Are you REALLY Strong? Or Just Barbell Strong?

by Ryan Taylor

Try These Lifts and Find Out

Building total-body strength takes more than three lifts. Add these exercises to your plan and see how strong you can really get.

Beyond The Big Three

Most strength training programs emphasize the “big three” – the bench press, deadlift, and squat. After all, big numbers on the barbell means big strength, right? Well, not as much as you’d think.

Sure, the big three are effective, but there’s more to strength than what you can do with a barbell. Focusing on these three lifts means you’ll get good at these three lifts… but not much more. That’s the principle of specificity. You may also get major asymmetries and a loss of strength and athleticism in other areas.

Think about your fitness goals. Do they go beyond simply being good at bench pressing, deadlifting, and squatting? Or is your goal to have a jacked chest and be able to use it powerfully in multiple capacities?

Most people who focus solely on the big three aren’t really even using the strength they’re building in everyday settings. And if all that heavy barbell strength isn’t serving you in ways outside of moving the bar up and down in the exact same manner, then what’s the point?

Let’s Test Your Total Strength

Below you’ll find several different ways to get strong. You’ll be displaying the same strength patterns with completely different loading stimuli, which will give you the potential to build more muscle. Along the way, you’ll be exposing and fixing weaknesses and asymmetries.

If you’re already strong at the big compound lifts, then these moves will transfer well. You could use them as a “fill-in” training block between heavy barbell loading cycles.

1. Bench Press Alternatives

One-Arm Push-Up

This exercise requires extreme athletic strength through cross-body linkages and demonstrates total control and stability. Can you do one per side? Now build up to five per side.

One-Arm Dumbbell Incline Press

This emphasizes full-body tension and anti-rotation strength. You’ll notice your asymmetries immediately with this movement. Shoot for 50% of bodyweight for 5-10 reps per side.

Ring Suspension Trainer Dip

Dips are the king of upper body pressing for muscle, and by adding rings you take pressure off of the shoulders, allow for more chest contraction, and emphasize total shoulder and core stability. Not to mention, your pecs will blow up. Shoot for 10 continuous reps (adding up to 25% of your bodyweight).

2. Squat Alternatives

Skater Squat

Less technical than a pistol squat and with less spinal loading than a traditional squat, the skater squat will force you to demonstrate total body control and overall single-leg squat strength. Can you do one per side? Now build up to 10 unbroken reps per side.

Here it is with alternating legs:

Two-Kettlebell Front Squat

An unstable load challenges your complete anterior core strength and stability, and allows for greater range of motion in the squat. Shoot for 10 reps with 50% of your bodyweight. If this is too easy, hit 25 continuous reps with 50% of bodyweight for a great strength challenge. You can also use dumbbells for these.

3. Deadlift Alternatives

Farmer’s Walk

This movement is easy to customize and great for building grip strength, core strength, and a powerful back and shoulders. Start with a load that’s 30-40% of your bodyweight in each hand (dumbbells, kettlebells, trap bar, bale of hay, whatever) and start walking for 30 seconds without setting down the weight. Want to really push it? Go for one minute straight. Then build up to 50% of your bodyweight.

You can also modify this movement to focus on grip strength: start with a lighter load and add towels around the handles. Here are a few great ways to do farmers walks:

Using a towel and kettlebells:

Using kettlebells in a rack position:

Using an offset load in either a rack or suitcase position:

Block or Rack Pull

Some lifters may not have the most advantageous limb length (short arms/long torso) or ankle and hip mobility to pull from the floor, and this may result in an ugly pull or strained back. The block pull will help you build “sticking point” strength and overall safe pulling volume.

Start by getting the barbell about 8-12 inches off the floor. You can do this by placing blocks under the weights or by lowering the bar on a rack. Each week shorten the height by 1-3 inches. The goal is to be capable of pulling the same weight at 8-12 inches that you pull at 3-5 inches.

The 3-Day Real Strength Program

  • Use either a fixed workout frequency, like training every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Or do a one-day on, one-day off schedule, like Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, etc.
  • If there’s a glaring weak point that you want to bring up, use the frequency principle and do a particular exercise 2-3 times a week instead of just once.
  • Kettlebells and dumbbells are interchangeable.
  • Don’t add any of the big three barbell movements to this. The point of the program is to build and test your strength beyond the barbell.

Day 1 – Lower Rep, Strength Focused

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Dumbbell One-Arm Incline Press (80-85% of 5RM) 4 5/arm
A2 Kettlebell Swing 4 10-12
B1 Block Pull (off 8-inch block, work up to a heavy double) 2-3
B2 Single-Arm Plank 2-3 20 sec.
C1 Skater Squat to Pad (2-4 inches off floor) 3 4-6/side
C2 Kettlebell Farmer’s Walk (use 30-40% of bodyweight) 3 20-30 sec.
C3 Pallof Press (two second pause at top of each rep) 3 10

Day 2 – Mid-Range Strength

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Double Kettlebell Squat 4 6-8
A2 Single-Arm Push-Up Negatives (5 second negative) 4 2
B1 Single or double Kettlebell Swing 3 10
B2 Standing Cable Chest Press 3 8-10
B3 Pull-Up or Chin-up 3 6-8
C1 Barbell Step-Back Lunge 3 8/leg
C2 Rack Position Farmer’s Walk 3 25-30 yd.
C3 TRX Side Plank 3 20-25 sec.

Day 3 – Tying It All Together

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Turkish Get-Up or Waiter Walk 5 20 yd.
A2 Sled Push or Bike Sprint 5 60-90 sec.
B1 TRX or Ring Dip 3 3-5
B2 Trap Bar Deadlift 3 6-8
Slow tempo set: This superset will be done with a slow eccentric tempo, meaning slow in the stretching portion of the lift.
C1 Loaded Push-Up (band around back or plate on back, lower 4 sec. up 1) 3 6-8
C2 TRX Row (lower 4 sec. up 1) 3 8-10
C3 Lateral Raise (use body English to pop the weight up, but lower slowly, lower 4 sec. up 1) 3 8-10
D Fat Gripz or Towel Farmer’s Walk 2-4 25-30 yd.