Should Athletes Use “The Big 3?”

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Fitness

Question: Do you have to squat, bench press and deadlift to become a better athlete?

Answer: Absolutely not.

Athletes need to get stronger and more explosive. They also need to improve mobility, dynamic flexibility and agility.

Speed position players and weight class athletes need to minimize bodyfat. Many athletes need to improve conditioning, and often times they need to build muscle.

You can accomplish all of those tasks without any of the lifts you mentioned.

Athletes are not powerlifters so why would we assume that the three powerlifts are the best exercises for them?

Many times strength coaches get caught up in chasing numbers. I made this mistake myself for several years. The thought process is that you take a football player who squats 225, pulls 315 and benches 185 and bring him up to a 315 squat, 405 deadlift and 225 bench, then… PRESTO- he’s the next Bo Jackson.

It’s not that simple.

Unfortunately he may be the exact same player he was with the weaker numbers.

As unfathomable as it may sound he could actually be worse.

If in the pursuit of those numbers he beat up his joints or ignored other important facets of his training, let imbalances occur, or perhaps wasn’t ready to be squatting because one hip flexor was much tighter and weaker than the other (or a million other possibilities) then he may have compromised his movement efficiency and no longer be as good as he was.

The Squat

The concept that athletes should do some type of compound squatting, pushing and pulling movement is correct. These are definite requirements; the exercise choice, however, depends on the athlete.

The back squat is a great exercise, yet a lot of people can’t perform it correctly.

Even if the athlete in question has a perfect back squat a smarter choice for some would be a safety bar squat or a front squat with a harness.

I’ve seen a lot of people put undue stress on their shoulders and elbows while back squatting (which is why I recommend a high bar position but this can still be problematic for certain individuals). You can add in wrist stress if you use the free bar front squat.

If you are training an athlete to become better why would you want to even consider the risk of possible nagging upper body injuries being accumulated from a LOWER BODY EXERCISE?!

It’s asinine.

I’m not saying don’t squat. Definitely squat but use the safety bar if elbow or shoulder issues are a problem. Or at least a high bar position that doesn’t stress the shoulders.

The act of squatting is what is important. Sometimes you may have an athlete who can only kettlebell front squat or goblet squat. That’s fine. Then you will have to find another way for them to get maximal strength work in.

Remember, the goal is for him to play better on the field, not to have a higher powerlifting total.

If bilateral squatting is out of the question for whatever reason (injury, imbalance, restriction) go with some type of single leg squatting exercise and heavy sled work. This will get the job done.

The Deadlift

As far as pulling goes the deadlift isn’t a horrible choice but an Olympic lift variation is a better one.

I don’t use straight bar deadlifts from the floor with athletes.

I’d recommend pulling from rubber blocks or mats set somewhere around mid shin height. The other option is the high handle trap bar deadlift. In both cases submaximal weights should be used and the bar should be dropped to eliminate the eccentric component.

This is THE exercise where picture perfect technique is crucial.

I know that Hugh Cassidy, John Inzer, Mark Chaillet and numerous other powerlifters round-backed up a new PR or world record. This does not concern me when training guys who want to be better at getting from the 20 yard line into the endzone.

The Bench Press

The bench press is truthfully not the greatest exercise for athletes.

It’s widely considered a “shoulder-fucker.”

So if you have an athlete who has a goal of one day playing in the Pro Bowl do you think it’s a great idea to prescribe them an exercise that has led to more rotator cuff surgeries than any other?

Probably not.

Healthy shoulders usually come in handy on the gridiron. Or basketball court.

If they get tested on it then you have to train them on it.

But I would minimize the damage by spending most of the off season working with fat bars with neutral or angled grip handles like the ones we have at Renegade. Even mix in some two board presses. Then switch them over to straight bars and full range as camp gets closer.

==> The bars we use at Renegade 

If you don’t have to worry about testing then go with an overhead press, some type of heavy, one-arm horizontal dumbbell press, a standing landmine press and ring dips and pushup variations for heavy pressing work.

So, yes, all athletes need to do some variation of “the big three.”

They need to push, pull and squat.

That could be a pistol squat, a power snatch and a handstand pushup or it could be a back squat, high pull and fat bar 2-board press.

Nothing is written in stone, nor should it be.