The backbone of powerlifting programs, as well as many bodybuilding and general fitness programs, are the “big 3” lifts -- squats, deadlifts, and bench press.
The reason these three lifts are the foundation of most training programs is that they are incredibly effective exercises that allow you to move a lot of weight, and they also take care of training all the major muscle groups of the body.
While no one will dispute the sheer awesomeness for these lifts, the simple truth of the matter is that not everyone is built to handle the Big 3.
Some people are plagued by achy joints, prior injuries, or anthropometry that just doesn’t jive with barbell training.
The good news is that unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, you don’t have to ever perform the big 3 lifts to build muscle and strength or get the body you’ve always wanted.
Here we present our favorite joint-friendly alternatives to the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
Joint-Friendly Alternatives to Squats
Bulgarian Split Squat
If there’s one move that we dare say might surpass the squat as the best lower body exercise, it just might be the Bulgarian split squat.
For those of you not familiar with the exercise, the Bulgarian split squat is a split squat where the back leg is elevated onto a platform (plyo box, steps, bench, etc). This means you’re essentially performing a one-legged squat.
The added benefit of the Bulgarian (or rear foot-elevated) split squat is that allows you to hammer the quads, glutes, and hamstrings without excessive strain on the lower back. You can also adjust how far your working leg is from the bench so you can find the optimal position that allows you to work the legs with little to no strain on the knees.
The forward walking lunge is a staple in many leg workouts, and make no mistake, it is a great exercise for building stronger, firmer legs.
However, when you step forward, your body (i.e. knees) has to bear the brunt of the deceleration forces with each step. Over years and years of lunging, the repetitive stress placed on the knees can become too much.
Enter the reverse lunge.
The reverse lunge is a lunge where the working leg remains stationary and the non-working leg is the one that moves backward. The benefit of this is that it reduces stress at the knee joint of the working leg, allowing for pain-free lunging.
Furthermore, the reverse lunge also tends to emphasize the glutes and hamstrings a bit more than the forward or walking lunge.
Safety Bar Squat
For those that experience pain in the elbows, shoulders, or lower back when performing traditional barbell squat, the safety bar squat is a great squat variation that still allows you to simulate the feeling of a barbell squat.
However, due to the unique set up of the bar, the arms are placed in a more natural and comfortable position (in front of you in a neutral grip), reducing strain on the elbows and shoulders. Furthermore, the safety bar squat also allows you to maintain a more upright torso when squatting, thereby reducing strain on the lower back and knees.
Landmine training has become incredibly popular in recent years as it provides an effective way to challenge the muscles of the body with heavyweight while also being joint-friendly. As an added bonus, you still get to use a barbell to perform the exercises!
Due to the set up for the movement, landmine squats force you to sit down and back into the squat while keeping a mostly vertical torso -- sparing both your lower back and knees. Furthermore, landmine squats also help build your shoulder and core strength since you’re holding the weight in front of your body, similar to a goblet squat.
Backward Prowler Sled Walk
The prowler sled is the most underrated muscle-building apparatus in the gym for building strong, toned legs.
There are a ton of variations that can be used to ignite your metabolism, burn calories, and spark muscle growth. One of our personal favorites is the backward Prowler sled walk, where you’re walking backward while having a weighted sled attached to your torso.
It essentially serves as a diabolical closed-chain alternative to the leg extension machine, while also being kind to your knees.
Joint-Friendly Alternatives to Deadlifts
Trap Bar Deadlifts
For the average person, the best form of the deadlift is the trap bar deadlift.
The reasons are many, but essentially, the trap bar deadlift is easier to teach than the conventional barbell deadlift, and it’s also easier on the joints.
When performing the exercise, you grasp the bar with a neutral grip, which benefits your shoulders and low back. Plus, it also has you perform the movement pattern with a more vertical torso, further reducing lower back strain.
After trap bar deadlifts, our next favorite deadlift alternative is the Romanian deadlift. It’s great for hammering the glutes and hamstrings and really helps drive home proper hip hinging.
Romanian deadlifts begin with the bar hanging at arm’s length in front of your body while traditional deadlifts start with the barbell on the ground. So, from the outset, your lower back is in a more favorable position, and we haven’t even started the movement yet.
Romanian deadlifts can be performed with a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or kettlebells. And it can also be performed bilaterally (both legs) or unilaterally (one leg at a time).
If it’s raw strength you’re trying to develop, the bilateral barbell option is the way to go. If you’re looking to improve hip stability and strength or work on some small muscle imbalances, the unilateral option is better.
Kettlebell swings are great for developing a proper hip-hinging pattern while simultaneously building explosive power in the glutes. They’re also a good exercise to strengthen your core, too!
They can be performed with a single-arm, both arms, or alternating arms with each swing. And, they can also serve as a great conditioning tool, too.
Just make sure when you are performing the kettlebell swing that you aren’t squatting the weight down and pulling it up with your shoulders. You should be hinging at the hips and only keeping a slight bend in the knee, similar to that of the Romanian deadlift.
All of the strength and power should come from your hips. Your arms are just along for the ride (and to hold on to the weight of course).
The goal of deadlifts is two-fold -- build the back and build the hip-hinge pattern.
The first few alternatives to the deadlift we focused on were for the lower body, and now it’s time to focus on strengthening the muscles of your upper back.
