Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Weightlifting: Picking the Big Three

The big three is a term used by weightlifters (typically powerlifters) to refer to the back squat, deadlift, and bench press. These are the competitive lifts of powerlifting, and because powerlifting is one of the most popular strength sports in the world (especially in America), a lot of athletic and recreational training revolves around those lifts. They seemingly cover all the bases: the back squat develops the legs and glutes, the deadlift the legs and back, and the bench press the shoulders, pectorals, and triceps. However, I don't believe these are the best options for most people doing weight training. Not everyone has the desire to compete in powerlifting; most people just want to get stronger, more athletic, and more muscular. I've recently changed my training focus from powerlifting to my own big three. Below are my reasons.

Front squat vs. back squat. Above is a picture of a back squat. Notice anything? Perhaps the near horizontal back angle or her ass shoved way back? In a heavy back squat, the hips and lower back take a lot of the load. If your interested in maximally developing the quadriceps, which are essential in sprinting or jumping, the front squat is a much better choice.

In the above photo, the woman is maintaining a vertical back angle, putting more the weight of the load on her quadriceps. Because the barbell is more forward of the midfoot in the front squat, the upper back is stressed more than the lower back and the hips. I've found that front squats build very strong trapezius muscles, giving your shoulders that jacked look typical of very strong individuals. In short, if you want big quads and traps, do the front squat instead of the back squat.

Military press vs. bench press. Do you want healthy shoulders? Then you should avoid the bench press. It's a great pec builder, sure, but ask anyone who's been benching heavy for several years how their shoulders feel. I'll be willing to bet that they have rotational issues, and most have probably torn something in their rotator cuff. If we want to get into the whole functional strength debate (which is stupid, because strength by its very nature is functional), the military press is a much better choice than the bench because it builds shoulder strength while using more of the entire body. Overhead pressing works the deltoids and triceps primarily, but the muscles of the lats, traps, lower back, and legs are essential for maintaining the stability to press heavy weights. It's safer, more functional, and it'll make you look buff (big shoulders trump big pecs) while keeping your rotational integrity.

Clean vs. deadlift. I love the deadlift. It's probably the best exercise for total body strength. Yet at a certain strength level (2.5 times bodyweight), the clean is more useful. It's basically a deadlift transitioning to a front squat by way of an explosive jump (make sense?). It develops power and athleticism, and it's just plain fun to take a weight from the floor to your shoulders. Sure, it's an advanced exercise, but for those in it for the long haul, I think the clean is a better choice for strength and power. If you can't clean more than fifty percent of your deadlift, I think you need to work on your explosive strength.

If you're not focused on powerlifting, switch up your big three. You'll enjoy training more, and you'll be a more diverse lifter. Stop caring about how much you bench, and start thinking about what you really want from your training.

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