Many popular bodybuilding and hypertrophy workout routines aren’t built on a foundation of big compound lifts. This gives powerlifting routines an edge over bodybuilding routines. See, a powerlifter’s strength is calculated by adding up how much they can squat, bench, and deadlift—their total. If their total goes up, they’re improving. If it doesn’t, they aren’t. As a result, all of their training is centred around improving their total, either directly or indirectly. That forces powerlifters to build their routines out of big compound lifts, and they benefit from it tremendously.
In a powerlifting routine, every lift has a specific purpose. They have their main lifts, which is how their strength is measured, and where they invest most of their energy. But they also use assistance lifts and accessory lifts to improve their strength on the big compound lifts. Again, there’s a solid structure in place. Getting stronger on the compound lifts is the goal, and so isolation lifts have a clear place—to support the compound lifts.
It’s a good system. Or, at least, it’s a good system if you’re a powerlifter. But what if you aren’t a powerlifter? What if you’re trying to gain muscle size and strength, become healthier, or improve your appearance? Would your big compound lifts change? How would you choose your isolation lifts? And how would you measure your progress? If we can figure that out, then we can bring the same clarity to our hypertrophy training that powerlifters have in their strength training.
So, in this article let’s talk about which big compound lifts we should be doing to gain muscle size, how we should add isolation lifts to them, and how should we measure our progress.
The Power of Specificity
There’s a great powerlifting textbook called the Scientific Principles of Strength Training. It’s written by Mike Israetel, PhD, James Hoffmann, PhD, CSCS, and the legendary powerlifter Chad Wesley Smith. According to them, the most important principle of strength training is something 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 lifts, and accessory lifts done in a variety of rep ranges. However, all of these lifts 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 powerlifting, though, specificity means that powerlifters can boil down their training to just:
- 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 gains in strength. 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.
- Training to improve 1-rep max strength. A powerlifter is 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 for a single all-out repetition. This is why strength training is done in low rep ranges (1–5 repetitions per set).
- 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.
Mind you, to a non-powerlifter, different muscles are relevant. For example, our biceps might be highly relevant to us because we want to carry heavy things around in our arms. (And perhaps we want our arms to look more badass as we carry those things around.)
Similarly, as non-powerlifters, we don’t need to focus purely on improving our 1-rep max strength. We might, say, want an endurance component to our strength. Maybe it makes more sense to focus more of our efforts on gaining strength in the 4–10 rep range.
Finally, technical prowess means something different to powerlifters. Technical prowess on the squat doesn’t mean squatting deep and gracefully, it means squatting to legal powerlifting depth with optimal leverage. Prowess on the bench doesn’t mean benching with a large range of motion to improve chest size and strength, it means benching with a large arch to improve leverage.
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, a powerlifter benefits from repetitively performing the big 3 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 big, strong, and versatile muscles. Rather, they’re trying to build highly specialized muscles that are good at accomplishing a very specific task.
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, but 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.
But 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.
First, we need to laser in on what our goals are so that we can train them with the same specificity that powerlifters do.
Specificity for the Non-Powerlifter
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. To be honest, I find it hard to get excited about lifting for my general health and longevity. But even if those goals aren’t as juicy as building muscle, I still care deeply about them, and so I absolutely want my bulking program to improve my health. And there are certainly ways that we can adjust our training to improve both our muscle growth and our general health. This might mean doing squats in moderate rep ranges (8–12 reps, say) to improve our cardiovascular fitness along with our muscle size.
- Aesthetics. I figure if we’re going through all the trouble of becoming big and strong, we may as well look like total badasses, too. A squat isn’t going to do much to improve our appearance, but chin-ups and overhead presses sure will.
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 lifting going to look like?
- Gaining size in the relevant muscles. Powerlifters need to figure out which muscles are relevant to the lifts that they care about. We don’t have main 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 lifts best develop those muscles.
- Training to improve strength. Outside of the very low (under 4) and very high (over 40) rep ranges, size is strength and vice versa. So there’s actually no problem developing both size and strength at once. In fact, the best way to kill these two birds is with a single stone.
- 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 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 simply rob the powerlifters again. They’ve got a great way of sorting their lifts into a hierarchy.
