The 5 Big Compound Lifts for Building Muscle
Bodybuilding is the best way to train for muscle growth, right? In theory, yes. But most bodybuilding programs fail to emphasize getting stronger at the big compound lifts, so they fail to produce consistent muscle growth over time. The solution is simple, and everyone who’s ever tried strength training already knows it.
In strength training programs, your strength is determined by how much you can squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition—your total. If your total goes up, you’re improving. If it doesn’t, you aren’t. And so the entire workout program is designed to help you lift progressively more weight, making you gradually stronger at those lifts. And if you aren’t getting stronger, you know there’s a problem you need to fix.
That doesn’t mean that isolation lifts are never used. You’ll find them in strength training programs, too. The difference is that they have a clear purpose—to support the compound lifts. If your chest holds you back in the bench press, you might use an isolation lift to bulk up your chest.
It’s a good system. Or, at least, it’s a good system if you’re a powerlifter. But what if you aren’t? What if you’re trying to gain muscle mass? Would you focus on different compound lifts? How would you choose your isolation lifts? And how would you measure your progress? If we can figure that out, we can bring the same clarity to our hypertrophy training that powerlifters have in their strength training.
- The Power of Specificity
- Specificity for Building Muscle
- The Hierarchy of Muscle-Building Exercises
- What Are the Best Compound Lifts?
- How to Use the Big 5 to Build Muscle
The Power of Specificity
There’s a great powerlifting textbook called the Scientific Principles of Strength Training. It’s written by Mike Israetel, Ph.D., James Hoffmann, Ph.D., CSCS, and the legendary powerlifter Chad Wesley Smith. According to them, the most important principle of strength training is a principle called specificity.
Powerlifters have their three big lifts: the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press. Their goal is simply to put up more weight on those three lifts. Their training, then, should be hyper-focused on specifically gaining 1-rep max strength on those three specific lifts.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a powerlifter should only do those three lifts or only practice lifting heavy singles. That’s not what the authors are suggesting, either. They recommend a number of different variations, assistance exercises, and accessory exercises done in a variety of rep ranges. However, these exercises are specifically chosen to help them improve their performance at the Big 3 powerlifting lifts.
This same principle of specificity is paramount no matter what you’re training for. You want your goal front and centre, and then everything else should be specifically chosen to help you accomplish that goal.
Here’s the thing, though, my throwers don’t run. My throwers don’t do agility drills or jumping or, really, just about anything other than throw and lift. Why? Because I want them to be fit to throw.– Dan John, author of Easy Strength
It’s not even limited to sports. Regardless of what it is you’re training for, specificity is still a foundational principle:
The more specific you are about what you want to become good at doing, the easier it is for you to train for success.– James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
Going back to strength training, though, specificity means that powerlifters can boil down their training to just:
- Improving technical prowess on the squat, bench, and deadlift. A powerlifter ought to know how to do the competition lifts in a way that gives them the most leverage and allows them to lift the most weight.
- Training to improve 1-rep max strength. Powerlifters are judged by how much they can lift for a single repetition. This means that they need to learn how to contract all of their muscle fibres at once, saving nothing for later. This is why strength training is done in low rep ranges (1–5 repetitions per set).
- Gaining size in the relevant muscles. The bigger a muscle grows, the stronger it will become. One study found that four years of weight training resulted in a 60% increase in muscle strength and a 56% increase in muscle size, meaning that increased muscle size explained 93% of the strength gains. Therefore, if we’re trying to increase our strength on the back squat, our very first priority is bulking up the relevant muscles: our quads, adductors, and glutes. The irrelevant muscles, of course, don’t matter. Biceps aren’t a limiting factor in the squat, bench press, or deadlift, so there’s no need to build bigger biceps.
If you aren’t a powerlifter, different muscles are relevant. For example, you might care about your biceps because you want to carry heavy things around in your arms. Or maybe you want to build bigger, more badass arms.
And if you aren’t a powerlifter, you don’t need to focus purely on improving your 1-rep max strength. You might want more of an endurance component to your strength, especially since that’s such an important aspect of gaining muscle mass. In that case, it makes more sense to focus on gaining strength in the 6–10 rep range.
Finally, technical prowess means something different to powerlifters. In strength training, getting better at the squat doesn’t mean squatting deeper and more gracefully; it means squatting as much weight as possible to legal powerlifting depth. Prowess on the bench doesn’t mean benching with a large range of motion to improve chest size and strength; it means benching with the shallowest depth possible while still touching your chest.
The implications of specificity run deep. A powerlifter might want a rounded upper back (kyphosis) because it helps them gain better leverage on the deadlift. A non-powerlifter, however, might prefer to be able to stand taller and straighter.
For another example, powerlifters benefit from doing the big 3 compound lifts over and over again. This helps them improve their technical prowess, and it also ensures that they’re bulking up not just the specific muscles but also the specific muscle fibres that they need for those lifts. They aren’t trying to build bigger, more versatile muscles, they’re trying to build highly specialized muscles.
A non-powerlifter might want to take the opposite approach. They might want to train their muscles in more diverse movement patterns so that all of their muscle fibres grow, making their strength more versatile and giving their muscles a fuller appearance.
I’m scared to keep beating a horse that’s so much stronger than I am, so if you want to read more about why powerlifting-style strength training isn’t ideal for building muscle or even gaining general strength, we’ve got an article on strength training here.
The thing is, we don’t want to throw the barbell out with the bathwater, either. There’s a lot we can learn from how powerlifters approach strength training. In fact, of all the lifting programs out there, the powerlifting routines are some of the cleverest. So let’s figure out exactly what our goals are so that we can train for them with the same specificity that powerlifters do.
Specificity for Building Muscle
What do you want out of your body? Your goals might be different from ours, but we like the idea of training for:
- Overall muscle size. I’m a naturally skinny guy. I want to be bigger and stronger. I suspect you do, too. This might mean spending more time in the hypertrophy rep ranges and using a wider variety of lifts.
- Overall strength. I care about how much I can squat, bench, and deadlift, but I also care about how strong I am in a general sense. This might mean bringing in movement patterns like chin-ups, rows, loaded carries, and overhead presses.
- Overall health. Admittedly, I struggle to get excited about lifting for my health and longevity. But even if exercising for general health isn’t as thrilling as gaining muscle mass and strength, I still care deeply about them, so I absolutely want my bulking program to improve my health. And there are certainly ways to adjust our training to improve both our muscle growth and our general health. This might mean doing squats in moderate rep ranges (6–12 reps, say) to improve our cardiovascular fitness and muscle size.
- Aesthetics. If we’re going through all the trouble of becoming big and strong, we may as well look like total badasses, too. Low-bar powerlifting squats won’t do much to improve our appearance, but front squats sure will, and chin-ups even more so.
Now, “overall size, strength, health, and aesthetics” might not sound very specific. And yeah, okay, it isn’t. But these goals still fit together well enough that a single umbrella can keep them dry. We can work with this.
The second question is: if those are our goals, what’s our workout program going to look like?
- Gaining size in the relevant muscles. Powerlifters need to figure out which muscles are relevant to the lifts they care about. We haven’t chosen our main compound lifts (yet), so we can sneak up on this one from behind: if we can figure out which muscles we care about the most, we can figure out which compound lifts best develop those muscles.
- Training to improve strength. Outside of the very low (under 4) and high (over 40) rep ranges, size is strength and vice versa. So there’s actually no problem developing both size and strength at once. The best way to kill these two birds is with a single, moderately heavy stone that we can lift for 4–40 repetitions.
- Improving technical prowess on our main lifts. But again, what are our main lifts? Are there lifts where mastering the technique gives us benefits beyond gaining muscle and strength?
Can we kill three birds with one swing of a barbell? I think so. To stand any hope of that, though, we need to get much more organized than the average bodybuilder. To do this, we can rob the powerlifters again. They’ve got a great way of sorting their lifts into a hierarchy.
The Hierarchy of Muscle-Building Exercises
If we’re training to get stronger at certain compound lifts, as a powerlifter would, then this allows us to categorize all of our lifts into a hierarchy.
- The main compound lifts: For a powerlifter, the main compound lifts are the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This includes all the variations that can be used in competition, such as sumo and conventional deadlifts. These are the most specific, so they’re the #1 priority.
- Assistance lifts: These are compound movements that emphasize a specific aspect of the main lift. For example, a Romanian deadlift is the same movement as a deadlift, but it’s harder on the hamstrings and easier on the lower back. These are used to bring up weak parts of the main movement. These are the #2 priority.
- Accessory lifts: These are exercises that are used to bulk up specific muscles. For example, if someone’s back strength limits them on the deadlift, they might use barbell rows to bulk their backs up. The movement pattern is totally different, but they still train relevant muscles. This takes #3 priority.
