Let The Gains Begin
Bench press, squat and deadlifts are commonly referred to as ‘The Big 3’ and this is because they train the most amount of muscle mass and you will gain the greatest amount of strength from these three exercises. I’m sure that you’ve probably heard of the term ‘The Big 4’ or ‘The Big 6’ especially from guys on Twitter. The problem with this is it defeats the entire point of what the original term ‘The Big 3’ actually means. These exercises are the best for two goals: gaining muscle mass and gaining strength and if you keep adding exercises to this list it no longer reflects what ‘The Big 3’ means because other exercises are certainly not on the same level as these. They don’t train as much muscle mass and you aren’t as strong with them.
The bench press is an upper body exercise that focuses on your chest, shoulders and triceps and there are variations including decline and incline bench press along with additional dumbbell variations too. Don’t focus on the type of chest pressing exercise you do. Focus on how much muscle mass and how much stronger you are getting on chest exercise A compared to chest exercise B. That is when you can start being selective with your exercise preferences because you have some results to back you up and inform your current decisions in the gym. Choose the chest pressing exercise that has resulted in the most muscle mass gain and the biggest leaps in strength. For some of you this might be incline bench press whilst for others it might be flat bench press or dumbbell press. All of these exercises work towards the same end goal so it doesn’t matter how you get there, just as long as you get there continuing to do what has already worked for you.
Now, I do have some key considerations for you. If you are completely new to the gym and you’ve never touched a barbell or dumbbells before you have to be really thoughtful about your approach. When I first started lifting weights the very first step I took was improving my technique and getting confident with free weights. I didn’t start with machines because I had been told that ‘free weights are dangerous’ (they’re only dangerous if you approach them in the wrong way) and I didn’t start with cables either. Even if you start with machines, if you know what you’re doing, you will inevitably realize the importance of moving onto free weights and at some point you’ll have to learn how to control free weights so it’s better to learn at the very start rather than later on.
I started with the dumbbell rack in my local gym and I really focused on controlling the weight throughout the entire repetition. I wasn’t focusing on how heavy the weight was (although sometimes I did let my ego as a teenager get the better of me!), I was focusing solely on being in control of the weight and feeling that mind muscle connection with every rep and every set I did. This then lead to me being more confident with free weights and it improved my mind muscle connection so that with every future workout I was doing that included chest exercises, I was better able to handle the weight I was using and felt confident enough to push it that one step further and use heavier dumbbells.
I didn’t actually start using a barbell with my chest exercises until a couple of years into my training. This is something I regret because even after a few years of training with dumbbells I still had to adjust to a new variation of chest exercises that I hadn’t previously done before. You don’t want to do this. Ideally you want to try and master your technique with dumbbells and barbells at the same time because it means you will save yourself a lot of time in the future when you try to do variations of exercises with different pieces of equipment. You’ll already know how to use a barbell, dumbbells and cables so you’ll be very equipped to tackle different workouts and progressions.
The same applies for squats too. I wasn’t doing any form of squats for the first couple of years of training because I was stupid and said I didn’t want my legs to look ‘too big’ and that playing football was enough leg work for me to get strong and defined legs. How silly of me. Instead during this time I was focusing on exercises such as the leg press, leg extensions and hamstring curls. I thought that my legs were really strong on the machine leg press at my local gym and that I had really strong legs…what a fool.
As soon as I transitioned into using a squat rack this really put my strength into perspective – I was no way near as strong as my leg press strength suggested. This felt like a sucker punch but I deserved it for being so naive at a young age. Don’t do this. Start squatting and start now following the exact same approach that I mentioned above with chest exercises. Learn how to squat properly with the correct depth, foot positioning, head position and breathing techniques and you’ll be quickly on your way to making serious leg gains particularly with your quads and glutes.
Don’t get me wrong leg press, leg extensions and hamstring curls are great exercises but they just don’t build real strength and muscle mass. They just aren’t as effective leg builders in comparison to squats and if you’re new or fairly new to lifting weights the gains you can make are astounding. Your muscle mass and strength gains will result in compounded growth like never before and you’ll wonder why you wasted so much time on less effective exercises before.
Deadlifts didn’t enter my training programs for a while either which was a huge mistake since deadlifts are a beast and I would consider deadlifts as the number one exercise you can do for various reasons. Firstly, all variations of deadlifts train a lot of muscle mass. Conventional deadlifts emphasize your hamstrings, lats, traps, rhomboids and rear delts whilst sumo deadlifts focus more on your quads and glutes. That’s a lot of muscle mass in one movement and this can’t be underestimated. I made a lot of progress with rows, lat pull downs and pull ups but my back still felt weak. I had a lot of muscle mass but I wasn’t strong and I certainly didn’t feel strong which matters a lot for us men or at least it should do. As soon as I started introducing deadlifts into my training program my gains went through the roof.
My back is now a lot wider than ever before which makes my waist appear smaller, my posture has improved and the most significant benefit for me is that I never get any lower back injuries anymore. I used to get lower back injuries all the time from sudden movements in football matches, lifting weights incorrectly during my teens and generally just not having a strong posterior chain. If you can start dead lifting now and master your technique just like how I mentioned above with my chest pressing exercises you will see dramatic improvements in your back musculature, shape, strength and you’ll be injury free.