The Hierarchy of Bulking Lifts
If we’re training with the goal of becoming strong at certain lifts, as a powerlifter would, then this allows us to categorize all of our lifts into a hierarchy.
- Main lifts: For a powerlifter, the main 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, and so they have #1 priority.
- Assistance lifts: These are compound movements that are similar to the main lifts but that shift the emphasis to different muscle groups. For example, a Romanian deadlift is the same movement as a deadlift, but it shifts the emphasis to the hamstrings. The movement is still specific to the deadlift, just not quite as specific as the deadlift itself. This ranks them at #2 priority.
- Accessory lifts: These are exercises that are used to bulk up specific muscles. For example, if someone’s back strength is limiting them on the deadlift, they might use barbell rows to bulk their backs up. This movement pattern isn’t that specific to the deadlift, but the muscle group is still relevant. This takes #3 priority.
Bulking programs are too often just a bunch of lifts thrown together for each muscle group in an attempt to give them enough volume to grow. That won’t even scratch it, let alone cut it.
If we pilfer this structure from powerlifters, though, we can give our bulking workouts quite a lot of 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 could do our chins with either an underhand or neutral grip. Both are great.
- Assistance lifts: These are the similar movements, such as overhand pull-ups, assisted chin-ups, lowered chin-ups, and if you want to push it, perhaps even lat pulldowns. If you’re a beginner, for example, 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 allow you to train in higher rep ranges.
- Accessory lifts: These are the exercises that are simply used to bulk up the relevant muscles. In this case, this is where the 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 give our biceps some extra growth stimulus.
Of course, you could also put extra emphasis on your biceps by simply doing more chin-ups. However, the reason that assistance and accessory lifts come in handy is that they’re much less fatiguing, allowing us to sneak them in at the end of a tiring workout.
Accessory lifts also train our muscles in slightly different ways from the main lifts, which is great for our overall muscle development, and which helps to keep our joints and connective tissues strong.
What Are the Best Bulking Lifts?
That finally brings us to the point of this article. What lifts should we care about becoming strong at? And which variations of those lifts are the best for becoming big and strong?
We’re not the first people to think of this idea. There are a few different programs that are designed for general strength training that chose their own main lifts. 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)
I think this lift selection is wise, especially given who it’s designed for: college athletes who are new to lifting weights. However, I don’t think it’s ideal for our specific goals.
First, the power clean is good for turning strength into explosiveness, but it isn’t very good for developing size or strength in the first place.
Second, there’s no lift for the upper back or biceps, so this isn’t going to be an ideal routine for developing all-around practical strength or aesthetics.
Third, the low-bar squat is given a massive emphasis. I mean, I get it. Our quads and glutes are by far our biggest muscle groups, meaning that squats are the lift that stimulates the most overall muscle growth. Squats are also profoundly healthy.
However, putting such incredible emphasis on squatting will mean that our upper-body strength would become a limiting factor outside of the gym, that our bench press would lag behind, and that our proportions would become more pear-like. Now, don’t me wrong, it’s don’t have any prejudice against pears. In fact, some of my best friends are pears. It’s just that most men would rather look like tortilla chips, and most women would rather look like calabashes.
The StrongLifts 5×5 Approach
Mehdi from StrongLifts 5×5 suggests a similar set of 5 lifts:
- Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Barbell Row
- Deadlift (lesser priority)
Mehdi borrowed from pioneers like Rippetoe but swapped out the power cleans for barbell rows. This certainly shifts the emphasis to the upper back and arms, but it might shift a bit too much emphasis to the spinal erectors and forearms, which are already being trained quite well by the deadlift.
The problem remains with the low-bar squat, too. It’s not the best squat variation and it’s given a disproportionate emphasis.
And there’s still nothing there for the biceps. I mean, the rows kind of work the biceps, but even the humble biceps curl stimulates twice as much biceps growth as the barbell row (study).
Oh! And I should mention that these are true minimalist programs. They recommend only doing these main lifts. That’s not what we’re suggesting. There’s such a thing as too much specificity.
Our First Attempt: The Big 6
Marco and I tried to develop an improved set of lifts. We came up with the following:
- High-Bar Squat
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- 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. Unlike the row, though, chin-ups produce just as much biceps growth as biceps curls (study). This is also adding to our overall upper-body volume, which is going to be great for our proportions.