When we look at hypertrophy training programs, all of this structure falls away. Bodybuilding programs are often just a bunch of lifts thrown together for each muscle group in an attempt to give them enough volume to grow. We’re then told to lift close enough to failure, to train hard. But that won’t even scratch it, let alone cut it.
If we pilfer this hierarchy from powerlifters, though, we can give our muscle-building workout routine a better structure. For example, let’s say that we want to bulk up our biceps:
- Main lift: The heaviest lift that places the most mechanical tension on our biceps through the largest range of motion is the chin-up. We’ll use this as our main lift. Just like powerlifters can choose to deadlift either sumo or conventional, we can do our chin-ups with an underhand or neutral grip. We make the rules, and both are great, so we allow both.
- Assistance lifts: These are similar movements, such as overhand pull-ups, assisted chin-ups, lowered chin-ups, and if you want to push it, perhaps even lat pulldowns. For example, if you’re a beginner, you might want to use lowered chin-ups to place even more mechanical tension on your biceps. Or you might want to use assisted chin-ups to train in higher rep ranges.
- Accessory lifts: These are the exercises that are used to bulk up the relevant muscles. In this case, this is where biceps curls come in. The stronger we can build our biceps with curls, the better they’ll be able to assist us with the chin-ups.
This hierarchy tells us that it’s probably wisest to invest most of our energy into chin-ups. Then, depending on what’s limiting our performance, we might want to bring in an assistance lift to help strengthen our weak link. And then we might add in some biceps curls near the end of our workouts to bulk them up directly.
Of course, you could also put extra emphasis on your biceps by simply doing more chin-ups. But as we cover in our article on exercise selection, even the best compound lifts aren’t ideal for everything. With chin-ups, our shoulder joint movement prevents one of the two heads of our biceps from fully engaging. So we can improve our biceps growth by adding in an isolation lift where there’s no movement at our shoulders. This is why isolation lifts are such an important part of building muscle and gaining general strength.
Accessory lifts also stress our muscles, joints, and tendons in slightly different ways. This makes them stronger in a wider variety of circumstances and reduces our risk of injury.
What Are the Best Compound Lifts?
That finally brings us to the point of this article. Which compound lifts should we care about becoming strong at? We’re not the first people to think of this idea. There are several general strength training programs, each with its own ideas about which compound lifts are best for gaining muscle size and strength. Of these, two are incredibly popular.
The Starting Strength Approach
Mark Rippetoe recommends the following lifts in Starting Strength:
- Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Power Clean
- Deadlift (lesser priority)
This lift selection is wise, especially given who it’s designed for. This is a program for college athletes who are new to lifting weights. A strength coach will work with them in person to help them improve their lower body strength, explosiveness, and overall mass. But for the average casual interested in building muscle and getting stronger, it’s not quite ideal.
- First, the power clean is good for turning strength into explosiveness, but it isn’t good for developing muscle size or strength in the first place. It’s an Olympic lift. It’s too technical, there’s too little time under tension, and it isn’t very heavy.
- Second, there’s no lift for the upper back and biceps. That makes sense. That type of strength is a lower priority for football and rugby players. But it’s another reason why this isn’t an ideal routine for developing all-around strength or aesthetics. (For instance, when we surveyed women, they rated our arms as the best muscle group to emphasize.)
- Third, the low-bar squat is greatly emphasized, making the program unbalanced. Since this is such a dominant part of the program, let’s dive deeper into this point.
I understand why there’s so much emphasis on the squat. Our quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in our bodies, meaning that squats stimulate more sheer muscle growth than any other lift. You might argue that this makes them the best compound lift for building muscle, and you’d be right.
The thing is, putting so much emphasis on squatting means that our upper-body strength and muscle mass will lag behind. That doesn’t line up with the goals of most people, especially most men. Most of us would prefer to gain muscle and strength in a more balanced way. If anything, most of us would prefer if our bench press were slightly stronger relative to our squat, not the other way around.
So there’s nothing wrong with emphasizing the squat if it aligns with your goals, but I think a better default is to train our muscles with more balance, trying to bulk up everything with equal fervour.
The StrongLifts 5×5 Approach
Mehdi from StrongLifts 5×5 created another of the most popular strength training and bulking programs. According to him, the five best compound lifts are:
- Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Pendlay Barbell Row
- Deadlift (lesser priority)
Mehdi borrowed from pioneers like Rippetoe, so the problem remains with the low-bar squat. It’s not the best squat variation for building muscle, and this time it’s given even more emphasis—he recommends doing 2 extra sets.
The main difference between Starting Strength and StrongLifts is that Mehdi swapped out the power cleans for Pendlay barbell rows. This shifts the emphasis away from developing power, and it makes the program better for building muscle. The thing is, the Pendlay barbell row uses a horizontal torso, forcing our hips and lower back to work quite hard to stabilize the weight. This shifts emphasis from our upper bodies to our lower bodies.
And similar to the power clean, the Pendlay barbell row is done with an explosive tempo. We explode the barbell up off the floor and then drop it back down. Again, there’s too little time under tension, reducing the amount of muscle we build.
Now, that isn’t to say that the barbell row is a bad lift. It isn’t. It’s just that when we’re trying to build muscle, it’s better to row from a hip hinge position and lower the weight more slowly. This steeper torso angle makes the lift easier on our hips and lower back, shifting the emphasis to our upper backs. And lowering the weight more slowly stimulates muscle growth.
Still, even if we make the barbell row better for building muscle, there’s nothing for our biceps. Barbell rows work our biceps but fail to stimulate much muscle growth. For example, chin-ups stimulate twice as much biceps growth as the barbell row (study). Now, if there were plenty of biceps curls to make up for that, no problem. But there aren’t. These are true minimalist programs that recommend only doing the big compound barbell lifts.
The Big 6 Compound Lifts (Fail)
When Marco and I first tried to develop our stable of compound lifts, it didn’t work out quite right. Just like how fixing one bug in the code often births another, we ran into unexpected problems.
We decided to choose 6 compound lifts:
- High-Bar Squat
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Conventional Deadlift
- Overhead Press
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
There are a couple of improvements we were trying for.
- High-bar squats: switching to a high-bar squat solves some of the problems of the low-bar squat. It allows for a larger range of motion and puts the shoulders in a better position.
- Chin-ups: like the row, chin-ups do a great job of building the upper back. In fact, chin-ups work our lats through a much larger range of motion and with a much better strength curve. Chin-ups also stimulate as much biceps growth as biceps curls (study). This brings up our upper-body volume, giving us more balanced upper-to-lower-body proportions.
- Narrower bench press grip: the close-grip bench press does a better job of bulking up the triceps, shoulders, and upper chest than a wider-grip bench press. It’s also the lift I used to bring my bench press up to 315 pounds, so I have a soft spot for it. (Mind you, Starting Strength recommends a fairly narrow bench press grip, so that wasn’t necessarily a problem to begin with.)
Then we talked with Greg Nuckols, founder of Stronger by Science, about finding the best lifts for gaining overall muscle mass and strength. He’s a world-class powerlifter, an authority on strength training, a physics whizz, and a force of good in the strength training world.
Marco and I are pretty damn good at helping people bulk up, but Marco cut his teeth helping athletes get bigger, not powerlifters. If we’re stealing powerlifters’ ideas, may as well steal those ideas from the very best and brightest powerlifters.
Greg had a couple of great ideas:
- The front or safety bar squat: first, Greg suggested switching from the high-bar squat all the way to a front squat or safety-bar squat. Switching to the front squat shifts more emphasis to our upper backs, it reduces the risk of injury, and it’s better for improving posture. It also gives us a far great range of motion, making it better for building overall muscle mass. The safety-bar squat has similar advantages while being easier to grip… but at the cost of requiring specialized equipment.
- The cheat press: second, he suggested switching from an overhead press to a “cheaty” overhead press. He reasoned that if we use more momentum on the overhead press, we give the lift a better strength curve. We load the barbell a bit heavier and then clear the sticking point by driving the barbell up with our lower bodies. Driving a heavier weight gives our shoulders and triceps a better overall growth stimulus. It also helps us develop overall power and athleticism.
- The trap-bar deadlift: third, he recommended switching from a conventional deadlift to a trap-bar deadlift. I think that’s a great idea in theory. In fact, we used trap-bar deadlifts in the very first version of our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. However, we quickly learned that most people don’t have access to a trap bar (or safety-squat bar). So we’ll offer these specialty lifts as options, but we’ll default to more classic barbell lifts.
By the end of this, we thought we had found the answer. We thought we had improved on these classic programs, adding all these advantages without any downsides. But we had flown too high and been blinded by the sun. The wax soon melted, sending us hurtling down into the roiling waves below.
The Fall of the Barbell Row
We tested our “Big 6 Lifts” for a few months on ourselves and our members (both male and female). It worked well. But we ran into some issues with the barbell row. It’s just too similar to the deadlift. If we trained both lifts with similar fervour, we wound up massacring our lower backs.
