We've gone over how to do the Big 3, but what else do we do? Why do we do it in the way we've done it?
Luckily, James Kennedy is back with some information on Squat Accessories.
Whilst most of your training as a natural strength athlete should be focused on the big 3 - the squat, the bench and the deadlift - your programme should also include accessory lifts. Accessory lifts are used for a variety of reasons within your training. Primarily, accessory lifts are used as a way of getting targeted training for a specific muscle group without increasing the wear and tear that repeating the same movement patterns can cause.
The reason that accessory work is needed is for three reasons. Firstly, as you train a movement - for example the squat - you will develop muscular imbalances. The accessory lifts target the muscular imbalances, reducing your injury risk. Secondly, training compound movements can lead to overtraining due to the higher weights used. Using accessory work allows you to increase training volume but minimally increases the fatigue you accumulate. Thirdly, it adds some variety to training - training should be fun and doing the same exercises over and over again gets boring, fast.
The selection of accessory work is important. As accessory work helps develop more complete hypertrophy, it should be used to target specific weaknesses you have in a lift.
To give a very simple example - if you are struggling to lock out a bench press it suggests your triceps are too weak. Therefore, you should be using accessory work to target tricep strength and hypertrophy.
Why does hypertrophy matter?
Hypertrophy matters for lifters, even if you’re just trying to get as strong as possible. Simply put, the larger the muscle, the larger the force it can exert and the more weight you can lift.
With the squat, there are three main weaknesses; technical, leg strength and back strength. The technical weaknesses can be addressed through practice - i.e. doing more squats and focussing on the technical issues that you have with the lifts. Filming your sets and talking through the videos with your coach - or refering to the squat guide (link here) - will help you identify the technical aspects you need to work on within the squat.
The other two weaknesses - leg and back strength - can be identified from how you fail or struggle with the squat exercise. Generally, most people can deadlift more than they can squat and, generally, most people have a stronger back than legs. Whilst this is generally true, It is important to identify the weaknesses within the squat, to more specifically target the accessory work.
The most common weakness is relatively weak legs vs the back during the squat. Without going too deep into the biomechanics this boils down to being able to produce greater torque via hip extension than knee extension. When squatting, this results in people doing a so-called ‘good-morning’ squat. This is where the hips rise quickly but the bar doesn’t. The knees extend and shoot back, driving the hips up, but the bar does not move up. This leaves the lifter in a bent-over, good-morning, position, leaving them to use their hips and backs to lock out the lift. To address this weakness it is essential to train the quads directly using movements where the back cannot take over, allowing you to to isolate the quad muscles needed for knee extension.
The exercises that more directly target the quads can be split into several groups: squat variations, bi-lateral movements and unilateral variations. These variations all target different aspects of leg strength and have different degrees of crossover.
The squat variations are exercises with a high degree of cross-over between the primary squat movement (the low-bar squat) and the accessory exercise. The bi-lateral and unilateral movements have less direct crossover, however they help address muscular imbalances and weaknesses.
The secondary squat exercises which target the quads to a greater degree are the high bar squat and the front squat. If your gym has one, the safety bar squat also works really well for this. As these squats are accessory lifts which are being used to develop leg strength they should be performed at a lower intensity, with a higher volume, than the main squat movement. Ideally, perform 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps on the secondary leg training day.
The bilateral and unilateral movements are more varied. For bilateral movements, the hack squat and leg press are excellent exercises for isolating the legs and stimulating quad hypertrophy. Bilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets in the 8-20 rep range. Most lifters find that they can lift significantly more weight using bilateral movements.
Unilateral movements are movements where only one limb is used. In this case, we are using only one leg at a time, to isolate the quads and drive quad hypertrophy and leg strength. Classic examples of unilateral exercises are the split squat, rear-leg elevated split squats, lunges and step ups. You can also use machines to do single leg leg extensions. Unilateral movements should be performed for 3-4 sets for 8-20 reps per set per leg. Whilst you can usually lift more weight on a leg press than a squat, unilateral movements are humbling. Usually, a relatively low weight can be incredibly challenging.
