When selecting movements to perform in training, there are vastly different approaches you can take to determine what weight you put on the bar. For some movements, you may be able to load well over 100% of your typical max in order to overload, work on a particular range of motion, or build mental strength with heavier weights. For other movements, you may be using dramatically lighter weights to focus on various other weaknesses. There are benefits to both, but for this article I’m going to focus on the familiar but often-neglected concept of getting more out of less.
When performing the work sets of your competition lift in training, there are many different approaches that can be taken in terms of lift selection, percentages, rep ranges, accommodating resistance, etc. Most likely, no matter what program you use, your intensity and bar weight relative to your competition lifts will differ depending on the week. One thing is for certain, however: at one point or another, it will be absolutely necessary to go to war with the heavier weights. While lower-percentage weights can definitely develop strength for the squat, bench, and deadlift, training with heavier weights will force adaptation and build mental strength to strain through a difficult lift. Supplemental and assistance movement, however, have more flexibility with weights used. The primary goal with these movements is not displaying maximal strength with each set.
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While many of us understand this basic concept, the task of selecting assistance movements can be clouded by our desire to put weight on the bar and display our strength (whether it is to impress others or to reinforce our own confidence). While overload is certainly a possibility for assistance movements, it is important for us always to ask why we are performing movements in training. For assistance work, the goals are typically to build the competition lifts, prevent injury, and promote hypertrophy (and possibly work capacity). If you perform a movement and it doesn’t fit any of these goals, but instead resides in your training session simply to impress the cute girl on the treadmill, then it’s time to make some changes.
The concept of getting more out of less with assistance movements is nothing new, but it is a principle that seems to be forgotten on a regular basis (especially by newer lifters). This is one area where I believe we as powerlifters can take some great ideas from the bodybuilding community, in finding ways to use movements that are difficult, but have a low risk for injury or overtraining.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Joe, we get it. Get more out of less. Give us some examples!” So, here they are. Below are a couple different ways you can get excellent return from lighter weights when performing an assistance movement in training.
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Method 1: Ditch Mechanical Advantages
All lifters differ in terms of our anatomical structure. Couple that with differences in muscular strengths and motor pattern development, and it’s easy to see that we all find certain lifts more difficult than others. Some may find that their mechanical advantages fit a certain style of lift, such as a sumo deadlift (as opposed to conventional), a narrow stance squat (as opposed to a wide stance), or a wide grip bench (as opposed to a close grip). For your primary work sets, the form of lift you are strongest at performing should be utilized often in order to practice your technique. But for assistance movements, the less mechanically advantageous movements can be extremely helpful in developing your strength.
In addition to the style of movement, certain ranges of motion will be more mechanically suited to each of us as lifters. This again factors in not only body structure, but also muscular strengths and weaknesses. For many, a 3- or 4-board bench press will allow you to utilize more weight than you typically do for bench. A 1.5- or 2-board however, may actually require you to use less weight than usual. An example for deadlift would be different block or rack heights, or even deficit deadlifts. Changing the range of motion can be a great tool to build strength, and do so with weights that won’t tax other aspects of your body as hard as maximal weights.
Conventional deadlifting to improve the sumo deadlift.
Close grip benching to improve the regular competition bench.
Wide stance box squatting (as a supplemental movement) to improve competition raw squat.
Performing conventional block pulls 3 inches off the floor to remove leg drive and improve competition deadlift lockout.
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Method 2: Utilize Various Intensity Techniques
This is where we can take some good tools from experienced bodybuilders. After weeks and months of putting maximal weights on your back and in your hands, being wise with smaller light-weight movements can help prevent injury and even enhance performance. Drop sets, supersets, giant sets, timed sets, and other methods used by bodybuilders can provide hypertrophy and rehab/prehab qualities to movements in a manner that is usually time-efficient. The increased time under tension, blood flow, and range of motion can make you feel much better physically after taking the brunt of heavy weights in training. Read any article by John Meadows regarding his Mountain Dog training methods and you’ll be provided with plenty of great ideas for utilizing intensity techniques in your own training.
Performing hamstring curls for the duration of a song on your iPod.
Alternating between reverse hypers and weighted ab pulldowns with no rest.
Performing an extended drop set of banded leg press after your main squat sets.
Method 3: If it Sucks, You Should Do it
All technical terms regarding mechanical advantages and anatomical differences aside, sometimes we just have to buckle down and do what we suck at. Though it will differ depending on the individual, the movements that most lifters (especially beginners) struggle with are similar. Low box squats, glute ham raises, weighted abs, belt-less squats/deadlifts, floor presses — the list goes on. We all have movements that take a huge shot to our ego and force us to work with lighter weights. As painstaking as they may be, improving at these movements can help take our lifts to the next level and lead to increased performance on the platform. A glaring weakness in something like the lower back can prevent our strengths like a strong upper back and quads from being taken advantage of in our lifts.
These are just some of the many possible examples of how you can get more out of lighter weights in your training. Programming these movements correctly takes a rational approach, and if you do it yourself it will be absolutely necessary to take ego out of the equation. It may take swallowing some pride and trusting in the process, but it is well worth it when you take the platform to hit your next big PR.
"Building Better Athletes"
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