Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Part 1-Maximal Effort Work
I often get questions through email, Facebook or through JTSstrength.com that are something to the effect of, “Can I substitute closegrip reverse band presses with chains for military press?,” or “Do you think Close stance low foam box safety squat bar squats are a good accessory movement for my deadlift?” My first response to questions like these are always the same thing, “How strong are you?” Nine times out of 10, these questions are coming from athletes with less than 2 years of training under their belt, or with miles of room for improvement in their lifts. Lifters like these, and even much more experienced/stronger lifters, would greatly benefit from reducing the pool of exercises that they are drawing from. In the first part of this series I will address the need for simplicity in selecting your exercises that will make up the foundation of your training for the squat, bench and deadlift.
There are many who argue that the internet has been a great detriment to the development of young lifters because it has exposed them to too much information, instead of forcing them to train, succeed, fail, trial, error, and think critically about why something worked or didn’t, and how they can improve their training during the next cycle. While I don’t agree that the internet is a detriment to the development of lifters, because it offers so much great information that if used correctly will be of a great benefit, I do agree that many people are using systems and exercises that are beyond what their current abilities demand to improve.
It is essential that the lifter exhausts a particular means to improve their strength, before moving onto the next, more demanding, means. This simple, yet often overlooked, concept can be summed up with the idea that if doing pushups can improve your upper body pressing power, you don’t need to bench press. In this scenario, once you begin to bench press you have effectively limited the ability of the pushup and its variations to improve your upper body strength anymore. When looking at the long term development of the lifter, which must be done if one is looking to achieve the highest results possible. Think of training as a marathon, not a sprint, and measure your goals in months/years/decades, not days and weeks. I have been training hard and consistently for 11 years, and even though my results are very elite, I haven’t even been alive for as long as some of my fellow EliteFTS.com sponsored lifters have been training. Once you adapt this mindset of training for the long haul, it will become much easier to begin thinking of the benefits you can derive from the most basic of exercises.
Let’s take a look at my last year of training since I began training for my 1st powerlifting in July 2010. This time encompasses the training cycles for 3 raw full power meets, as well as some inconsequential sessions for a few weeks at a time between meets. During these meet training cycles I have had 40 Squat, 40 Bench, 40 Deadlift and 40 Assistance Upper Body sessions. Of those 40 squat sessions, 37 of them were begun with the barbell back squat, 3 of them utilized the back squat with chains. Of those 40 bench sessions, 40 of them began with the flat barbell bench press. Similarly, 40 of 40 deadlift sessions focused on the straight bar deadlift from the floor. Finally, out of 40 assistance upper body sessions, 32 of them were focused on either the standing or seated military press, while the other 8 utilized the close grip bench press, 4 with bands and 4 without.
Take a look at this deadlift training session of mine and notice what it is focused on…
It is also advisable for athletes to limit their exercise variety, as new stimulus to the body will induce more soreness and negatively impact the athlete’s abilities during technical/tactical practice.
Now maybe you are reading this and yelling at your computer screen, “What about the principal of accommodation!!!”, which I would respond to by saying tell your principal of accommodation to go and have a chat with my 2165 raw total. Now I’m not saying that accommodation isn’t an important factor in your training, of course it is, but it can be avoided in many different ways besides rotating between dozens of different max effort exercises. There are just as many options in set/rep schemes and loading strategies as there are in exercise selection. Focus your training on the competition lifts at varying intensities, master your technique, and avoid overuse injuries/muscular imbalances through proper warmups and well planned supplementary work; follow these tips are watch your numbers skyrocket.