Starting Strength and StrongLifts both evade this problem by only doing deadlifts once or twice a week and only doing a single set per workout. However, the deadlift is a much better lift than the barbell row. It stimulates way more overall muscle growth. Swapping out the deadlift for more rows is like trading a gold coin for an arcade token.
So we got rid of the barbell row. Now, we’re not total monsters. We still include rowing in all of our programs, and we have a full article reviewing the many benefits of the barbell row. It’s just that now we program them as an accessory lift for the deadlift. They aren’t a main lift.
Chin-ups are the main upper-back lift, deadlifts are the main lower-back and spinal erector lift, and rows are used as needed as a lighter accessory movement. The reason this works so well is that the barbell row is more upper-back dominant in higher rep ranges. When we do sets of 5–10 reps, it’s quite hard on our lower backs. But when we do sets of 15–20 reps, our lower backs can support the weight quite easily. It’s our upper backs and forearms that wind up getting more of the growth stimulus.
So if we start our workouts with heavy squats or deadlifts, then do lighter barbell rows afterwards, all those fatigue issues disappear. The workout program becomes quite a bit more manageable.
The Big 5 Compound Lifts
After demoting the barbell row to an assistance lift, our workouts became quite a bit more manageable. Fatigue stopped becoming as much of a problem, and our upper backs saw even better muscle growth. That gave us our 5 big compound barbell lifts:
- The Front Squat: a knee-dominant lift that develops the quads, glutes, and upper back.
- The Bench Press: to develop the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
- The Deadlift: a hip-dominant lift that develops the posterior chain—the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and traps. And again, hundreds of other muscles.
- The Overhead Press: to develop the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps.
- The Chin-Up: an upper-body pull to develop the upper back, biceps, and forearms. It’s also a great ab exercise.
With these main lifts, we’ve still got all the benefits of the big powerlifting lifts, but we’ve also added two extra upper-body lifts. That shifts the program from 2/3 lower body to 3/5 upper body, and these two extra upper body lifts will help us bulk up our chests, upper backs, shoulders, and arms. We’re still squatting enough to build strong legs, but those squats are balanced with a greater number of upper-body lifts and each movement is given equal priority. Every workout no longer starts with squats.
Like a powerlifter, we can keep a running tally of our “Big Five” total to measure our strength and progress. We can compare our results from doing various different programs. We can identify and overcome plateaus. We can give our lifts a proper hierarchy.
Again, since we aren’t powerlifters, we don’t need to test our one-rep max unless we want to. Instead, we can test our rep maxes. As long as that number improves, we’re becoming bigger and stronger overall. After all, going from an 8-rep max of 185 to 225 shows just as much improvement as going from a 1-rep max of 230 up to 280. But by testing our rep maxes, we don’t need to peak or prepare, we don’t need to increase our risk of injury, and the test itself—doing an 8-rep set—is great for stimulating muscle growth.
Are 5 Compound Lifts All You Need?
Where’s the loaded carry? In our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, which is designed for guys who are still fairly thin, we feature a ton of loaded carries, and so we’ve always counted them as one of the foundational lifts. Moving forward from that, though, it makes more sense to count them as another deadlift accessory. Otherwise, once again, we’d have too much heavy spinal loading in the program. (It’s also hard to perform heavy loaded carries once you get too strong to use dumbbells.)
This list is incomplete. We could also add throws, planks, twists, and all manner of other movements that help build a formidable physique. However, these can often be folded into the above movement patterns. For example, a one-handed overhead press will develop your obliques as a throw would.
However, some lifts still won’t fit in this system. For example, neck curls won’t fit into any of those movement patterns. That’s okay. It’s an important lift for developing overall aesthetics, and it’s essential for building a thicker neck, but it’s still a fairly minor lift. We’ll simply call it an extra.
The same is true with forearm training. Yes, our forearms will be trained to some extent with deadlifts and chin-ups, but those grip muscles won’t necessarily add much to our forearm circumference, given that it’s the wrist flexors and extensors that contribute most to our forearm size. Better to add in some forearm isolation exercises, such as wrist curls and extensions.
Are these lifts for men or women? We tested this system on both men and women, which worked great in both cases. They often emphasized different muscles, but the system accounted for that. If someone wants to use the deadlift to develop their upper back, they might choose a conventional deadlift and add plenty of barbell rows as an accessory. On the other hand, if someone wants more hip growth, they can choose a Romanian deadlift and add plenty of hip thrusts as an accessory.
Men and women are often going to choose different programs, but this system tends to work equally well for both.
The best compound lifts change as we become more advanced. A beginner will get more benefits out of a goblet squat than a front squat. Similarly, they’ll get more out of a push-up than they will from a bench press. The same is true with the other lifts, too.
Here’s a better list for beginners:
- Romanian Deadlift: an easier and safer variation of the deadlift that’s just as good for helping a beginner bulk up.
- Goblet Squat: a dumbbell version of the front squat that’s simpler to learn and helps develop strength in the front rack position.
- Lowered Chin-Up: the best way to work towards your first chin-up is to jump up to the bar and lower yourself. Sort of a push press but in reverse.
- The Push-Up: until you can do 20 push-ups, you’ll get more out of doing push-ups than the bench press. It’s easier on the shoulders, better for the core, and you’ll train your serratus muscles as a bonus.
- One-Armed Dumbbell Press: It’s easier to keep proper core positioning if you’re only pressing half as much weight at a time. Dumbbell presses are just as good for bulking up your shoulders, too.
How to Use the Big 5 to Build Muscle
This Big 5 approach to bulking isn’t a specific program; it’s a way of measuring overall strength and progress. It’s a way of sorting our lifts into a hierarchy. It’s a way of tying our size, strength, health, and aesthetics goals into one system—one total that we can tally and track.
First of all, make it your own. We don’t all need to pick the same lifts. We don’t all need to lift with the same range of motion. This isn’t a powerlifting competition. The idea is to choose the lift variations that will best help you become big and strong (and with minimal risk of injury).
For example, if you have a long spindly spine, conventional deadlifts will be harder for you. If you were a powerlifter, that would mean choosing a sumo stance. But if your goal is to build a thicker and stronger torso, then sticking with a conventional deadlift might be a better option for you.
We want to teach you how to choose your lifts based on your goals, going over the advantages and disadvantages of each. You can then pick the variation that suits you best and then track how your strength progresses on those variations over time.
We can also choose assistance and accessory lifts for those main lifts, allowing us to build a bigger Big-5 total.
We’ve made a separate article for each main compound lift:
- Deadlift Guide (for Bulking)
- Front Squat Guide (for Bulking)
- Chin-Up Guide (for Bulking)
- Bench Press Guide (for Bulking)
- Overhead Press Guide (for Bulking)
In these articles, we’ll help you choose your main compound lift based on your experience level, goals, and anatomy. Then we’ll talk about which accessory and assistance lifts are best for building muscle and getting stronger.
Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free muscle-building newsletter. If you want a customizable hypertrophy training workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.
Thanks for another awesome article – I love all the content you put out and the new site is looking very aesthetic.
Are you and Marco planning on releasing a program for more intermediate / advanced lifters through Outlift?
Thanks, Kevin! What we want to do with Outlift is to create bulking/strength/aesthetics content for more advanced lifters, yeah. We wanted a site without the “Bony” in it because, I mean, spend a few months with Bony to Beastly and you won’t ever be bony again. We needed a brand with some room to grow.
We’ve already finished beta testing and refining our intermediate program. I’ve also been doing it all year and absolutely loving it. We’re stoked.
We’re just trying to put up some content here that will go along with it. Our intermediate program is designed to be flexible and tailored. It’s all about options. So we need an article teaching you how to pick which squat variation you want to focus on, and what accessory exercises will go best with it. We also need an article about how to approach accessory exercises in general. And an article like this one that goes over the purpose of all of it.
That way we can release a simple program with some great default recommendations, but if people want to know the rationale behind it, if they want to further tailor the program, or if they have more nuanced questions, we can address them here in these articles, and in the comment threads that go along with them.
That’s our thinking, anyway.
Thanks for the detailed response Shane!
Awesome, I’m pumped to get my hands on the simple program whenever you guys release it.
I’ve been doing my own version of the Big 5 and I love it as well. I’ve already read through all the articles on here and switched from DB Military Press over to the Push Press based off your recommendation – so far so good.
Thanks for all you do man.
My pleasure, man! The dumbbell overhead press is great, too. I’m going to finish up that dedicated push press article soon, going over all the variations and what they’re best for. I think if you’ve been doing the dumbbell overhead press and you switch to a push press, it should spur on some new growth.
