In a recent encounter with another fitness writer, I had a discussion on the topic of compound movements for bodybuilding purposes. The conversation quickly turned into an argument and the person I was chatting with was very adamant about his ideology. He believed solely that the squat, deadlift and bench press were superior to all movements and every other compound exercise fails miserably in comparison when one’s focus is to build the most lean body mass. He firmly believes that anything other than the big three are suboptimal at best.
We actually debated back and forth for 10-15 minutes before I exclaimed “I do not have time for this, I will just write an article to explain my opinion.” I hate arguing and figured my time would be better spent writing about this very topic.
Everyone knows that in order to grow into a mass freak you must do deadlifts, squats and bench presses. If you cannot utilize these movements, you might as well take up badminton, go on a starvation diet and begin jogging 100 miles per week. Remember, only bench presses build massive pecs and squats are the only movement that will turn your legs into solid oaks. Oh yea, deadlifts are the only solution to becoming the genetic anomaly you wish to be.
While all of the previous sarcasm may sound somewhat comical, many still hang on to these beliefs with very strong conviction. I don’t really blame them though, after all, they are most likely listening to the biggest bro’s in the gym.
He first tried to tell me that squats were better than any other leg movement. I asked “what is the difference between a leg press and squat?” It’s essentially the same movement in a different position. The leg press is a viable option for someone who may have had previous ankle or knee injuries and has not regained their balance, flexibility and/or stability just yet. Heck, it’s a great movement for those who hate or are afraid of squats and want to build lower body mass.
Then he tried to argue that bench press was the best chest builder “just because.” There was no real explanation. So I said “what do you think about weighted dips? They are great for building mass in the chest.” Then he replied with “you use a lot of triceps during the movement.” No freaking crap! It’s called a compound exercise for a reason. Your triceps are just as involved in a bench press.
Needless to say this conversation did not go anywhere.
Back in the day, before the specialized equipment and fancy machine era, all they really had were barbells, benches, racks and weights. The setup was very minimalistic and raw. I like it this way, actually. The only reason they only performed the big three is because it’s all they freakin’ had not because they are more optimal than the alternatives.
However, nowadays the standard commercial gym is usually packed full of useful equipment. People could literally do nothing but machines to build their ideal physique. We are lucky to have such a luxury as this now provides a variety of movements to choose from, plus it provides options for movements that may better serve us granted we have an injury or shoulder impingement.
Ideally, when training to build the most muscle mass or strength, compounds are usually best when it comes to progressive overload. However you don’t have to be indentured to the big three(squat, deadlift, bench press). I personally like dips for my main pressing movement and I prefer RDL‘s over conventional deadlifts due to my anatomical structure(also, RDL’s just feel more natural to me).
The only instance you would ever have to sell your soul to the big three is if you are competitive powerlifter or a competitive athlete with a Nazi coach. Lyle even agrees.
You should not be concerned with what the best movement is or what the ultimate routine may be. The truth is, they don’t exist. Every exercise has pro’s and con’s. Every routine is lacking in some form or fashion. There are many ways to achieve whatever goals you may have in terms of body composition, strength or lean body mass gains.
I believe that compound movements(barbells or machines) are important for overall strength and muscular development. In fact I think compounds are essential for long term success but I do not prescribe the same protocol for every single person. We are all a bit different in one way or another and we all have different needs and goals.
Some of us have longer arms and the flat bench press may be a bit more dangerous for us than it would be for someone with shorter limbs. How do we fix that? We do floor presses instead. Some of us are not built to deadlift due to our lower limb length but may be built to squat and vice versa. We must do what works for us as individuals and stop worrying about what others say is superior or better based on their opinion.
My philosophy is simple, actually. If your explicit goal is to build mass, pick a handful of movements and focus on getting stronger for a planned period of time. If you ate well and are pushing more weight at week 16 of your training cycle, chances are great that your body composition changed for the better.