Bands for Bodybuilding

Disclaimer – If you can’t afford new clothes, you should probably stop reading now. Applying the principles in this article could leave you needing to purchase a whole new wardrobe. But, hey, that’s a good thing!

What are Jump Stretch Bands?

Chances are you’ve heard of people using bands in the gym, but may not know what the benefits are or how to use them (and no, we’re not talking about music).

Popularized by Westside Barbell legend Louie Simmons, bands have been helping powerlifters get bigger and stronger for years, but until recently, very few bodybuilders have experienced what bands can do for them. This article will show you how to use them to your advantage.

But first, what the heck is a jump stretch band, anyway?

Quite simply, they’re giant rubber bands.

They’re most commonly used in strength training by securing one end to a stationary object and the other end to the collar of a standard barbell. The beauty is in their simplicity. Just like the smaller rubber bands you use in daily life, the more the jump stretch bands are stretched, the more resistance they provide. This increasing resistance, when used in combination with strength training, is known as accommodating resistance. What the bands do is transform a barbell into something akin to cam-based resistance training machines (think Nautilus® machines).

A Quick History Lesson

Arthur Jones, the creator of the Nautilus® training machines, was essentially the first man to incorporate the concept of variable resistance into strength training.  He did this by running a chain over a cam which was shaped like a nautilus shell (hence the company’s name).

Legend Mike Mentzer on the Nautilus Pullover machine

The chain was secured to a variable weight stack on one end and a movement arm on the other.  When the trainee lifted the weight by pressing or pulling the movement arm, the chain traveled over the rotating cam.

The changing diameter of the cam altered the movement, thus altering the torque and resistance provided by a given load. The primary function of the cam as Jones designed it was to increase the load when the working muscles were in their strongest position and decrease it in the weakest, thus eliminating the inherent flaw of barbells known as the “sticking point” (the point in the movement where the perceived load is the greatest based upon the pull of gravity and/or musculoskeletal leverage). This allowed for maximal stress to the muscle.

Like Jones, Dr. Fred Hatfield (a record-setting powerlifter) looked for a way around the limitations of barbell training and championed a concept known as “compensatory acceleration”.

His idea was to have the lifter literally push harder on the barbell as the exercise got easier in an attempt to overcome the leverage-induced decrease in resistance. Theoretically, this made the exercise more effective in achieving muscular overload, which is crucial to gaining muscle.

Dr. Fred Hatfield hitting a big 1,003lbs Squat

The idea was good, but was limited in practice by the fact that the lifter pushing harder throughout the range of motion still did not eliminate the sticking point. He had the right idea, but not the tools to execute it.

Enter the Band

Bands work similarly to a cam in that they both vary the resistance and increase it when the lifter is in the strongest position. Think of a barbell squat: after getting out of the bottom position (the “hole”), the lifter encounters a brief sticking point. When he moves past the sticking point—thanks to leverage—the perceived load gets lighter (anyone who’s ever done a squat before knows that you can partial-squat a whole lot more than you can full squat, since the sticking point is eliminated).

However, when bands are added to the squat, they increase the resistance as they are stretched.  This forces the lifter to push hard against an ever-increasing load through the entire range of motion (ROM), thus dramatically increasing the overload effect.

While bands do not eliminate the sticking point, they do very little to increase the load until after the lifter has pushed through it.

A Short Story of What’s Possible

By now, the benefit of bands relative to bodybuilding should be obvious.  Bands allow the lifter to fully work the involved muscles in nearly all barbell movements. The increase in size and strength when using bands can be dramatic.

My personal experience with their use plainly illustrates this fact.

I recently began to incorporate bands into my leg training.  I did so primarily by using them with box squats to varying heights (normally parallel or below).  The bands my training partners and I most commonly used provided 200+ pounds of resistance at the top of the squat. Because of the way they were secured, they provided little resistance at the bottom of the movement when we were on or near the box.  Starting a few inches above parallel, the bands began to “kick-in,” providing progressively greater resistance as we neared lockout.

Here is a video of the morning crew at Westside Barbell, Box Squatting with Resistance Bands:

The difference the bands made in our training was staggering. For instance, when un-racking the barbell and walking out with the weight, the pull of the bands forced us to use tremendous effort just to control our movement, much more so than with just a barbell on our backs. In addition, when we worked up to a fair amount of barbell weight (450 pounds +), the load on our backs in a standing position was nearing or exceeding 700 pounds.  Getting used to this load made our return to squats without bands incredibly easy in that 400-500 pounds of pure barbell weight now felt like nothing on our backs.

The use of bands for just a couple of months forced my upper legs to grow over 2 inches.  I literally grew out of my work slacks and added nearly 20 pounds of body weight during the same period. The growth was explosive, as was my increase in strength. During my stint with band training, I also experienced the most amazing pumping of my quads that I have ever felt!  This pump was the result of a superset of leg extensions and regular (not box) squats with bands.  The combination was lethal, with the bands increasing the intensity exponentially. In truth, the pump was so ridiculous–and painful–that we could only get through the superset once.

Bands and Bodybuilding: How to Use Them!

One of the basic tenets of muscular hypertrophy is time under tension (TUT).  Meaningful TUT involves both time and stress. In other words, in order to optimally stimulate hypertrophy, the musculature must be stressed with a relatively heavy load over a period of time. Bands increase the TUT with all barbell exercises by maximizing the stress to the involved musculature over a greater portion of the ROM on each and every rep.  Therefore, a given number of reps with bands equates to more work done by the muscles.  Bands increase both efficiency and intensity, which are two of the most important factors in increasing muscular size.

If you’ve never used bands, the idea of adding them can be a bit intimidating. The first question most lifters have is how to secure the bands. I think the best way to become comfortable with using bands is to begin with simple exercises, like squats and bench presses.

Below is a video demonstrating how to properly set up a pair of bands with a typical squat rack:

Below is a video of my training partner Justin Tooley and I speed squatting last week – 10 sets of doubles for me with 420 lbs on the safety squat bar and green bands:

A Sample Routine

Training with bands places a tremendous amount of stress on both the musculature and connective tissues. As mentioned above, you should incorporate the bands within the parameters of conjugate variety.

Conjugate variety involves alternating exercises by body part weekly, bi-weekly, or every three weeks.  The idea is that even a small variation in a movement has a very different effect on the nervous system, and CNS burnout is a prime driver of overtraining.  Altering exercises regularly allows you to train at a higher intensity level consistently. This will help to optimize your results and prevent overuse injuries.

The following routine can be followed for a three-week period. After three weeks, you should switch the primary exercises. The primary exercise (by body part) is indicated by a star after the name (e.g., Bench press*).  The use of bands will be noted by the word “bands” after the exercise name (ex. Bench press – bands).

The exercise name is followed by the number of sets and reps as follows: Bench press – bands: 10/10/10*/10*

Each number is the number of reps to be done for that set.  Sets are separated by a slash.  Sets with an asterisk after the rep count should be taken to concentric failure.  So, in the above example, 4 sets of 10 reps of bench presses (using bands) are to be performed with the first two sets as warm-ups and the last two taken to concentric (or positive) failure.