The other thing with the dumbbell press is that it helps to do it with a huge range of motion, bringing the dumbbell all the way down to your chest and then pressing it as high as you can overhead. That way you’re increasing the range of motion for your shoulders, and you’re also getting your upper chest and traps. But you might already be doing that. (And you can add in some lower-body drive to that variation as well, when it helps.)
Thank you for the comments. It’s nice to get some feedback before even going public about this new site. I really appreciate it 🙂
Love the articles, one of the most informative muscle building sites I’ve seen. I really like the bony2beastly site as well. Are you guys going to add more articles to the Outlift site? Doing 3 full body workouts a week with a proper bulking diet brought me from 155lbs to 225lbs at 6’1 in the course of a couple of years. I would love to see more articles pertaining to the more mechanical aspects of the big 5, breaking through plateaus, and diets for the intermediate/advanced lifter. Thanks and keep lifting!
Thank you, Damien! And congrats for gaining seventy pounds—that’s amazing!
Yeah, we’re going to keep writing articles here. Bony to Beastly is for skinny guys, Bony to Bombshell for skinny women, and then Outlift is at a more intermediate level, for people who already lift weights and who are no longer skinny anymore. I’m not sure if we’ll be writing many diet articles here, though. Maybe, but we might keep the content confined to lifting. I’m working on two more articles about the biomechanics and physics of lifting right now: strength curves and moment arms. I think you might like them 🙂
Hi Shane and Marco
Great article, it is tough to sift through thousands of practical muscle hypertrophy tips and methods which make no relevance for many hardgainers! What is your take on high rep, lactic acid buildup-focused training (i.e. very low volume (number of sets), per session, sets lasting 40-70 seconds, and hit every muscle with a high frequency (3 times a week) to stimulate follistatin production for brawny guys who can’t seem to add size with the typical 6-12 reps range, 3-5 sets per muscle group twice a week?
There is a credible notion that focusing on lifting weights in the 80%-plus zone and with a progressive overload is likely not the best way for hardgainers (with slow twitch muscle fibre dominance and genetics that produce excess myostatin after high volume, strength-oriented workouts) to build size.
You can build muscle brilliantly with sets ranging from 4–40 reps, and the higher end of that definitely has merit. You might not need to go quite that high, but certainly spending some time doing sets of 15–20 can be useful. Some lifts are better for that than others, mind you. Doing squats for that many reps might tax your cardiovascular system more than your strength, and so it might not be the best way to bulk up your quads. With something like curls, though, yeah, absolutely. You can be even more extreme with it, too, using techniques like blood-flow restriction (BFR).
I’m not sure why you’d combine higher rep ranges with lower volume. If you’re a slow-twitch kind of guy, in theory, you’d benefit from doing both higher reps and more overall volume. You might want a higher training frequency, too. Less of a powerlifter training style, more of a workhorse training style.
As for whether hardgainers with slow-twitch muscle fibres benefit from training in higher rep ranges, that’s debatable. Some experts, such as Menno Henselmans, say yes, and test their clients to see what rep ranges they’re best at. Other experts, such as Greg Nuckols, say that it doesn’t matter, and just encourage their clients to experiment with different approaches to see what works best for them (which may change over time). I think the idea of different styles of training suiting people with different muscle fibre compositions is super interesting, but I’m not certain there’s enough evidence to say for sure whether it helps. (As opposed to having everyone—regardless of their fibre composition—experiment with both approaches.)
If your goal is to gain size, I think your best bet will be to do a mix of different rep ranges and training styles, either doing a routine that includes a mix of rep ranges or alternating between different styles of training. That’s the approach we tend to take. We combine a mix of different proven training styles (the shotgun approach), and we have a mix of different proven training routines (the trial and error approach), allowing people to gradually hone in on what suits them best.
And then for the mechanisms behind why the different styles of training work… I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone really knows with any real degree of certainty. It’s highly debatable, and I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth, there. I’ll leave that to the experts to debate for now, and then when a clear winner emerges, we’ll write about it then 🙂
I hope that helps.
You say, “until you can do 20 push-ups, you’ll get more out of doing push-ups than the bench press.”
Does that mean in a single set? Or just in a workout?
I’m trying to decide between your two programs–I’m not bony anymore and can knock out 80+ push-ups in a workout, but won’t get more than a set of 15 in.
What do you recommend?
Push-ups tend to be better than the bench press for bulking up until you can do about twenty of them in a row—in a single set. Once you can do around twenty push-ups, you might find that your cardiovascular system or pain threshold limits you more than your muscle strength does, and when that happens, your sets will start drifting further away from muscle failure, and will start stimulating less muscle growth. It can also get pretty unpleasant. So that’s when we recommend switching to the bench press.
Mind you, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and you could certainly switch to the bench press earlier. But until your sets of push-ups start to drift into the twenties, there’s no real reason to. If anything, push-ups are a mechanically better lift. The only problem is loading them ever heavier.
Right now, doing up to 15 reps per set, and up to 80 reps per workout, I think push-ups are going to be perfect for helping you build muscle. The bench press wouldn’t be an improvement over push-ups, but it might add in some welcome variety or stimulate your muscle fibres in slightly different ways. You may want to do both.
If you’re in doubt, I’d recommend the Bony to Beastly Program. We have an optional Phase 0 for beginners, and then Phase 1–5 are great for both novice and intermediate lifters. It will help you build a sturdy foundation that you can keep bulking from. It also includes everything you need to know about the bulking diet and lifestyle, as well as some great bulking recipes. And I think you’ll get up to twenty reps of push-ups per set by the end of it. (We’ll have you doing the bench press alongside push-ups, too.)
Plus, if you get Bony to Beastly and realize that you’d rather have Outlift, you can always email us and we’ll make the switch for ya. We have a full guarantee and unconditional refund policy on everything we sell 🙂
Help me understand:
As far as lower body is concerned:
Is the lowest 1/2 (or lowest 1/3) of the Deadlift essentially a Squat?
Hey Fleischman, I guess that depends on how you define a squat. The lower part of a deadlift has a deep hip angle and a shallow knee angle, making it more of a hip-dominant movement. The lower part of a squat has a shallower hip angle and a deeper knee angle, making it more of a quad-dominant movement. With that said, the quads do engage at the beginning of a deadlift, especially if you start with lower hips or use a sumo stance, and the hamstrings do engage during a squat, especially if you sit back into your squat. And our glutes and lower backs are worked quite hard by both lifts.
Perhaps more relevantly, though, it’s rare for someone to be limited by quad strength when deadlifting, meaning that the quads rarely get much growth stimulus from the deadlift. Similarly, with the squat, even though the hamstrings put in some work, they aren’t usually worked hard enough to stimulate growth. That means that even though we may rely on our quads to get the barbell moving at the bottom of a deadlift, that’s not our limiting factor, and so it’s not going to stimulate muscle growth like a squat would.
So there are definitely some similarities between squats and deadlifts, but they aren’t the same, either.
Thank you very much. This reply has helped me understand the differences between the lower part of Deadlifts and Squats.
One other on-topic question: have you discussed anywhere if training only Outlift’s Big Lifts 5 will result in a significantly different physique versus training Big 5 Lifts plus Accessory/Assistance Lifts? Thanks!
My pleasure, Fleischman 🙂
Yeah, check out our article on isolation lifts. Long story short, you can build a tremendous amount of overall muscle mass just by focusing on the big compound lifts, and it’s a very efficient way to train, but you’ll gain muscle faster and in a more balanced way if you also include some smart accessory/isolation lifts.
Thank you very much!
My pleasure, man. Good luck!
If I am doing a full-body workout 3x per week, how often should I do the Big 5? Should I be doing each of those on all 3 days along with assistance and accessory lifts?
Hey Mike, great question.
It really all depends. For someone newer to lifting, or newer to learning the big compound lifts, repetition can help. It might make sense to do the five big lifts 2–3 times per week to learn and improve your technique. But once you’ve mastered them, it’s often wise to think of variety instead. Instead of doing front squats 3x per week, it might be better to choose a main lift (e.g. the front squat), another compound “assistance” lift (e.g. the leg press), and a smaller isolation “accessory” lift (e.g. a leg extension). Not only will that make your training easier, but you’ll also build more balanced musculature (such as more growth in your rectus femoris) and ward off overuse injuries (such as developing sore knees). If you take that same approach with all five of the big lifts, you can be training each muscle group 2–3x per week with 10+ sets per week in a way that’s fairly manageable.
On the other hand, if you want to specialize in a certain lift or to accelerate growth in a certain muscle group, you might want to do even more. If you want bigger arms, say, then maybe remove the accessory lifts for your deadlifts and squats to free up time and energy for some extra biceps curls and triceps extensions at the end of every workout.
Perfect. Thanks Shane!
My pleasure, Mike. Good luck 🙂
I have read the entire article and each of the individual articles for the main lifts (with assistance and accessory).
