Known as the Big Three, squats, presses, and deadlifts are keystone strength-training moves. They target major muscle groups from head to toe, improving your metabolism, strengthening your bones, and even adding years to your life. In other words, they provide a big return on your exercise investment.
But for many people, these boons are overshadowed by intimidation. Hefting heavy weights can feel overwhelming, scary, and uncomfortable — mentally and physically — for newbies and experienced lifters alike. These moves, however, are almost endlessly adaptable to your unique goals, interests, skill level, and physical anatomy.
“I can have someone squat a hundred different ways,” says trainer and competitive strength athlete Adam Glass, one of the leading advocates of fitness variations. The same holds true for presses and deadlifts: There’s a variation suited for you, whether you’re just beginning, recovering from injury, training for an event, or simply trying to get fit.
“All bodies are different,” says strength coach and national record-setting powerlifter Greg Nuckols. Playing with variations can up the accessibility — and the effectiveness — of a movement, he says.
Below, our experts explain how to perform these three classic moves, and their variations, safely and efficiently.
Whether it’s getting up from a chair, crouching to play with a toddler, or hunkering down behind home plate, squatlike movements are part of our daily lives. That’s one reason that some version of the move belongs in everyone’s exercise program.
“All of us need to get better at lowering ourselves down and getting back up again,” says Glass. “It’s a fundamental human activity.”
Squats thoroughly work your largest lower-body muscles, with particular emphasis on your quadriceps, or front thighs, and glutes, or butt muscles. The move is also fundamental to building muscle mass, improving athletic performance, and losing weight.
“The squat allows most people to move more weight over a larger range of motion than any other exercise,” Glass explains. That makes it an exceptionally time-efficient muscle builder. “If you have 25 minutes to exercise, three times a week, the squat should be your best friend.”
Barbell Back Squat
- Place a barbell in a squat rack at shoulder height. Load it with an appropriate weight for you (or, if you’re a beginner, use a bar without weights) and stand facing it.
- Take an overhand grip on the bar, slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Walk toward the bar and duck your head underneath it so that the bar rests on the muscles of your upper back (not on your spine).
- Pull down on the bar as if trying to break it over your back.
- Walk your feet directly underneath the bar, stand up, and walk back a few steps.
- With your feet parallel and slightly wider than shoulder width, slowly bend your knees and hips, sitting back as low as possible, aiming for thighs parallel to the ground. Keep your lower back in a natural arch and feet planted.
- Reverse the move, slowly standing back up, and repeat.
Try These Squat Variations
Valslide Curtsy Squat
- Assume a shoulder width stance with your right foot on a Valslide (a padded, foot-shaped plastic slider), hard-plastic-side down.
- Slide your right foot behind and to the left of your left foot, allowing your right heel to lift from the floor.
- Keeping your torso upright, bend your knees until your right knee is an inch from the floor.
- Reverse the movement, returning to the starting position.
- Complete all your repetitions with your right leg before switching to the other side. Add resistance by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell goblet-style, or holding a bumper plate with arms straight overhead.
Ideal For: Targeting glute muscles and improving hip mobility.
- Place a barbell on the floor and lift one end up so the bar is standing on one end.
- Stand to one side of the bar, and take an overhand grip.
- Crouch down slightly, duck your head beneath the bar, and bend your body toward the bar. At the same time, pull the bar toward you and guide the barbell onto the back of your shoulder as you descend into a full squat.
- Stand back up, and repeat the exercise as you would a standard barbell back squat.
- Return the barbell to the floor by bending the knees and bending to the opposite side that you started with.
- Press the barbell off your shoulders until it is standing upright, then lower it to the floor.
Ideal For: Building coordination, core control, and hip flexibility.
The Bench Press
There’s a reason the question “How much do you bench?” is such a cliché among gym-goers the world over. “It’s a good indicator of pure upper-body strength,” says Glass. “If you’re trying to build muscle in your chest, you need to press. If you’re trying to tone up, you need to press. Athletes need to press. Grandmothers need to press.”
The press is an effective upper-body muscle builder — with particular emphasis on the chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles.
Pressing in any direction — forward, upward, downward, and everything in between — is a key motion in many recreational activities: Think of holding a downward-dog pose in yoga, or throwing a punch in the martial arts. It’s also an important part of many common movements, like getting up off the floor or hoisting a suitcase into an overhead bin.
When performed correctly, presses promote not just muscle strength, but also improved joint stability and mobility.
Barbell Bench Press
- Place a barbell in the uprights of a bench-press station and load it with an appropriate weight for you (or, if you’re a beginner, use the empty bar).
