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Why The "Big 3" Are Overrated For Muscle Growth
Breaking Down The Big 3 With Science, Logic, and Reason
This post will ruffle feathers and upset people that cling onto ideas that simply aren’t true and their egos are attached to.
A while ago I posted this tweet on Twitter:
Apparently this was enough to outrage most of “fitness twitter” and have smaller, less knowledgeable mid-wits tell me how small I am and how little I know about fitness.
This was actually a good litmus test for who knows their stuff and who doesn’t because any coach worth their salt KNOWS what I said in this tweet is objectively true.
Does this mean these exercises do not work and are bad? Absolutely not.
What it means is there are dozens of alternatives—some way more effective for muscle growth—and that we do not even need to do a single rep of deadlift, squat, or bench press to grow, well.
A common argument is “well I did the big 3 and I’m big, so they are obviously the best”… well yes, you will grow from lifting and progressively overloading over time, this isn’t the argument.
The argument is could you have done it quicker, more effectively, and would it have been less risk of injury and wear and tear on the body?
The answer is a resounding: “Yes”.
The point here is not to necessarily dissuade you from doing them—it is simply to show that they are “overrated.” Meaning most people think you *must* do them, but the reality is—in terms of building muscle mass—they are not even close to “the best” and you could develop a great physique without ever doing a single one of the big 3.
The Thought Process
While it’s true, if you got strong in the 6-20 rep range on deadlift, bench, and squat, you’d likely gain an appreciable amount of muscle and be big.
What is also true is that you could do this with practically any other movement and get the same result, but even quicker, more efficiently, and with much less risk of injury.
You have to look at lifting through a longer term lense than just a few years. This *should* be a lifelong endeavor. While, admittedly, throwing big weight on the big 3 is fun, we have to view if these in your programming is actually conducive to your goals.
Before even getting any further down this rabbit hole - if you simply enjoy these exercises, they make your training fun, please by all means do them.
This post isn’t to “shit on” these movements, but rather bring awareness that there are plenty of potentially better alternatives that can fit your goals. Many think that these 3 exercises are the end-all-be-all of lifting. However, that could not be further from the truth.
As with everything in the gym, the weight, movements, and training we do is all a tool to reach a desired outcome. There are no “rules” no “musts” you have to do to see results in the gym—outside the main principles I have outlined in other posts.
The intent here is to equip you with better knowledge to make better decisions in the gym - decisions that can help reach your goals better, more efficiently, and most importantly SAFER.
Why They Are “Overrated” For Muscle Growth
We have to look at a few factors that actually go into muscle growth + the recovery that allows muscle growth to understand why these movements are “overrated”.
First is that a good exercise is simply an exercise that properly loads the target muscle and does so efficiently.
When it comes to muscle growth, muscles are agnostic. They have no idea what exercise you are actually doing, they are just responding (growing) based on a mechanical stimulus placed on them.
The exercise that will make a muscle grow best is the one that will isolate the muscle the best. (Revisit this post).
For this we will use deadlift as an example:
The deadlift does an amazing job using total body strength to perform the lift—you cannot argue against that.
What it does not do is isolate any particular muscle very well, because of the nature that it is using the entire body.
So depending on which muscle we want to consider deadlift working—some claim back, some claim hamstrings—we have to ask if it was isolated and targeted the most efficiently.
The answer is: No.
Something to note here is that some will argue “well it’s a full body exercise, so it works the entire body, so it is superior”. While they’re not entirely wrong, I have a very valid counterargument:
If your goal is growth, then you wouldn’t care if a movement worked your entire body because you have a workout split designed to work muscle groups multiple times a week + within those workouts you have multiple movements targeting different muscles within the respective muscle groups.
Thus rendering the above argument redundant.
The other aspect we have to consider is stimulus to fatigue ratio.
This ties into the fact that a movement like squat or deadlift (we’ll get into my beef with bench later) provide a lot of fatigue in relation to the amount of stimulus they provide.
Spinal loading is going to increase the amount of central nervous system fatigue we accumulate during training. This might not seem like a big deal, which it really isn’t day to day, but where this begins to matter is when we zoom out and view the big picture.
Most people don’t take proper deloads, so that in itself is an issue, but typically after 12-16 weeks we need 7-10 days at lower volume/intensity or even off from the gym to allow our bodies the rest we need to continue to push and make better growth.
