Here's what you need to know...
• To get big you need more volume, but too many sets of the big lifts can leave you trashed.
• The solution is to continue focusing on getting stronger in the main lifts while increasing the volume of auxiliary work.
• When you increase volume on smaller, specific exercises, you can address your weak points while still having available energy to get big and strong in the core lifts.
Experienced lifters know that to build strength and size over the long haul, the volume of work has to increase. Unfortunately, pushing the volume in the big core lifts wipes you out, especially as you get stronger.
To get around this problem, some lifters will abandon the big compound lifts in favor of high-volume specialized routines that focus on target muscles. However, this is merely a band-aid solution, as progress in the big lifts is still a must for optimal progress in strength and hypertrophy.
The solution is to continue focusing on getting stronger in the main lifts while increasing the volume of specific, stress-free assistance work.
To understand how important organizing big core lifts and auxiliary exercises are, you need to understand central and peripheral fatigue.
Peripheral fatigue originates in local muscle. This is the fatigue you get from high rep sets performed to the point of failure. On the other hand, central or CNS fatigue is a reduction in neural drive from impulses sent from the brain and is greatly affected by intensity of effort.
While these definitions are simplifications and one affects the other, clearly assistance and auxiliary exercises need to be strategically programmed with main lifts to prevent undo fatigue. This will ensure actual improvements in size and performance without getting fried.
Increasing the volume of work through certain assistance and auxiliary exercises might increase peripheral fatigue, but it also limits central fatigue. This way, a lifter can continue to focus on his main lifts with the same frequency and intensity.
To that end, here are six highly effective exercises that can be done at the end of a heavy workout to increase overall volume while limiting central fatigue. The first three can be used as finishers for lower-body workouts, while the last three can be used as finishers for upper-body workouts.
1. Dumbbell Hip Thrusters
The hip thruster can be used as a main lift to build strength and a great posterior chain, but also as an assistance exercise to finish up an already taxing lower-body workout.
Since using a dumbbell limits the amount of weight used, focus on maintaining a slower tempo and do more volume. I cue athletes to push the dumbbell toward their knees on the way down to ensure a full range of motion.
2. Band Pull-Throughs
Pull-throughs are another great exercise that can be added to the end of a lower body workout to build muscle with minimal fatigue. I like using a band for these because the band tension increases with full hip extension, leading to a more active and forceful contraction.
Make sure to hold the extended position and squeeze your glutes at the top. This is another auxiliary exercise where higher reps are appropriate when used after heavier compound lifts.
3. Split-Stance Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Standard Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are a staple in any posterior chain-specific program but they can also be very taxing, especially as the training load increases. What happens is that eventually, the stress required to elicit change is too high to qualify it as an appropriate auxiliary, end-of-the-workout type exercise.
The split-stance RDL is a great alternative, and puts minimal stress on the low back while really working the hamstrings.
The split-stance RDL increases tension on the hamstrings of the front leg and creates a stable base that prevents lower back rounding, making it much more spine friendly.
4. Dumbbell Cleans
While dumbbell cleans are great for training lower body explosiveness, using them as an auxiliary exercise for extra volume at the end of an upper-body workout can help build your shoulders, upper back, and forearms, all with minimal CNS fatigue.
Using dumbbells without straps not only works grip strength but also limits the weight you can use, thus turning the focus on volume rather than strength.
5. Rhomboid Pulldowns
Heavy bent-over dumbbell or barbell rows are still best for building an impressive back, but the rhomboid pull-down is a great finishing exercise for adding more volume without taxing you as much as the bigger movements.
Use a V-bar or close grip attachment and pull down to your sternum while flaring your elbows out at a 90-degree angle. Be sure to keep your trunk stable to prevent excessive rocking. The strict form needed to perform this exercise prevents you from putting too much weight on the stack.
6. Cable Pullovers
Cable pullovers allow for a great stretch and full contraction of the lats. The added benefit of having your entire back supported by lying on the ground lets you focus on volume without the fatigue accrued by supporting yourself.
Remember, big lifts first, then a couple of these low-stress finishers for added volume.