Monday:

  • Squat* – bands: 10/8/8*/8*
  • Leg Press: 20* (perform these in a slow and controlled manner with a full ROM)
  • Hamstring Curl: 10/15*/15*
  • Stiff-Legged Deadlift (off a 2-4” platform for a greater ROM): 10/20*
  • Ab Crunches: 20*/20*
  • Standing Calf Raises: 15*/15*

Tuesday:

  • Bench Press* – bands: 10/8/6*/6*
  • Incline Dumbbell Press: 20*/20*
  • Superset Triceps Pressdown & JM Presses (see video for JM Presses): 15 reps not to failure on the pressdowns (choose a weight with which you could get 20 reps) followed immediately by 8 reps to failure on the JM Press.  Do this for 3 cycles with about 2 minutes rest between cycles.

Thursday:

  • Curl Grip Chins: 2 sets to failure with body weight
  • One Arm Dumbbell Rows*: 8/8/15*/15*
  • Seated Cable Rows: 12*/12*
  • Dumbbell Shrugs: 15*/15*
  • Standing Ab Crunches Using an Overhead Cable: 20*/20*
  • Seated Calf Raises: 10/15*/15*

Friday:

  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press*: 10/8/10*/10*
  • Superset Dumbbell Lateral Raises with Bent Over Raises: Perform 15 reps to failure of each exercise with no rest between.  Do the side laterals first.  Perform two cycles of this superset.
  • Standing Barbell Curl: 10/10/10*/10*
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 15*
  • Two Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extensions: 10/15*/15*

Wrap-Up

By now, you’ve seen the power of bands, what they can do for your strength, and how they can help you build muscle quickly. Like many workout-related things, bands are simply a training tool (albeit a very effective one) and should be used as a change of pace to provide variety to your workouts and to help you hit your muscles in ways that simply aren’t possible with barbells, dumbbells, or cables.

Finally, although they can be a bit intimidating, the sheer size and strength gains you can achieve by using a few rubber bands is worth the learning curve. So swallow your pride and do yourself a favor by picking up your bands here (Westside Barbell) and get to training!

And, as always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the discussion thread below!

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Building Muscle & Size with Resistance Bands discussion thread.

About Chris Mason

Chris Mason is an author, trainer, and nutritionist. He has published articles in Iron Man, Athlete, Planet Muscle, and Powerlifting USA magazines as well as several online websites including Crossfit.com.

In addition, he has worked with top flight professional strength athletes on both their nutritional and training regimens. Chris is also the co-founder of AtLarge Nutrition. He is actively involved in all aspects of the business to include product formulation.

Weighted Carries for Size and Strength

As a member of Naval Special Warfare, I was frequently deployed to austere locations around the globe, and it was imperative that the guys and I maintained high levels of strength, resilience, and stamina.

We often had very limited equipment but needed to come up with good workouts regardless. One of our favorite staples was and still is the weighted carry.

Weighted carries are one of the best ways I’ve found to develop strength, muscle, and real world stamina–the ability to just keep going no matter how much it sucks to do so. This quality alone will help you develop a much more resilient and better-looking body.

So, Just Pick Something Up and Carry It?

There is an important consideration with any of these carries. It’s not as simple as just throwing heavy stuff on your back or picking it up and slogging down the road. With each step and every second that your body is under load, you’re ingraining a neuromuscular pattern and teaching your body how to move. If you teach it poorly, your body is going to recall this and perform poorly in the future.

Your goal here is to develop strength and resilience under stress so that your body will stand tall and unbroken under heavy loads when the undisciplined masses around you would be falling apart.

How Do You Progress?

Progression is based on increasing the quality of movement, but not just by increasing the load, time under tension, or frequency of the movement. It doesn’t matter if you add an extra hundred pounds to the bar if your technique goes to crap in order to do so. Likewise, going from eight to ten reps is irrelevant if you have to reduce the quality of each one of those reps to get there. Leave that nonsense to the tank-top wearing Jersey Shore idiot bench pressing with deadlift straps on. You’re here for a purpose.

The Movements

Waiter’s Walk

The waiter’s walk is a unilateral movement, and like most overhead lifts, it provides a good insight into one’s postural integrity. It is performed by hoisting a single dumbbell or kettlebell overhead with the other arm unloaded. The core musculature must work intensely in order to stabilize the spine and prevent lateral movement. You want your shoulders to stay level and avoid twisting or hiking one shoulder.

If you’re prone to anterior pelvic tilt, have limited ability to extend your thoracic spine, excessively tight lats, or dysfunctional scapular function, you’re likely to see it here. You should be able to hold the weight vertically overhead with your scaps locked down and in. If you cannot set your scaps back, your lower back will arch (compensating for limited thoracic spine mobility, scapular dysfunction, or tight lats) or the weight will continually fall forward, and you need to address some postural imbalances.

Example of a GOOD Waiters Walk

Example of a BAD Waiters Walk

Slosh Pipe

The slosh pipe is an eight-foot PVC pipe, either three or four inches in diameter, filled halfway with water.

It’s unique, incredibly unstable nature makes it demanding on the core musculature. You must keep your abs braced as tightly as possible to prevent unwanted motion and loss of stability at the lumbar spine.

The slosh pipe can either be carried in the zercher position or overhead with a snatch grip. I typically use the zercher carry exclusively when working with women, as the hypertrophy that the overhead carry is likely to induce in the upper traps is great in guys but not so desirable in your girlfriend.

The same postural checks involved in the waiter’s walk apply to the overhead slosh pipe carry. Make sure that the spine is neutral, scaps are locked down and back, and the head and chest are carried high. Pay close attention to pelvic alignment, and don’t allow the pelvis to tilt anteriorly.

Example of a GOOD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk

Example of a BAD Overhead Slosh Pipe Walk

Farmer’s Walk

The farmer’s walk is one of the simplest carries. Take two dumbbells or kettlebells, pick them up, and carry them somewhere.

Simplicity doesn’t mean foolproof though. Postural integrity is crucial here. The weight needs to be carried by a vertical spine and well aligned shoulders. Keep your head and chest up, scaps set down and back, and allow your upper traps to carry the weight. Your lower back, rhomboids, and mid traps should be playing a secondary role only. If they start picking up the majority of the work, you’re caving in and falling forward.

Example of a GOOD Farmers Walk

Example of a BAD Farmers Walk

Single Side Farmer’s Walk

This one is exactly what it sounds like. Pick up a single weight in one hand held at your side and move. The postural checks here are similar to the waiter’s walk, as are the demands on the core. Your abs must work hard to keep your shoulders balanced and your spine level. Do not allow your weighted shoulder to hike up or your spine to flex laterally to the side.

Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations

You can also combine a farmer’s walk and a waiter’s walk by putting a heavy weight in one hand at your side and a lighter weight hoisted overhead in a waiter’s carry. This is a great one for simultaneously developing work capacity and postural integrity.

Example of a Farmer’s and Waiter’s Combinations

Rickshaw/Trap Bar

The Rickshaw is a specialized piece of equipment somewhat similar to a trap bar. We got ours from EliteFts. It is built with fat grip handles and can hold as much weight as you want to throw on it. The fat grip handles provide the main benefit over the standard trap bar.

The performance points here are the same as the farmer’s walk.

Craig performing a Carry with a RickShaw/Trap Bar

Safety Squat Bar

This is another specialized piece of gear and it’s invaluable. We got it from EliteFts as well, although I’ve seen quality ones from several manufacturers.

