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Are The Squat, Bench Press & Deadlift REALLY Irreplaceable?

Image result for the big three compound lifts

Some movements evoke more excitement in you than others. You love a set of bicep curls. You like tricep pressdowns. Dare I say the bench press? What about leg pressing heavy? I’m making you want to go and train now, aren’t I?

If those were all it took to build a fully functional, athletic and aesthetic body most coaches would be out of a job, because nobody gets bored with mirror muscle work! You love it because it’s easy. Who needs a pre-workout for an arms session?! If anything you need convincing not to substitute what was supposed to be leg day for a short arm pump up.

Image result for skip leg day for arms

You can go ahead and do that arm day if you like or make substitutes but will the online lifting police approve? If you’re not doing the time tested ‘staples’ sung about by the gurus, will you be hindering your gains?

Because of the huge hype surrounding some exercises (usually due to gym folklore or excessive media exposure) you can find yourself almost worshiping moves and believing you must use them at all times, no exceptions.

Here are some classic examples and the classic hype associated with them:

Squats –

‘Back squatting causes a massive surge in your testosterone’

‘Back squats set the men from the boys so if you’re not squatting, you’re weak. Plain and simple.’ 

Bench Press –

‘Bench press is the best chest builder’ 

‘Bench press is the truest test of upper body strength around’

Deadlifts – 

‘Deadlifts are the KEY to muscle gain and an absolute STAPLE in any program’ 

‘All the isolation work in the world is wasted if you don’t just pick up some heavy ass iron!’

‘The Deadlift works EVERY muscle in the body’

Direct Core Work –

‘Training abs is key to a flat stomach’

‘The only way to target a weak core is to train it in isolation’

‘You should train abs everyday’

Of course these are some comedic examples and ones most people know are flat out BS. But on a serious note, it’s very common to attain a certain level of strength within a lift/skill/move and brainwash yourself into believing you must train the move incessantly in order to even retain your ability within the move itself.

We’ve seen the guys benching 3 times per week with a max out at least once per week to make sure they can still push 100 kg. We’ve even seen people hit their max after their warm up and before their work sets just to double check nothing has gone.

I’ve struggled with this myself, particularly as I’ve now gone more down the calisthenics side of things as of late and the draw of calisthenics is the attainment and refinement of skills/moves. If you come from a weights background this is akin to adding another 10 kg to a lift or finally being able to overhead squat X amount of weight at last.

There would be so many times I’d begrudge rest days or even piss and moan about overuse pains I’d get but still refuse to stop the offending move in question. My ‘rationale’ was: ‘But if I stop doing muscle ups, I’ll get weaker and probably lose the move! Not worth the risk. Fuck it, I’m going to keep doing em’.

Needless to say this doesn’t pan out at all in the real world. Your body doesn’t lose strength that quick at all. You can stop bench pressing and work on dips and still retain (and likely build) strength. You can stop back squatting and front squat and still come back with a bigger back squat. You can leave the deadlift alone and work on single leg Romanian deadlifts and still maintain leg size and strength. Outrageous claims I know.

And in actual fact, the longer you’ve been using them lifts, the more beneficial it would be to take some time away from the moves themselves in order to work on derivatives of them. Not least due to the new stimulus provided but also, as I alluded to a moment ago, to strengthen any weak links in the moves themselves. Your triceps might be limiting your bench press strength, Your hamstrings could be hindering your deadlift……

There is a ton of carryover and crossover in the fitness world between moves, and you can go a long long time without doing something and still be better than you was when you last tried it – providing you’ve been training properly!

A real world example is my own bench press, which I NEVER ever train. I randomly tested my 1RM for shits and giggles some months back and it had increased more than 10 kg from last time! And that’s without any weight training at all. Yep, none at all.

The bottom line is: Chill the fuck out. If you’re bored with a routine or movement, change it slightly. If you have pain in any way from something, change it! If progress has stalled and you’re not sure how to kickstart it again, change something! Don’t be afraid to. No move is totally irreplaceable and there’s ALWAYS a sensible option or substitute. Work hard at the new move and when you come back I’m certain you’ll be better.

If you’re unsure how to implement this exactly and would like help, email me ( I work remotely and in person with dozens of people per week.

Thanks for reading. 

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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