By Lee Boyce
They’re there like clockwork most weekdays in the pursuit of muscle, strength and size. They don’t miss a beat and take their workouts, gains, and plateaus quite seriously. You are one of those other guys.
This in mind, it can be a real frustration when you tirelessly attack your weak points, lift with good technique, stay on top of your pre, peri and post workout nutrition, yet still reach a stymie that plateaus your strength and muscle gains. Have no fear. Less the cape and tights, I’ve come to the rescue with a rundown of some subtle advanced lifting methods to kickstart your strength and pack on muscle like no tomorrow. Here’s the way to get more out of your squats, bench and deads.
Of course, there are several squat variations that can be employed to change the focus of the movement. Overhead squats, front squats, and Zercher squats, are but a few examples. That being said, the issue in a strength plateau could be coming from a deficiency in a certain part of the rep itself.
1. Bottom – Up Squats
Bottom-up squats are great for allowing the body to push weight from zero momentum at its lowest point. It’s quite different from a box squat because the legs don’t get to relax at all when in the bottom position. To do them, set up your squat cage so that the bar can settle on the safety pins when you’re in the full depth of your back squat. For most people it’ll mean setting the pins up somewhere around waist level. In your reps, descend to the pins and let the bar rest there for a full second before driving back up to your start position. It takes core strength through the yin yang to be able to master this movement, especially with heavy weight – but it’ll all pay off. Once you go back to allowing your stretch reflex to kick in to get you out of the hole, you’ll feel like you’re lifting a bag of feathers. Focus on sets of 6 to 8 reps.
2. VMO Squats
Popularized by world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin, VMO squats are a simple way to make the quads do more work through the movement. Personally, I like these because it’s easy to do them with both front and back squats. Set up your cage no differently than you would for a normal set of squats, and perform your negative rep all the way to full depth. Come up about 1/3 of the way to the point where the quads are supporting a lot of weight, and pause there for 1 full second. Next, descend back to the full bottom depth, and finally drive your way to the top starting position. That’s one rep. The trick here is that the ‘mini rep’ performed immediately before the full rep, will emphasize the vastus medialis oblique (“teardrop” quad muscle). It will end up having to do twice the work it normally does during one of these sets. Focus on sets of 6 to 8 reps. It won’t take too much weight to feel this one, so make sure you check your ego at the door. Personally, I like to use around 60% of my squat max effort weight for 8 reps.
In my last article, I spoke about ladder set training as a way to boost strength gains and encourage high lactate production. When it comes to a struggling bench press, all we need to do is incorporate the same mentality, but use different energy systems to spark up your nervous system like no tomorrow.
3. Cluster Reps
Warm up sufficiently, and start your work sets with 90% of your 1RM. This should be your 2 to 3 rep max. With a spotter, take the weight off the rack and bench it for a single rep. Put it back on the rack and rest for 10 seconds. Set yourself back up, and perform another single. Rest again for 10 seconds, and perform one more. Keep repeating this until you get to double the amount of reps (4 to 6 reps in this case). The “mini breaks” that your chest gets allows it to have a few vital seconds to partially regenerate ATP, the prime energy source for big lifts. Conserving a little power will allow you to put out more max efforts in one go. By the end of the set you will have performed 6 reps with your 3 rep max. More work, more muscle.
There’s another way to do this too. If you don’t want to be moving weight that’s so brutally close to your max effort, replace the single-rep clusters mentioned above with some 4+2 rep clusters. Take your 5 rep max, and perform 4 reps. Rack it and rest for 10 seconds, and then take the weight back off the rack and perform as many more as possible (most people probably squeeze out 2 more). You’ll have just as solid benefits from employing this technique.
4. One and a Half Reps
Like the VMO squats, a 1.5 rep bench press can make the chest double its workload. Load a bar to your 10 rep max, and perform your reps like this:
- Lower the bar slowly to your chest
- Explode off the chest, but only for half the distance. No higher than a 90 degree elbow flexion. Pause at this point for less than half a second.
- Lower the bar once more to the chest
- Explode off the chest again, this time to full range
That’s one rep. Perform 6 to 8 repetitions, and enjoy the pump. Again, this is a simple tool to make your muscles do more work per rep.
Since the lower back plays a factor in the deadlifts (ahem, a huge factor), we can’t really employ too many exhaustive mechanisms or extended sets for it and keep our safety in check. That said, we can definitely play around with our ranges of motion!
5. Deficit Deadlifts
This one is really straightforward. Stand on a box about 6 inches off the ground. Proceed to perform your typical deadlifts from the floor. This enables more pulling space, meaning more time spent under load. Add that to the fact that you need to get to a much deeper depth to make your pull, and you’ve got one killer exercise that can attack your back the way regular deads won’t.
6. Rack Pulls
Rack pulls are an easy way to get the body accustomed to moving more weight from partial ranges of motion. Set up the safety pins in a squat cage at about knee level, and after warming up, put 90% of your max effort deadlift on it. Set up the way you would if you were pulling the bar from the floor, and complete a partial rep from the pins. Repeat for sets of 3 to 5 reps. Once that gets easy, on a new workout, lower the pins one notch and do the same thing. Then do it again. You get the idea.
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to kick your muscles into high gear. A few cleverly thought out tweaks to a solid workout program can make the nervous system and muscles respond with growth and strength like no other changes could. Throw these into your program for a 4 to 6 week span, and blast off to gains!
Lee Boyce has been featured in Men’s Health, TNATION and various other publications, and is a fitness expert on the national television show First Look. While studying Kinesiology at York University, Boyce ran track at the varsity level where he competed nationally as a sprinter and a long jumper. You can read more of his work and contact him at www.leeboycetraining.com. Also follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.