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Building Strength: Getting Better at the Big Three

by Raphael Konforti on September 1, 2013
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Building strength has more to do with focusing on the basics than it does with implementing the latest workout program. Simply put, mastering the foundations of lifting will put you lightyears ahead of most guys in the gym. At the core of building strength lies the big three: squats, deadlifts, and the bench press. These exercises have added more mass and weight on the bar than any three exercises in history. These heavy compound exercises activate multiple muscles at once ensuring that you are getting an efficient workout while boosting muscle-building hormones like testosterone. On top of that, these are just manly moves: blasting a weight off your chest, loading pounds onto your back, and pulling heavy weight straight off the ground.

Building strength on these powerful exercises is a little more complicated than simply tossing more plates on each side every week. You need to make sure your program allows for progression and recovery while targeting any weak points or imbalances. Let’s take a look at it lift by lift.

The Almighty Bench Press

building strength

You probably see more people benching on Monday than any other lift at any time. The bench press is the ultimate test of upper body strength. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut starting with the same old bench press routine. Fortunately, there are some proven methods to up this ego-boosting lift. Check these tips depending on what part of the lift is toughest for you:

The bottom portion: You need to beef up that chest a bit. Try doing partial reps by only going up halfway to shift focus onto the pectorals and less on the shoulders and triceps. Another method is to switch out the bench for dumbbell press. The motion of pressing up but also inwards activates more chest fibers by using all functions of the chest.

The top portion: Get those triceps going. Start off by doing a floor press (lie on the ground using a squat rack for the barbell and only lower down until the elbows touch the ground, thus focusing on the top range of motion) instead of the traditional bench format. Alternatively, after your first or second main pressing movement incorporate a pin press to focus on triceps and lock-out strength (Start by setting the safety bars in a squat rack to where you can press the bar up about 6 inches, then proceed to complete the repetitions by locking out the press each time and coming back to a dead stop at the bottom).

No specific weak points: So you’re pretty balanced but need something to spice it up. Utilize negative reps. Load on a weight that is 10% heavier than your 5 rep max on bench press. Un-rack the bar and lower the weight as slowly as you can (Ideally 5 seconds) and have a spotter help you lift the weight up from the bottom position. Repeat until you hit 5 reps or failure. Negative reps shouldn’t be utilized every session as they are extremely taxing on the nervous system and muscles, not to mention they typically cause a lot of soreness. They will however get you used to holding heavier weight and give you extra stimulus to grow and improve.

The Super Squat

If you’re looking to turn chicken legs into telephone polls, this is your holy grail. The most important thing to upping this lift is to ensure proper form. Avoid making these common mistakes:

You bend through your knees instead of your hips. Start the motion by moving at the hips first and pressing up through the heels to activate more glutes and hamstrings. These muscles provide more stability to the lift and will get you out of the bottom of the squat. If you find yourself struggling to get deep in the squat or the heels come off the ground focus on building strength in your posterior side with romanian deadlifts while working on improving flexibility through your calves.

Your upper body gets shaky and doesn’t stay upright. This is a sign to increase overall core strength, mainly the transverse abdominis and low back. One of the most effective exercises to correct this imbalance is ab roll-outs. Start by doing 3 sets of 10 at the end of your work-outs. Once that gets too easy, increase the sets and decrease the reps by utilizing a pause for 1-3 seconds while your arms are fully extended.

Domination Deadlifts

building strength

The deadlift is the ultimate exercise for building strength. This exercise uses a multitude of muscles making it a premium muscle and strength builder.

Need more strength pulling off the floor: A not so obvious but common reason for difficulty starting the lift is flexibility. You should be able to keep a natural low back arch while dropping the hips back without bending the knees too much. A solution is stretching the hip flexors, hamstrings, and low back. Another solution is to try deficit deadlifts as opposed to traditional deadlifts. This involves standing on a sturdy platform that raises you up 2-3 inches.

Trouble locking out at the top: At the end range of motion, back strength is key. An excellent exercise to do after performing deadlifts is rack pulls. To perform a rack pull stand in the squat rack and set the safety bars so that the barbell rests just below the knee cap to start. Execute this exercise just as you would a deadlift. Do this after deadlifts for 3 sets of 6-8 reps with more weight than you use for your traditional deadlift to help build lock out strength.

Building Strength: Your Program

Improving the big three is not only about targeting weak points but making sure you use the proper frequency and intensity. To make the most of your program for these exercises make sure you get at least two days between your squat and deadlift day, and at least three days off a week. Set a split that emphasizes each lift on its’ own day such as:

Day 1: Deadlift focus with back and hamstrings

Day 2: Off

Day 3: Bench Press Focus with upper body pressing

Day 4: Off

Day 5: Squat focus with lower body and quads

Day 6-7: Off

For each main lift utilize this loading pattern:

Weeks 1-2: 5x10reps

Weeks: 3-4: 5x8reps

Weeks 5-6: 4x6reps

Weeks 6-7: 4x5reps

Weeks 8-10: 3x3reps

Weeks11-12: De-load with 5x5reps using 80% of the weight achieved in week 7

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Raphael Konforti
Raphael Konforti is a Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor and Fitness Graduate Assistant at The University of Florida. Raph competes in everything from NPC Men's Physique shows to strongman competitions. This has been the background for his nutrition and training methodology for pro athletes to weekend warriors. He specializes in appearance and strength based results with a straightforward attitude.
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  • Trevor
    November 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Really great article! Loving the fitness content on the site lately – especially the pieces by Jeremey and the special edition workout series

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