The main, and substantial, advantage to the SS bar is that its cambered design and yoke allows the weight to be carried further forward than with a standard straight bar, which positions the weight directly over the spine and allows for perfect postural alignment under load. The yoke also allows you to drop your hands from the bar and is fantastic for people limited by shoulder or t-spine mobility issues or injuries.

This one is going to be tough to use inside the confines of the gym and you definitely don’t want to drop it, so have two spotters with you in order to hoist it up onto your shoulders.

Straight Bar Overhead Carry

This is a movement we used quite a bit on deployments in the military when other equipment was extremely limited. Like the other overhead carries, it’s incredibly demanding and will exploit any postural weaknesses, so pay close attention to your performance points. Do not allow your chest to cave, lower back to arch into hyperextension, or shoulders to drift forward, and do make sure your scaps are locked down and back.

Bumper plates are great to have here, as you can just snatch the weight overhead and carry it as far as you can before dumping it to the ground for a rest.

Underwater Rock Carry

This is one move that you’re not going to be pulling off in a commercial gym or any public facility where you’re not sleeping with the lifeguard because it scares the hell out of people and probably violates all sorts of insurance mandates.

If, however, you have an open expanse of ocean with a sandy bottom and a desire to develop anaerobic capacity, comfort under stress (the prospect of drowning is one of those things that tends to raise the heart rate and perturb even normally stoic individuals), and have some fun, it’s a great workout.

A rubberized steel weight or a dumbbell that you don’t mind getting rusty will work, but big smooth rocks are best because you don’t have to worry so much about them if you lose them in the murky water in the surf zone. (I’ve spent some long evenings searching for dumbbells in the ocean after someone panicked and bolted for the surface).

You’re going to need a partner and a decent level of competence and comfort in the water for this. Take your rock, carry it as far as you can into the water from the beach, and then sprint with it under water while your partner swims on the surface. Once you’re out of oxygen, come up to the surface and switch out with your partner. Alternate in this fashion until you reach a set distance, like a depth of water you no longer feel like diving to, and then return.

Another option is to find some calm water about five feet deep and mark off a distance laterally along the shore. Sprint the rock as far as you can before coming up. As soon as your head breaks the surface you’re done and it’s your partners turn to try and beat your distance. Oh, and don’t drown.

Sherpa Skull Carry

Like the underwater carries, this isn’t necessarily something you should try yourself, it’s just something I find interesting.

While backpacking in Nepal, I spent quite a bit of time with the Himalayan Sherpas, and they have an interesting means of carrying double (and sometimes more) their bodyweight up the mountain. Their packs are so heavy that they couldn’t use standard shoulder straps because the weight would pull them over backward. Instead, they run a strap from the bottom of their pack up that loops around the head, and allows them to carry the brunt of the weight using the skull and neck. This helps them to keep the weight centered well enough forward to balance and maintain a steady pace up the mountain.

I tried on one the Sherpa’s packs, and the heavy cervical load was surprisingly comfortable. The Sherpas also have fantastic posture, with none of the kyphosis and forward head posture commonly seen in Western cultures.

I may look a little strange but I have fantastic posture and can carry more than you!

How to Integrate Weighted Carries Into Your Workouts

You can use these carries for a variety of purposes. If your goal is raw strength, load them up with as much weight as you can handle for a short distance and use sets in the five to eight range.

If you’re after a conditioning workout to develop strength endurance, lower the weight a bit and carry the weight for either a longer fixed distance with two to four sets or for intervals. Either way, keep in mind that postural integrity must always come first.

These exercises work great as an outdoor workout, but if you’re confined to a gym, most of them can easily be performed indoors, even in small areas.

If you’re limited to a small, crowded space, pick a course that weaves in and out of equipment and do laps if necessary. The changes in direction will throw an element of instability into the carry and increase the demand on your supporting musculature. Just be sure to walk the course in both directions in order to keep the demand balanced from left to right.

If you intend to integrate the lifts into a full body or upper-lower split program, consider them to be an upper body-dominant, vertical pushing type movement. They will place a significant demand on your upper back as well but don’t quite constitute full range scapular retraction or horizontal pulling. This means that they would work well in a workout that already contains a vertical pull and a horizontal push with a little extra scapular retraction work, like horizontal rows.

Before I get to the sample workouts, I want to go over one more crucial thing: your alignment.

Bare Bones and Core Muscles

The primary concern here is your skeletal alignment, which is reinforced by proper muscular balance. Ever heard about the studies in which you can support a car on the femur of a cadaver? (No? Well, I do read some weird research papers…)

Your skeleton is incredibly strong. It’s the job of your muscles to enable your skeletal structure to carry weight most efficiently. This means that postural awareness must be foremost in your mind, until it becomes second nature. The scapulae must be locked down and back, the chest up and open, head high, palms neutral (not rotated back like Fred Flintstone), and lower back held neutrally with the pelvis cleanly lined up with the rest of the spine.

The strength of your anterior core is crucial here. Pay close attention to the angle of tilt of your pelvis. Most Westerners are prone to an anterior pelvic tilt due to postural imbalances brought on by the egregious amount of time we spend in the seated position every day. This can be exaggerated under load, which weakens your spine and the rest of your body and also limits the ability of your abs to function.

It helps to have a spotter walking with you to shout cues as you move, just like you would do during a heavy squat or deadlift. Your cognitive ability to process information declines under stress so cues should be simple and easily understood. Things like “Shoulders back, head up, chest up, abs tight, flat back” are the most helpful.

Make sure in advance that you and your spotter share an understanding of what each cue means so that there is no need to contemplate when the time comes.

Along with spinal alignment and pelvic tilt, the other crucial postural check is at your shoulders. It’s quite common, especially under fatigue, for the shoulders to start to drift forward, the thoracic spine to flex into kyphosis, the scaps to spread apart, and the chest to cave in. These things all work in conjunction with one another to wreck your body.

As soon as you pick the weight up, your shoulders must be set solidly back in the capsule. With good alignment here, the load is balanced perfectly over your vertical skeleton, which is capable of supporting incredible weight. Your upper traps and delts are the primary supporting musculature with your middle traps, rhomboids, and the rest of the muscles around your scaps, providing a crucial role in keeping your scapulae from drifting forward and collapsing your chest. Your forearms and biceps are also going to take a beating in order to support the weight in most cases.

Sample Workouts

For Conditioning:

Option 1 – (preferably following a lower body strength workout):

Select a 25-meter course or route through your gym.

Weight Selection: Use the heaviest dumbbells you can press for a 10-rep max floor press.

  • Floor Press – 8 reps
  • Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 8 reps per side
  • Farmers Walk – 25 Meters

Repeat the course, doing the floor presses and rows every 25 meters for as many rounds as possible in ten minutes. If necessary, cluster the presses and rows into smaller sets with brief rests in between in order to get the necessary number of reps. Do not sacrifice form in order to get all eight in one shot.

Option 2:

Same as above but with a heavy dumbbell in the farmer’s walk position and a lighter one in the waiter’s walk position. Alternate sides every 25 meters and use the heavy dumbbell for single arm rows and single arm floor or bench presses.

For Strength (following any strength workout):

Option 1:

Load a rickshaw or trap bar with the heaviest weight you can handle for ten meters.

  • Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Rickshaw or Trap Bar Carry – 10 meters (return to start)
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters
  • Brief rest (only as much as necessary)
  • Overhead Slosh Pipe Carry – 10 meters (return to start)

Rest as much as needed to return heart rate and breathing to baseline and repeat three times.

