Avoid Injuries With This New Take on Classic Lifts

The Big Three powerlifting exercises aren’t right for everybody. In fact, they’re wrong for many of us. Save yourself with these alternatives


Lou Schuler |

Todd Bumgardner remembers the first time he held a barbell– two metres and 20kg of steel, the knurling worn down by lifters before him. “I couldn’t bench the bar,” he says. “But the second time I could. Then, a couple of weeks later, I could bench 30kg.” He was 12 years old. And he was hooked. Within a year he was doing a four-day-aweek routine from Westside Barbell, the powerlifting gym in Columbus, Ohio. At 14, he deadlifted 185kg at a body weight of 68kg. “I was a strong little shit,” he says. And he was just getting started.

He organised his life around making progress in the Big Three powerlifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift – through varsity. But as his numbers grew, so did his list of injuries.

Related: Weightlifting Can Help You Get More Tinder Matches, Says Study

First it was back and hip problems; then shoulder problems forced him to radically rethink his training. These days, Bumgardner, a 31-year-old strength coach in Virginia, rarely has clients use the Big Three powerlifts. To appreciate what he does instead, it helps to understand how those three exercises became so important.

Birth of a Notion

The first modern strength sport was Olympic weightlifting, which by the 1928 Games included three movements: clean and press, snatch, and clean and jerk. Learning these lifts was an Olympian challenge; they require elite athleticism and explosive speed along with pure strength. A lot of lifters just wanted to get strong and look strong, which elevated the simpler lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. By 1964, at the first national powerlifting meet in York, Pennsylvania, the new sport had settled on the Big Three as the ultimate tests of strength. And that standard, for many of us, led to a world of problems.

The Squat

“I didn’t realise I didn’t have to squat with a bar on my back,” Bumgardner says. “I thought if I didn’t train that way, I wouldn’t get results.”

Related: Why All Men Should Deep Squat for 5 Minutes a Day

Why It Might Hurt: Resting a heavy barbell on your shoulders can put extreme stress on your lower back and hips. Plus, the range of motion may be too much for your knees, hips and lower back.

What To Do Instead: Bumgardner, like many coaches today, typically starts clients off with the goblet squat. For those who don’t have enough core stability for goblets, he’ll start them with a plate squat.

The Bench Press

“Everyone needs pressing strength,” says Bumgardner. But you don’t need it at every angle. If an overhead or flat-bench press makes your shoulders angry, you can find a pain-free angle in between.

Why It Might Hurt: Many lifters have what’s known as asymmetrical shoulder capsules. Lifting with a barbell means one shoulder will be forced out of its natural lifting path.

Related: You Need To Do This Exercise If You Bench Press A Lot

What To Do Instead: Use dumbbells. They’re far more accommodating to shoulder imbalances. Each arm can move independently along a slightly different trajectory while both sides work equally hard.

The Deadlift

In contrast to the first two lifts, the barbell may actually be the best tool for the deadlift – or, more accurately, the hip-hinge movement pattern. The problem is the range of motion.

Related: 6 Mistakes You Make When Deadlifting That Are Screwing Up Your Back

Why It Might Hurt: Unless you have relatively short legs or long arms, you’ll need an exaggerated forward bend to pull the bar up. This puts a great deal of strain on your lower back.

What To Do Instead: Try the sumo deadlift, which limits your range of motion. Spread your feet wide and grab the bar with your arms between your legs.

Stronger and Safer

To increase your strength, you need to work with progressively heavier weights. If you’re able to perform the Big Three without pain, keep doing them. If not, adapt your workout to slightly different movement patterns so that your muscles are working just as hard – but you’re not damaging your joints in the process.

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