Getting stronger requires more than just adding plates to the same three lifts. It requires some actual thought when it comes to exercise selection.
Here are the seven most strategic lifts you're probably not doing. We'll go over what they target and how they'll make you stronger on the big three.
- Targeted Muscles: Quads
- How It Helps: If your hips shoot up and your chest falls forward during the squat, this can help prevent that.
Strength development occurs primarily as a result of neural adaptations (1). Heavy-load resistance training produces greater strength gains when compared to low-load resistance training (2). Unfortunately, training at high intensities generates significant fatigue which can become an obstacle and even lead to overreaching if left unchecked (3).
When we look at primary exercises where the lower body plays a major role, like the deadlift and squat, a significant contributor to fatigue is axial loading (4). Axial loading is where your spine is under a compressive load such as a barbell squat.
However, the belt squat allows you to bypass axial loading. This makes it an excellent exercise for developing strength because you can maintain high intensities without generating nearly as much fatigue when compared to a barbell squat.
- Targeted Muscles: Chest, shoulders, triceps
- How It Helps: Ever get stuck at the midpoint of the bench press? This'll help with that.
The sticking point on the barbell bench press for most lifters occurs at the midway point (about 6-8 inches off the chest). It's a common problem.
During the typical powerlifting setup, your back is arched and you use leg drive, which generates an impulse force to rapidly develop momentum to initiate the lift. This is great in competition where you need to use every advantage, but in training we can eliminate these benefits strategically to improve bench press performance.
The floor press forces you to remain flat and doesn't allow for leg drive. And since the bottom end of the floor press and the sticking point of your competition bench press are generally the same, you can train your sticking point directly while simultaneously increasing your raw strength.
- Targeted Muscles: Low back, hamstrings, glutes
- How It Helps: Guilty of rounding the low back during deadlifts? These have your back.
The reverse hyper was introduced by Louie Simmons. It's gained popularity, but there are still a surprising number of people who are unaware of this exercise.
Strength athletes generally train movements to build strength, not muscles. But this can become a limiting factor. For example, if an athlete's quads can generate 600 pounds of force but his or her low back can only brace 400 pounds, the rate-limiting factor is the low back.
This is where adopting more of a bodybuilding approach can be highly beneficial to specific athletes. The reverse hyper directly trains your glutes and hamstrings but primarily targets your low back (5).
Training your low back can improve your ability to brace during heavy squats and deadlifts. An additional upside is that the exercise has a low fatigue cost and actually has restorative properties due to the decompression that occurs during the movement (5).
- Targeted Muscles: Quads and core
- How It Helps: Hips shooting up during the squat? Chest falling forward? Here's an exercise that'll help prevent it.
This is an effective variation of the low-bar squat. A common error many lifters make is the chest-fall pattern: their hips shoot up and their chests fall forward as they stand up with the weight. It almost looks like a good morning.
This is most often associated with weak quads. But a SSB squat distributes load differently than a traditional low-bar squat which alters the torque requirements. Because of your upright position, the SSB squat requires more torque from the knees compared to a standard low-bar squat (6).
So this exercise puts you into a more quad-dominant movement pattern to preferentially train your deficiency. Because you can't grip the bar as you normally do, your upper back isn't as tight, so this exercise also increases your upper back and core strength.
- Targeted Muscles: Triceps
- How It Helps: This is another preventative exercise for those whose bench press gets stuck at the midpoint.
Supplementary work for strength development is often written off because it's not specific. Big mistake. Increasing your muscle fibers' cross sectional area directly relates to increased force production (7). And since the triceps play an important role in the bench press, they often require additional work.
To understand the benefits of the band pressdown over other triceps exercises, we need to understand torque. Torque is a twisting force that tends to cause rotation (8).
This diagram shows the action of a triceps pressdown. The linear force (the external load of the cable pressdown) is represented by the downward pointing arrow. The circle (elbow) is the axis of rotation and the red line represents the distance between the linear force and the axis of rotation.
The distance between the linear force and the axis of rotation influences how much torque is required. The farther the distance, the more torque is required. So the torque requirement is highest when the elbow is at 90 degrees of flexion.
As you complete the pressdown, the distance shortens and the exercise becomes easier. But using a band can alter this force curve. Since the band is maximally stretched at the bottom of the pressdown it increases the torque requirement of the elbow (8). This forces the triceps to work hard throughout the entire range of motion, creating a novel stimulus.
- Targeted Muscles: Low back, lats, upper back
- How It Helps: It prevents both instability in the bench press and rounding of the back during the deadlift.
"Deformation" is the alteration in shape or size of a body under the influence of mechanical forces (9). This is observed in lifting near 1RM loads where you see a technical breakdown (rounding of the back, hips shooting up, etc).
Some researchers have observed up to 40 degrees of spinal flexion occurring during the squat (10). This deformation decreases mechanical efficiency which ultimately decreases the maximal weight you're capable of lifting.
The Pendlay row trains your low back, lats, and upper back. This increases back strength as well as bracing ability to minimize deformation during exercises involving heavy loads such as squats, deadlifts, and bench press.
What does all this even mean? Well, increased efficiency translates to increased performance in 1RM strength. You pull more weight.
- Targeted Muscles: Low back, hamstrings, glutes
- How It Helps: For the squat, it helps weak bracing of the core. And for the deadlift it can help prevent rounding of the lower back along with difficulty locking out. It strengthens your posterior chain, which often translates to an increase in squat and deadlift performance.
The torque mechanics are what drive strength improvements in this lift. Check out this diagram:
At the bottom end of the lift, the linear force is furthest from the axis of rotation (in this case the hips). The muscles acting on the hips and spine to brace and produce hip extension are the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erector muscles.
Good mornings improve the overall strength of your posterior chain helping you minimize deformation in your primary lifts and efficiently manage heavier loads when executing your main lifts.
- Jenkins, NDM et al. Greater Neural Adaptations Following High- vs. Low-Load Resistance Training. Frontiers Physiology. 8 May 2017.
- Schoenfeld, BJ et al. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res J Strength Cond Res. 29(10): 2954–2963, 2015 Oct;29(10):2954–2963.
- Hagerman, FC et al. Effects of High-Intensity Resistance Training on Untrained Older Men. I. Strength, Cardiovascular, and Metabolic Responses. The Journals of Gerontology. 2000 Jul;A55(7):B336–B346.
- Sparto, PJ et al. The Effect of Fatigue on Multijoint Kinematics and Load Sharing During a Repetitive Lifting Test. Spine. 1997 Nov;22(22):2647-2654.
- Lawrence, MA et al. Biomechanical Comparison of the Reverse Hyperextension Machine and the Hyperextension Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019 Aug;33(8):2053-2056.
- Schenau, GJI. From rotation to translation: Constraints on multi-joint movements and the unique action of bi-articular muscles. Human Movement Science. 1989 Aug;8(4):301-337.
- Tonson, A et al. Effect of maturation on the relationship between muscle size and force production. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2008 May;40(5):918-925.
- Jones, AZ. Calculating Torque. ThoughtCo. 18 October 2018.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Deformation and Flow. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
- Potvin, JR, et al. Trunk muscle and lumbar ligament contributions to dynamic lifts with varying degrees of trunk flexion. Spine. 1991 Sep;16(9):1099-107.