt.


“I squatted before but got nothing out of them.”

If you can’t get gains in your whole body from squatting, you might as well quit lifting. Squats build the lower body massively but put a bit of stress on the upper body to also help it grow. Squats like any other exercise, to be successful you have to pay your dues. The problem most people have with paying their dues to squats is the dues are much harder to pay. You don’t become the king of lower body exercises without being hard and casting fear in some. Some people never miss an opportunity to leg press but always find a way to avoid squatting from week to week.


Performing the Squat:

  • Step under the bar, letting it rest across the back of your delts. Make sure the barbell is centered on your back. If it is resting on your neck and traps it’s too high. Placing the barbell low across the delts gives you greater leverage and power.

Bar Placement

  • Grip the barbell tightly. Bring your hands in as close to your shoulders as you can comfortably. Bringing your grip in tighter will keep your upper body tight throughout the lift increasing your stability and help keep your back flat.
  • Place your feet close together directly under the bar. Take a deep breath into your chest and lift the bar out of the rack with your legs.
  • Take at least two, but no more than three short, steps back from the rack to set up.
  • Use a foot placement that is comfortable for you. Different placement of your feet will have different advantages and disadvantages. Find the one that is most comfortable for you.
  • Point your toes in the same direction your knees are pointed – with a narrow stance they should be pointed slightly forward, with a wider stance they will be angled out. This will prevent binding in your knees and hips.
  • When ready to squat, take another deep breath into your chest and hold it. Tighten your abs.
  • Your descent should begin with your hips breaking before your knees. Sit into the squat as if sitting into a chair.
  • Keep your head and chest up, and your back flat throughout entire lift.
  • Descend until your thighs are just below parallel with the floor.
  • Drive the weight back up explosively. Keep your head and chest up and drive down through your heels to maximize the use of your hamstrings and glutes. Force your knees out as you drive through the lift.
  • Complete the lift by pushing out your knees, forcing your hips forward and bringing your back fully erect. Exhale as you begin locking the weight out.
  • Select a weight that you can perform all of your repetitions using proper technique. On your last 1-2 sets, your last repetitions should be very difficult, but you should maintain good form.



The Bench Press- Who does not know the bench press? It is probably the most famous upper body movement around. How much do you bench? I think that question is probably asked of every male and some females that had ever worked out in their life. The bench is one of the best upper body movements around. Notice I did not say chest movements but upper body movements. Bench Presses are great for the chest, shoulders, triceps, rear delts, and to a small degree the lats. That is almost your entire upper body worked in one simple exercise. Even though it’s considered the manly mans’ exercise, bench presses are great for women also. Because of the heavy compound movement that it is, bench pressing is great for women because it can help shape a woman’s cleavage. The motion of the bench press help firm and lift the chest area on women. Bench Pressing will also shape the arms and upper body frame better because of the work it places on the triceps and front shoulders. Many women try and incorporate push ups in their workout anyway, a bench press really is just a more advanced form of a push up.  Unlike his buddy the squat, the bench press often gets too much attention leading to some people getting injured from bench pressing.

A few things to remember about Bench Pressing:

  • Do Not Bench Press to often

Because Bench Pressing is a Compound exercise you use more muscle fibers to work. The more muscles you use the more recovery time your body is going to need.  Bench Pressing also uses a lot of shoulder and tricep muscles. They are smaller muscles and should not be worked as hard or often as some of your larger muscles or you could end up injured.

  • Use weight that you can handle

Remember the Bench Press is for your upper body not your ego, you don’t want to end up seriously injured by getting weight too heavy for you stuck on your chest or neck. Another thing to remember is you use a lot of stabilizer muscles and joints to bench press. If you use weight that is too heavy you could tear a muscle or injure a joint from them not being able to handle the weight.

  • Use proper form when Bench Pressing

Proper form is key when bench pressing. You want to lift in a slow controlled manner.  Wobbling, bouncing the bar off of your chest, and too much arching with your back is something that should be avoided when bench pressing.

  • Always use a spotter when using heavy weight

If you are going to use heavy weight, make sure you have a spotter just in case. Like the saying goes “Better safe than sorry!”


Performing the Bench Press:

The Setup. You need a strong base to press the weight from. Tighten your upper-back. Grip the bar hard: try to break it apart like breaking spaghetti.