Option 2:

Weight selection – The heaviest weight you can carry for a waiter’s walk.

  • Waiter’s Walk with non-dominant hand* – 10 meters
  • Switch hands
  • Waiter’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)
  • Single Side Farmer’s Walk with non-dominant hand – 10 meters
  • Switch hands
  • Single Side Farmer’s Walk – 10 meters (return to start)

*or whichever shoulder is less stable.

Repeat for four rounds.

Be Creative

The basic principles here are easy to grasp. Pick up something heavy and move it, and your body will get strong. Progression is based on your ability to do this with increasingly heavy loads, for greater distances or more sets, while maintaining optimal postural alignment.

This means that you’re free to experiment. As long as you keep those principles in mind, you can grab whatever heavy thing you have available and use it to improve your strength, postural integrity, and work capacity. It’s not complicated, but it can be a brutal, effective workout.

Written by Craig Weller

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Weighted Carries for Size and Strength discussion thread.

About Craig Weller

Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.

The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.

This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.

You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.

Fast-Track Your Muscle Growth: One-Minute Muscle Builders

In this article, I will show you a variety of simple-but-not-easy workout protocols, each guaranteed to inflate your muscles like a float at the Macy’s Day Parade!  Each of the workout protocols I’ve provided here take only one minute to complete, (hence the reason I’ve named them one-minute muscle builders).

Just in case your spider senses are giving off the “gimmick alert” signal, take heed: These workouts have all been battle-tested and certified as effective with the athletes here at Performance U in Baltimore, MD.

If you’re ready to discover how to get better results in 60 seconds than most guys get from their 60-minute strength workout sessions, then read on!

What is a One-Minute Muscle Builder?

These are a series of high intensity, high volume protocols consisting of multiple exercises performed back-to-back without rest, all targeting the same group of muscles.

In the practical exercise section below, I’ve included one-minute muscle building protocols for legs, glutes/hamstring, chest, back, and arms.

The following can be performed in conjunction with other more traditional training concepts, or they can each be performed as a stand-alone workout (more on that in the program design section provided later in this article).

One-Minute Protocols

Here’s a list of the most popular One-Minute Muscle Building Protocols I use here at Performance U to help my athletes break through plateaus and put on insane amounts of muscle without losing performance. Each of the protocols featured takes roughly one minute to complete if performed at the proper speed and intensity.

I owe my good friend and mentor, Coach JC Santana, for the creative inspiration behind many of these protocols.

Be warned: Don’t let the one-minute time frame fool you! These workouts can crush even the most elite level athlete, plus these workouts will also give you the best pump you’ve ever felt. To prevent overtraining when using these workouts, be sure to follow the progressions I describe below.

One-Minute Chest Blaster

I learned this protocol from my good friend and mentor, Coach JC Santana. This workout will actually crush both your chest and triceps!

You’ll need a medicine ball or small box for this one. Perform as a circuit with speed:

  • 5 – 10 medicine ball lock-offs on each side
  • 5 – 10 medicine ball crossover push-ups on each side (alternate sides)
  • 5 – 10 medicine ball close-grip push-ups
  • 5 – 10 medicine ball drop and returns

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Six-Week Chest Blaster Workout Progression

Here’s how you can gradually progress with the Chest Blaster workout over a six-week period. The goal is not just to complete all the reps, it’s to complete all the reps, back-to-back, with controlled speed.

  • Week #1 – 5 reps of each exercise
  • Week #2 – 6 reps of each exercise
  • Week #3 – 7 reps of each exercise
  • Week #4 – 8 reps of each exercise
  • Week #5 – 9 reps of each exercise
  • Week #6 – 10 reps of each exercise

One-Minute Back Builder

As with most pulling workouts, this protocol will smash both your back and biceps. You’ll need a heavy-duty band and a medicine ball for this one. Bands allow you to move under load at high speeds without building momentum. My band of choice is the JC Band All-Purpose Band.

Perform as a circuit with speed:

  • 10 – 15 Chin-ups
  • 20 – 30 Speed rows on each arm (alternate arms)
  • 10 – 15 Compound rows (see video below)
  • 5 – 10 Medicine ball slams (see video below)

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Six-Week Back Builder Workout Progression

Here’s how to gradually progress with the Back Builder workout over a six-week period. You want to be able to complete the workout each work in roughly the same amount of time, which means you’ll get more work done in the same time frame.

  • Week #1 – 10 reps, 20 reps, 10 reps, 5 reps
  • Week #2 – 11 reps, 22 reps, 11 reps, 6 reps
  • Week #3 – 12 reps, 24 reps, 12 reps, 7 reps
  • Week #4 – 13 reps, 26 reps, 13 reps, 8 reps
  • Week #5 – 14 reps, 28 reps, 14 reps, 9 reps
  • Week #6 – 15 reps, 30 reps, 15 reps, 10 reps

One-Minute Arm Sweller

This workout is a combination of two 30-second Band protocols I’ve named the 60/30 arm workouts. After doing both of these 60/30 arm exercises back-to-back, you will have an arm pump like you’ve never felt before…guaranteed!

Again, I recommend using Super Bands for this protocol (check out the JC Band All-Purpose Band) .

Step 1- Perform the 60/30 Triceps Extension

The 60/30 Triceps Extension – Grab a heavy-duty band and tie it up at the top of a squat rack or cable column. Try to bang out 60 triceps extensions in 30 seconds without using too much extra body momentum. You must move as fast as possible but under control!

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Step 2 – Without resting, immediately perform the 60/30 Biceps Curl

The 60/30 Biceps Curl – Anchor the same band under your feet, holding the other end in your hands. As with the triceps extension, perform 60 reps in 30 seconds, moving as fast as you can go.

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Step 3 – Rest and watch your arms inflate!

Six-Week Arm Sweller Workout Progression

Here’s my suggestion for how you can progress with the Arm Sweller workout over a six-week time frame. You can also progress by simply using a heavier (stronger) resistance band. If you can’t complete all 60 reps in the given time frame of 30 seconds, then the band is too heavy.

  • Weeks 1-2: perform 2 sets
  • Weeks 3-4: perform 3 sets
  • Weeks 5-6: perform 4 sets

60-Second Super Legs

If you’re looking for a serious leg workout that gets BIG results in a little time, look no further because here it is!

The Super Legs circuit was originally developed by legendary coach Vern Gambetta.

Perform as a circuit with speed:

  • 20-24 Speed squats
  • 20-24 Alternating lunges or reverse lunges (go fast!)
  • 20-24 Alternating split squat jumps or bench split jumps
  • 10-12 Squat jumps or box jumps (jump as high as possible)

Six-Week Super Legs Workout Progression

No one knows how to progress this workout better than the man who invented it: Vern Gambetta. Go here to Vern’s Blog and discover his 6-Week Super Legs circuit progression.

1-Minute Hamstring Hattrick

Are you ready to feel your hamstring and calves like you’ve never felt them before? Grab yourself a Swiss ball and try this workout!

Perform as circuit with optimal form and a controlled tempo:

  • 15-20 Swiss ball leg curl
  • 15-20 Swiss ball bent-leg bridge
  • 15-20 Swiss ball straight-leg bridge (toes only on ball)

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Six-Week Hamstring Hattrick Workout Progression

As with the rest of these One-Minute muscle-building protocols, the Hamstring Hattrick needs to be progressed each week to ensure maximal safety and effectiveness. Here’s how I recommend increasing the intensity of this workout over six weeks.