I am still unsure on how to apply them. Can you provide a little more detail to your answer to Mike? For example, there are 5 main lifts and you recommend doing the Deadlift once. So do you have 2 main lifts lets say on Monday and Friday + assistance & accesory and rest on Tuesday and Thursday?
I am trying to decide how to inocorporate the Big5 + assistance + accesory + good rest.
There are tons of different ways to organize the lifts into a training program. Our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program comes with four different ways of doing it, with two 3-day versions and two 4-day versions. I’m working on a 5-day version, too. And each is customizable.
We’ve also got a sample reverse pyramid training workout routine here.
But if you want to build your own from scratch, there are a few ways to do it.
For each main lift, maybe you supplement it with one assistance and one accessory lift. So for the bench press, say, that could be standard-grip bench press + weighted dips + skullcrushers, say. And we want to train each muscle at least twice per week, so you can divide those up into 2+ days. For example, maybe you’re doing bench press + skullcrushers on Monday, then weighted dips on Friday.
These lifts overlap with one another to a certain extent. So with our overhead press, maybe we do that on the Friday, before doing our dips. For our assistance lift, maybe we choose push-ups or a close-grip bench, doing those on Wednesday (which brings our chest/shoulders/triceps frequency up to 3x per week, which is great). And then for our accessory, maybe some lateral raises at the end of our workout on Monday (or whenever).
It can sound a bit complicated, but if you start every workout with 1–2 of the big lifts, then add in another 3–4 smaller lifts, you can build a good program fairly easily. A workout might look like, say, front squats (main) + chin-ups (main) + weighted dips (assistance) + lateral raises (accessory).
There’s nothing wrong with doing big lifts on 2–3 days and assistance/accessory lifts on another day. You can combine the lifts together in a number of different ways. Just spread the work out for each muscle group, aiming for 4–8 sets or so per muscle group per workout.
I hope that helps, and maybe we could write an article about programming hypertrophy workouts in the near future.
Couldn’t/shouldn’t Overhead Press be considered an accessory (and not a main) lift to Bench Press (just like Barbell Row is accessory to Chin Up)?
Could you do the bench press as a main lift, the overhead press as an assistance lift, and then some skullcrushers and lateral raises as accessory lifts? Absolutely. A lot of programs take that approach, and that’s perfectly fine. There would just be less emphasis on the chest, shoulders, and triceps that way.
We like having it as its own separate lift to give more priority to both the chest and shoulders, which a lot of guys are eager to develop—and rightfully so. Plus, the overhead press works a number of upper back muscles, it does a decent job of stimulating our side delts, and since our shoulder blades aren’t pinned down and back, it helps to keep them mobile and healthy.
If we look at our back muscles, we’re taking a similar approach. We have the deadlift to focus on the spinal erectors and traps, and we have the chin-up to focus on the upper back and biceps. Both work a number of the same muscles, but we still count them as separate main lifts. That way we’re giving our backs some extra attention.
We take the same approach with our legs, too. You could choose low-bar squats (which have a lot in common with hip hinges) or trap-bar deadlifts (which have a lot in common with squats) as your main lower-body lift and then add in some assistance and accessory lifts to balance it out. But we prefer having a dedicated squat and hip hinge as main lifts.
So a minimalist program might have the trap-bar deadlift, bench press, and chin-up as the main lifts. That’s fine. But we prefer to have the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up. We feel it makes for a more well-rounded program.
Great article and website, the best I have read. I am training 3 days a week, and want to do only the Big 5 lift. What programme would you suggest? Working on your suggestions for reps and sets this would mean doing 75 sets a week (5×5 per day x 3 days), which I take from your article is too many?
Hey Simon, if you do 5 sets of 5 reps, and you do it 3 times per week, then that’s 15 sets per week, which is fine. It’s 75 repetitions per week, and that’s okay, too.
I don’t know why you’d do 5×5, though. If your goal is to gain muscle size, I’d recommend doing more reps per set, as outlined in our article on the hypertrophy rep range. More like 3–5 sets of 6–15 reps.
I’m also not sure why you’d only do the big lifts. You’ll get better results if you mix in some assistance and accessory lifts, as outlined in our article on isolation lifts.
I hope that helps!
I suspect Simon meant
5 Lifts/day x 5 sets/Lift x 3 days/wk =
= 75 sets/wk.
Yes, that is right is that too many sets a week?
Ahhh, I see. There’s nothing wrong with doing 75 sets per week, but as mentioned in my previous comment, it’s better to use a combination of main lifts, assistance lifts, and accessory lifts. It will be much easier to do, much easier to recover from, and you’ll get better results.
Also, start with fewer sets and work your way up as needed/desired. For instance, start with 2 sets per exercise per workout. Then in the next week, move up to 3 sets per exercise. If that goes well, try adding a fourth set to some of the main lifts, still doing 3 sets for the smaller lifts. If you work your way up like that, you won’t run into issues with crippling soreness and recovery. And then every month or two, drop back down to 2 sets per exercise to give yourself a break.
You probably won’t need to do five sets per exercise, especially if you’re doing more reps per set.
Not sure if I am following this. If I do the big 5 in different days, like 2 on Monday, 2 Wednesday and 2 Friday 5 sets of 5. … you are saying is better to do 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps? Not sure I see a difference if I do 3 sets of 6 . I am also doing sets of 10 reps of assistance and accessories each day. Trying to make sure if doing the big lifts as 5×5 is good to gain strength.
What I wanted to know is it okay to do all of the big 5 exercises day, for the recommended 5 sets Per exercise, three times a week?
Sorry. My question was for Shane since I don’t understand why doing 5×5 is worst than doing 3×6 to increase strength.
Hey Leo, it all depends on your goals, and there’s no single right way to do it.
5×5 is a good way of gaining some muscle size while you focus on getting stronger as a powerlifter for your size. It’s a bit of a bother to do, but sure, you can do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many people have used 5×5 routines with great success, especially if their goals include having a proportionally big 1RM (a big 1RM compared to their 10RM, say).
If you want to focus on getting both bigger and stronger, then it’s less about strength training, more about gaining muscle size. As you gain muscle size, you will become stronger. After all, bigger muscles are stronger muscles. You won’t be specialized for powerlifting—you’ll be stronger in moderate rep ranges than you are at lifting singles—but you’ll be big and strong in a more general sense (e.g. you’ll have a strong 10RM, even if your 1RM is proportionally a bit smaller).
As for why you might want to focus on doing 3–5 sets of 6–15 reps, it’s because it’s much more efficient to gain muscle size that way. If you do 3 sets of 12 reps, you’ll likely gain about as much muscle size as doing 5 sets of 5 reps, but it will take less time and be easier to recover from. At that point, either your workouts will become shorter and you’ll have more energy, or you can reinvest that time into doing other lifts, getting better overall results. So it’s not that 5×5 is bad, just that if you want to get bigger and stronger, it’s more efficient to spend more of your time training in moderate rep ranges.
All of the research for this is given in that article on the hypertrophy rep range.
Does that make sense?
Kind of lol. I really thought the big 5 were supposed to be heavy, lower rep. And then for the assistance and accessory go a little lower in weight and 3×10-12.
So do you recommend to go 3×10-12 in the three ( big lifts, assistance & accessory)?
Thanks for all the advise!
The bigger compound lifts often lend themselves better to lower rep ranges, so if you’re lifting in lower rep ranges, those are good lifts for them. If your goal is to gain muscle size and general strength, though, then you might be better served by lifting more like 6–8 reps per set on the big lifts rather than 3–5. It’s not a big deal if you prefer squatting for sets of 5 reps versus 6 reps, but as a general rule of thumb, getting into the moderate range makes it easier to build muscle more efficiently and with less wear and tear on your joints. But there’s no single right way to do it. You can adjust your routine to suit your body and your preferences.
The smaller isolation lifts are good for doing more reps per set, since you’re less likely to find up limited by your cardiovascular system or pain threshold, and it can be safer. So when doing, say, biceps curls or lateral raises, yeah, best not to be doing sets of 5 reps. Better to be doing sets of 8–30 reps.
We’ve got a detailed article on the hypertrophy rep range that I think will help 🙂
Thanks for the advice on assistance exercises, I am still looking for clarity on overall volume, is 75 sets per week for the big 5 plus assistance exercises too many?
It may or may not be, it might change, and it will depend on which exercises you choose. I recommend starting with fewer sets and gradually working your way up, as mentioned in the other comment.
I know that might sound confusing, but it will make more sense once you try it and get used to it.
Great article! It is good when someone speaks the truth, which is so obvious, but can not be seen from the guys and gals. It is clear that most people hit the gym with one main goal- to become better looking, which includes more muscles and less fat. Definitely Starting Strength, StrongLifts and their clones are going to help you become bigger and stronger, but their primary goal is to make you better in sports like powerlifting.