Part 2-Supplementary/Assistance Work
In part 1 of this series, I discussed the need for athletes and lifters alike to be simple in their selection of their max effort exercises. It is critical as a competitive lifter, to be a master of the competitive lifts, and particularly as a raw lifter that means you need to be performing them on a very regular basis. For athletes, it is key to be simple in your exercise selection for two reasons, first you do not want to use your bioenergetic stores on the development of lifting technique because you need to reserve that for the technical development of your sport skills; second, the less frequently you change your main exercise, the less soreness you will incur which is key when having multiple sport practices per week. There are many benefits to performing the competition lifts exclusively as your main exercises, one risk you run though is the development of muscular imbalances which can lead to weakpoints developing. Your body wants to allow it strongest movers to handle the weight and will transfer the stress there, so if you have strong quads and weak hamstrings, your body will force you into being a quad dominant squatter, which over time will limit your potential. To avoid this occurring you need to be smart about organizing your assistance work.
Assistance work should be divided into two groups: supplementary work, which are variations of the competitive lifts designed to address specific weakpoints or sticking points; and assistance work, which is training for specific muscle groups that will increase hypertrophy and maintain muscular suppleness, while helping avoid overuse injuries by bringing balance to the physique.
Supplementary work consists of using variations/varying intensities of the competition lifts to address different weak/sticking points and build special work capacity. Remember though, while supplementary work is important, it does not take precedent over your competition lifts and their loading strategies should reflect that. Similarly to your main lifts, it is critical to not rotate supplementary work too frequently as you will not have enough time to let them serve their desired purpose, nor will you be able to truly gauge their effectiveness on your strength. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite supplementary exercises and the functions they serve…
Speed Squats-For the raw lifter, speed/Dynamic Effort work should be done at a higher percentage than the 45-60% normally prescribed for geared lifters. Sixty to 75% is a good range to focus your speed work around. Focus on locking in your technique and pushing the bar with maximal force. Make sure to keep your rest periods short, 45-90 seconds, when performing speed work. Using speed sets after your main lift is also a great way to build special work capacity early in a training cycle. I have performed as many as 8 triples of speed work after my main work sets. Using chains and bands is acceptable here, but should be reserved for once straight weight is no longer yielding a positive training effect.
Dead Squats-Dead squats are the best way to build power out of the hole and a staple in my training program. Dead squats should be done for singles and depending on where you are in the training cycle, 2 to 12 sets can performed. When earlier in the training cycle, while lighter weights are being used, short rest periods (30-75 seconds) should be utilized. Once the weights increase, just take the necessary rest intervals to perform the work.
Safety Bar Squats-A common problem among squatters is falling forward due to the head falling forward because of upper back weakeness/lack of tightness in the setup. The safety squat bar will remedy this problem quickly, due to its ability to accentuate any lack of tightness or weakness in the upper back due to the forward bar position. Make sure you are pushing your head back into the yoke as hard as possible to keep your head and chest up. Stay between 3 and 8 reps per set for 2 to 3 sets and your ability to keep a good posture through your squat should really improve.
Speed Bench-Good bar speed is the number one way to avoid sticking points. The faster the bar is moving, the less likely you are to stall at any point during the lift. Triples are the best option here, and varying your hand position is also advisable. Follow the same percentage guidelines as I outlined for the speed squats.
Paused Widegrip Bench-If your shoulders are healthy, paused widegrips are a great way to build power off of the chest. Just move your grip 1” out from your competition grip and perform the same way that you would a regular bench. Do not go below 4 reps in this exercise
Dead Bench-Another great exercise from Josh Bryant.
Closegrip Board Presses-The closegrip bench has long been a staple in big benchers programs to build lockout power and using a 2 or 3 board is a great way to overload the triceps even more. A thumb from the smooth or pinkies on rings grip will be sufficient here. Reps here will should be from singles to sets of 8.
Seated Military Press to the Top of the Head-Strong shoulders are critical to a powerful raw bench. So are healthy ones though, which is why I prefer to perform mine to the top of the head, as opposed to in front or behind the head. The seated military press will build great shoulder strength/stability and tricep strength. Use sets of 1 to 10 reps, depending on where you are during your training cycle, for 2 or 3 work sets.