Where fatigue comes in is it makes the periods needed more frequently, instead of 16 weeks we can only go 12, or instead of 12 weeks only 8 weeks.
Not to mention, as we accumulate fatigue, we are increasing our risk of injury—as I always say “you cannot grow an injured muscle” so this becomes completely counterproductive.
The fact is, we could do much safer movements that are more effective, just less “sexy”. The reality is the big 3 are popular because of gym culture. You don’t ask someone how heavy their leg extension is… you ask about their squat.
They are ingrained in the fitness industry because at the end of the day, most people want to compare themselves and “rank” themselves against others in the gym—it’s human nature, especially with young, high testosterone males.
These movements do pose more risk for injury for the same reason that makes them sexy and fun—you can move a lot of weight on them. But a lot of weight does not necessarily mean “most effective” because weight is relative to the levers doing the lift and the magnification of the load on a muscle.
Just because a movement uses a 20lbs dumbbell doesn’t mean you’re only moving 20lbs in reality. Physics comes into play and depending on the movement, this weight could be amplified times 10 and you’re really—at a point during the movement—moving 200lbs of force.
So you’re loading your spine, shoulders, knees, etc. with extremely heavy weight, over decades, on a movement that isn’t even that good for your goals (if trying to build muscle and build general fitness).
My Beef With Bench Press
It’s not a secret that I don’t like flat barbell bench…
My beef is that it’s simply an unnatural movement and does not align with the body’s natural movement patterns. You will see more injuries from poor form on this movement than almost any other movement.
In this position, the angle of the bench puts the pectoral tendons in a vulnerable position which can lead to a pec tear.
You are loading a large amount of force and pulling the humerus inward which is pulling it against your shoulder socket - this can cause labrum issues issues over time.
More frequently we will see overuse injuries or shoulder injuries because the bar locks your hands in the same position throughout the movement. This means your arms are prevented from moving + rotating freely (something you’re able to do with dumbbells, plate-loaded machines, etc.)
There are endless alternatives that will work the chest much more efficiently and are safer than flat barbell bench. I always recommend doing a variation of incline bench or using a plate-loaded machine or dumbbells rather than flat barbell. These will render the same, if not better, results than flat BB will, without the injuries waiting to happen.
My Beef With Deadlift
Before even going down this rabbit hole, let me first state referring to deadlift means the single exercise of conventional deadlift. Albeit I could argue Straight Leg Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts also aren’t “optimal” I find them to be great exercises for posterior chain development that carry a lot of crossover to other movements.
Deadlifts are fun, don’t get me wrong at all, I still do them every now and then, but when we evaluate it against other exercises for developing muscle, it falls short.
The main issue with the deadlift is it does not particularly work any muscles well. The main movement pattern is a hip hinge which would load the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors the most, but due to the nature of the exercise that doesn’t happen.
The erector spinae is actually loaded more due to the fact it is keeping your spine from curving or folding (risking catastrophic spine injury). This sounds good, “oh this means my lower back will grow”, not entirely true. The erector spinae is working isometrically, but isometrically loading a muscle is not a good way to achieve muscle growth. A muscle needs to be fully lengthened and shortened to maximize hypertrophy (sliding filament theory).
Back to hamstrings and glutes - for us to be able to use enough weight to actually load and work them, the erector spinae would be loaded more than it is safe to load them and your spinal disks. On the inverse, a weight light enough to be safer on the back would not target and work the hamstrings and glutes enough.
The spine is also being compressed when the weight is held at the top of the movement—this is especially important to note and be aware of as you get heavier and heavier.
Another movement could much more effectively work the muscles above—for glutes, hamstrings, and adductors—by simply changing the variation of deadlift. Keeping our legs more straight and performing a Straight Leg Deadlift would provide much more stimulus.
For the erector spinae, you are actually realistically working it enough through other movments that it will be developed enough for both functional health and physique development (it doesn’t actually grow much), but you could do modified versions of back extensions—torso extensions.
The other issue here is that the deadlift is one of, if not the most, neurologically demanding exercises in the world—meaning central nervous system fatiguing. This will reduce the performance of our workout after deadlifts and potentially compromise our recovery.
The deadlift also needs to be done with perfect form or the risk of injury is higher than most other exercises. Combine that with being very fatiguing and people lifting with egos in the gym and you have a recipe for a herniated disk.
