The beginner series from James Kennedy continues with some deadlift accessories.
Cliff Notes -
Word count - 1350
Time to read - 4.5 minutes.
Main Points - Deadlift variations and strengthening the legs and back are your most effective way to improve your deadlift.
The deadlift is fundamentally a simple lift - accessory work for the deadlift is also simple. The primary muscles involved in the deadlift are the hamstrings and the muscles of the back, primarily the lats. To improve the deadlift it is important to drive hypertrophy in these muscle groups. The deadlift is usually the lift which allows you to lift the most weight and is therefore the most taxing on the central nervous system. The accessory work for the deadlift can also be used to address grip strength issues.
For improving hypertrophy in the muscles involved in the deadlift, the best option is for some close variation on the deadlift that allows you to work the muscles involved from a similar position than the standard deadlift. These include, but are not limited to, paused deadlifts, block or rack pulls, deficit deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts and stiff legged deadlifts. Alongside these close variations of the deadlift there are more general compound exercises which will help drive hypertrophy in the back muscles - primarily bent over row and the pendlay row. Isolation exercises are also useful for deadlift accessory work - with glute ham raises, hamstring curls and lat pull downs all useful exercises. Within this article we will go through the main deadlift variations, compound and isolation exercises that form the basis of deadlift accessory work.
The deadlift variations all help address specific technical and strength related issues in the deadlift. Paused deadlifts are deadlifts with pauses at some point in the lift - usually just off the floor or at knee height. The paused deadlift is a great accessory pulling exercise for beginners to correct balance issues and stay in the right position throughout the lift. This is especially valuable for people who are transitioning from conventional to sumo deadlifts -a pause just off the floor stops you shooting your hips up and just performing a wide stance, conventional deadlift.
Performing a paused variation of a lift will usually reduce the amount of weight you can use. Block pulls or block deadlifts are a deadlift performed with the plates elevated on blocks or mats 2-8 inches of the floor. This shortens the range of motion and allows you to lift more weight. This can be used in two ways - it can be done for low reps and supra maximal loads or for high reps with sub maximal loads. Performing block pulls for triples would allow you to get used to handling weights above your deadlift one rep max which can remove some of the psychological hang ups around performing heavy deadlifts, as well as training your muscles and CNS to handle heavy weights. Alternatively, and more likely with Danny Lee’s coaching, you can also perform block pulls for high reps. This allows you to perform high reps at heavier loads, than you usually would, driving hypertrophy in the hamstrings and back. Personally, I have found this a very effective training technique, building up to 3x10 @ 200kg block pulls whilst having a competition best of 220kg. When I next competed I hit a 25kg deadlift PR - block pulls were a great exercise for me.
Deficit deadlifts are the opposite of block pulls as they increase the range of motion. To perform a deficit deadlift you elevate your feet on a plate or box with the deadlift bar on the floor. This increases the range of motion, which can be helpful for people who are weak off the floor and help develop the hamstring muscles as they are working through a greater range of motion.
The snatch grip deadlift is another variation which increases the range of motion through which you lift the weight. To perform a snatch grip deadlift you take a wider grip - similar to the grip taken by olympic weightlifters whilst performing a snatch - usually with your hands outside the rings on the bar. This increases the range of motion at both the bottom and top of the deadlift as the bar locks out higher, closer to your hips making it a great accessory exercise for people who are weak off the floor and at lockout. When you are performing a snatch grip deadlift, it is helpful to use lifting straps. As you’re taking a wide grip on the bar, it can be difficult to hold the bar unless you’re using a hook grip, which becomes uncomfortable when you’re using high reps.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and Stiff-legged deadlifts are both great variations for targeting the hamstring specifically without taxing the back. Romanian deadlifts are primarily a hip hinge movement from the top down. To begin a RDL you either perform a normal deadlift from the floor before the first rep or set the bar in a rack around hip height, picking it up and stepping forward. Once you are stood up with the bar in your hands, arch your back and slightly bend your knees. Then hinge forward at the hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings and stand back up.
The stiff-legged deadlift variation are similar to the RDL. You begin with the bar on the floor and perform a deadlift with your knees slightly unlocked and perform the rep by just hinging at the hips. This variation requires you to have a greater degree of hip mobility than the Romanian Deadlift.
The final deadlift variation is the single leg deadlift. Single-leg work is typically unpopular with powerlifters; they’re hard and you have to use low weights. However, single leg deadlifts are a great exercise for stretching and strengthening the hip muscles, primarily the abductors and external rotators which can help keep the hips healthy - increasing longevity and keeping you feeling good for your heavy squats and deadlifts.
Outside of deadlift variations, there are a couple of good accessory compound and isolation exercises which help develop the muscles used in the deadlift. For the hamstrings, glute ham raises, nordic curls, leg curls and single leg curls are useful for developing hamstring hypertrophy. To perform these exercises requires some equipment - either a glute ham raise or leg curl machine. These exercises can be done for high reps, 10-20 reps, for multiple sets.