  • Week #1 – 15 reps of each exercise
  • Week #2 – 16 reps of each exercise
  • Week #3 – 17 reps of each exercise
  • Week #4 – 18 reps of each exercise
  • Week #5 – 19 reps of each exercise
  • Week #6 – 20 reps of each exercise

Additional Notes on All of the One-Minute Workouts

Move at a pace that allows you to perform 1 rep per second during all the above exercises.

Try to finish each of the above protocols in as close to 60 seconds as possible.

Some protocols will take slightly less than one minute and others will take slightly longer. Always try to match or beat your previous time.

As you progressively add repetitions, the length of the protocol will become slightly longer. Try to reduce your best time with each workout.

Program Design Tips for Using these One-Minute Muscle Builders

There are two primary ways to integrate these One Minute Muscle protocols into your workouts:

As a finisher – After you’ve completed your traditional workout, you can throw in one or two sets of the One-Minute Muscle protocol that target the same muscles emphasized in your workout for that particular day. For example, perform the One-Minute Chest Blaster workout at the end of your chest day. Alternatively, at the end of your lower-body day, do 1-2 sets of the Super Legs workout.

As a stand-alone workout – Any of these One-Minute Muscle protocols can make for a quick but super intense workout. If you’re looking for a new training challenge and just want to “hit it hard” and go home, then try performing 4-5 sets of the particular One-Minute protocol that complements the muscles trained that day in the gym. For example, on leg day, perform five sets of Super Legs and four sets of the Hamstring Hattrick.

Choosing Your Rest Intervals

When using these One-Minute Muscle Building Protocols, there are two ways to deal with your rest periods:

Use a Designated Rest Interval – Due to their highly intense nature, I recommend using at least a 1:3 work-to-rest ratio when first starting out with any of these One-Minute protocols. In other words, do 1 minute of work, then rest 3 minutes before starting your next set.

Example: Perform 1 set of Super Legs, rest 3 minutes. Perform next set of Super Legs, rest 3 minutes.

Perform for Time – One of my favorite methods for using multiple sets of One-Minute Muscle builders is to record the total amount of time it takes to complete a given number of rounds of a specific One-Minute Muscle protocol.

Example: Record the amount of time it takes you to complete three total rounds of the Back Builder workout. Then, for each subsequent workout, attempt to reduce the length of time it took you to complete the workout the prior week.

The Ultimate 10-Minute Fitness Challenge

Here’s a killer total-body workout/fitness challenge you can try if you’d like to test your physical fitness and mental toughness:

Perform all of the One-Minute protocols for the reps indicated in 10 minutes or less:

  • 1 set of Super Legs x20/20/20/10
  • 1 set of the Chest Blaster x5/5/5/5
  • 1 set of the Back Builder x10/20/10/5
  • 1 set of the Hamstring Hattrick x20/20/20
  • 1 set of the Arm Sweller x60/30 + 60/30

After this workout, you won’t want to just sit down and rest, you’ll want to go home and take a long nap!

Conclusion

The traditional exercises we all know and love are still just as great and effective as ever before, but what happens when those exercise staples no longer work? To get a stubborn body part to respond, you sometimes need to think outside of your everyday training toolbox and get a little creative.

These One-Minute Muscle Building Protocols are just what the doctor ordered for blasting through training plateau and sparking some new muscle growth. They’re also a great way to push yourself both mental and physically to new limits!

Written by Nick Tumminello

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Fast-Track Your Muscle Growth: One-Minute Muscle Builders discussion thread.

About Nick Tumminello

Nick Tumminello, the director of Performance University, is a nationally recognized coach and educator who works with a select group of athletes, physique competitors, and exercise enthusiasts in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nick is rapidly establishing himself as a leader in the field for his innovative techniques and “smarter” approach to training. As a coach, Nick works in the trenches testing, developing and refining his innovative techniques with clients and athletes of all ages and levels.

Go to his website NickTumminello.com to get your free “Smarter & Stronger” video course.

The Best Assistance Exercises for the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift

Almost anyone who trains with weights is chasing a strong squat, a brutal bench press, and a dauntless deadlift. These three exercises, not to mention their grand total, are so bad-ass that an entire sport was built around them: the sport of powerlifting.

The “big three” are used extensively not just by powerlifters but also bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, strongmen, and athletes. They’re the three most popular lifts for good reason; they activate a ton of total-body motor units, they’re very conducive to maxing out, and setting a personal record on one of the lifts can make your entire day better.

These lifts are also impressive once you really get strong! Everyone stops to look when a barbell starts bending and a bunch of plates start clanking around. If you’re a lifter and you’re content with your powerlifting total, then you clearly have a serious hormone imbalance and should seek the help of an endocrinologist (just kidding).

But seriously, what IS the best strategy for progressing on these feats of awesomeness?  The answer is…well, there are many answers.  We’ll start with a couple of general insights and then get some specifics from a panel of experts who have generously volunteered their personal recommendations.

The First Rule of Getting Strong at the Powerlifts

The first rule of getting strong in the powerlifts is to simply perform them. Over the past century, plenty of strong lifters got that way by just doing the power moves. Although the topic of this article is assistance lifts, I’d venture to guess that 98% of lifters would gain strength and even more musculature if they dropped all other exercises for a couple of months and focused entirely on the three powerlifts. Why is this? Because most people have yet to even approach their “genetic limits” in terms of strength or reap the benefits of a high frequency training program.

However, as is so often the case, all good things come to an end, and eventually even your disciplined training will reach a plateau and you’ll need more exercises to initiate further strength gains.

The first rule of getting strong in the powerlifts is to simply perform them

Synergy

If you’ve been lifting for a while, then you know that the body likes to progress in waves….sometimes up, sometimes down, then up again.  Some months you’ll do everything right and your strength will still stagnate. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you’ll get a sudden boost in strength, often when you’re doing plenty of stuff wrong!

I’ve observed that there is a sort of synergy amongst certain lifts; when one goes up, it has a positive influence on similar movement patterns. For example, squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts all act through the hip girdle (and moreover, these happen to be the three lower body exercises that I perform regularly). I’ve found that when one of them goes up, they all seem to go up. I could try to come up with a rationale and say something like, “Squats maximize quadricep and lumbar extensor activation, deadlifts maximize hamstring and thoracic extensor activation, and hip thrusts maximize glute activation for complete hip, thigh, and back strength”, but maybe it has more to do with ranges and zones, or maybe it’s solely physiologically-related…who knows?

I’ve found this to be true of bench press, incline press, and military press as well – when one goes up, they all go up. Therefore, there appears to be synergy among the groups of lifts.

Weak Link

What is holding you back could be your weak links. A weak link can be an immobile joint, an unstable joint, poor motor control, an inflexible muscle, a weak muscle, a weak movement pattern or strength-vector, a weak range of motion, a weak strength quality (starting strength, limit/maximal strength, strength speed, speed strength, rate of force development/explosive strength, reactive/elastic strength), poor technique, or even poor program design.

Weak links can hold back progress in any of the big three, so the ability to identify and target your weak link for improvement is a critical aspect of programming consistent strength gains. It is also very important to consider anthropometry (body-segment length) in order to understand differences in biomechanics and their impact on weak links.

