Ditch the big three!

The “big three” are overrated when it comes to building size. Try these alternatives for pain-free lifts that’ll spark enormous growth.


IF YOU PLAN ON UPPING YOUR CALORIES, SCALING BACK on cardio, and packing on mass, then we’re willing to bet that your training regime centers around the big three: back squats, bench presses, and dead lifts. Because adding mass without these compound lifts is simply impossible, right? Not exactly. Paul Carter, a strength coach and hypertrophy guru swears by not using them, especially when it comes to training around injuries and hitting angles that will better target your muscles for growth.


Back training is considered incomplete without the dead lift, but the move isn’t a one-way ticket to gains. If someone is trying to focus on building his lats, traps, and rhomboids, the dead lift doesn’t put any of those areas into a lengthened position. Which means the hamstrings, glutes, and quads are doing the brunt of the work, explains Carter. These alternatives emphasize time-under-tension (TUT) while retaining the strength benefits of the deadlift.

Deficit Stiffleg Dead lift BENEFIT: HYPERTROPHY Standard stiff-leg deads primarily work the hamstrings and glutes. Adding a slight knee bend and lifting the weight from a four-inch deficit puts the lats and upper back in a more lengthened position. In the end, your back—not your hammies—does most of the work throughout the set.

DO IT:  Stand on top of a box or a few stacked plates, set up like a regular deadlift, but with a slight bend in your knees. Refrain from resting the weight at any point to keep tension on the muscles in your back.


For guys with longer legs and a shorter torso, the traditional back squat can prove problematic to execute with proper mechanics. “Not every guy will have the leverage of someone like Tom Platz, who could squat to rock bottom and stay completely upright,” explains Carter.

Safety Bar Squat BENEFIT: STRENGTH The safety bar shifts the center of mass of the weight, taking some of the strain off of your lower back while forcing you to stay upright. You can handle high-volume leg work with the safety bar but be sure to focus on keeping your torso vertical.

DO IT: Grip the pegs for control, descend into a squat and be sure to not round your back forward on the way up.

Smith Machine and Hack Squats BENEFIT: HYPERTROPHY Because your feet are placed so far out in front of you during both exercises, you’ll produce more knee flexion— they’ll travel forward—leaving your quads to do the brunt of the work.

Barbell Row BENEFITS: STABILITY, SIZE The barbell row isn’t a direct dead lift variation but it’s one of the best movements for increasing your dead lift strength while adding size to your lats and traps. The benefit comes from rowing the weight in a static position, which strengthens your core and lower back for dead lifts.

DO IT: Maintain a 45-degree slant with your torso and row the weight to your belly button, pulling with your elbows.

Dorian Dead lift BENEFIT: STRENGTH Named after six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, this variation eliminates the bottom portion of the movement, putting the upper back into a more stretched position. Done properly, it strengthens your thoracic extensors, a collection of small muscles in your back that extend your spine but keeps the lumbar spine in a safe, neutral position, adds Carter.

DO IT : Set up like you would for a regular dead lift but lower the weight to the middle of your shin, then explode back up instead of bringing the weight to the floor.



The move often becomes a source of shoulder and elbow pain. Two common reasons for this include poor shoulder mobility, or the bar preventing the lifter from moving naturally. Ease the pain while increasing the tension on the muscle with the following bench-press variation.

Dumbbell Bench Press BENEFIT: INJURY PREVENTION These allow your joints to travel in a more natural path than when they’re locked in place when using a barbell.

DO IT: Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle and lower the dumbbells until they touch your chest, then explode the weight back up. Use the same grip you would for a standard barbell bench press. Just make sure to start light. At first, there’s a good chance it’ll feel unstable.

Guillotine Press
BENEFIT: HYPERTROPHY The guillotine press stretches your pec fibers in the way that they naturally lay across your joints; a standard bench press doesn’t.

DO IT: Grasp the bar wider than shoulder width. Unrack the bar and lower the weight to your neck, keeping your elbows out entirely to the sides.

CARTER’S SHOULDER WARM-UP Rather than put a Band-Aid on the issue and avoid exercises like the guillotine and cambered bar press, you should address poor shoulder mobility so that you can perform them. They’re effective to have in your mass-building arsenal.

TRAINING PROGRAM Here’s how to get big without the big three.

Use this flexible three-day training template as a guide. Accessory work is your responsibility, though Carter provided some examples for guidance. Start with lower reps and heavier weight to hit your type IIA fibers and central nervous system for strength gains. Then you’ll lighten the load and work up to a set of 20 for optimal growth.


Shoulder Dislocate* 3 20
L-flye 4 15
Band Pull-apart 1 50-100

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Day 2: Back & Biceps
Day 3: Legs
Note: Each week, replace each exercise
with any variation of a similar exercise.


Deadlift Alternative 3 6, 12, 20
Chinup 3 10
Underhand Barbell Row 3 10
DB Shrug with Pause 3 10
Preacher Curl and Incline DB Cur 3 10



Bench-press Alternative 3 6, 12, 20
Low Incline Cable Crossover 3 10
Behind-the-neck Press 3 10
Reverse Pec Deck 3 10
Rope Pushdown 3 10
PJR Pullover* 3 10

*PJR Pullover: Do a DB pullover with elbows significantly bent. Extend elbows to activate the triceps when lifting the weight.


Back Squat Alternative 3 6, 12, 20
Lying Leg Curl 3 10
Leg Extension 3 10
Smith Machine Split Squat 3 10