Pushing so hard and so much the lower body is great for your squat and deadlift abilities, but in one moment you are risking to turn into some kind of T-Rex. 🙂
Anyway, I think that for general fitness and good appeal, your approach is better… much better.
The only thing I wonder about is what would happen, if I superset the big lifts (I still stick to the barbell row, too, so I have 6 main exercises)? Arnold loved that way of training. I personally think the pump is great and the fat lose is easier. But is going to happen in the long run?
Thank you, Adnan!
Yes, adding a sixth lift is perfectly fine. If your lower back starts to hold you back, just switch to a row variation that doesn’t tax it quite so much. And if that doesn’t happen, great—no problem.
Supersetting your lifts? Absolutely! Go for it. Best to superset unrelated lifts (e.g. chin-ups with front squats) or lifts that work antagonist muscles (e.g. bench press and rows). It won’t have a big impact on muscle growth, but it will make your workouts much more efficient, and perhaps give you some extra cardiovascular benefit, too 🙂
Thank you for the answer, Shane!
Yes, for now my lower back and forearms are doing fine, but let’s see who is going to collapse first… 🙂
Supersetting antagonist muscles feels great for me. Rows with bench pressing, squatting and deadlifting and finally chin ups with OHP and sometimes plank and back plank, if I have time. It seems that you and most of the fitness population prefer first the pushing motions and after this the pulling ones, but I start from the harder exercises first. Plus there are some claims that in that way we make our shoulders more stable.
The squat emphasizes the quads and the deadlift the hamstrings, but both work the glutes and spinal erectors. If you can superset them without a drop in performance, that’s fine, but you might find that you’re stronger if you superset them with unrelated exercises instead. For example, I’ll sometimes superset my squats with neck curls.
We don’t necessarily recommend doing pushes first. We’ll often put the deadlift and chin-up first in a workout. I’d do chin-ups before overhead pressing, for instance, because it’s the more tiring lift. But, yeah, with rows and the bench, I’ll usually do the bench press first. Again, because, at least for me, the bench press is the more tiring lift.
As a general rule, do the bigger lifts first. And when picking between big lifts, put the one you’re most eager to get stronger at first.
Yes, I tend to agree with the statement that we should start with the lifts which are harder or which we want to be our stronger lifts.
Still many claim that our pushing force is increasing after we have done something for the antagonist muscles, but I am not completely sure how corrects this statement is. When the weights are lighter, it is not a big deal, but with the increase of the weights, supersetting antagonist muscles is starting to become more challenging. Speaking from my own experience the fat burning is increasing, too, but it is becoming a real nightmare in the combo of the deadlift and squat. I think that this superset alone is putting the cardiovascular and nervous system on tremendous test.
As far as the order of the exercises- yeah, combining bigger one with some smaller is best probably, but… Why there always have to appear “but”? Anyway- doing the first superset of big and small exercises is good, but on the second and next sets the things start to go in different way- after all these are compund moves and when we deadlift for instance, we use out back muscles heavily, too, so when we start doing chin ups we hit them again and after this we go again to the deadlift with already tired muscles. But we probably should focus on the primary muscles in every lift, because otherwise, we would be very limited in the choice of the exercises.
I stop writing, because the reply is becoming too big and big writings are usually boring, excluding your articles, which are always more and more interesting. 😉
You easily test the hypothesis of back exercises increasing pushing strength. One workout, do the back lift first and then see how strong you are at the push. Next workout, start with the push. See how your strength compares. In my case, I tend to bench press better when I do it fresher. With the overhead press, it matters less because it’s a lighter lift and I’m not as good at it.
The squat and deadlift both use some of the same primary movers: the glutes. And they both use some of the same stabilizer muscles, such as the spinal erectors. As a result, doing one can reduce the performance on the other.
There’s less overlap between the chin-up and the deadlift. Yes, the lats contract during the deadlift, and sometimes quite hard, but the lats don’t actually do any of the lifting. If your lats are tired going into a set of deadlifts, it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s the spinal erectors that stabilize the back, and the quads, hamstrings, and glutes that do the lifting. Or, if you tire yourself out deadlifting before moving to chin-ups, your biceps, abs, and lats will probably be okay, so your chin-ups should still go well.
With that said, both deadlifts and chin-ups are big lifts. Even though the main muscles being worked are somewhat different, there’s going to be some systemic fatigue accumulating. After doing deadlifts, even if your lats are okay, you might just be pooped overall. Going right into another big lift can be hard.
When we were beta testing our Outlift program, we initially had squats on the same day as overhead pressing, and deadlifts on the same day as chin-ups. People found themselves too tired to push themselves on the chin-ups, so we moved them to the squat day: squats, overhead press, chin-ups. They found that felt much better. Then, after deadlifts, we did lighter assistance and accessory work: weighted dips, biceps curls, lateral raises, etc.
Wow, man, you are simultaneously so scientific and so basic! That’s why I like your style so much. You are going in the deep, in the big details, but you are doing this in some different, special, your way, which is not boring and hard to understand. Everything you claim have good solid foundation in numerous proofs and in the same time is easy for understanding.
I believe that my bench press is quite weaker than my barbell row (almost 2 and half times more reps on the later exercises with the same weight) and I do it second. You are right that I have to experiment for a little longer to try it in the opposite way. Months ago when I was pushing first, my pulling exercises were much harder than usual for me.
And yes, I agree with you that doing too much compound exercises in one workout is too tiring. You feel very tired and you are low on energy, but from my low level combat sports experience I can tell you that your coordination suffers bad after such sessions. You don’t need to execute flying kicks to feel that you are not so agile after heavy compound exercises, which have pounded your CNT.
Still, opposing to the said above, if you give yourself a little longer breaks, you still can do some decent, heavy workout and not suffer from high fatigue levels- do squats and finish every squat with shoulder press and do the 2 exercises one after another and you will see the big difference. 🙂
And for the overlap- yes, I completely agree with you that the chin ups and deadlift are not targeting in exactly the same way, exactly the same muscles. For example some propose doing first chin ups, after this OHP and to finish the workout with deadlift. In this particular scenario I am not sure that we start with chin ups because it is pulling exercises, but it might be for the reason to give our forearms a little rest, before blasting them with the deadlift.
Why not replace deadlift and squat by barbell split squat? It’s a better overall leg mass builder, in my opinion.
Deadlift: glutes + lower back + really light hamstring activation
Squat: glutes and quads, no hamstrings
Barbell split squat: glutes, quads, good hamstring activation
Hey Mgca, you’re right that the squat is mainly for the quads and glutes, not the hamstrings. The same is true for the split squats.
The deadlift is great for a whole slew of muscles, including our glutes and lower back, but also our upper backs—traps, rhomboids, rear delts, upper spinal erectors, and so on. It’s great for our hamstrings, too. Maybe not as good as a Romanian deadlift, but one of the best hamstring exercises for sure.
So what I’d say is that you could do split squats instead of regular squats, no problem. But they don’t replace deadlifts.
Super curious about when we can expect to see the 5-day routine?
I’ve been doing the Outlift 4-day hard routine since the start of the year and I’m absolutely loving it. I think I’d be best described as an early intermediate – I’ve already gained nearly 20lb of muscle prior to starting the program and I’m generally able to gain 5-10lb on each of the Big 5 lifts (at 5 reps) each time I complete a 15 week cycle of the program. The volume seems perfect for me at the moment.
I’m assuming the 5-day routine would have a bit more volume and would be good to switch to if/when I start stalling on the 4-day program (although TBH I don’t see that happening any time soon – more likely I would make the switch when I’m ready for something exciting and new).
Hey Jeremy, that’s awesome! Gaining 20 pounds is amazing, and steadily adding 5–10 pounds to your lifts every 15 weeks is awesome, especially at this level of experience.
Good question. Yeah, it’s been taking longer than I expected. Maybe what we should do is release a beta version and then refine it gradually from there, rather than aiming to release a fully tested version right from the get-go. That way you guys can experiment with it earlier. If we do that, I think it could be ready within a couple of weeks.
I think we’ll release two version of the 5-day program. One that’s moderate volume. One big compound lift (e.g. front squat), one smaller assistance lift (e.g. Romanian deadlifts), and one isolation lift (e.g. hanging leg raises). And then another that’s higher volume, adding and extra 1–2 assistance/accessory lifts to each workout. That way some people can use it as a way to do more frequent, easier, shorter workouts. And other people can use it as a way to, yeah, increase their training volume.
Thanks Shane, sounds great.
I literally love doing all these exercises, my only difference is I deadlift with a trap bar nowadays as my back is temperamental after an injury a couple of years ago.
Great list though, love the content!
Hey Matt, thank you!
Yeah, the trap bar deadlift is awesome. No argument from me there. That’s a great way to do 🙂
Hey Marco and Shane, what would be best upper-body pull if there is simply no way to use pull-up bar (small apartment, not allowed to drill into walls)?