- Lie on the bench with the bar in line with the top of your head.
- Keeping your feet flat on the floor, take an overhand grip on the bar, with hands about 6 inches wider than shoulder width on each side. Lift the bar off the uprights.
- Slowly lower the bar until it contacts the lower part of your chest.
- Press the bar back to the starting position, pause, and repeat.
- Return the bar to the rack. If racking and unracking the bar is challenging or uncomfortable, which is common with heavier weights, ask a workout buddy or spotter to help you move the bar into position. (To fine-tune your form, see “BREAK IT DOWN: The Bench Press“.)
Try This Bench Press Variations
- Assume a shoulder-width stance, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand at shoulder height.
- Rotate your feet so that both toes point slightly to the left.
- Simultaneously bend toward your left, reach toward the floor with your left hand, push your right hip out toward the right, and press the weight upward. (You will feel as if you are pushing yourself away from the weight rather than pushing the weight overhead.)
- Keeping your right arm locked out and vertical, return to a standing position.
- Lower the weight to shoulder height and repeat.
Ideal For: Building full-body coordination and learning to lift heavy weights overhead.
Deadlifts help us build the muscle necessary to heft groceries, children, and luggage with ease. “Deads” also aid us in counteracting some of the long-term effects of aging. “As you get older, your joints become stiffer and more fibrotic,” says Nuckols. That can lead to joint stiffness and back pain. Deadlifts keep those same joints mobile and primed for action, regardless of your age.
Deadlifts are the pull that mirrors the push of the bench press. By working your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, the move strengthens your entire “rear kinetic chain,” Glass explains, all of which tends to weaken in people who spend lots of time sitting.
And deadlifts only look dangerous, he says. “People hurt their backs picking stuff up because they never practice doing it. Learn good form on the deadlift and you’re less likely to get hurt — in or out of the gym.”
- Load a barbell with an appropriate weight for you; step up to the bar so it is touching your lower legs at mid-shin height.
- Hinge at the hips and bend your knees, reaching down to take an overhand, shoulder-width grip on the bar.
- Keeping your arms straight, your lower back in its natural arch, your chest up, and your head aligned with your spine, stand fully upright by pushing your hips forward. Squeeze your glutes at the top to achieve a full lockout.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, hinge at the hips and bend the knees to lower the bar to the floor. (For additional form tips, see “BREAK IT DOWN: The Deadlift“.)
Try These Deadlift Variations
- Stand upright, holding a heavy dumbbell in your left hand.
- Shift your weight onto your right foot and lift your left foot slightly off the floor.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, your hips and shoulders square to the floor, and the dumbbell in your left hand close to your right leg, slowly hinge forward on your right hip, bending your right knee slightly and lifting your left leg directly behind you until the dumbbell is close to the floor.
- Pause, reverse the movement, and repeat. (For additional form tips, see “BREAK IT DOWN: The Single-Leg Deadlift“.)
Ideal For: Improving balance and flexibility while evening out strength and mobility differences between your left and right sides.
Hex Bar Deadlift
- Load a hex bar — a six-sided apparatus that allows you to initiate the movement with the bar closer to your center of gravity — with a weight that is appropriate for you. Bend at the knees and hips joints to grip the handles.
- Keeping your arms straight, your lower back in its natural arch, your chest up, and your head in alignment with your spine, slowly stand fully upright.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch, bend at the hips and knees, lowering the bar to the floor, and repeat.
Ideal For: Beginners, since it’s easier to learn and safer to perform.
How Much Weight Should I Lift?
Determining how much to lift can be a challenge in itself. As a general rule of thumb, choose weights that are challenging for you to lift with good form for all of the reps in a set.
Finding the ideal resistance level takes some trial and error when an exercise is brand new to you, says veteran trainer Nick Tumminello, author of Strength Training for Fat Loss.
“Be conservative,” he advises. “For the first week on any new program, choose weights you can handle easily.”
After you feel confident with that starting weight, slowly and steadily add to it. For example, if your squat program calls for three sets of five reps, and you easily completed that with 95 pounds last week, add 5 to 10 pounds to the bar this week.
If you struggled to complete those sets, stick with 95 pounds until you can handle five reps for all three sets.
Follow these guidelines for choosing weights that match your workout goals:
- Light weights are loads you can lift 15 or more times; they help you build endurance.
- Medium weights are loads you can lift eight to 12 times; they help you build a combination of muscle size and strength.
- Heavy weights are loads you can lift fewer than eight times with good form; they help you build strength.
And remember: Listening to your body is the key to steady and safe progress in the weight room. (For more guidance, see “Expert Answers on Figuring Out How Much Weight to Lift“.)