by Mike Robertson T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Rather than crush yourself with volume, try doing back-off sets at 90% of your rep work for that day.
- When you do paused reps, you not only get significantly stronger, but you develop a much tighter and much more efficient bar path.
- Do sprints, jumps, and med ball throwing exercises to expose the nervous system to a high rate of force development and thus build explosive speed.
- Choose assistance exercises that are either specific and help mimic a sticking point, or ones that are more general in nature that have a carryover to the big lifts.
- Grow muscles by using oxidative training where you perform an exercise with a continuous, slow motion tempo on both eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.
1. Do Back-Off Sets at 90%
One of the mainstays of Eastern European programming is getting a lot of submaximal training volume, especially in the 70-80% range. When you watch a lot of these lifters in a competition, their technique is absolutely flawless. Every rep from their first warm-up to a maximal attempt looks the same.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t go in and immediately start crushing ourselves with volume. In this case, incorporate back-off sets at 90% of your repetition work for that day.
Let’s say you’re using a program like 5/3/1. You might work up to your heavy set of 5 in the first week, and then perform two back-off sets of 5 at 90% of your heaviest set for that day. For the triples week of 5/3/1, you’d do back-off sets of 3. For the singles week, you’d do back off sets of 1.
The goal is to build more volume into your programming, but doing back-off sets at 90% ensures a few things:
- The nervous system is primed due to moving your heaviest sets first.
- There’s a big enough drop so that it’s still stimulative to the body, but shouldn’t feel crushing.
- Last but not least, it’s still heavy enough that there’s a carryover with regards to technique, but not so heavy that technique breaks down.
This technique reaps consistent results time and again.
2. Incorporate Paused Work on Main Lifts
Many moons ago, I gave paused work it’s first real run. As someone who’s more of a reactive lifter (very springy and elastic), this was a humbling experience. I was consistently using far less than 50% of my 1RM and it was still kicking my ass.
However, the results were more than worth the effort. Not only did I get significantly stronger, but the biggest change was in my bar path. No longer was I dipping forward in my squats or getting loose in my bench press. All of a sudden, both these lifts had very tight and efficient bar paths and my numbers went through the roof.
Beyond improving bar path, when you slow down or pause a lift, you’re taking the tendons largely out of the equation and putting the stress more squarely on the muscles.
And when you’re forced to camp out in the bottom, or really slow a lift down, you’ll also notice a significant improvement in your kinesthetic awareness of the lift as well.
To get the most out of paused work, here are two options:
Option #1: 3-second pauses each week. For example, on your squat you’ll work up to your target weight for the day and then back off to 50%. From there, perform 2-3 sets of 3 reps with a 3-second pause and try to increase the weight used each week.
Option #2: Periodize your pauses like this:
Week 1: 7-second pause
Week 2: 5-second pause
Week 3: 3-second pause
Last but not least, if you’re doing paused work you want to make sure every rep is tight.
3. Get More Explosive!
Lifters who are very elastic and springy benefit greatly from paused work, for all the reasons listed above. On the other hand, you have lifters that aren’t springy or elastic at all.
In fact, the bar speed of every rep from their warm-ups with the bar to a limit lift looks largely the same – kinda’ slow and methodical.
Can you get strong grinding out rep after rep? Sure, but there’s a lot of benefit in focusing on movements that expose the nervous system to very explosive movements.
In this case, think about jumping, sprinting, and med ball throwing exercises. The key here is to ease yourself into things. If your idea of explosive work is speed squats or deadlifts, then this will definitely be a shock to the system.
With regards to jumps, try box jumps. They reduce eccentric stress on landing, and they focus on the anterior chain, which translates well to squatting. On the flip side, broad jumps tax the posterior chain and should improve your deadlift.
Going a step further, some short sprinting will expose the nervous system to very explosive movements and a high rate of force development. It won’t be specific to lifting, but that’s not necessarily the goal.
Charlie Francis has noted that even though many track athletes don’t make the weight room a priority, they often move very heavy weights when they do.
While there are other factors at play (most notably good genetics), there’s probably some truth to what Francis believed. By exposing the nervous system to very explosive acts, it can carry over to other movements such as squatting and deadlifting.
Medicine Ball Throws
If box jumps or sprints are somehow problematical, med ball drills are definitely better than nothing. Try forward and backward med ball throws for lower body explosiveness, as well as plyo med ball throws for the upper body (lying on the back and having a partner drop it on you while you catch and then reverse the motion).
4. Pick the Right Assistance Exercises
If you want to squat a ton of weight, you need to train the squat. If you want to build a huge bench, you need to train the bench.
But that doesn’t mean that assistance exercises should be randomly picked, or worse yet, removed all together. In fact, choosing the correct assistance exercises can be a game changer when it comes to breaking through plateaus.
There are essentially two ways you go about choosing your assistance exercises:
- Exercises that are specific and help mimic a sticking point, or…
- Exercises that are more general in nature.
Let’s use the back squat as an example. If someone misses the squat in the bottom, they could use a specific exercise such as a paused back squat, or 1 and one-fourth squats to help bring up that weak area.
On the other hand, they can also choose a front squat as an assistance exercises. It’s not as specific as a back squat, but it should still have some general carryover as it builds the core/trunk, hips, and thighs.
As a general rule, we often start training cycles off with more general assistance work to bring up lagging or weak areas, and as an athlete gets closer to a competition, we’ll get more and more specific with regards to exercise selection.
The take home point here is that your assistance exercises can’t be an afterthought. Your main lifts are absolutely the most important part of your training session, but assistance exercises that are right for you will absolutely take your gains to the next level.
5. Use Oxidative Lifting in the Off-Season
I don’t know about you, but if I’m trying to move a limit lift, I don’t care what types of muscle fibers are helping me. Slow-twitch, fast-twitch, whatever, if they’re willing to help me get that damn weight up, I want their help! That’s why we give a little love to all type of muscle fibers, slow-twitch included.
For example, we use oxidative (or tempo) lifting to hypertrophy slow-twitch muscle fibers. Let’s use squatting as an example:
Un-rack the weight and perform your squat with a continuous motion or tempo, like 202 or 303. The goal is to move slowly on both the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.
Furthermore, don’t lock the joints out for the entirety of the set! As soon as you get near the top, immediately move right back into the next rep.
There’s a lot of debate over appropriate work to rest ratios, number of sets, etc. However, I generally start with a 1:1 work to rest ratio (40 on, 40 off) for 3-5 sets. A few practical notes:
Don’t be a hero. Done correctly, this is a merciless technique. Better to start off too light and add weight than to shortchange your efforts by doing things too quickly.
Whenever possible, find joint-friendly variations. If you’re doing a back squat, holding the bar on your back for extended periods of time while tempo squatting can be downright uncomfortable. Opt for a safety squat bar to take stress off the shoulders while simultaneously blowing up your legs.