Lift Big: the Best Assistance Exercises

Lift big teaser

There comes a time in every weightlifter’s lifespan when they hit a plateau with their primary big lifts. The deadlift, bench press, squat and overhead press are notorious for causing frustration among lifters – stuck on their current PRs. That doesn’t mean, however, that gym-rats should just pack it in and wave the white flag. Sometimes your muscles just need additional work in areas you might not realize and could result in boosting those “big lift” numbers.

So if you’re currently suffering from being stuck at a certain weight, listen up because we’ve contacted two top trainers to give us some of their favorite tips on the “assistance exercises” that can help you break through the plateaus. Implement these into your training and you’ll be well on your way to new PRs in no-time.

BIG LIFT ONE: Deadlift

> Exercise One: Trap-3 Raises

“Hits the much neglected lower traps, and it doesn’t take much weight when performed correctly. Strong lower traps can act against rounding (kyphosis) of the mid back, and raise the ribcage for a much more desirable pulling position. Better positioning always results in a stronger performance.”

> Exercise Two: Barbell Glute Bridges

“Works the mechanics for the ending phase of the deadlift to ensure that the glutes and hamstrings are working and have full control of the pelvis – Not only the lower back!”

– Lee Boyce, CPT and owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems

> Exercise Three: Rack Lock Outs 

“Set the bar just below knee level and pull from there, using 50 – 100 lbs over regular deadlift weight. This conditions the body to handle heavier weights by improving joint and tendon strength as well as muscular strength.”

> Exercise Four: Board Deadlifts

“While standing on a 5/8 sheet of plywood where the weights would be touching the floor and you would be standing 5/8″ higher than usual. 1-3 sheets of plywood gets the bar lower to the floor and provides a deeper deadlift. If plywood is not available use either a bunch of 25 or 35lb plates on the bar instead of 45lb plates. These smaller plates keep the bar lower to the floor so you have to work harder in the bottom position of the deadlift to get it up.”

– Mike Duffy, CPT and owner of Mike Duffy’s Personal Training

Go to page two for tips on Big Lift Two: Bench Press >>>

BIG LIFT TWO: Bench Press

> Exercise One: BB French Press

“Hits the long heads of the triceps which are highly neglected in typical triceps training (they won’t get hit during close grip, dips, or pressdowns). This adds strength to the overall triceps group and contributes to a stronger push.”

> Exercise Two: Any rowing exercise

“All four rotator cuff muscles originate on the scapula, so getting those muscles strong and tight through upper back work will drastically improve stability of the shoulder capsule.”

– Lee Boyce, CPT and owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems

> Execise Three: Close Grip Bench Press or Incline Close Grip Bench Press

“Depending on where in the bench press you are having problems will dictate what Assistance Exercises you will need to be doing. If you’re having trouble on the “lock out” portion of the bench press, use Close Grip Bench Presses or Incline Close Grip Bench Presses to improve triceps strength and, thus, improve lockout strength.”

> Exercise Four: Bench Press Rack Lock Outs

“In this exercise, you set the height of the bar a few inches below lock out and add more weight than you can actually bench press. You then perform a couple sets of “top partial movements” which help lock out strength as well as condition your body to handle heavier weights. Psychologically this is a big help – handling heavier weights than usual also helps build confidence.”

> Exercise Five: Dips or Dumbbell Bench Press

“If you are having trouble in the lower part of the bench press, use weighted full range Dips and Dumbbell Bench Presses. These movements work that lower range of motion and improve strength there. You can also add Rack work in the lower part of the bench press movement by setting the bar on your chest and moving it up and down from your chest to 6-8 inches above your chest. Use the pins in the power rack to lock yourself into that range of motion.”

– Mike Duffy, CPT and owner of Mike Duffy’s Personal Training

Go to page three for tips on Big Lift: Squat >>>


> Exercise One: Peterson Step Up

“Designed to hit the VMO (inside quad muscle) which is a common weak link for people who have knee issues, depth issues or both. Making this muscle stronger allows squats to have more strength in the bottom range, and assists in driving through sticking points.”

> Exercise Two: Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat

“Stretches the hip flexors (rectus femoris) under tension on the rear leg. This can allow for greater range of motion when healthy. It also allows stabilizers like adductors and, again, VMO to work harder.”

– Lee Boyce, CPT and owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems

> Exercise Three: Heavy Partial Squats

“In order to improve squats, add heavy partial squats in the Power Rack by adding up to 100 lbs over what you can actually squat and doing 8-10 partial movements. This conditions the support muscles to handle heavier-than-usual weights and provides a psychological boost due to the fact that your usual squatting weights now feels much lighter.”

– Mike Duffy, CPT and owner of Mike Duffy’s Personal Training

Go to page four for tips on Big Lift: Overhead Press >>>

BIG LIFT FOUR: Overhead Press

> Exercise One: Shoulder “Dislocates”

“This is a basic mobility drill using a dowel or broomstick to improve mobility (circumduction) of the shoulder. It will support and promote a better overhead position.”

> Exercise Two: Face Pulls

“Face pulls are great for isolating the rear deltoids and scapular muscles, to activate more deltoid tissue and stabilize the scapulae for joint protection.”

– Lee Boyce, CPT and owner of Lee Boyce Training Systems

> Exercise Three: High Rack Lockouts

“High rack lockouts are excellent for triceps strength and lock out strength which is critical for getting that bar overhead and stabilized.”

> Exercise Four: Push Presses

“Push Presses are also very good to develop pressing strength. Engaging the strength of the legs to propel the bar overhead is helpful in creating explosive strength for the overhead press.”

– Mike Duffy, CPT and owner of Mike Duffy’s Personal Training

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