All in all though, I do see a benefit of newer lifters learning the deadlift - the weight will be reasonable, and they will develop overall strength and the hip hinge movement patterns—this is why I program them in my beginner splits.
This sounds bad and scary, but it’s not, deadlifts can be done safely. The goal here is to provide you with the facts so you don’t think you’re doing them and they are “the best”, because if you don’t enjoy them you are missing out on zero growth by not doing them.
My Beef With Squat
Of the 2 other lifts squat is the one I believe is the least overrated, while still being overrated.
Without turning this into an entire anatomy class, the issue is that the limbs, namely the tibia, need to be closer to parallel to the ground for the quad to be maximally loaded. You can think of this as the further your knees go over your toes, the more the quads are working.
Squats do not particularly allow you to achieve this, they are only partially loading the quads, and it’s hard to safely improve this due to balance and other reasons.
The effectiveness of squat will have a lot to do with the specific length of your limbs (tibia and femur) and your flexibility. The taller and less flexible you are, the less effective squats are going to be (yes it’s a win for the manlets here).
The other issue here is your actual torso, namely your lower back. With relative force and load, your erector spinae are actually being loaded more than any individual muscle in the legs. Weight heavy enough to truly challenge and work the quads (or glutes) is going to put our lower back in a compromised position.
We also have the fact that we literally have a weighted barbell sitting on top of our back. This obviously causes spinal compression, which acutely isn’t a huge deal, but repeat this 1-3 days a week for 5-10+ years (lifting is a lifelong habit) and you can run into issues.
This is also again not taking into account that squats are extremely demanding on the central nervous system. Again, we can find much better stimulus to fatigue ratios in other movements. Though this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, it will be as you advance into your lifting career.
The reality is for growing big legs, we have more effective exercises—or exercises as effective but much safe—because they won’t load our spines. When it comes to sheer quad growth, leg extensions are almost infinitely more effective.
We have other variations of squats that are either a). safer b). more effective.
While not the most “optimal” exercise, a good hack squat—especially the new versions that allow better angles (knees over toes) and resistance curves (which can be altered with bands)—is my favorite quad exercise. It allows me to load and work the quad better than any other compound leg movement.
There are also pendulum squat machines that allow greater recruitment of the quads, leg presses (when done correctly), and other squat variation machines. You would be remiss to not incorporate split leg movments like bulgarian split squats and lunges. Ultimately the most effective squat variation is the sissy squat… but holy fuck those suck… but they are extremely effective… and I should probably start doing more…
Again, like with deadlift, barbell squatting is something I believe all beginners should learn and perfect as the squat is a very basic movement pattern, and learning it and getting proficient will allow you to create better neural and strength development.
I still occasionally squat myself, but due to the reasons listed above—namely spinal compression—I keep it infrequent, mostly to see where I am (as a side note doing all of the movements instead of squat have still translated to progressively heavier squats over time). So this is just something to keep in mind if we zoom out from thinking about a few months or years and over the span of decades (you want to be lifting when you’re 60+).
Putting It All Together
Now, as I stated earlier in this post, my goal here is to bring awareness that there are plenty of alternatives that can fit your goals instead of The Big 3. It’s not an attack on these movements, rather insight into why they aren’t necessary for muscle growth.
If you decide these movements work best for you and you’re going to do them anyway, revisit this post on How to Do them Properly.
Like I said, getting strong in the 6-20 rep range on deadlift, bench, and squat can elicit an appreciable amount of muscle and make you big when done properly.
HOWEVER, you can do this with practically any other movement and get the same result, quicker, more efficiently, and with much less risk of injury.
This is a lifelong endeavor in which we need to consider what will be the most beneficial for achieving our goals in the gym. We want to make better decisions in the gym - what can help us reach our goals better, more efficiently, and most importantly, safer?
We want to do exercises that properly load the target muscle efficiently. Are your muscles responding (growing) based on a mechanical stimulus placed on them? Is the exercise isolating the muscle? If you can answer yes to both of these questions then you can be assured that the exercise is effective for muscle growth.
You have a workout split designed to work muscle groups multiple times a week + within those workouts you have multiple movements targeting different muscles within the respective muscle groups. Why incorporate three of the most taxing and potentially dangerous movements when you can utilize others that will be much more effective and efficient for you?
As always, do what works best for you. If you feel good doing The Big 3 then by all means, keep doing them (with proper execution). Just know, they aren’t necessary for building the physique you want.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.