There’s no better exercise for building the upper back, which also happens to be joint-friendly, than the dumbbell row.
This is another staple unilateral exercise that also helps address any imbalances that may exist between the two sides of your body.
To perform the movement, grab a relatively heavy dumbbell and pull (row) it from the floor to your hip, driving from the elbow. This helps to shift the focus more on pulling with the muscles of the back as opposed to the biceps.
At the bottom of the movement, allow the shoulder blade to protract as it provides a greater stretch on the back muscles and allows for a greater contraction, ultimately making for a better workout.
Pull-Ups / Chin-Ups
Chin-ups and pulls are frequently referred to as “squats” for the upper body. The reason for this is that you have to pull your entire body weight up until your sternum reaches the bar and lower yourself under control.
Properly performed pull-ups and chin-ups require a formidable amount of strength, but the reward for your hard work will be well rewarded with an upper-body that is to die for.
In addition to working the lats, chin-ups, and pull-ups also train the teres, rhomboids, shoulders, biceps, and triceps. Basically, it hits every major muscle group in the body.
And, for those looking to build a stronger, more toned back, the pull up offers a joint-friendly alternative to do just that.
The variations of pull-ups and chin-ups are endless. They can also be weighted or not.
Once you’re able to do multiple sets of 10-15 reps on chin-ups, start playing with slow eccentrics and/or pauses at the top and mid-point of the pull up to make your own bodyweight more challenging if you feel wary about hanging plates from your waist to perform the exercise.
Joint-Friendly Alternatives to Bench Press
Dumbbell Bench Press
Dumbbells are purely awesome when it comes to training.
They require strength, balance, and coordination. Beyond that, training with dumbbells also helps even out any potential muscle imbalances that may develop. Very often, when performing bilateral movements (bench press, squat, deadlift, etc.), one side of our body performs slightly more work (the stronger side) than the other.
Over time, these imbalances can continue to become worse, leading to pain, weakness, and dysfunction. Performing unilateral exercises or using implements that allow both sides of the body to move independently (i.e. dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.) during training helps prevent these imbalances from occurring.
Another added benefit of dumbbell training is that it allows you to find the most optimal position for your anatomy to perform a press. Barbell presses lock your arms into a fixed position and do not allow them to move freely as they normally would.
Dumbbell presses allow you to experiment with different grips (pronated, neutral, supinated) as well as the angle at which your elbows extend from the body. Generally speaking, the closer your elbows are into your body, the easier it is on the shoulders.
To reduce shoulder burden even further, consider using a slight incline (~10-30 degrees) when performing the dumbbell bench press.
Performing a press from the floor relieves a tremendous amount of stress from the shoulder joint due to the fact that the range of motion is shorter. Since your elbows stop at the ground level, your arm will not travel behind the torso, which avoids undue stress on the joint.
If you perform the floor press using dumbbells, you can also use a neutral grip which again benefits shoulder health. Dumbbells also allow you more freedom with how far away your elbows are from your torso. The closer they are to your sides, the less strain that typically occurs in the shoulder.
Similar to the floor press, the pin press restricts your pressing motion to a certain range -- from lockout to the height at which you set the pins.
Since your elbows are not traveling behind the torso during the eccentric part of the movement, less stress is placed on the shoulder joint.
To avoid irritation in the elbows and wrists when performing the pin press, make sure to use a grip that is not too narrow. The ideal placement of your hands is shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
Swiss Bar Press
The Swiss bar also called the football bar, is a bar that has a variety of neutral grip setups from which to choose -- narrow, wide, and standard width.
It’s a few pounds heavier than your typical barbell, so keep that in mind when selecting your weight to add to the bar, but the trade-off you’ll make for plates on the bar will be rewarded with significantly reduced stress on the shoulders and elbows when pressing.
The dip is the oft-forgotten bodyweight upper body exercise to build strength and an impressive physique.
The reason most lifters ditch it after a few months of training is that their body weight is no longer heavy enough to really challenge their strength. However, by hanging some weight plates from your waist, you’re able to continue challenging your chest, shoulders, and triceps with heavier weights as you build strength.
Our final exercise is also one of the first ones you ever started doing when you began your life in fitness -- the push-up.
Similar to the dip, many individuals quickly progress past the simple push up once they gain a decent amount of strength. However, the mistake they make is ditching the move all together as opposed to finding harder progressions of the exercise to perform.
For those that can rep out multiple sets of 20+ reps of perfect form push-ups, you can progress to weighted push-ups, incline push-ups, or our personal favorite -- ring push-ups.
The advantage dips and push-ups have over any kind of bench press is scapular mobility. By that, we mean that the scapula is allowed to rotate as it should during these exercises, which is important for long-term shoulder health. Presses lock the scapula in place, so as to provide a more stable base from which to press, but doesn’t bode well for your shoulders in the long run.
Using a suspension trainer or rings adds an element of instability to the push-up, which forces your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core to work harder. But the even greater benefit is that it allows you to find the optimal hand and elbow placement that allows for pain-free pressing.
Squats, deadlifts, and bench presses have built the physiques of many champions, and while they are no doubt great exercises, they aren’t for everyone.
So, if one (or all three) of these exercises bother your joints, try some of the alternatives we’ve laid out here and be on your way to pain-free muscle and strength.