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The Big Three: Bench, Deadlift and Squat


Jan 18, 2023
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Walk into a gym, fitness event, supplement store or any place that is likely to have bodybuilders and power-lifters and start to discuss lifting. The conversation will more than likely consist of all different aspects—diet, split, program, etc. Enable to get a gist of how advanced or strong you are, someone is sure to ask, “What do you bench? Deadlift? Squat?”

Anybody with huge biceps can throw around the fact that they can curl 60s or 65s for clean, 12 rep sets…but what does that even mean in the grand scheme of overall strength? You see, to me, somebody that goes into the gym and performs compound movements that test the entire body’s power for reputable numbers are considered the strong. Hell, look at any plan out there; it will be surrounded by or built from the big three—bench, deadlift and squat.

I have been hearing way too many people using the words, “I don’t…” one of the three. I understand that there may be a reason (injury, discomfort) but unless there is a legitimate excuse, I don’t see the purpose in excluding them. The big three lifts test your body in all aspects of strength—mental, durability and overall raw power. Further, they work multiple body parts and will be the base to a muscular physique. Today I want to explore the three lifts, what muscles they work and optimal rep ranges/resistance to propel you toward huge gains!

Bench Press

Kyle Hunt 365 BenchHere, we have the heavily favored and internationally known chest exercise. The first thing that most in the gym will perform on chest day is the bench press. It incorporates the middle chest and triceps, with both receiving stability from the shoulders and core. Many people are unaware of the fact that the core comes into play during the bench press. Next time you go to bench, notice that during the eccentric movement (negative) you flex your core. Activating the core as the weight begins to descend enables the lifter to get a better drive and remain in control of the weight while pressing up.

Now, with that in mind, think about what I said earlier about compound movements working multiple portions of the body. By simply bench-pressing, a lifter will receive chest, arm, core and stabilizing muscles of the shoulder work. Four body parts in one simple movement, why exclude it from your plan?

When I say bench press, know that I am talking about flat barbell bench press. With that said, understand that there are multiple variations of the bench press, and they each aim at a relatively different goal. For instance, the incline barbell bench press is much like the flat in that it requires engagement of the same four muscle groups. However, instead of primarily working the middle chest, it targets the upper chest, beneath the collarbone. There is also the decline barbell bench press, which, again, works the same four muscle groups, but instead, reaches down to the lower chest (up under the nipple) and puts more tension on the triceps because of the angle.

There are other bench-pressing movements that, instead of using a barbell, use dumbbells. The flat, incline and decline dumbbell bench press movements do a little more isolating than the barbell movements though, and also are used more for bodybuilding style workouts aimed at higher rep ranges and hypertrophy. When I set up training programs for my clients, I like to use the typical 8-12 rep sets for both types of lifts and mix it up to keep training interesting.

Conventional Deadlift

Kyle deadliftAh, the king-lift of the weight room. In my opinion, the deadlift is the best gauge for overall human strength. Many may disagree, but what is the common (joke) motto that weightlifters live by? “I pick things up and put them down.” Isn’t that exactly what the deadlift is? It might not sound like a good reason, but it is one that I find logical. That aside, let’s explore why the deadlift is so important to a training program.

I, myself, never used to deadlift. Once I started, not only did I become addicted—my other lifts began to climb as well. The deadlift is one of the ultimate compound movements in terms of working almost the entire body. It requires more muscles than a vast majority of the fitness industry even realizes.

Let’s begin with gripping the bar—no straps…no grip assistance (besides chalk)…bare hands. Here is where you will begin to develop forearm strength. I find it ignorant and often times, funny, when people elect to say, “I don’t need to work my forearms.” Those same people are the ones struggling to up their ability to do pull-ups, rows and become gassed during accessory movements way before anyone else. Your forearms are a huge factor when it comes to other lifts. Having no forearms is like fishing for a trophy fish with a cardboard hook. Good luck getting it up!