Hey Rob, I’d do rows and pullovers 🙂
Assume an intermediate minimalist lifter who doesn’t show lagging parts, and who accepts the drawbacks of a simple training plan, so trains only your Big 5 compound lifts.
Are there reasons why this lifter shouldn’t program the same frequency & volume for each of the five compound lifts?
You can still use a frequency of 2–3 times per week. I’d be hesitant to go beyond that for fear of beating up your joints and tendons with repetitive movements. With volume, you probably want to err on the lower side for the same reason. Something like 3–4 sets of each lift per workout, done 2–3 times per week.
I don’t mean to make you scared, though. Our bodies are good at adapting, good at giving us signals. Plenty of people do great with minimalist routines for their entire lifetimes. And more often than not, you’ll fear aches before you feel pain, pain before you get injured. So you can do the big movements, see how you feel, and play it by ear 🙂
Thank you for your reply. I see my question was confusing.
I wasn’t trying to ask for a specific training frequency or volume for the Big 5. I was asking if (in the context of an “Only Big 5” program) all five Big moves deserve the same frequency/volume. Like, is it reasonable to do the same number of sets (and/or the same frequency) per week each of the Big 5? Or do some of the Big 5 moves warrant more/less frequency/volume than the rest of the Big 5 moves?
Ah, yeah, okay. I see what you mean. That can really depend. Some lifts, like the deadlift, can be hard on the body when they’re done too frequently or for too many sets. My solution for that is to bring in more variety, mixing deadlifts with Romanian deadlifts with good mornings. But if you’re not doing that, you’ll need to try and see. Maybe your lower back is always fatigued, your hands are always torn up, and you need to ease back. Or maybe not. Other lifts, like squats, are commonly done quite frequently without issue.
Then you need to consider how much muscle stimulation you’re getting out of them. With a bench press, I can blast my chest with just 2–4 sets, and the soreness will last for 4–5 days. With the overhead press, perhaps because it has a worse strength curve, I can do 5 sets and barely feel any soreness at all, allowing me to do another 5 sets the very next workout without issue. But these things vary, and it will change over time. When I was benching 185, the bench press was much easier to recover from than it is now that I can bench 315.
And your goals matter, too. If you’re more eager to build a bigger upper body, that means more time spent on the upper body lifts, less on the lower body ones. Or vice versa.
So you’re making a good point. It’s not always as simple as just using the same volume for every lift.
My wife does a very simple, minimalist routine. Every workout, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she does chin-ups, push-ups, front squats, and Romanian deadlifts. Same volume and frequency for all of them. Then she does 2 extra lifts of her choosing (overhead press, curls, hip thrusts, etc). That’s been working great for her.
Deep article, this site is a game changer! I have just started working out and am basing on these compound lifts and the info from your article. It gave me the motivation to begin. I’m 33 years old, 178cm and 76Kg. I’m in the second of week of hitting the gym. I’d just like it if you could point me in the right direction here. I’ve set myself up to train 3 days per week; each day doing Chin up, Goblet Squat, Benchpress, Shoulder Press and Deadlift. I’m stuck between going in 2 directions:
1. To increase reps by 1 (starting at 6 reps x 3 sets) each new day within the week and then increasing weight very next week, starting cycle again at 6 reps up to 8 reps on the 3rd day
2. To maintain at 6 reps x 3 sets while increasing weight on every next session.
My ultimate goal is to build an athletic/lean body that’s muscular but not bulky, just lean and fit. I do some high interval running in between.
I hope i’ve made some sense :-). Hopefully down the line I can sign up for your program but in the meantime I’m so motivated to see what I can achieve just by following the info you have here on this site!
Hey Tatenda, thank you, and that’s awesome! Congrats on getting into lifting!
If you’re brand new to the gym, I think your proposed routine might be a bit hard on your low back. I’d recommend something a bit simpler, more like the Starting Size workouts we outline in our review of Starting Strength.
Or, if you want to keep doing that simple routine you’ve got, maybe swap out the deadlift for Romanian deadlifts on 2 of the 3 days that you train. So Romanian deadlift on Monday and Wednesday, full deadlift on Friday. Or you may just want to do Romanian deadlifts all three days of the week until you get the movement down.
The other consideration is that the overhead press is often really hard for beginners. Depends on the person, but if you aren’t able to do it properly, feel free to swap it for something like a close-grip push-up.
For your question:
It’s okay to increase either reps or weight. But if you’re lifting in lower rep ranges (such as 6 reps per set), and you have access to small weight plates (such as 1.25–2.5 pound plates), then it’s usually easier to increase the weight than it is to add a rep. That’s why you’ll see a lot of beginner programs recommending that we increase the weight whenever we’re able to get all of our reps on all of our sets. So when you get 6 reps for 3 sets, add 2.5–5 pounds to the bar.
So perhaps one workout you get 6 reps, 6 reps, 6 reps. Next workout, you add 5 pounds and you get 6 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps. Next workout, you keep the weight the same because you didn’t get all of your reps, and you get 6 reps, 6 reps, 6 reps. Next workout, you add weight.
But again, either approach is fine. Totally okay to add reps instead. You just might have some workouts where it seems like you’re not making progress because you’re not able to add that extra rep.
Thanks for this Shane!
After going through your response and reading up on the Starting Strength article, I am reviewing and adjusting my routine a bit:
1. Do Romanian deadlift on Mon and Wed, and full deadlift on Friday with 1 set. I did experience a lot of lower back pain with the full deadlifts thought I had hurt my back!
2. Replace Overhead Press with Lateral Raises. My back was arching a lot with the overhead press so maybe I need to build up a bit first
3. Introduce bicep curls and tricep extensions to my routine
My pleasure, man! Good luck!
I like the points about RDLs, front squats and lighter barbell rows being good for beginners. I like the point about carries, though think that alone (that gyms most only have dumbbells) is reason for investing in a home gym with carry handles, since they’re such an effective lift.
Similarly, I don’t think I’ll ever remove overhead carries as a shoulder staple (and can be performed with dumbbell clean and press weights), as the times I’ve really needed my strength without getting injured it’s often been holding something heavy overhead.
Totally, I agree with all of that. And that’s a great point about overhead carries, too. We’re big fans of all types of loaded carries, including waiter and overhead carries.
Great article. I have one quick question about “the cheat press” recommendation from Greg Nuckols: does the reason for this have more to do with (a) the greater amount of weight being used during the eccentric portion of the lift, or (b) is there something about moving a greater amount of weight with the assistance of the legs during the concentric portion of the lift that has a hypertrophic effect? My initial instinct would have been that using the legs to drive the weight through the sticking point would cancel out the additional weight (during the concentric), but am I missing something? The benefit to the eccentric makes total sense, but I just wonder if there’s more to it than that.
Hey Dave, thank you!
The cheat press isn’t a full push press. The legs can help a LITTLE bit, but the initiation of the movement is still mainly coming from the shoulders. The idea is to challenge our muscles more at the bottom of the lift (by focusing on maximal acceleration) so that we aren’t as limited at the sticking point. This will let us use more weight, yeah, and it’ll also give our shoulders a greater challenge at longer muscle lengths.
As for why we care about challenging our muscles at longer lengths, check this article out: https://outlift.com/stretched-muscles-grow-faster/
what’s the difference between Pendlay row and dead barbell row?
I’d like the excersise where I start as a conventional deadlift and once barbell pass the knees I pull in a row fashion.
The terms can vary depending on who you talk to.
A Pendlay row starts with the barbell on the floor, the hips stay hinged, the barbell is rowed up to the torso, and then it’s lowered back down to rest on the floor again. We don’t usually use this row variation. It’s not a bad lift by any means, but I think the other variations are even better.
A “barbell dead row” or “dead barbell row” is, as you said, using a bit of hip drive. I usually call this a “power row” because it’s more of a power movement—more explosive. It’s less ideal for building muscle in your upper body, but it’s a great assistance lift for increasing your deadlift strength. That’s when we use it.
For developing your back muscles, we usually recommend a standard bent-over barbell row. This is our default variation of the barbell row for the average person who wants to get bigger and stronger.
Hello Shane, thanks for the reply.
In fact, I like better the weighted chin-ups and pull-ups for back muscles. The barbell dead row I like better for the explosiveness and deadlift improving, so it works for me. Thanks for clearing that up. I also get some cardio from this movement.
No problem! That all sounds great 🙂
Hi Shane and Marco:
Thank you for the content!
In your “Big 6″/”Big 5” compound lifts, what was the idea behind changing the Close-Grip Bench Press to a regular Bench Press at the end?
Hey Sam, good question!