Additionally, the type of squat, bench press, and deadlift you do will influence your weak links and play a major role in determining which assistance lifts will carry over. For example, front squats might help a full squatter more than a sumo squatter (more on this from our experts).

Choosing the Best Assistance Lifts

Now that we’ve discussed some of the general factors involved in the science of powerlifting, let’s look at some specific philosophies in regards to assistance exercises. I asked eight of my friends in the strength professions to give me their personal opinions on favorite assistance lifts for the three powerlifts.  Some of the recommendations are short and sweet, and some of them are more detailed, complete with personal anecdotes and theories, but all of them are straight from lifters who have impressive performances in the big three.

One thing that may be surprising is how many roads lead to Rome…each of these guys has a different take on which assistance exercises deliver the goods.  For each one who swears by the glute-ham raise, there is another lifter who finds he can easily live without it. Some do a lot of core work and some feel they don’t need it. So there’s no one-size-fits-all miracle cure here, but lots of food for thought and ideas for you to work into your workouts.

Here’s what they had to say… I’ll go first…

Bret Contreras

Squat Full squat, box squat & hip thrust

I believe that the hip thrust should theoretically transfer more efficiently to the deadlift for many folks, especially at lockout, but I’ve found that when I go awhile without hip thrusting, I seem to lose speed and hip power out of the hole when squatting. The front squat never helped my squat because, due to my personal structure, I’ll always have a big strength discrepancy between my back squat and front squat…I just can’t use enough loading to see a transfer.

I believe that unilateral leg work helps to build squat strength up to a certain point, but after that, further increases in unilateral leg strength don’t seem to have any impact. Abdominal and oblique strength doesn’t seem to limit squat or deadlift strength either, in my experience, because when I stop doing specialized core work, my strength doesn’t suffer and I can still improve.

We could have easily found a guy doing a hip thrust, but it just didn’t feel right

Bench pressClose-grip bench, seated overhead press & incline press

Nothing revolutionary here, but I just want to mention that board presses, floor presses, and dumbbell presses never did much for me. I find I need full ROM and barbells to get any transfer.

Sumo deadlift – Conventional deadlift with shoes, front squat iso-hold & weighted hanging static hold

I pull sumo but have found that I make better gains by focusing almost solely on conventional pulls. If I pull in thick-soled shoes, the extra-inch or so of ROM makes a big difference in terms of strength, and that this helps me pull off the floor with more acceleration when I switch back to sumo with flat-soled shoes. I realize that many smart folks in the industry recommend deadlifting while barefoot, which I believe is a wise-strategy, but I’m just telling you what works for me. You could get the same type of stimulation from deadlifting barefooted while standing on a box, board, or plates about an inch high as well.

Because my grip is often my weak link, I’ve found that weighted hanging static holds with four 45-lb plates does wonders for my grip strength without adding substantial compressive loading on the spine (as is the case with farmer’s walks or barbell static holds). I’ve been experimenting with heavy front squat iso-holds loaded up with about 30% more weight than my max front squat, and I believe that this has helped build up my upper back strength considerably.

Glute-ham raises never worked that well for me in terms of deadlift or squat transfer. I love heavy back extensions and reverse hypers, but they’re more conducive to medium rep ranges, which probably helps more for muscle cross-sectional area increases rather than increases in neural drive. The last thing I want to mention is that squats help the deadlift, and deadlifts help the squat. These two are probably the best “assistance lifts” for each other, but we don’t tend to think of them that way.

Nick Tumminello

Before I give my recommendations, I’ll tell you that I thoroughly systemize (categorize) everything I do. Overall, I split up exercise for the big lifts lifts in four ways:

1. Something that trains the top range of the movement.

2. Something that trains the bottom range of the movement.

3. An unloaded explosive equivalent of the movement to train the mid-range and improve fast motor unit recruitment (the unload also spares the joints after all other high-loaded exercises).

4. Isolation movements that strengthen the muscle involved in the movement.

Because we’re only focusing on assistance movements for each big lift, however, I’ll exclude the isolation movement because it’s the least important of the four categories listed above (in my opinion, anyway).

Here are my top three assistance moves for the squat, bench press, and deadlift:

The Squat:

1. Rack squat (like a rack pull DL; builds the top of the movement)

2. Prisoner squat jump w/ weighted vest (use 20% of BW; increases motor unit recruitment and improves the midrange force development of the movement)

3. Bottom 3-sec pause squat. Using a “big weight”, go down into the hole and remain there for a count of three seconds, then drive up to the top.

The Deadlift:

1. Rack pulls

2. Kettlebell swing

3. Heavy eccentric deadlift (a.k.a., reverse deadlift)

The Bench Press:

1. Rack press (top range)

2. Plyo pushup w/weight vest (use 10% of BW)

3. Bottom pause bench press (hold bar at chest for three seconds, then press bar up)

Building Strength on the Kettlebell Swing can translate into a bigger deadlift

Mike Robertson

I’ll keep this real simple.

Squat:

Glute ham raises, good mornings, and speed squats w/chains or bands

Bench Press:

Board presses, close-grip bench, and pin presses

Deadlift:

Glute-ham raises, band assisted pulls, and Romanian deadlifts

Christian Thibaudeau

For me personally, the bench and squat answers are not very exciting because I’m naturally built to squat and bench. I have short legs and arms, which means that my biomechanics for these lifts are great.  I also have a pretty wide waist even when I’m super lean, which also helps with my squat.

In my experience, someone who is ideally structured for a lift really doesn’t require many assistance exercises, if any at all. The further your body proportions are from the ideal for a lift, the more important the assistance work becomes.

In my entire lifting career, I rarely used any assistance exercises for the squat, except for the front squat, Even then, I didn’t really see it as an assistance movement to boost my squat, but more like something I needed to work on for my Olympic lifting performance.

I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have personally used a leg press, I rarely did lunges (and never for more than a few weeks at a time), and except for the last few weeks of a bodybuilding prep, leg extensions were not really part of my routine. Now I’m not saying that these exercises are worthless, just that I personally did not need them.

Also, my squatting style is a close-stance, upright torso one (also known as an Olympic squat), which means that the posterior chain muscles are not as important as they would be in a wide stance powerlifting-style squat. Therefore, stuff like glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, and the like didn’t really transfer to a gain in my squat.

When I competed as an Olympic lifter, we squatted or front squatted 5-6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. With that much volume I really didn’t need (nor could I handle) a lot of assistance work.

I did find a significant correlation between increases in my front squat and my back squatting gains, but that may not be true for everybody. In my case, my back squatting style was mechanically similar to a front squat, which meant that gains in the latter easily transferred to the former.

The same was somewhat true for the bench press. I’m not as mechanically suited for the bench as I am for the squat, but it is still a favorable lift for me. My thick torso and short arms help, but my narrow clavicle is somewhat of a hindrance, especially in light of shoulder pain that limited my performance.

As I said about the squat, simply doing more squats was enough, but for the bench I did need some assistance work. I found that the exercises that gave me the best gains were the overhead press and push press. I actually count those two as one exercise because I ramp up the weight gradually, starting with a shoulder press, and as the weight gets heavier, I switch to a push press.  In fact, my biggest bench press performance came when I was specializing on my overhead strength and barely did any bench pressing.

