The Functional Big Three

Posted on 27 Apr 2010 21:10

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By Ashiem Matthn

Strength Training has become the new "in" thing to do. Train like a Powerlifter and eat like a Bodybuilder. This is standard advice given to every beginner wanting to get in shape. The next thing you're likely to read or hear is "Squat 500, Pull 500 and Bench 300 and you won't be complaining about size."

While these statements may have some truth in them - however remote, I do not think that the Big 3 Powerlifts are going to be the only "Holy Trinity" in getting anyone big and strong.

In my opinion, the most elite weightlifting sport is Olympic Lifting because of the sheer employment of technique and power. These guys train multiple times a day from the time they are little more than toddlers to get this strong. That kind of dedication and precision requires a category of its own. Unfortunately, learning the OLY lifts by yourself and progressing without the leadership of a coach can be frustrating and progress is likely to be snail-speed.

Olympic snatch lift bottom position

To, the next elite sport is Strongman Training. Moving heavy things around again and again basically means you need brute strength and endurance. The only drawback to this sport is your weight. You have to be one of the big guys to ever be on ESPN and you have to be able to Deadlift 600 pounds 10 times at the very least. These guys are not about hitting one rep maxes and calling it a day. They want to move heavy stones, carry heavy bags and even run a race with a full refrigerator strapped onto their backs!

strongman farmer's walk

After Strongman Training the next big sport is Powerlifting. While it may be considered a backyard sport by many, it does have its merits in that it focuses around only 3 exercises: the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. It's all about hitting that one single rep you need to set a new record. This has become the standard for all training now. Unless you Squat, Bench and Deadlift you aren't a strength trainee. Hell, if you don't do the above 3 lifts, you aren't worth shit because you'll never get strong or big. Forget your individual goals and aspirations..who cares about that? All that matters is your ability to hit a 700 Pull, 600 Squat and 500 Bench. This achievement will make you large, strong and cure cancer. Yeaaaahhh…

powerlifter squatting in powerlifting competition

So, in short:

Olympic Lifting Technique + Power
Strongman Training Brute Strength + Endurance
Powerlifting Brute Strength

What happens to those trainees who don't want to compete and don't want to be labelled as Powerlifters or Weightlifters? What if they just want to get strong? They're Strength Trainees and the lifts they want to focus on aren't the same as the Powerlifts simply because they have no aim to compete. If you aren't going to compete in a meet why restrict yourself to training in one fashion ALONE? You have the freedom to do what you like - basically pick the most optimal tools you need to get you to your goals.

What lifts should someone like that focus on?

In my opinion, people who have no intention of competing professionally and making Powerlifting or Strongman Training a source of their bread and butter do not need to restrict themselves to training the Squat, Bench and Deadlift. They have something most Powerlifters and Weightlifters don't: they have the ability to be flexible in their exercise selection.

Given this degree of freedom, I think most strength trainees should focus on the following three lifts because of their sheer functional benefit:

  1. The Front Squat
  2. The Strict Overhead Press
  3. The Deadlift

The Front Squat

The Front Squat is probably the most functional variation of the squat. Here are some tips I have to get better and stronger at Front Squats:

front squat bottom position side view in squat rack
  • Work on Hip mobility Drills to get your hips moving correctly. Ground Up Strength has an entire page dedicated to Hip Mobility Drills which can be found right here: Mobility
  • Do not use the cross grip to perform this exercise. It will end up limiting you because it does not provide enough stability. Using a clean grip or a weightlifters' grip is much better because it enables the weight to rest completely on your shoulders (the way it should be) with no potential to roll forwards during the course of your rep.
  • There are many different types of progression which you could employ to help you but keep in mind: different set/rep schemes are simply tools. Don't get overly attached to any one of them because that will limit you. Use everything you can to progress and your end goal is to get stronger. It's all about perspective.
  • Apart from simple linear progression, you can use a percentage basis as a guidelines. Note: I said you should use it as a guideline. Here's what I mean: every Front Squat workout, perform atleast one single at an intensity greater than 90% of your 1RM. As weeks progress you have the option to either increase the reps or perform more than one single or improve the quality of your single(s). After performing the required single(s) you should dedicate 3-5 sets on working with weights between 80-90% of your 1RM. You either add reps here or you increase density (keeping the same number of sets and the same time frame but improving the reps and or the weight - basically making your workout more "dense" with more work done in the same or lesser time frame). So, you are progressing on a two fold level: improving the ability of your body to handle loads greater than 80% of your max and improving your ability to attempt these weights multiple times.
  • When performing the Front Squat, do not worry about "squatting back". You need to focus on squatting DOWN and relate yourself to the bar. Do not think about hips or anything. Everything moves in synchrony.

