Every athlete hits performance plateaus, but the smart ones find their weaknesses, alter their routine, and keep improving. We all know the importance of the big, compound lifts. When you hit a roadblock in performing them, the simplest solution may be to try accessory exercises. These assistance movements will help you break past a strength ceiling, and see new results. Here are four such moves for the most common lifts.
The Plateau: You can’t go heavier on your squat.
The Solution: Rear leg elevated split squat.
Standard squats often fail to fire the muscles of the inner thigh and VMO (your “teardrop” quad muscle), and development of proper foot balance. To target those muscles, and fortify your squatting power, you need single-leg exercises. Rear leg elevated split squats force a good range of motion, and the unilateral element exploits all the weak links mentioned above. As a bonus, using a closer foot position and keeping the heel down allows the knee to travel further forward over the toe, emphasizing more ankle mobility — often a silent killer to squat depth. Do 4 sets of 10 reps per leg.
The Plateau: Your overhead press is weak.
The Solution: French press.
As your arm moves further away from your body during a press, the long head of the triceps is engaged more and more. However, most triceps isolation exercises tend to neglect this muscle area in favor of other parts of the muscle (think press-down, skull crusher, dip, and close grip bench press). From a functional perspective, these movements can help the lockout of a tough strict press, but the most bang for the buck may come in the form of the French press. Fixing the arms overhead will isolate the triceps for long-head development, and translate to a stronger overhead press. Do 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps.
The Plateau: Your deadlift gets stuck mid-lift.
The Solution: Paused deadlifts.
The most common trouble with the deadlift is hitting a sticking point after the weight has left the ground. The smart fix: exaggerate a pause exactly where that sticking point occurs, using a lighter than normal load. Not only will this cause the pulling muscles to work harder through that range of motion, but it will also emphasize good technique — it’s far from easy to stop mid-rep using poor form. Because of this added time under tension, it's safest to use less volume, so go for 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps.
The Plateau: You still can’t do a pull-up.
The Solution: Eccentric pull-ups.
If you can’t do a good pull-up from bottom to top, start doing them from top to bottom. Eccentric pull-ups (lowering yourself from the bar back to the ground) serve a twofold purpose: First, they give your strength a kick in the pants. Negative repetitions engage the strongest muscle fibers your body has — that’s why you can do negative reps when you fail on positive reps. Because of this, plus the added time under tension, the body will get stronger and build muscle effectively. Do your best to maintain proper pull-up form while lowering. That means shoulders pulled down and back, a broad chest, and a tight core. Keep the back muscles engaged during every rep, and gun for the longest lowering phase you can — lowering for five, eight, even 10 seconds — and aiming for a full stretch at the bottom (that’s important!). Do 4 sets of 5 to 6 negative reps.