Okay, so the weight is off of the ground. If you’re doing it right, you would feel your hamstrings, glutes and even calves engage just as the weight came off of the ground. This is because to get out of the squat position, the legs must activate. Sadly, many people believe that the deadlift is pure back, which can lead to rounding and one-way tickets to Snap City. Like I said, the deadlift incorporates multiple muscles that go much further than just the upper and torso portion of the body.

So your back is straight, your legs have exploded and the weight is at about thigh-level. As it continues to come up, you have to drive your hips forward, obtaining that final act of force to get the weight up. This drive of the hips also includes activation of the traps, lats, teres major, rear delts and even the triceps! The lockout at the end of the lift puts tension on nearly all portions of the back because an amount of weight so great must be distributed throughout the largest area of muscle on the body.

The same thing goes for the weight’s way back down, all muscles are reactivated but in the eccentric motion. To controllably lower the bar, the back must disengage but stabilize the weight, constant tension is on the traps. The legs have to receive the majority of the load, for they hold up the body and barbell, and of course the forearms are holding the bar.

As a powerlifting movement, deadlifts are usually done with a strength training rep range of 3-5 reps. Sure, one can perform higher amounts of reps for increased frequency, which I recommend, but most people working hard on their deadlift are looking to set a PR or want to compete in a powerlifting meet, and are not worried about sculpting their physique.

Back Squat

Kyle Hunt SquatsWhat do you do when the stresses of school, work or your relationship and all other negative aspects of life rest upon your shoulders? Squat! But seriously, I like to think of squats (physiological aspect aside) as a great way to relieve mental stress. They allow me to take what I said above and apply it to the real world. When heavy things are trying to bring me down, I make sure to stand up.

Let’s talk muscle now. Much like the other two above lifts, squats require the activation of so many muscles in the body that it can nearly be considered a full body exercise. Obviously the legs are the primary component, where we have the hamstrings, quads and glutes doing the driving, and all three plus the calves doing the stabilizing. Much like the deadlift, squats are a serious measure of pure strength.

Barring off of the primary muscle groups worked, we have the secondary and tertiary groups of muscles worked during the squat. Throughout both the eccentric and concentric movements, the core is activated as it stabilizes the entire body, keeping it from leaning forward and allowing the legs to drive upward. The bar, resting on your traps, actually does force them to activate. The work on them is minimal, but they do receive tension. Also assisting the rest of the body in its need to stay upright is the lower back. It gets a brunt of the load, but contrary to what many people believe, the lower back does not receive “work” while squatting…but why?

What I mean by that is that one should not expect to go into the gym and receive a lower back workout from squats. A lot of people believe that their lower back plays a huge part in their squat where in reality, it is just a fraction. If you feel substantial amounts of soreness or pain in the lower back while squatting, check your form. There should not be much strain on the lower back.

Squats have different techniques: box squats, sumo squats, front squats, pause squats, etc…but they don’t stray far from the conventional back squat. Rep ranges, like the deadlift, go from strength training (3-5) to hypertrophy (8-12.) I like to do a mix of both to keep adding plates to the bar and to add size to my legs.

Mental Strength

The reason that these three lifts are the base of a good strength-training program goes much further than the fact that they work all different portions of the body physically. The mind is tested heavily while taking part in all three lifts. The body goes into a state of emergency when greeted with heavy amounts of weight looking to hold it down. The central nervous system reacts by activating all muscles that can assist in driving the weight upward to protect the body. Each one is an extremely rigorous workout for the brain, testing fight-or-flight response and discipline. That is why rest days are said to be just as important mentally as they are physically. Central nervous system fatigue is just as, if not more, daunting than muscle fatigue and should be treated as such.


The only way that someone can become stronger is to put all parts of the body to work—the legs, posterior and anterior-upper body, and of course, the mind. Today, I hope I was able to uncover and expose the ways that each one is tested while performing the big three, the three that will most help you reach your strength goals.