The second major weakness in the squat is driven by relatively weak back vs strong quads. This is more common in olympic weightlifters than powerlifters, as weightlifters spend more time squatting and less time deadlifting compared to powerlifters. When a lifter has a relatively weak back to their quads they still end up in a ‘good-morning’ squat position. However, in contrast to strong backed lifters who can often grind out multiple reps from this position, weak-backed lifters fail squats once they reach this position.
If you’re failing squats due to back strength, the solution, obviously, is to increase your back and hip strength so you can lock out the hips and complete the lift. If you don’t already include it in your training, the conventional deadlift is the best exercise for back and hip strength development. Incorporating 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps will massively improve your hip and back strength.
If you are including the deadlift already there are still multiple good options. The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) - a top down deadlift, where you isolate the hips and glutes to develop hip and leg strength - is a fantastic developer of hip strength. For an in depth guide to the romanian deadlift, this guide from Eric Helms will teach you everything you need to know (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sd1AZZ77aw).
Performing 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps of RDL’s after your squat workout will develop hip and back strength.
As the weak-backed lifter ends up in the good-morning position, but is not strong enough to actually perform the good-morning, good morning’s are a good, specific way of targeting this weakness. To perform a good-morning, set up for a squat, then bend at the hips whilst keeping the knees softly bent. This movement targets the lower back, hips and spinal erectors - the exact muscles needed to lock out a squat from this position. Personally, I prefer to do this for high reps and lower weights, focusing on form and developing lower back hypertrophy. Programming 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps, with a lower weight, is ideal for this accessory movement.
Putting it all together
At this point you should have an idea about how to recognise if your back strength or leg strength is the limiting factor in your squat and what exercises will help you address these weaknesses. I’ve outlined a sample program below for weak legged and weak backed squatters.
Sample Program A - Leg strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
Leg Press 4x8-12 @ 60-70%
Split Squats 4x15-20
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Front Squat 3x12 @ 60-70%
Leg extension 5x10
Sample Program B - Back strength weakness
Squat 3x5 @ 75-85%
RDL 5x12 @ 60%
Split Squat 4x15-20
Glute Ham Raise 5x10-12
Deadlift 3x5 @ 75-85%
Squat 3x8 @ 65-75%
Good Morning 4x10-15
Back extensions 4x10-15
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Here we have the final of the main lifts for you - the sumo deadlift.
Sumo gets a bad reputation as being easier than the conventional deadlift, but this just isn't true. It's a very technical lift that shouldn't be taken lightly.
As usual, this post is written by our very own, James Kennedy.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the deadlift movement where the lifter has a wide stance with their hands inside their legs at the start of the lift - like a sumo wrestler. The sumo deadlift works the same muscles as the conventional deadlift, primarily the posterior chain (back, hips and hamstrings), as well as working the quads to a greater degree than the conventional deadlift. For some lifters, the specific demands on the hips and the biomechanics of the sumo deadlift allow them to lift a greater weight, more safely than the conventional deadlift.
This style of deadlift is illegal (or at least, strongly frowned upon) in strongman competitions but is legal in powerlifting and is a good deadlift variation for a lot of people. For weightlifters it is often a better variation. This is because the conventional deadlift start position is similar to the clean start position used in weightlifting - which can lead to poor deadlift technique and poor clean technique for the weightlifter. The sumo deadlift leads to the same muscular development but has less chance of interfering with a weightlifter's clean technique.
For powerlifters and general fitness athletes the sumo deadlift can be a more comfortable and stronger deadlift variation. Generally speaking, if you are a smaller lifter or you have a relatively long torso the sumo deadlift can help you lift heavier weights as it is a more bio-mechanically advantageous lift.
The sumo deadlift is a more technical variation than the conventional deadlift, especially in the set up. When most people fail a sumo deadlift for a technical reason it is due to poor technique off the floor. Often, you will see or hear conventional deadlifts talking about gripping and ripping; basically just walking over to the bar and picking it up, a technique best exemplified by John Haack (video of his 400kg deadlift). The sumo deadlift is not so simple. The lift can be broken down into three phases: the set-up, the preparation and the lift. This article will outline the fundamentals of these three phases as well as how to troubleshoot the some common issues people have with the sumo deadlift
The set up phase of a sumo deadlift is important - errors in this phase makes it difficult to be in the correct positions to perform the lift. The set-up contains three parts - stance, grip and bracing.
