Best Alternatives to the Big Three Lifts

Think you need to bench, squat, and deadlift to make gains? Think again.

When it comes to building a strong, aesthetic body, weightlifting is king. Things like conditioning, mobility, and corrective exercise have their place, but most things boil down to picking up heavy objects, and setting them back down. The exact way you implement weights is up to you, but these days just about every good program out there involves some sort of strength training.

If you’ve ever looked into working out with the sole intention of getting jacked; that is, getting bigger and/or stronger, chances are you’ve read something that will tell you the big three lifts are king. Squat, bench press, and deadlift. You must do these exercises above all else; it is the ultimate pursuit of badassery. While this is good advice, there are plenty of other movements you can choose from.

The reason these exercises work are so often recommended, and more effective than isolation bro-pump work, is because they are compound movements – that’s it. A squat, a deadlift, and even a bench press when done correctly, will utilize a large number of muscles, all over your body. The stimulus this will have on muscular growth, hormonal release, and strength cannot be understated.

However, for some of you, these lifts just aren’t a realistic option. Whether it’s because you don’t feel comfortable with the form, or you have an injury, or you just don’t like them (not a good excuse, but it’s your loss decision), you may not be able to perform the movement for some reason.

All is not lost.

With the exception of powerlifters, who compete using the big three lifts and should be practicing them on a regular basis, every single person can get fantastic results without ever doing the big three.


This doesn't have to be you.

This doesn’t have to be you. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command via Flickr)


I’m going to share with you some of my favorite alternative movements to the big three lifts, movements that many of my clients, as well as myself have implemented with great success. If you never want to do a back squat again, I’m about to let you off the hook.

Before I share the best alternate exercises, there are two main things to look for when considering your exercise selection.

It should be a compound movement. By definition, a compound movement simply means that it will use multiple joints and muscles together in the same lift. A squat involves movement of the hips and knees, with significant muscular activation of the upper body as well. A biceps curl does not.

It should target large muscle groups, with the intention of getting them stronger and/or bigger. For this article, I’m referring to training to get big and strong. While there is probably some rehab-type movement that involves a resistance band, a rotational movement, and somehow works the rear delts and glutes (I don’t know, I’m making that up), that’s not the sort of compound movement I’m referring to.

Bench Press Alternatives

Dumbbell Bench Press – This one is obvious. If you don’t like barbell benching, due to safety issues, or maybe a bum shoulder, dumbbells are a great option. You can rotation your hands as needed to create an angle between your upper arm and ribs, making this safer on your shoulders.

Hammer Strength Chest Press – This is a great option, as you have to press equally with both arms, whereas with a standard chest press machine, you could do all the work with your strong arm.

Board Press – Technically this is a bench press, yes, but you aren’t getting the full range of motion. In addition to strengthening your lockout for the bench, the board eliminates that end range of motion, where most shoulder issues will make themselves known.

Push Up – That’s right, your good old standard pushup can be useful. Done with proper form, these are a very useful exercise for building strength and mass in your upper body. You can do them weighted, or with your feet elevated, to increase the challenge.

Back Squat Alternatives

Front Squat – Super obvious, but I had to mention it. A front squat significantly changes the angle of the movement, shifting the focus to your quads and abs, and since you’ll be using lighter weight, it’s less compression on your spine. Goblet squats are very similar, and can also be used.

Bulgarian Split Squat – Or rear food elevated split squat, or whatever else you want to call it. Hold dumbbells in your hands, and you can absolutely smoke the working leg. It’s nearly the same movement as a back squat, minus the bar digging into your upper back.

Leg Press – I’m a big fan of the leg press, when done correctly, especially on a day where you are also deadlifting. Both squats and deadlifts can be very taxing on the lower back, so this is a good way to smash your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, without worrying about your back and core giving out on you.

Deadlift Alternatives

Sumo / Jefferson Deadlift – Like the front squat, these are just variations on a conventional deadlift, yet many are able to perform these versions pain free. Even if you don’t have pain from conventional deadlifts, these may just feel better depending on the structure of your hips.

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Rack Pulls – This is basically the motion of a deadlift, however you are starting with bar at knee height or slightly above it, rather than pulling from the ground. The reduced range of motion can work the same muscles, and is a great tool to build your lockout and grip strength.

Dumbbell RDLs – RDLs are nice, especially single-leg RDLs, because you can use dumbbells and hold them closer to the center of your body, rather than pulling a bar up the front of your legs.

Trap Bar Deadlifts – If you have a trap bar, use it. This movement is somewhere between a hybrid or a squat, but generally much safer and easier to perform than conventional deadlifts, especially for those who are still learning the movement.

That’s it for today guys – hope you learned something. The big three lifts are awesome, but sometimes you just gotta mix it up. There are other movements as well beyond the ones I mentioned, but these are the ones I use and recommend the most.

If you enjoyed this, go try one of these new movements, and drop a comment letting me know how it went.