Here is a look into one of my deadlift training sessions. Notice the wide variety of supplementary work I use to address different portions of the lift.
Speed Pulls-As with the squat and bench, speed, is the best way to avoid sticking points and missing lifts. Utilitizng sets of 2 to 4, speed pulls with short rest periods are a great way to build your special work capacity, dial in your technique and increase low back strength. I have performed as many as 10 sets of 4 reps of speed pulls with 500 pounds (about 70%) after my heavy sets in the deadlift.
Defecit Pulls-Defecit pulls are a great way to build power off of the floor in the deadlift and accommodate your body to the longer time under tension that max singles often require. They will also force you to improve your hip mobility, which will allow you to get into better positions to start your pull. Sets of 3 to 8 in the defecit pull will work great to build your strength from the floor.
Pulls against Bands-For athletes who struggle at the top of the lift, adding accommodating resistance is a great way to both overload the top portion of the movement and to teach the athlete to impart maximal velocity to the bar through the entire movement. Bands can be set up in a number of ways, quaded around the base of a power rack or jumpstretch platform, stretched between dumbbells, or simply wrapped around the bar and then place your feet in the ends. Reverse band pulls are also a good option here.
Isometrics are a powerful tool in your training that must be used with great discretion as they are very taxing to the CNS. To set up an isometric, just set the pins in a power rack at wherever your sticking point is, and then pull the bar loaded with 50-60% of your max against the pins for 4 to 10 seconds. I perform these during my last 3 weeks before a meet, and then deload all pulling for 2 weeks before competing.
That covers my favorite supplementary exercises for each lift. Assess your weak points and pick an exercise from this list to attack them. I will use 2-4 variations of a given lift within a single session, which far out from a meet can add up to 20 work sets between my main lift and supplementary variations of it. Here is a look at my bench training template from May 29th, 2011
1) Bench-Work up to 425×3, paused
2) Speed Bench-325 for 8 sets of 4 with 1 minute rest
3) Widegrip Bench, paused-320 for 2 sets of 8
4) Dead Bench-335 for 8 sets of 1 with 45 seconds rest
5) Assistance Work
Now that we’ve covered supplementary work for the Big 3, let’s take a look at assistance work. As I mentioned above, assistance work is to bring up lagging muscle groups and retain muscular suppleness. Assistance work should promote blood flow into the muscles and be relatively easy work. Don’t worry about setting PRs in assistance work each week, because it will detract from your ultimate goal, improving the Big 3. Performing 1-5 sets of 8-20 reps for a few of the exercises from each of the following lists should suffice for assistance work. I often like to set my watch for 15-20 minutes and perform all the assistance work I can during that time period to avoid dedicating too much time to this relatively insignificant aspect of training.
Single Leg Squats, GHRs, Single Leg RDLs, Walking Lunges, Barbell/Dumbbell Step Ups.
Dips (I go heavy here and below 8 reps), Front Raises, Lateral Raises, Flies, Curls (yes these matter, look at the training and guns of any old time powerlifting stud).
You’ll notice that I didn’t list any back work here, back work is tremendously important to a big bench, but I like to perform my back work after my deadlift sessions or dedicate a separate day to it. Chest supported rows, lat pulldowns, pullups, chinups, reverse flies and band pullaparts are my preferred back exercises to improve the bench.
Bentover Rows (I go heavy here and below 8 reps), Pullups/Chinups, GHRs, Shrugs, Back Extensions, Glute Bridges, Band X Walks.
Obviously ab strength plays a huge role in excelling in powerlifting. My favorite ab exercises are…
Ab wheel, Hanging Leg Raises, Side Bends, Decline Situps, Situps on GHR and Spread Eagle Situps.
There is my simple guide to supplementary and assistance work. Stick with an exercise for a few months and really start pushing some weight with it on your supplementary lifts. Don’t let your accessory work take on such a priority that it detracts from your max effort work. Getting crazy strong is about dedication, consistency and patience, not magic exercises.