I still personally prefer a closer-grip bench press for overall muscle growth. But I have a chest that responds fairly eagerly to training. It’s my arms and shoulders that lag behind. For people like me, a closer-grip bench press often works great for balancing out muscle stimulation between the chest, shoulders, and arms. But when we tested it, we found that a lot of people were having trouble getting enough chest stimulation out of it, especially in their mid and lower pecs. So we switched it to a standard bench press.
Then, in our article on the bench press, we just make sure to note that the grip width should align with your structure and goals. If you have a chest that dominates the lift, try gripping the barbell a bit narrower to bring in more shoulder and triceps. If you have a stubborn chest, try gripping the barbell a bit wider to emphasize the mid and lower pecs.
We still love the close-grip bench press, too. It’s one of my favourites. We just use it more as an assistance lift.
Thanks Shane! All makes sense. I myself prefer the close-grip variation of a medium-grip width as well.
Great post and I absolutely love the graphics, really creates a unique vibe to your site 🙂
Thank you, Mark!
Hello, one question: if I do the big 5 in a row 3 times per week, would that be a good training structure to gain overall muscle?
Thanks in advance.
Hey Miguel, that’s a good question.
That type of routine can work really well for beginners who are still learning the lifts. You get a lot of practice at the big movements that way. The trick is to make sure that you aren’t always lifting to failure (1–3 reps shy of failure is good), that you aren’t doing too many sets (3 sets is plenty), and that you aren’t resting too long between sets (1–2 minutes is fine). That way your workouts stay short, dense, and easy enough to recover from.
With that said, we usually recommend full-body splits, where you train your entire body each workout but with different exercises. Instead of doing deadlifts 3x per week, Monday might be deadlifts, Wednesday leg curls, and Friday Romanian deadlifts. That way we build muscle in a more balanced way and with less risk of running into fatigue or overuse issues. Plus, it keeps the workouts shorter and easier, and it frees up room for some valuable isolation exercises.
Finally, if you’re a beginner, we usually recommend starting with beginner variations of the big compound lifts. Goblet squats instead of front squats, push-ups instead of the bench press, and Romanian deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts. Especially if we’re coaching someone online. Much easier to learn good technique that way.
What is your opinion on this minimalist “Modified-Big-4” routine?
Day 1. Chin Ups with body at around 45 degree to floor (kind of an incomplete “front lever”, half way between vertical/regular pull up and horizontal row). Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
Day 2. Nine-inch deficit Push Up with elevated feet so body is around 45 degree to floor (kind of half way between vertical/handstand push up and horizontal/floor push up). Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
Day 3. Front squat. Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
Day 4. Romanian Deadlift. Six sets. First five short of failure, the sixth one to failure.
Day 5 like Day 1.
Day 6 like Day 2.
Day 7 like Day 3.
Day 8 like day 4.
And so on…
I think that’s an interesting routine, and if you like it, I think that’s perfectly fine. I think you’re training most muscles decently well that way. I think you’ll see good gains, too, especially in your quads, glutes, chest, back, and shoulders.
I think you’d get even better results by doubling the exercise variety. Instead of doing 6 sets of chin-ups, doing 4 sets of chin-ups and two sets of biceps curls. Instead of doing 6 sets of push-ups, doing 4 sets of push-ups and 2 sets of skull crushers. That kind of thing. 4 sets are enough to squeeze out most benefits from an exercise, and then by adding in a second exercise, you get a whole new list of benefits (to your biceps, triceps, etc).
I understand the desire to have a minimalist routine, though. Your routine is fine 🙂
Really enjoyed reading your responses;
I was wondering what 1 or 2 main exercises would you suggest to improve;
2) posture (anterior pelvic tilt)?
Hey Hansen, thank you!
1) I’m not sure there are any exercises that will help with gynecomastia. Gynecomastia is extra fat storage in the chest, around the nipples. Exercises don’t affect fat storage, they affect muscle growth. If you’re a teenager, the gynecomastia will probably go away on its own. If it’s from using marijuana or steroids, stopping might help. It can also come from medication or other hormonal imbalances. I recommend speaking with your physician about it to go over your options.
With that said, building muscle will improve your appearance. It won’t get rid of the gynecomastia, but your chest will still look better with more muscle on it. So think of exercises like the bench press and push-up.
Finally, almost everyone has something quirky about their bodies. Maybe that’s pectus excavatum, gynecomastia, lumpy shoulder bones, narrow clavicles, wide hips, or any other number of things. We tend to fixate on those things. Other people care about them much less. They probably won’t notice. And if they do, they probably won’t care. After all, they probably have their own thing they’re worried about.
2) Posture is a different story. We CAN change our posture by lifting weights, building muscle, and growing stronger. For anterior pelvic tilt, think of exercises that strengthen your core in a more neutral position. My two favourites are the goblet squat (or front squat) and the push-up (or plank). The front squat will strengthen your posterior chain (backside) and the push-ups will strengthen your abs (front). Both will help with your obliques (sides). The trick is to make sure that you’re doing the exercises with the best technique you can manage, and that you gradually work on improving that technique. Then, as you build muscle in those areas, your postural muscles will grow stronger.
I had pretty exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt and lifting weights solved it completely. It took some time, though. It’s not a quick fix. I think it took a couple of years for my posture to become neutral. There was gradual improvement each month, though. And some people are able to get much faster results if they work on it deliberately. (I never focused on it. I just focused on building muscle.)
I hope that helps!
Great article. Thank you very much for offering to us for free. I have only one question, if we dont train the barbell row how we will have growth in low traps and in rear delts? Do you thing chin ups and deaflifts are enough? Because as i know these muscles their primary function is scapular retraction so i thought that rowing exercises where a must for a well rounded program.
You can develop your traps and rear delts with chin-ups and deadlifts. But we aren’t recommending that you don’t include rowing in your programs. We’re just saying that we don’t include barbell rows as one of the main compound lifts.
In addition to the main lifts, we still recommend doing rows. Those could be dumbbell rows, cable rows, t-bar machine rows, barbell rows, or any mix of variations that you prefer. We also recommend doing biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, some neck exercises, and so on.
Dumbbell raises. Front raises, side raises, and rear delt raises for balanced shoulders. Do all three with the same weight.
Do single-arm rows for your back, especially full extension negatives. Negatives are very important. Explosive contractions, controlled reactions.
I just found this page as I’m returning to training after a long, many-year absence. A lot of good info, but once you are comfortable in a routine, it’s time to shuffle it up. If you’re finding a routine easy, then so are your muscles! Train in a way you enjoy, and if you’re struggling to gain weight, eat carbs, carbs, and more carbs. If that doesn’t help you build bigger muscles, change your focus to outright strength or fitness. The surprise inside is always better than the wrapper.
[…] majority of your muscle growth comes from doing the big compound lifts along with a few key accessory lifts, and it doesn’t much matter whether you do them with a […]
I just want to say i really like your philosophy about choosing variations of the big lifts that suit personal strengths and goals. I have always felt like even if somebody was to develop the “perfect” program…but people just hate it, then their results will probably not be very good. Letting them pick their favorite variations of each lift goes a long way towards addressing that and the extra effort they’ll put into a workout that they love doing is no small thing.
Hey Doug, I totally agree!
Our approach is to find the best default lifts and build the best default programs, but then we try to give plenty of alternatives, explaining the pros and cons. That way, people have a great place to start, but they can still pick and choose. In our Outlift program, we do this with dropdown menus. You’ll see these five big lifts featured prominently in the workouts, but you can click the dropdown and choose other great alternatives if you prefer. Or you can input your own.
Loved the article, really motivates me into getting to the gym.
I do have a question though. I’m a beginner still and can only get to the gym 1-2x a week, maybe a third day if I’m super lucky. Is it possible for me to do all of the big 5 lifts in one workout, and if so can I also do some isolation work afterwards or is it just too much?
Doing all five exercises in a single workout can be a lot, but most beginners can handle quite a lot. Many intermediates can, too. It all depends on what you get used to.
You can think about swapping some of the big exercises for slightly smaller variations, too. Maybe you choose Romanian deadlifts instead of deadlifts. Maybe you do goblet squats instead of front squats. Maybe lat pulldowns instead of chin-ups. Push-ups instead of the bench press. Those variations tend to be a bit easier, a bit quicker, and they’re amazing for beginners.
If you’re doing a lot of exercises, feel free to scale back on the number of sets you’re doing for each exercise. You can get a lot out of 3 hard sets.
If you’re adding isolation lifts (which is a great idea), be selective. Choose the ones you’re really excited about. Don’t feel like you need to include every isolation lift. You can always train for a few months with some isolation lifts, then swap them out for others. Maybe you start with biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises. Maybe after a few months, you swap them out for neck curls or calf raises or crunches.
It’s also okay if you only do the isolation lifts once per week. If you’re alternating between two workouts, maybe one of them has biceps curls and triceps extensions while the other has lateral raises and crunches.
You can make great progress with just a couple workouts per week.
Good luck, man!