The Main Lifts for Strength
Compound Exercises How-To Guide
The main lifts are the main compound exercises for any powerlifting or strength training workout program. The Big 3 are the squat, bench press and deadlift. Learn how to perfect your technique and lift more weight than ever by clicking on each exercise below!
The Big 3
Programming Your Main Lifts
Every training session needs a Main Lift, Compound Exercise, or movement.
This compound exercise is the focal point of the workout and the reason you are training for that day. All of the training before and after these main lifts is set to better improve the main exercise.
The main exercise should be a standard motion that improves performance in your chosen sport. This can be any movement that makes you stronger.
Just remember, your main power lift should be something that builds the most overall strength. It can be a Big 3 compound exercise like the squat, bench press, deadlift, a close variation or something like sprints for running. It just needs to be helpful for you to build the strength necessary to be better at what you want to be better at.
You should also do the most amount of work with this particular compound exercise. If you want to get good at something, then you need to do it a lot. You should spend the most time on this exercise and try to perfect it while still pushing forward.
Try to increase the overall workload or weight every few weeks so that you never stop progressing.
Compound Exercises for Strength Training and Athletics
Heavy Training Days
For heavy training days, every other week your compound exercises should rotate between moderate and high intensity.
One week the goal should be to work up too or past 90% of that given exercise’s maximum (relative to the # of reps being performed) to build absolute strength. Example: 3 Rep Max = 300 lbs. Use ~270 for most of your work. IF you are moving properly, then you may carefully work up in weight to a maximum of 310 lbs. on occasion.
The next week should focus on repetitions using less than 85% of the maximum, to build muscle and constantly improve technique. This will rotate each week, and skip over week 4 which should always be of low to moderate intensity relative to the main compound exercise focused upon the other 3 weeks (4-week cycle).
If there are two main lifts for your heavy training day (such as squat and deadlift, or bench press and military press), then the two main lifts should also be rotated.
The higher intensity lift should always go first. For example, if the squat exercise is of high intensity the deadlift exercise should be of lower intensity. The next week the deadlift exercise should be performed first at a high intensity, while the squat exercise should be performed afterward with lower intensity.
The same intensity rotation should occur between the bench press only if there is another main lift you do that day, such as Military Press or an Olympic lift.
Most people do not bench press heavy enough to need 2 weeks of rest afterward before going heavy again, so if you recover enough, then you may bench press relatively heavy 3 weeks in a row while using every 4th week as a recovery week with light-moderate weight.
Light Training Days
The main lifts on light training days are still the focus of the training session. Everything should focus on improving this compound movement, which in turn is focused on improving your main lifts utilized on heavy training days.
During light training days the goal is to accumulate volume and practice technique, creating a better potential for strength gains on heavy training days.
These sessions will focus on building muscular size, speed, and endurance while bringing up weaknesses. This allows for different stimuli created through varying intensities.
As your muscles grow and adapt to lighter loads, they will have an increased potential to grow more absolute strength.
Together, light, moderate and heavy loads utilized on the main lifts will allow for continuous growth without stagnation. Keep growing stronger.
Compound Exercises for Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding Athletes generally focus each muscle group one time per week. However, aesthetics athletes can also benefit greatly from adding strength training into their routine as part of their Mathias Method Programming.
During the last 8-12 weeks before a show, it would be best to stick to the techniques that work best for you, but strength training must be a part of all other training times for optimal improvement.
Bodybuilding Athletes should make their first main movement a strength movement in which they focus on strength along with aesthetics. This should be done by using a moderate amount of weight and training volume that slowly increases over time, as to not waste too much energy on only gaining strength.
An example would be doing 5 sets of 5 repetitions on a main compound exercise, like the squat or bench press, in which the weight stays the same in a given workout, but increases by 5-10lbs every week. This will give proper stimulus for strength along with improving overall growth.
After this movement, all other training may be focused on muscular development.
Main Lift Variations
Variations to the main lifts allow for a different stimulus to the base lifts and can allow for new growth. Any variation used can create an opportunity to build up different areas of the lift or prime mover muscles from different angles.
Variation can be simple or complex, but to build strength towards the main movements, it is important not to vary too far from the original lift.
Start with simple variations such as the addition of pauses and boxes or changing the positioning of hands or feet before moving into more complex lifts with numerous changes.
Examples of some valuable variations to the main lifts are:
- Stance or Grip
- Bar Positioning
- Boxes or Boards
- Specialty Bars
- Range of Motion
- Accommodating Resistance (Bands or Chains)
- Assistive Gear
Variation is best used with advanced lifters who have already mastered the main lifts and progress is slowing.
Beginners should rarely use variations in the main lifts if at all.
Intermediate lifters can try some compound exercise variations infrequently but most work should be done to perfect the main lifts.