Powerlifting’s Big 3 –the squat, bench and deadlift – might just be the ultimate methods for building and testing total body strength. However, these same lifts can be used in a higher-volume training program to develop total body muscular size and improve overall body composition. Those bar-bending loads are great, once you can manage them. But in the meantime, why not start by mastering your bodyweight’s worth of resistance first? In other words, it’s good to strive for new one-rep maxes on these lifts but what about striving for max reps with your bodyweight?

By using higher repetitions with a moderate weight, each exercise can be transformed from a competition lift to a hypertrophy tool. High training volume and increased time under tension promotes increased muscular size. Just try to find someone with great quad development who doesn’t squat or someone with huge pecs and shoulders who doesn’t bench press. Now add stamina and muscular endurance to the equation and we have a leaner body with great muscular development. And your bodyweight is a good standard to shoot for.

>> Bodyweight Your Big 3. Use weight on the bar that is equal to your body weight. Perform as many reps as you can with that weight and give yourself 90 seconds to rest then repeat. Take another 90 second rest and perform a third set to max.  You should see your numbers going down each set as 90 seconds rest will not be enough for complete recovery between sets. This incomplete recovery, high volume and maximal exertion during the set will promote recruitment of new muscle fibers to fire. More muscle fibers being recruited into the lift yields greater muscular size.

Sample Bench Press – Max Reps with Bodyweight

Set      Weight                     Reps

1          185 pounds              18

2          185 pounds              14

3          185 pounds               7

Remember, you will experience progressively fewer reps as you fatigue. As a good measure of relative strength, you should be able to bench press your bodyweight at least 10 times. Elite athletes can do it 20 times or more. Good goals for the squat and deadlift should be bodyweight for 20 or more reps.


We know how high volume training and time under tension relates to increases in muscular size. What may not be readily apparent is that the high volume of training leads to a huge calorie burn. This is attributed to the increased workload. If a 185-pound man lifted a 300-pound max he just did 300 pounds of concentric work. If he lifted 185 pounds for 15 reps then he did 1275 pounds of concentric work. More than four times the work equals more than four time the number of calories burned. And, of course, the eccentric caloric expenditure will be significantly higher in higher-rep sets.

During a workout a guy can easily do 4-5 high-rep sets to failure. Due to the high demand of the central nervous system on max lifts, it’s unlikely he’ll do 4-5 sets with that max weight. So, in a given amount of time, the energy burned will be exponentially higher with lighter weights, which is why bodybuilding hypertrophy training produces better results in bodyfat reduction than traditional strength training.

>> The Rx. Need a change in your regular workouts? Try this every four weeks. Devote one training day to max reps for three sets with bodyweight on the bar for all of the Big 3 – bench, squat, deadlift. That’s just nine sets and you will have hit every major muscle group. You’ll get your squat, a push and a pull for total body development and big calorie burn. You’ll develop greater relative strength and build dense, high-quality muscle in the process.


John Krasinski, MS, CSCS, is a Master Strength & Conditioning Coach (Collegiate Strength & Conditioning Coaches association) and is the Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Performance at Fordham University. He has trained more than 100 NFL players including Aaron Rodgers, Alex Mack, Cameron Jordan and Marshawn Lynch. For more information and additional training articles, visit theanvilathletics.wordpress.com.