  • .Grip width should be about shoulder width apart depending on your build. Forearms perpendicular to the floor when the bar touches your chest.
  • Secure the bar with your thumbs by rotating your hands in. Put the bar in the palm of your hand, close to your wrist.
  •  Squeeze your shoulder-blades before getting on the bench. Keep your shoulder-blades back & down at all times This gives your body a solid base to press the bar from.
  • Don’t allow your chest to go flat or shoulders to roll forward. You’ll lose upper-back tightness, losing power & increasing risk of shoulder injury. Keep your chest up at all time.
  • Use a wide foot stance to increase stability on the bench. Feet flat on the floor, weight on the heels, lower leg perpendicular to the floor. This prevents extreme arching of your lower back.

The  Press. Remember to keep the tight position during the Bench Press from start to finish. Squeeze the bar, keep your upper-back tight & your chest up. Unrack the weight with straight arms. Bench.

  • Touch your chest where your forearms are perpendicular to the floor when looking from the side.
  • . Don’t look at the bar. Fix a point at the ceiling. Press the bar in a straight line above your chest, not towards your face. Keep the bar above your elbows during the whole lift.




The Deadlift- The King of kings as far as compound exercises is concerned. The deadlift is the true measure of pure strength because it uses almost all your muscles in your body. The major muscles worked by the deadlift are the quads, hamstrings, butt, abs, erectors, lats, traps, biceps, triceps, delts, and a whole bunch of other little stabilizer muscles. The deadlift works the joints of the ankles, knees, hips, vertebrae, shoulders, wrist, and fingers.This is an exercise every man, woman, and or beast should have in their workout. Gorillas are even known to perform a move similar to the deadlift, when moving trees in the wild. There is no one exercise that is more taxing on the body due to the amount of muscles used to perform it.

 For men Deadlifts are great because it is the fastest way to build muscle mass and raw strength. Deadlifts, because they are so taxing they release a lot of growth hormone and testosterone in the body. Deadlifts are big and brutish but can also have a gentler side for the ladies. Traditionally women tend to be less flexible in the hamstrings than men. Women also tend to have weaker hamstrings. Deadlifts can help with both of these problems. Deadlifts can also lift and firm a woman’s butt because you use a lot of glute muscles when you deadlift.

The Deadlift is a great all around strength builder in both sexes. It will build not only raw power but explosive strength also. The Deadlift is great for teaching balance and coordination because it has so many multi plain and multi joint movements to it. Deadlifts also burn a lot of calories so they are beneficial for fat burning.


Performing the Deadlift
Beginning position

  1. Feet should be flat on the floor about shoulder width apart in the conventional style and slightly farther apart in the sumo style.
  2. Grip bar with a closed, alternate grip (one palm facing you the other away from you).
  3. Knees should be flexed as in a full squat position.
  4. Bar should be as close to the shins as possible.
  5. Back should be flat.
  6. Head should be up or in a neutral position.

Upward movement

  1. Begin pull by extending at the hips and knees, such that the hips and shoulders move at the same rate, keeping the back flat, with the shoulders above or slightly in front of bar.
  2. As the bar passes your knees, thrust hips forwards and your shoulders back.
  3. The hips and knees should be fully extended, and your shoulders back (as opposed to rounded forward).

Downward Movement

  1. In the downward phase, release the tension in your muscles so that gravity alone allows the bar to descend to the floor.
  2. Do not attempt to lower the bar at an extremely slow rate, as the eccentric stress is taxing and causes undue micro trauma and vertebral stress.
  3. The lift ends when the bar is motionless on the floor in front of you.

A few things to remember about the Deadlift:

  • Your back should be flat throughout the movement.
  • At no portion of the lift should your back or shoulders be rounded  keep the bar as close to the shins as possible during the initial pull, and as close to your thighs as possible after the bar passes your knees.
  • Feet should always be flat on the floor, with your center of gravity over the back half of your feet.
  • Exhale through the sticking point of the pull (some lifters find it advantageous to exhale forcefully as in screaming).
  • Do not jerk the bar off the floor. The pull should be a smooth, max effort from the beginning.
  • Pay attention to good form. If your technique begins to break down from the sheer weight on the bar, you predispose yourself to injury. Rounding of your back, knees buckling inward and initiating the pull with your back instead of legs and hips are examples of common technique errors that are potentially damaging.
  • Because of the many muscles involved in the lift, you may require more rest between sets than normal.

Once you master the “Big Three” your overall fitness will improve a great deal. Can you go beyond the best exercises for even better fitness improvements? Coming up soon, we will look at variations of the “Big Three” to target more specific muscle groups.