When the Big 3 Bite Back
If you've trained the big barbell lifts long enough and hard enough, they'll eventually take their toll on your joints and central nervous system. But the chances of serious lifters taking some time off to recover is slim. They're too worried about losing gains.
Problem is, plowing through the big lifts when your CNS is already fatigued and your body is hurting can lead to even more severe levels of centralized fatigue, overtraining-like symptoms, and serious injury.
But there's another way. You can recharge your CNS and protect your joints and soft tissues while also training the bench, squat, and deadlift with passion.
The solution here is to use "primer supersets" along with more joint-friendly banded versions of the big movements. You'll still be training hard and making gains, but also recovering and getting rid of those nagging aches and pains in your lower back or shoulders.
Here are three of the most effective supersets:
1 – Banded Straight-Arm Pulldown and Trap Bar Deadlift
Nearly every lifter struggles with lower back pain at some point. And even serious lifters struggle to train the deadlift movement pattern properly to yield optimal muscular and neurological benefits while sparing the low back.
How do you know if the deadlift is taking more out of you than it's giving back?
If your deadlifts are pumping the spinal erectors and segmental stabilizing musculature of the lower back instead of training your glutes and hamstrings, chances are your sequencing and muscle targeting is off.
Improper muscular firing sequences can overload the smaller accessory muscles, like the structures supporting the lower back, and de-emphasize the big primary movers that should actually be taking the brunt of the load. When this happens, it can not only hurt your orthopedic wellness, but also lead to increase centralized stress via the pain response in the nervous system.
Whether your lower back is chronically cranky or you're just coming off of a heavy block of deadlift training, using strategic schemes to help rewire muscular sequencing while helping deload the lower back is a must. This can be achieved through a pre-activation superset that can quickly enhance the mind-muscle connection of the glutes, hams, and lats while taking stress off the lower back.
By placing a primer movement before the deadlift, you can activate the posterior chain for better quality loaded movement. One of the most effective primers is the bentover straight-arm pulldown with bands.
This exercise places the hips and torso into an isometrically supported hip hinge while the lats become dynamically activated through a full range of motion. (Your lats play a big role in stabilizing the hinge.) Eliciting tension and activation through the posterior oblique slings will improve key lumbo-pelvic positioning for the deadlift while also correcting faulty muscular sequencing.
Do 4-6 reps on the straight-arm pulldown with a dynamic pull, peak contraction at the bottom, and slow negative on the way back up. Then move directly into the banded trap bar deadlift.
Place bands over the trap bar to overload the top of the movement while deloading the bottom. If you have access to a powerlifting platform with pegs, use them. If not, check out the setup in the video using dumbbells and weight plates to anchor the bands over the bar.
This setup allows more natural acceleration of the bar into more extended ranges of motion with the hip hinge pattern, which is a huge advantage of banded training. When activation and explosiveness is the goal, stick with 1-4 fast reps and a higher velocity of movement. This will automatically decrease the external weight on the bar.
Remember, when training around pain and fatigue, always focus on quality movements over quantity of reps.
2 – Banded Face Pull and Floor Press
If you're struggling with shoulder pain while bench pressing, or progress on the bench is plateauing hard, the last thing you should be doing is force feeding the barbell and chasing the mythical beast known as linear progression.
There's a smarter way that'll allow you to finally recover from that nasty shoulder pain while also recharging your neurological system to once again be able to display the strength that you've worked so hard to develop.
This superset will prime your upper back and posterior shoulder girdle for improved stability before hitting the bench. It'll also incorporate a pain-free setup that will limit the amount of extension and internal rotation your shoulders are placed into during traditional bench presses.
Combining the banded face pull with the banded floor press is the perfect combo to recover your shoulder health while still pressing heavy.
By placing the face pull before heavy pressing, you can prime and activate the upper back to act as primary stabilizers for the heavy pressing to come. In a chest and shoulder dominant exercise, the function of the lats and upper back don't get enough credit, but they're the key to unlocking performance and longevity at the shoulders. You're only as strong on the bench press as what you can support and stabilize with the upper back, which is commonly the weakest link in the chain.
Remember that you're "activating not annihilating" with the face pull, so stay within the 4-8 rep range, peak isometric contractions at the back side of the motion, and a full range of motion with an accentuated eccentric movement to target the upper back for enhancing stability.
Once the upper back is primed, it's time to get under the bar and press. Using the floor instead of the bench is very beneficial to shoulder health. Limiting the end range of motion during the press allows for less extension of the gleno-humeral joint, while also helping to limit the forced internal rotation at this same joint, which is notoriously associated with front-sided shoulder injuries.
Along with ditching the bench for the floor, placing bands on the bar to introduce accommodating resistance also has some key benefits. The bands alter the strength curve, meaning the most resistance is displayed at the top of the range of motion at lockout, and the least when the bar is closer to the chest in the bottom position.
Since we can accelerate the bar more naturally, we can program heavy pressing in a more pain-free manner while training explosively and limiting external loading.
Control the weight down, pause with your upper arms on the ground, and drive up explosively against the bands. If you're new to pressing with bands, make sure you drive hard into the bands through the entire range of motion. Stick to the lower rep ranges (2-5) and focus on stability, smoothness and explosiveness.
3 – Physioball Hamstring Curl and Banded Box Squat
With the squat, the two most common areas of pain and dysfunction are the lower back and knees. No surprise there. And those types of pain can hit you at the same time. Before minor challenges in the rack become major orthopedic setbacks, add some pre-activation supersets with more joint-friendly positions and loading parameters.
By pre-activating musculature in the posterior chain in conjunction with a strong and stable core, we can prime the key muscles to better execute their roles in the squat.
Using the hamstring curl machine can be warranted here, but to get the most bang for your buck try the physioball hamstring curl. This allows you to better link up the core to the hips due to the positioning on the ground and the torso being in a gravity-dependent position.
This isn't only a hamstring movement, but a full-body exercise that requires the arms driving down into the ground, the core bracing maximally to maintain a neutral spinal position, and the hamstring and glutes firing simultaneously to extend the hips while flexing the knees as the feet come back towards the body.
Make these movements as smooth as possible while tapping into the mind-muscle connection and initiating at the glutes and hamstrings with peak contractions on every rep. Stick with 5-10 reps.
Now move to the banded box squat. The addition of the box gives lifers the opportunity to predetermine optimal squat depth based on the maintenance of a neutral-ish spinal position throughout the squat range of motion. The box also offers the plyometric benefits of storing accumulated energy in the body and aiding in the explosive nature of driving up off the box.
Make sure that your foot position, torso angle, and bar position on the back closely mirror the free-squat position. These two movements need to be as biomechanically similar as possible to get carryover benefits. The only thing that should look different is the presence of the box under your ass.
We can improve the setup even more with the addition of bands. We can overload advantageous portions of the range of motion based on natural strength curves while deloading the more vulnerable positions and range of motion. Combining the plyometric component of the butt contacting the box with the ability to explode into accommodating resistance, this movement can again be trained explosively.
Stick to 2-6 explosive reps. Even if the bar slows, the intention should be to drive it up hard and move it fast. That's how you'll be able to rewire some of the sequencing out of the bottom aspect of this lift with more success, all the while allowing mechanical and neurological recovery to take place.