When initiating the sumo deadlift, your shins should be perpendicular to the floor, with the bar over the midfoot. Your stance width for the sumo deadlift should therefore be the width that allows your shins to be perpendicular to the floor when you are initiating the pull. Your stance width then dictates your foot position. When performing the sumo deadlift, your knees should be in line with your first or second toe. The wider your stance, the more turned out your toes will need to be.
With the sumo deadlift, you can have a narrower grip on the bar as your knees aren’t in the way. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders - this makes your arms as long as possible - and shortens the range of motion. If placing your hands below your shoulders means your hand is on the smooth part of the bar you should widen your grip so your hand is on the knurling otherwise you will have trouble holding on to the bar.
In terms of grip style, overhand, mixed grip or hook grip all work. As discussed in our previous article (insert link), hook grip is the strongest but most painful. In my experience of the sumo deadlift, there seems to be a greater grip strength difference between hook grip and mixed grip, with hook grip being considerably stronger.
As in the conventional deadlift, breathing and bracing your core properly is essential for protecting the spine. As you place your hands on the bar, take a deep diaphragmatic breath, into your stomach and obliques and hold this breath throughout the lift. If you’re doing multiple reps, release this breath at the top of the lift, lower the bar and then take a new breath and rebrace the core prior to the next rep.
The three parts of the set-up phase - the stance, grip and breathing - all tie together. There are two ways to tie these events together to set up for the sumo deadlift. Firstly, take your stance. Once you have set your stance you have two options to get your hips into position to initiate the lift.
The first is to take your stance and grip on the bar before loading the hamstrings by straightening your legs. You then use your grip to pull your hips into position. As you pull your hips down, squeeze the chest up and pull your shoulder blades together. The second is to take your stance but remain upright. Breathe, brace your core and retract the shoulder blades to force the chest up. Then bend the knees until you can grip the bar.
Once you have your hands on the bar, it’s time to prepare to lift. With the sumo deadlift it is important to build full body tension. This comes from two places with the sumo deadlift - your grip and lats and your hips.
When you have taken your grip upon the bar it is essential to take the slack out of the bar. To do this, engage your lats and retract the shoulder blades - pinch them together like you are trying to hold a pencil between the shoulder blades. Doing this will force your chest up and help you pull your hips into the correct position.
The second part of preparation is to generate tension through the hips. To do this, try and tear the floor apart with your feet by trying to push your feet apart. Your feet won’t move, but this will generate tension in the hips and quads - the best analogy I have to describe this feeling is revving a car engine with the hand brake on. It should feel as if the bar is about to come off the floor before you actually try to do the lift.
Now you’ve set up and generated full body tension, it’s time to lift the weight. The pull can be divided into two parts; breaking the bar off the floor and locking out the lift. As you take the tension out of the bar and try to tear the floor apart with your feet, it should feel as if the bar is about to break the floor. The first portion of the pull is to drive the floor away whilst keeping the knees out. To keep your knees out, keep trying to tear the floor in half as you initiate the lift.
Once the bar reaches your knees, lock your knees out. As quickly as possible. The process of locking out your knees locks the hips out. This means your sumo deadlift can look and feel a bit odd. You build tension slowly before breaking the bar off the floor. The bar then moves slowly off the floor until it reaches the knees. At the point it reaches the knees the bar then moves rapidly to lockout as you lock the knees out.
If you're moving from a conventional to sumo deadlift this will be the opposite of what you usually experience - conventional deadlifts tend to be quick off the floor and slower at lockout. If you are doing sumo deadlifts, it’s important to stay patient. Take the slack out of the bar and build full body tension. Drive the floor away whilst keeping the knees out. Once the bar reaches the knees, lock the knees and the hips out.