The Strict Overhead Press

The Strict Overhead Press used to be an Olympic lift until some guys managed to lean so far back they made this into an Incline Press. However, if this lift is done correctly, I believe it can be very helpful.

heavy belted overhead military press in squat rack
  • The Press outranks the Bench Press because firstly you aren't lying on your back. I dunno about you but I don't think workouts should involve me lying on my back. Thats not a workout or a worthwhile exercise.
  • The Press keeps your shoulders safe and injury proof. Doing this exercise the right way helps improve the stability of your shoulder girdle. Coupled with pull-ups and rows, you got one strong upper body.
  • It is more functionally efficient than its counterpart: the Bench Press.
  • Regarding Progression, the Strict Overhead Press is a slower lift to progress at because of the level of difficulty. One simple way to progress is to improve the number of sets and reps you can do with 90% or more of your 1RM. This boils down to you taking 90 lbs (assuming your 1RM is 100 lbs) and performing more sets or more reps or higher weights over time. So, Week 1 can involve you doing: 90 lbs x 2 reps x 3 sets. Week 2 can be 90 lbs x 3 reps x 3 sets. Week 4: 90 lbs x 3 reps, 95 lbs x 3 reps, 100 lbs x 2 reps. Boom. Since this lift is slow to progress on, you should give yourself some breathing room to progress on.
  • Regarding form, try to keep your shoulder blades pinched together. Elbows should be ahead of the bar and to avoid strain your lower back, before you press the weight, make sure your glutes are also pinched together. Hold that pinch for the entire duration of the lift.

The Deadlift

If the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk are considered the Gods, the Deadlift will surely be the King!

heavy barbell deadlift
  • Eric Troy has written numerous must-read articles on the Deadlift. A quick look at his blog and the articles in the Training and Exercise sections will enable you to nail your form down correctly.
  • With regards to Progression, firstly: don't think that the mutually beneficial nature of Deadlifts and Front Squats is a one way street. If the Deadlift improves; so will the Front Squat and vice versa.
  • Next, try doing the Singles Scene for your Deadlift every 4-5 months once you have gathered sufficient momentum with the heavy weights.
  • Work on being able to perform quality reps with 90% or more of your Max week in and week out. A lot of trainees train with sub par weights and expect to shatter their previous Absolute Maxes. This only works for a handful of people. Most of the time, you got to Deadlift big and Deadlift often to get serious results. Bob Gaynor is one of the classic examples of this. He's 63 years old with a 672 pound Deadlift.
  • Eric has guided me through several types of progression schemes but I want to touch upon two in particular. The first is called Poliquin's Modified 5-1 Progression. Here's what you do: take a reasonable heavy weight and perform 1 rep. Take 10 lbs off and then do 5 reps. Then add 5 lbs to the weight used for the first set and do 1 rep. Take 10 lbs of this current weight and perform 5 reps. Rinse and repeat. An Example:
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
200 x 1 205 x 1 210 x 1 210 x 1
190 x 5 195 x 5 200 x 5 200 x 5
205 x 1 210 x 1 215 x 1 215 x 1
195 x 5 200 x 5 205 x 5 205 x 5
210 x 1 215 x 1 220 x 1 220 x 1
200 x 5 205 x 5 210 x 4 210 x 5
  • The second protocol I'd like to discuss is Quality Volume Training (QVT). This can be applied to any lift you like including curls. The purpose of this system is to improve the quality of your reps. So, you start at roughly 85% of your max and you perform 1-3 reps making sure you are perfect in your technique. You make small increments with each set (5-10 lbs) and you keep the reps between 1 and 3. Sometimes you can perform 2 sets of 2 reps (for example) or repeat a single if you choose to do so. This is about you gauging your ability execute the rep with perfect technique. A hypothetical numerical example is listed below:
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
200 x 3 200 x 3 205 x 3 205 x 2
210 x 1 210 x 3 215 x 2 215 x 3
210 x 2 220 x 1 225 x 2 225 x 2
220 x 2 220 x 1 225 x 1 225 x 2
230 x 1 230 x 1 235 x 2 235 x 3
230 x 1 230 x 2 240 x 1 245 x 2
  • I have had great success with both these protocols (among others) and I highly recommend someone to try them out.
  • When most people get back into lifting after a lay off or when they aren't having a particularly good day, they become frustrated at not being able to either hit their old maxes or missing target weights expected of them. Most of these people usually get angry and then give up. They end up carrying their frustration around with them. Instead of getting so down on yourself, the next time this happens to you - when you're having an unsatisfying day or you're getting back into lifting after some time off, use the Quality Volume Training approach because it will help you to gauge yourself, hit heavier weights and give you an overall sense of satisfaction as well.


I know my selection of lifts is odd compared to the publicized and highly promoted "Big 3" Powerlifts, however, I believe the Front Squat, Strict Overhead Press and Deadlift have merits which are unique to them. In terms of functional benefit - which is something I believe most Strength Trainees who don't have any desire to compete professionally; should focus on, they are second only to the highly technical Olympic Lifts.

Here is something else to consider: since I've made it clear that limiting oneself to training just the powerlifts when one doesn't have any intention of making weightlifting into a profession is not optimal, I'd like to say that firstly, there is no need to limit the functional lifts to three in number either. These three are just those big movers which I have in my training. I love pull-ups, rows, overhead squats, incline presses, etc etc… Secondly, one does not need to do any variation of the Squat, Deadlift or the Press to be considered a strength trainee. It all depends on your goals and intentions. If you want to improve your 1RM on Barbell curls, you don't need to Squat to achieve that goal. This is just something I want to add because I certainly am not limiting myself to any three lifts ONLY and I am most certainly not claiming any one lift to be the end all and be all in the pursuit of strength.


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This page created 27 Apr 2010 21:10
Last updated 26 Feb 2015 18:58

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