The Best Exercises Using a Barbell: The Big Three

When it comes to performing exercises with a barbell, there is no argument as to which ones are the most effective. The Big Three Compound movements; Squats, Deadlifts, and Bench Presses are the gold standard of any worthwhile weightlifting routine. Renowned for their unparalleled ability to build strength, improve muscle mass, and enhance athletic performance, these exercises have earned their reputation over decades.

What are Compound Exercises?

Compound exercises are weightlifting movements that engage multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously. Unlike isolation exercises, which target a single muscle group, compound exercises require a coordinated effort from various muscles to execute the movement. This multi-muscle engagement not only allows for heavier weights to be lifted but also mimics real-world, functional movements.

The picture on the left roughly illustrates the basis of a compound lift. The barbell is shown directly above the middle of both the hip and knee joint, applying its weight equally between the glutes(red) and quadriceps(blue). This allows the muscles to work together and lift heavier weights then otherwise able.

Compound exercises are a staple of strength training and essential to build a strong foundation to achieve any form of fitness goal you may have!

Benefits of Compound Exercises?

Time Efficient -  Firstly, they are time-efficient, allowing individuals to work multiple muscle groups in one go, reducing the need for numerous exercises targeting individual muscles.

More Calories Burned: The simultaneous engagement of muscles also leads to enhanced calorie burning during and after workouts, translating to more efficient fat loss.

Real-World Application: These exercises often mimic real-world movements, contributing to improved functional strength and agility in daily tasks. They also boost coordination and balance, as the body learns to move in a synergistic manner with multiple muscles working in harmony.

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Flexibility and Mobility: Properly executed compound movements can enhance joint mobility and flexibility, leading to a reduced risk of injuries

Enhanced Hormonal Response: Compound movements stimulate the release of muscle-building and fat-burning hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. 

Muscle Symmetry and Proportion: As compound lifts work various muscles together, they help in achieving a balanced and proportioned physique, reducing the risk of overdeveloping one muscle group at the expense of others.

More Muscle! - Perhaps the most compelling advantage is that compound exercises are unparalleled when it comes to packing on lean muscle mass, making them indispensable for those aiming for a sculpted and strong physique.

The Squat

Dubbed the "king of exercises" (probably by someone with quads of steel and a mischievous sense of humor), the squat is a playful dance with gravity, wherein you cheekily say, "I dare you," and then promptly hope gravity doesn't take you up on that offer. 

The Squat is a lower body movement that primarily targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

Benefits of this Exercise:

  • Builds comprehensive lower body strength.
  • Enhances core stability and strength.
  • Improves mobility and flexibility in the hips, knees, and ankles.
  • You are allowed to say you don’t skip leg day…never skip leg day.

Proper Form and Technique:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed outward.
  • Keep your chest up, shoulders back, and spine neutral.
  • Go as deep as your flexibility allows, ideally until you knee is parallel to the crease of your hip or lower. 
  • As you descend, push your hips back and bend your knees while ensuring they track over your toes.
  • Push through your heels to return to the starting position, maintaining a neutral spine throughout.

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The Deadlift:

If the squat is hailed as the King of exercises, then the Deadlift is the unsung hero. 

This powerful, multi-joint exercise is a staple in any good strength program and can help increase core and lower body strength, coordination, and power.

The Deadlift works all of the major muscle groups in the lower body — quads, hamstrings, glutes — while also engaging the upper back and lats to stabilize the weight throughout the movement. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. The deadlift may as well be a full body exercise. 

Benefits of this Exercise:

  • Targets and strengthens the entire back and core, promoting better posture.
  • Develops grip strength.
  • Engages and builds the muscles of the legs, particularly the hamstrings and glutes. 

