I know, I’m committing fitness sacrilege by saying the squat, bench, and deadlift are overrated.
One thing though, hear me out before yelling at me.
Let’s clear up a few things to start:
Firstly, I love the squat, bench, and deadlift.
In the span of my 14 year training career, almost every program I have written has had some variety of a squat, bench, and deadlift in it.
Normally when you hear someone say these exercises are overrated, it comes from a person who doesn’t like them and thinks they’re dangerous or bad – but I don’t! In fact, they’re some of my favorite exercises.
The other people who say they’re overrated are usually people who aren’t good at them. While I wouldn’t say that I’m an incredible lifter by any means, I do boast some respectable numbers, having squatted 405 for 12 reps
Benched 360 (video of 325 for 3 reps)
So this isn’t coming from a place of not being proficient at the moves either.
I was first introduced to these moves back when I was 15, just starting to train for the first time. My high school had a health class that went and used our high school gym once a week. Myself and all of the boys in the class would go and huddle around the bench press for the hour and just destroy ourselves.
I can fondly remember the first time I benched. I laid down under the bar, set up with 135 (because who starts with just the empty bar?) and got a lift off to set up. I hyped myself up in my head and envisioned myself destroying that bar. Then, I bent my scrawny little twigs of arms and that bar flew down and destroyed me. That first exposure got me into training.
From there I spent the next year chasing down getting stronger on the bench press, doing accessories for the bench, and then the odd lat pulldown and leg curl. I got stronger and was able to rep out 135 and move on to some solid lifting numbers in the bench press.
About a year after I had gotten into training I went off and did a semester working in the oil field as part of an apprenticeship program. There I was mentored by a guy named Brian, who was one of the original adopters of Crossfit. He was a huge advocate of squatting and deadlifting and really gave me my first legitimate introduction to the movements.
Back then we focused on absolute effort and training with grit. I can remember when Brian told me we were going to do a twenty rep max on squats and he had this giant smile on his. I was a relatively fresh kid to the training scene so had little to no idea what onslaught I was about to ensue.
We proceeded to grind out 20 reps of what was realistically our five rep maxes at the time, taking extended breaks to breathe and reset each rep. While I trained with Brian, we would regularly push to these kinds of levels for all three lifts and it did build my appreciation for training intensity (effort, not necessarily load).
Suffice to say, I learnt to train hard.
Over the next dozen years I proceeded to make some considerable improvements in my strength, technique, and build a moderately impressive physique with a hefty chunk of my training centered on them. During that time I competed in multiple powerlifting meets, briefly holding different records, and going on to coach national and international level competitors for powerlifting.
As well, I’ve presented internationally on barbell sports multiple times, and have dug into the vast majority of the research relevant to them for both pain and performance. From all of this I feel confident to call myself a trusted resource on the topics squat, bench and deadlift – and I think they’re very overrated.
What do I mean and why do I think that?
Well most people view one of these three lifts as the king of exercises.
You’ll hear that bench is the best upper body exercise, squat the best leg exercise, and deadlift the best back exercise.
Many new trainees are led to believe that these exercise are ones they need to master if they want to build muscle and get stronger.
It’s common place in the world of strength and conditioning that squat, bench and deadlift should be cornerstones of athletic development in the gym.
While I love these movements, I really disagree with these beliefs.
For the better part of the first 14 years of my training I had regular access to a barbell. The majority of the clients I worked with had regular access to a barbell. We all performed some derivative of these movements in that time.
Then a global pandemic came and took that access away. Barbells became a thing of memories and dreams, no longer being a daily tool.
This forced me to adapt not only my own training, but the training of all my athletes. We no longer could squat, bench, or deadlift – at least in the traditional sense.
I’ve long been adamant that these movements are not essential and that people can make great progress without them, but now I’m more confident in that statement than ever before.
Over the last few months I’ve continued to work with a ton of people, either individually or through our group programs. In doing so, we’ve been figuring out solutions to work around the drastic change in equipment available.
While some of my clients have decked out home gyms, the majority have either a couple bands and dumbbells, or nothing at all. Given that, we’ve had to ditch the traditional squat, bench, and deadlift for most people and transition to entirely different versions of these, or totally new kinds of movements.
Some of my clients, and myself, initially struggled with this change, finding motivation went down drastically, just not really being into this kind of training, and seeing some negative results out of it (gaining some fat, losing some muscle, etc.).
Then after committing to it more, continuing to play with it and find more avenues to get a replicable stimulus that would come from those other movements, motivation returned (for me and many of my clients).
Now it’s been a few months of changed training and lots of my clients are seeing great results – stronger, moving better, more muscle, less fat, better performances, etc. The results match up very similarly with before when they were squatting, benching, and deadlifting (this is for everyone who isn’t a powerlifter).
I’m a huge fan of those movements, but they aren’t a necessity for results. In fact, many people might get better results without doing them.
A lot of people aren’t really built well for performing them with their goals, such as those with really long femurs who just want bigger quads or to jump higher. As well, being stuck in a mindset of these being such great exercise might decrease your exposure to other exercises that bring a lot to the table – such as reverse nordics, glute bridges, split squats, and so much more!
In summary, I love the squat, bench, and deadlift, but they’re not special exercises or the be all end all many claim. Don’t get stuck into believing you need to do them for good results!*
Have fun, enjoy training, and get strong!
*If you’re a powerlifter, you’re gonna need to do them obviously.