How To Use The Big Three Lifts To Get Strong, Build Muscle Or Burn Fat

Barbell on gym floor
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Do I need to different moves depending on my primary training goal?

The barbell exercises that should make up each training session don’t really change whether you’re training for more strength, increased muscle mass (hypertrophy) or fat loss. In all three scenarios the three big lifts (barbell squatdeadlift and bench press), as well as a few key other ones including the overhead press and bent-over row, should feature. What does change, however, is how long you rest between sets, and consequently the weight you have on the bar.

How do I build strength and muscle size?

To build strength you need to lift heavy – upwards of 80% of your one-rep max. Lifting this heavy means you can only do a few reps and you’ll need to rest longer between sets to allow your muscles and central nervous system to recover. This can be three to five minutes.

When lifting for more muscle mass you will lift lighter – 60-80% of your one-rep max – but do more reps, and keep rest periods under three minutes to maximise the damage to your muscles fibres, because this is what causes your muscles to grow bigger.

What about the big lifts and fat loss?

To reduce body fat you want to keep your rest periods between sets and different exercises as short as possible – under one minute – to elevate your heart rate and build up an oxygen debt that your body must repay post-workout. This increases your metabolism in the hours after lifting to burn more calories. With such short rest periods you will have to reduce the weight on the bar so you can lift safely, especially towards the end of your session when you start to get tired.

How do I perform the big lifts?

When training for strength your best bet is to do straight sets. Doing one move at a time allows you to really focus on maximising your output. For hypertrophy you can do straight sets, or pair two moves together – such as the bench press and bent-over row – in a superset.

What’s a better big lift approach for fat loss?

A great option is a barbell complex, in which you do a variety of bar moves back to back in a circuit. It’ll work all your major muscle groups as well as your heart and lungs to burn maximum calories in a short period of time. Try four sets of ten reps of the below five moves, resting for two minutes after exercise five.

  1. Deadlift
  2. Front squat
  3. Overhead press
  4. Bent-over row
  5. Romanian deadlift

How do I incorporate auxiliary moves?

For strength gains you can use the assistance moves as part of your warm-up, or after the main lift to work on your weaknesses. For hypertrophy, you can focus on specific body-part lifts to cause maximum muscle damage. For instance, for a bigger chest, you can do the bench press, then the incline dumbbell press in a superset with incline dumbbell flyes. Focus on key body parts each session and really hit them hard. For fat loss, a well-executed circuit-style session will be enough to get your body burning fat.

Joe Warner
Former editor of Men’s Fitness UK

Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.