Furthermore, it seems like working hard on the overhead press makes my shoulders injury-proof, whereas specializing on the bench always resulted in my shoulders hurting within three weeks, which obviously limited progress.

Now the deadlift – that is another story! I have the absolute worst structure for the deadlift: short arms and a long torso. This means that I need A LOT of assistance exercises for the deadlift to make it go up. However, because of my structure, the deadlift imposes an immense stress on my nervous system, and therefore I actually can’t train it too often. In fact, I can’t train the deadlift more than once every 10-14 days if I want it to progress.

Because of my structure, the start of the movement is the most problematic for me, so deadlifts from a deficit (standing on a podium) and snatch-grip deadlifts are my go-to-exercises. I also found that increasing my front squat really helped my deadlift, but then again I deadlift ”Olympic lifting style”, which means that my deadlift starting position is more like that of a clean: the knee angle is smaller, the hips are higher, and the shoulders more forward as compared to a powerlifting deadlift. My position involves the quads to a greater extent, which is why the front squat helped me. Someone who deadlifts with a higher hip position might not get that same benefit.

Increasing my front squat really helped my deadlift – Christian Thibaudeau

Matt Perryman

Squat:

Heavy single-leg work (split-squats, step-ups, lunges), front squats, and a stance that you don’t normally use (if you squat wide, then squat narrow…and vice versa).

Bench:

High-rep dumbbell bench, higher volume tricep work, and some kind of overhead lift (military or push press).

Deadlift:

Pulls from a deficit/standing on a block, low rack pulls from mid-shin/plates 2-6″ off the floor, and high-volume low-back strengthening (back raises, good mornings, etc.).

Eric Cressey

Squat:

I always got the most out of pure specificity…I had to squat to get better at squatting.  It didn’t matter if it was box squatting, front squatting, or something else.  If I had to pick an assistance exercise, however, it would probably be heavy single-leg work, especially with a variety of bars (regular Olympic, giant cambered bar, safety squat bar, etc.).

Bench:

Nothing ever helped me as much as heavy board presses.  These got me more comfortable with heavier weights in my hands, which was huge for me with my smaller wrists.

Deadlift:

I feel like my best results came when I was consistently pulling against bands and/or chains for speed at least once a week (in conjunction with heavier pulling on another day each week).

Board Presses can be a great exercise to bring up the Bench Press

Tony Gentilcore

Squat:

1. Personally, I have the knees of an 80 year-old man due to some overuse injuries I’ve accumulated throughout the years.  However, when I’m diligent with my soft tissue work, I’m able to manage the discomfort.  All that said, I’m a firm believer in what Dan John always preaches: “If it’s important, do it every day.”  With that in mind, I always try to get some form of squat variation in with each and every training session.  This doesn’t mean I load up my squats every time (a big mistake many trainees make, and then they wonder why they’re always hurt), but I make a concerted effort to implement that movement pattern in every training session nonetheless.

Goblet squats have really been a lifesaver for me, and I think there’s something to be said about teaching someone what it feels like to attain a nice, DEEP, squat position.  Through no fault of their own, powerlifters squat to their box (to ensure proper depth) and call it day.  However, I just feel that there’s a lot of benefit for everyday life (not just powerlifting) in having the ability to achieve a deep squat that will help in terms of joint health, posture, and performance.

All in all, adding in some low-load, deep, squat patterns will keep the knees happy.

2. Basic movement quality in general: There’s no denying the fact that powerlifters know how to squat – they’ve perfected it.  Even still, as I noted above with the squat, there isn’t a whole lot of amplitude in your typical “powerlifting squat” (I’d go so far as to say that a pregnant pig has better movement quality than a powerlifter).

That said, I think including some basic movement training pays a great benefit.  Skipping drills, lateral movements (slideboard, side shuffling, etc.), dynamic flexibility circuits, and even the prowler (where you have to really drive that hip extension and “push” away from the floor) are all great options.

3. Anderson back squats: There’s really no “cheating” on this one…no bouncing off the box or “rocking”, for that matter.  You set the pins to a depth that allows you to get to juuuuuust below parallel.  Unrack the bar, lower yourself until the bar sets on the pins… PAUSE…and then explode up!  If you want to develop starting strength, this is where it’s at.

Bench Press:

1. Technique work – Most guys have bench technique that makes my eyes perpetually bleed…flat back, no arch, elbows flared out, arghhh.  A lot of times, in order to get an increase on the bench, you have to learn to check your ego at the door and take one step back in order to take two steps forward.  Take some weight off the bar and learn to bench the right way! The only way you’ll improve is to get under some submaximal loads and DRILL the technique till you’re blue in the face.  Taking it a step further, getting a solid training partner who you can trust to give you a proper hand-off (and won’t grab the bar as soon as it slows down and then yell, “All you…it’s all you, dude!”) would be a step in the right direction as well.

2. Board presses – I LOVE board presses.  For starters, it gets you used to “feeling” what it’s like to hold a heavier load.  Let’s be honest–half the battle is getting past the thought of “Holy shit, this is heavy!” as soon as you un-rack the weight.   Secondly, when done correctly (not bouncing the weight off the board), these are a great way to develop explosiveness off the chest, which is where I fail the most often (and coincidentally, where most trainees do as well).  I’ve found that my two-board press is pretty much on par with what my actual 1RM is with the bench.  The key is to really “sink” the bar into the board.

3. High volume dumbbell work – I’ve found that when I really hammer high volume on the dumbbell work (like a 5×8 scheme), I see my bench go up fairly quickly.

Deadlift:

1. Ahhhh, my bread and butter.  Speaking purely for myself, I respond VERY well to a lot of volume with the deadlift.  It seems the more I deadlift (say twice per week), the more my deadlift goes up.  I’ll use one day to get a fair amount of volume (trap bar deadlift for 4×5-6 reps earlier in the week) followed by a heavier me-against-the-fucking-bar day later on in the week (conventional deadlift, where I work up to a heavy doubles or singles later on the week).

2. Goodmornings Again, this is coming purely from a personal viewpoint, but I’ve found that when I hit the goodmornings and they go up, my deadlift almost always goes up as well.  I love giant cambered bar goodmornings because they tend to be a little easier on my shoulders.

3. Kettlebell swings (done the right way) – Watching most people do kettlebell swings is like watching that scene in Swingers where Mike calls that Nikki chick and keeps getting cut off by her answering machine…it’s cringe worthy.  Needless to say, most people tend to do what’s called “squat swings,” and then wonder why their backs are killing them.  Done the right way (with a hip thrust), kettlebell swings are a fantastic way to teach explosiveness, which will have a lot of carryover to the lockout of the deadlift.

Chad Waterbury

Squat:

The ab-wheel rollout is one of the most beneficial exercises for boosting the squat. Most people have enough strength in their legs and posterior chain to squat heavier loads than they’re lifting; however, you must be able to transfer that force through your core. The ab wheel rollout builds abdominal strength while teaching you to brace your core, two key components to elevating your squat numbers.

Bench press:

The floor press with dumbbells carries over well to a barbell bench press. First, the floor press allows you to lift heavier loads, which forces your nervous system to recruit more motor units. Second, dumbbells build stability strength at the shoulders. Third, the floor press emphasizes the triceps, a key set of muscles that must be strong for a big bench.