When people are struggling with the sumo deadlift, it is often related to a poor technique or just not being strong enough. With the sumo deadlift, you will be weakest on the floor. If you’re missing sumo deadlifts at or just off the floor and there is no technical reason for this, you just need to get stronger at deadlifting. If you miss sumo deadlifts at the lockout without a technical flaw, then you just need to get stronger.
Conversely, if you start to miss sumo deadlifts in the midrange the main reason is usually due to your hips shooting up too quickly. This is sometimes due to having weak quads and glutes relative to hamstrings - an especially common problem if you’re moving from conventional to sumo deadlifts. As you initiate the lift, the hips shooting up allows the lifter to use the hamstrings to get the bar off the floor. This then puts the hips in a disadvantageous position for the midrange, causing people to fail the lift.
The solution to this is practice. Doing lots of reps with correct form will develop the glutes and quads and reinforce the correct position for the lifter off the floor. Once the lifter is in the correct position off the floor, the midrange sorts itself out. A really good accessory exercise to reinforce the correct position and strengthen the quad and glute muscles are paused sumo deadlifts, where you pause immediately when the bar breaks the floor.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the deadlift that is a slightly more complicated, technical variation of the deadlift. It works and develops the muscles and strength of the posterior chain and is especially effective for those with relatively long torsos and short legs. For Olympic Weightlifters it is also a great deadlift variation to develop posterior chain strength without interfering with weightlifting technique. Hopefully, this article will help you perfect your sumo deadlift technique and improve your deadlift!
This next one is another one from James Kennedy as part of our beginner series.
While the deadlift is the final lift in a powerlifting competition, you do have the option of doing either conventional or sumo deadlifts. To lump them both together would be doing each one a disservice, so we've split them up.
So, for part 1 of the deadlift articles, we have the conventional deadlift.
Everyone can and should deadlift. The deadlift develops the muscles of the posterior chain (i.e the back of the body), from the traps to the hamstrings. Further, the deadlift is one of the best movements for developing total body strength and stability. Finally, for powerlifters and strongmen and women competitors, the deadlifts form a key part of competition.
There are two types of deadlift: the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. For powerlifters, bodybuilders, weightlifters and general fitness enthusiasts either type of deadlift is suitable to achieve strength, physique and hypertrophy. For strongmen and strongwomen competitors however, only the conventional deadlift is allowed. This article will focus only on the conventional deadlift, with a guide on the sumo deadlift coming in the next few weeks.
The deadlift is pretty simple at heart. Walk up to the bar, grab hold of it, and stand up with it. Technically, it is by far the simplest of the big 3 power lifts, with the lift set up being the most technical component. Oftentimes, if the set up is correct, strength becomes the limiting factor as you just need to stand up with the bar.
When I am struggling with a lift it is usually because I have over complicated the lift in my head. Instead of just performing the lift I am worrying over a thousand little things that do not impact the lift. Getting back to basics is always the way to go - which for deadlifts means going back to the Starting Strength Deadlift technique. This technique is also brilliantly explained in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYREQkVtvEc). What makes this technique so brilliant is it’s simplicity; it works for everyone regardless of body type.
The first part of the conventional deadlift is the stance. As a starting point, perform a vertical jump and note what position your feet are in. Generally speaking, your feet will be around hip width apart with your feet turned out around 10 degrees but this varies from person to person. Some very strong lifters have very narrow stances (e.g. Lamar Gant) or very wide stances, which is especially common amongst larger lifters (e.g. Eddie Hall). Once you have established your preferred stance width,step up to the bar and set the bar over the middle of the foot. This is usually 1-2 inches in front of your shins - remember the midpoint of your foot includes the heel which you cannot see!
The second step is to grip the bar. To take a grip on the bar, bend at the hips until your hands are on the bar whilst keeping your knees unlocked. Do not bend at the knees to reach the bar. The hands should be just outside the legs - you want your grip to be as narrow as possible without forcing your knees in. When gripping the bar, irrespective of style, the bar should be just above or below the calluses of the fingers - having the bar too deep in the palm or too close to the fingers reduces your ability to grip the bar hard. There are three ways to grip the bar - double overhand, mixed grip and hook grip.