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Proper Form and Technique:

  • Start with feet hip-width apart, with the barbell positioned over your mid-foot.
  • Bend at the hips and knees, gripping the bar with hands just outside your knees.
  • Keep your back straight, chest up, and shoulders slightly in front of the bar.
  • Push through your heels, lifting the bar while extending your hips and knees simultaneously.
  • Stand tall at the top, then reverse the motion, pushing your hips back to lower the bar to the ground.

The Bench Press

If you’ve spent any time around the gym then I’m sure you heard it; “How much can you bench?” For some reason this exercise has become the standard of measuring strength, while being the one of the more focused compound movements. This quintessential upper body exercise, focuses on the inner or outer pectoral muscles depending on grip while also engaging the triceps and shoulders. 

Unlike the deadlift or squat, the Bench Press does not hit all the upper body muscle groups. So those looking to hit the Traps, Lats and Shoulders need look towards incorporating other exercises such as shrugs and rows.  

Benefits of the Exercise:

  • Builds strength and muscle mass in the chest.
  • Builds strength and muscle mass in the chest.
  • Improves pushing strength and endurance.

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rogue flat utility bench

Proper Form and Technique:

  • Lie flat on a bench with your eyes directly under the bar and feet flat on the floor.
  • Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width, keeping your wrists straight.
  • Unrack the bar and hold it straight over your chest with arms fully extended.
  • Lower the bar in a controlled manner to the mid-chest area.
  • Once the bar is close to or touches your chest, push it back up, focusing on contracting the chest muscles, until your arms are fully extended again.

Safety and Proper Form

In the realm of weightlifting, the allure of hoisting impressively heavy weights is undeniable. The clinking of plates, the admiration of onlookers, and the sheer adrenaline of pushing one's limits can be intoxicating. But the sobering truth is, if you need to compromise your form, you can’t lift the weight. 

Proper form isn't just a fancy term bandied about by trainers and gym veterans; it's the cornerstone of safe and effective weightlifting. Every bend, every stretch, and every pull has a purpose. It's designed not just for maximum benefit but also to protect your body from strains, sprains, and potentially life-altering injuries.

Consider this: any of the big three exercises - the squat, deadlift, and bench press - if done improperly, can jeopardize your lifting journey before it truly blossoms. Imagine a herniated disc from a poorly executed deadlift or a torn ligament from a sloppy squat. Not only do these injuries hurt (a lot!), but they can also sideline your fitness goals for weeks, months, or even permanently.

So, the next time you're tempted to add an extra plate to the bar, ask yourself: "Is my form perfect?" If there's even a shred of doubt, prioritize perfecting your technique over upping the weight. Remember, in the grand tapestry of fitness, consistency trumps momentary feats. It's far better to be the tortoise, lifting safely with impeccable form, than the hare, rushing towards potential injury. In the end, the journey of weightlifting isn't just about strength; it's about longevity, health, and the wisdom to know that sometimes, less truly is more.

In Conclusion: The Non-Negotiables for Every Serious Weightlifter

When it comes to weightlifting, there's a vast world of exercises targeting every muscle you can imagine. But among them, there are three that consistently shine - squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. They have a long-standing reputation for a reason: they work! By engaging multiple muscle groups at once, they optimize strength gains and ensure balanced muscle development, which is key for preventing imbalances and injuries. If you're serious about weightlifting, don't overlook these exercises. They're the foundation of true strength, blending functionality and form. With their compound nature, they offer a symphony of coordination, power, and stamina - the epitome of efficient training. While there are many exercises to explore, the Big Three are non-negotiable, the pillars that uphold peak physical fitness. Embrace them, not just out of tradition, but because they're the best of the best in the weightlifting world.

Denver Matheson

Passionate about fitness, I dedicate substantial time to both the gym and the kitchen, nourishing my body for optimal repair and growth. However, there's another crucial space that every athlete values—the research zone. That's precisely why I'm here—to share the knowledge I've acquired over the years, inspired by the generosity of others who guided me on my fitness journey. Join me as I offer valuable insights and information to help you pursue your own barbell pursuits.

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