Deadlift:

A single-leg deadlift with dumbbells is excellent for boosting your normal deadlift. It’s an effective assistance exercise for three reasons. First, it unloads your spine so that you can build strength without compressing your spinal discs. Second, it strengthens the outer hip musculature, an area that is often undeveloped. Third, the single-leg deadlift forces you
to brace your core in order to keep your torso from rotating, and this added core strength allows you to lift heavier loads.

The ab-wheel rollout is one of the most beneficial exercises for boosting the squat – Chad Waterbury

Jason Ferruggia

Squat

1. Glute-ham raise – Rarely are the quads not strong enough to lock out the squat. Due to a variety of factors, most people tend to be slightly more quad-dominant with weak hamstrings. For this reason, I don’t usually find quad-dominant exercises to have great carryover to the barbell back squat. Don’t get me wrong, single-leg squatting variations such as split squats and pistol squats are great for athletes, but if you are talking about bang-for-your-buck exercises, these will not be at the top of your list for improving the barbell back squat. Instead, the glute-ham raise would be an excellent choice for bringing up the squat. If your posterior chain gets stronger, you will squat more.

2. Power wheel rollout – Like the deadlift, the squat requires a very strong core. Most people already have the leg strength to get the weight up. One of the reasons you can always leg press a ton more weight than you squat is because the leg press removes the abs, obliques, lower back, (e.g., the weak links). To improve your abdominal strength, you need a heavy exercise that will target the abs without compromising the health of your spine. Many strength coaches recommend heavy weighted situps for this purpose. While that exercise will strengthen your abs, it’s a little too risky to recommend. I prefer the power wheel rollout instead. This exercise targets the abs effectively and does an outstanding job of strengthening them while sparing the lower back. You can add resistance by progressing from doing them on your knees to on your feet (use a wall to block forward progress of the wheel when first attempting to do this–the jump from knees to feet will be too extreme and you have to take it in steps) or by wearing a weighted vest. Before using the power wheel rollout, I would recommend mastery of basic and advanced versions of planks, however.

3. 45-degree back extension – The back needs to be very strong to squat a lot of weight. Many people crumble forward due to a weak upper back, but as we’ve already covered deadlifts, rack deadlifts, and one-arm rows, I’ll focus instead on the lower back. Again, deadlift variations are the best exercises for improving lower back strength, but for the reasons mentioned above, we can’t do nothing but deadlifts all the time. Good mornings are very effective and have a great carryover to the squat, but I personally find them a bit too risky and too stressful to use regularly. After the main lifts are done, I like to minimize the joint and CNS stress throughout the rest of the workout. For these reasons, I prefer the weighted back extension. These can be loaded by holding a heavy weight or medicine ball at your chest, holding a straight/safety/cambered bar on your back, or by wrapping a band around your neck. Be sure to flex at the hips and not the spine when doing these, and keep the load and reps in a safe range.

4. Barbell hip thrust and glute bridge – I’ve been seeing some impressive results lately from both the barbell glute bridge and barbell hip thrust after being introduced to them by Bret Contreras. However, it’s a little too early for me to comment on their transfer to the squat and deadlift with any authority because I’ve only been using them regularly for the last few months. I would defer to Bret on these exercises, but will definitely be keeping them in my arsenal, using them with all of my clients, and expecting to see them both moving up my list of top assistance exercises for the squat and deadlift.

Deadlift

1. Glute-ham raise – You need a strong posterior chain in order to deadlift a lot of weight. The best way to develop a strong posterior chain is with some type of deadlift, but since variations of the deadlift are very stressful to the CNS, joints, etc., we can’t do all deadlifts all the time. That’s where the glute-ham raise comes in. This exercise does not produce joint or CNS stress, and glute-hams can be done as often as five days per week if you really need to bring up your hamstrings.

2. Top range suitcase deadlift or suitcase deadlift iso-hold – The obliques are very important in locking out the deadlift. If this doesn’t make immediate sense, do a heavy deadlift workout and tell me how your obliques feel the next day. Louie Simmons has always preached the importance of strong obliques for locking out a heavy deadlift and has recommended heavy side bends. Years ago, I recommended the same, but after familiarizing myself with the work of Dr. Stuart McGill, I have moved toward more spine-sparing oblique exercises. Woodchop variations are good, but I find they have little transfer to the deadlift. Instead, I prefer the suitcase deadlift performed in a rack off of pins set above knee height. These can be done for reps or just as a static hold (I like to use both variations). Along the same lines, you could also do one-arm farmers walks, which also have the added benefit of improving stability throughout the lower body.

3. Heavy one-arm dumbbell rows – To deadlift a lot of weight, you need strong lats and a strong grip. The one-arm dumbbell row will give you both of these, provided you do them without straps in sets of 5-20 reps.

Heavy one-arm rows can help build strong lats and a strong grip – necessary for a big deadlift

Bench Press:

1. Rack deadlift/ Inverted row – In order to bench press a lot of weight, you need a big, thick, strong upper back. There is no other exercise that will build those qualities more effectively than a rack deadlift with scapular retraction. This is a very stressful exercise, however, so you can’t do it all the time, especially if you are deadlifting from the floor as well. For that reason, you need to rotate this one in and out of your regular routine based on your recovery and when/how often you’re doing other forms of deadlifts. When you’re not doing this exercise, a more spine-sparing exercise like a weighted inverted row would be your top choice. Many coaches prefer a chest-supported row, but I always like to move the body through space and use more functional exercises whenever possible, so rows performed on blast straps, rings, TRX straps, ropes, etc. while wearing a weighted vest would be my #1 pick.

2. Suspended pushup – To get out of the bottom, you need big strong lats, but you also need chest and shoulder strength. Again, because I always favor bodyweight movements whenever possible, I prefer a weighted suspended pushup (wear a weight vest, drape chains across your back, or have a partner hold weight on your back) to a flat dumbbell bench press. This exercise can be done on rings or blast straps and will develop awesome stabilizer strength and all around pressing power. It’s also less stressful than pressing with heavy dumbbells or a bar.

3. Dumbbell military press – Shoulder strength is also incredibly important for building the bench press. In this particular instance, I favor a dumbbell exercise over bodyweight, because handstand pushups are nearly impossible for the majority of people. Dumbbell military presses can be done with your palms pronated (facing forward) or semi-supinated (facing each other). I suggest using both variations.

Take-Home Message

So there you have it: nine accomplished lifters’ best recommendations for unique approaches to the assistance lifts based on the individuality of the athlete. In short, there’s no one magic formula–finding out which ones work for YOU takes some consideration of your training level, your weak links, your body mechanics, and your particular lifting stance, among other factors.

The good news is that there’s a deep toolbox of good assistance exercises out there and lots of ways to use them to build your bench, squat, and deadlift. If you want to continue to increase your strength on the big three, it is imperative that you learn what works (and what doesn’t) using some selective experimentation and a lot of heavy lifting!

Thank you to our experts for sharing their hard-won personal experiences and giving gym rats everywhere some food for thought.

Written by Bret Contreras

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Best Assistance Exercises for the Three Big Powerlifts discussion thread.

About Bret Contreras

Bret Contreras received his master’s degree from Arizona State University and his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Bret has been published on many online fitness websites and his work has spread to Men’s Health Magazine and Oxygen Magazine.

Bret invites you to follow him by checking out his blog.

You can also download his ebook here – www.thegluteguy.com