- Narrower bench press grip: the close-grip bench press is going to do a better job of bulking up the triceps, shoulders, and upper chest than a wider-grip bench press. (Mind you, Starting Strength recommends a fairly narrow bench press grip, so that wasn’t necessarily a problem to begin with.)
I talked with Greg Nuckols, founder of Stronger by Science, about this idea of finding the best lifts for overall strength and size. He’s a world-class powerlifter, an authority on strength training, a physics whizz, and also a force of good. Sort of a young Gandalf of powerlifting.
Marco and I are pretty damn good at helping people bulk up, but Marco cut his teeth helping athletes get bigger, not powerlifters. The way I figure it, if we’re going to be stealing the ideas of powerlifters, it makes sense to consult with the very wisest powerlifters to ensure that we’re doing it properly.
Greg had some totally rad ideas.
First, he 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.
Second, he suggested switching from an overhead press to a push press. His reasoning was that a push press has 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. Being able to use that heavier weight is going to give our shoulders and triceps a better overall growth stimulus. And it gives us a power lift that’s also good for developing muscle size and strength.
Now, to be clear, Greg wasn’t suggesting that we use the traditional push press technique where most of the drive comes from our lower bodies, he was merely suggesting that we add a bit of momentum to our overhead pressing. We should do a “cheaty” overhead press.
Third, he recommended switching from a conventional deadlift to a trap-bar deadlift. I think that’s a great idea in theory. In fact, the first version of our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program featured trap-bar deadlifts. However, we quickly learned that most people don’t have access to a trap bar (or safety-squat bar). So we’ll offer specialty lifts as options, but we’ll default to more classic barbell lifts.
The Big 5 Bulking Lifts
We tested our “Big 6” for a few months on ourselves and our members (both male and female). It worked well. However, perhaps predictably, we ran into 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 spinal erectors and forearms.
Starting Strength and StrongLifts evade this problem by only doing one set of deadlifts and only deadlifting once or twice a week. However, the deadlift is a much better lift than the barbell row for bulking up. That’s like trading a gold coin for an arcade token.
So we banished the barbell row. Now, we’re not total monsters. We still do our rows. It’s just that we program them as an accessory for the deadlift. We’re getting plenty of upper back emphasis from our chin-ups anyway.
That’s how we arrived at our Big 5:
- 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.
- The Front Squat: a knee-dominant lift that develops the quads and adductors, as well as hundreds of other muscles.
- The Bench Press: to develop the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
These aren’t in order of importance. I put the deadlift first simply as a form of restitution, given the discrimination it’s faced in these other programs.
With these main lifts, we’ve still got all the benefits of the big powerlifting lifts, but we’ve also added in two extra upper-body lifts. 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.
That will shift 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.
Like a powerlifter, we can keep a running tally of our “Big Five” total to quantify our strength and progress. We can compare our results from using various different programs. We can identify and overcome plateaus. We can give our lifts a proper hierarchy.
Now, again, since we aren’t powerlifters, we don’t need to test our one-rep max unless we want to. Instead, we can estimate our one-rep maxes based on our rep maxes. As long as that number is improving, it shows that we’re becoming bigger and stronger overall. After all, going from an eight-rep max of 185 up to 225 shows just as much improvement as going from a 1-rep max of 230 up to 280.
Notes and Caveats
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, I think it makes more sense to count them as another deadlift accessory. Otherwise, once again, we’re going to 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 in 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 extend 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 wrist curls and extensions if we want forearms that look strong.
Are these lifts for men or women? We tested this system on both men and women and it worked great in both cases. They often chose to emphasize 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 in plenty of barbell rows as an accessory. On the other hand, if someone wants more hip growth, they can choose a sumo deadlift and then add in 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 lifts are going to vary based on experience level. A beginner is going to get more benefit 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 that helps to 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 then lower yourself down. 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
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, then 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.
So what we want to do is teach you how to choose your main 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 keep track of how your strength progresses on those variations over time.
We can also talk about choosing 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:
- 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 lift based on your experience level, goals, and anatomy. Then we’ll talk about which accessory and assistance lifts are best for helping you solve various problems and emphasize different muscle groups.
Or if you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.