The first style - double overhand - is the weakest grip style and is not really used by competitive strength athletes. Your grip strength will not increase as quickly as your deadlift strength and you will quickly be limited by your grip strength when deadlifting if you use a double overhand grip.
The second style - mixed grip - has one hand supinated (palm facing forward) and one hand pronated (palm facing backwards). This massively increases your grip strength as it prevents the bar rolling in your hand - if the bar rolls towards the fingers of one hand it rolls towards the palm of the other, increasing your grip strength. This technique is most commonly used in powerlifting competitions.
The final method is the hook grip. The hook grip is the standard grip used in weightlifting and is becoming increasingly common in powerlifting. Wrap your fingers around your thumb, pinning the thumb between your fingers and the bar. The hook grip is stronger than a mixed grip - if you learn how to do this properly you will never have a grip issue with deadlift again. However, the reason it isn’t more popular is it has a significant downside - it hurts. If you do this for long enough the nerves in the thumb deaden, but prepare for sore thumbs for a few weeks.
The next step is to push your shins to the bar until they are in contact with the bar by bending the knees. When you do this, your hips will be in the correct position irrespective on your body type. For lifters with long legs, your hips will be higher than those with shorter legs. This is ok - your body's proportions mean that each person's lift will look slightly different.
Once your shins are in contact with the bar, brace the core by taking a deep, diaphragmatic breath, into your stomach and oblique and hold this breath throughout the lift. This creates intra-abdominal pressure, increasing your core strength and protecting your spine. As you do this, squeeze the chest up and drive your knees out. Grip the bar as hard as you possibly can; it should feel heavy in your hands. Doing these steps - squeezing the chest up, driving the knees out, gripping the bar hard and bracing the core - flattens your back and pulls the slack out of the bar, whilst creating the full body tension essential for completing the lift safely.
At this point, you’re ready to lift! Initiate the deadlift by pushing the floor away. Once the bar is around mid-shin, drive your hips forward and your shoulders back to drive yourself into the locked out position.Keeping your chest up allows you to maintain spinal tension and helps you to lockout the lift. If your chest is down your shoulders will round, making the lockout difficult, as well as increasing the risk of injury. Each rep should be performed as explosively as you possibly can, as research has shown that lifting at maximum velocity can increase strength gains.
This technique is simple but effective. It will work for anyone, irrespective of your body proportions. If you have long legs you will have higher hips, horizontal back angle vs someone with shorter legs. You will not be able to change this so don’t try. If you are struggling with your technique or have just started, this is a great way of starting out in the conventional deadlift.
Troubleshooting the deadlift
When lifters fail deadlifts due to strength issues it is due to three reasons: weak grip, weak hips or weak backs. If you have weak grip it should be obvious as you will struggle to hold on to heavy deadlifts. Performing some specialised grip training - e.g. farmers carries - will help you improve your grip strength.
A simple test to test whether your hips or back strength is a limiting factor is to perform a controlled eccentric rep with around 85% of your one rep max. A controlled eccentric rep is a rep where you control the eccentric (lowering) phase of the rep - if this causes your spine to round it would suggest that your back strength is the limiting factor in your deadlifts. If your spine remains extended, then hip strength is probably your limiting factor.
For those with back strength as a limiting factor, there are several good exercises which will help develop back strength. Primarily, focusing on heavy barbell rows and back raises will help, as well as rack pulls and block pulls for more movement specific training. If the eccentric test indicates that your hips are weaker, Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s), good mornings, hip thrusts and glute-ham raises are all good options to strengthen the hips.
The deadlift is a simple movement pattern that everyone has done anytime they pick something up from the floor. This article outlines a basic technique for the conventional deadlift which is perfect for beginners or anyone who wants to simplify their technique. Whilst there are numerous variations on the conventional deadlift setup and technique outlined in this article, they all fundamentally place you in the same position as the set-up outlined here. Keeping it simple minimises the amount of things that can go wrong allowing you to just focus on the goal - lifting a huge amount of weight.
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