For hip and glute hypertrophy the best exercises are squats, deadlifts and there close variations. Alongside these exercises, hip thrusts are a great additional exercise. To perform these, rest with your back against a bench with a barbell across your hips. Thrust up with your hips and drive the barbell towards the ceiling and contract your hips when you reach lockout. By targeting the hips and glutes, you will drastically improve your lockout strength for the deadlift.
The final set of accessory exercises for the deadlifts are barbell rows and their variations; the barbell row, the underhand row and the penally row. These exercises all target the muscles of the back and help keep the shoulders healthy for bench press. Generally speaking, deadlifts are the best exercise for developing the back muscles but rows are a great option to help develop the lats and deltoids. Rows - and their variations - should be an accessory work in your program to help protect the shoulder from heavy pressing work, but they’re a great exercise for developing back strength for the deadlift.
The deadlift is an exercise where the accessory work is most similar to the main lift. For most lifters, issues within the deadlift are either technical - i.e. the hips raising too fast - or weakness at a specific position within the lift - e.g. at lockout. Deadlift accessory work therefore attempts to address these issues by replicating the movement closely with subtle variations to target these weaknesses. The muscles involved in the deadlift: the hamstrings, glutes and lats; all receive significant hypertrophic stimulus from the deadlift and its variations. Additional isolation work to target these muscle groups will help improve the deadlift by making the muscles involved bigger and stronger - with hamstring curls, glute bridges and rows all excellent choices. Combining your main deadlift with a well targeted accessory variation to address weakness with some hamstring and back isolation work to drive hypertrophy will have you pulling a PR in no time!
Here we are - back again with The Beginner Series. Today we're looking at the accessories for the bench press.
James Kennedy has written this one and has even included a sample routine to try. Give it a look below.
Cliff Notes -
Read Time - 3.5 minutes.
Word Count - 1050.
Main Points -
You'll struggle with bench in certain positions - read below to figure out where.
Certain muscles contribute massively to bench press - see how to improve them individually, and as part of a larger unit.
Continuing our series on the big three power lifts, in this article we will outline accessory work for the bench press. As discussed in the article on accessory work for the squat, the purpose of accessory work is to address imbalances developed during the primary lift, address weak points and develop hypertrophy in the muscles used during the major lift.
The main muscles used within the bench press are the pectorals, deltoids and the triceps. There is also a need, for shoulder health and longevity, to perform upper back work. The bench press puts a lot of strain on the shoulder joint within one plane - the horizontal push. This leads to the development of the muscles at the front of the shoulder but not the back; accessory work for the bench press should involve upper back work to address this imbalance. Furthermore, powerlifting puts a lot of strain on the shoulder joint. The low bar squat and bench press requires a reasonable degree of shoulder mobility and health - most powerlifters reading this will have had shoulder pain, discomfort or injury at some point. It is essential to use accessory work to address this, strengthen the shoulder muscles and reduce the injury risk.
Accessory work for the bench press can be split into two groups on this basis - pressing accessories and shoulder health accessories. Pressing accessory exercises are exercises targeting the pressing muscles - pectorals, deltoids and triceps. These exercises range from compound exercises - e.g. overhead press - to isolation exercises - e.g. tricep extensions. Shoulder health accessory work is primarily focused on improving the strength of the shoulder joint and addressing the muscular imbalances caused by pressing. Examples of this kind of exercise include rear lateral raises or dumbbell rows.
People tend to fail the bench press in two positions - off the chest or at lockout. Failing off the chest indicates that the pressing muscles need to get stronger, whereas failing at lockout indicates relatively weak triceps. The first set of accessory exercises will be pressing exercises, relatively similar to the bench press, aimed at improving general pushing strength. The second set of pressing accessories will be aimed at improving strength at lockout and will primarily target the triceps.
The spoto press may look like you're just cheating on reps - however if you are doing it correctly it will massively improve both your bench technique and strength. The spoto press was popularised by legendary powerlifter, Eric Spoto, who set multiple bench press world records including a 327.5kg raw bench press. He credits the spoto press with developing the strength of his chest at the bottom of the lift. To perform the spoto press, pause the bar an inch or two above the chest instead of touching the bar to the press. This forces you to lower the bar under control and builds ‘reversal strength’ within the pectoral muscles as you cannot sink the bar into your chest and ‘heave’ the bar back up.
Incline press and shoulder press, with barbells or dumbbells, both target the deltoids, pectorals and the triceps. By performing the bench press on an inclined surface, the shoulders are targeted to a greater degree. The shoulder press and it’s variations primarily helps develop shoulder strength but it will also develop tricep and pectoral strength. For powerlifters, the focus should almost always be on the bench press, relegating overhead pressing to accessory lifts. For general physique or strongmen athletes a more balanced approach to pressing would make more sense, with alternation between bench press and shoulder press as the primary pressing movement or even relegating the bench press to an accessory movement for strongman athletes.
The key compound exercises used to address triceps weaknesses are the narrow or close grip bench press. This is similar to a normal bench press, except instead of taking as wide of grip as possible, your grip should be narrower than shoulder width. This forces the triceps to do more work, improving their strength and driving hypertrophy. Another good option, which can be done for high reps, are dips. These can either be done using a bench - bench dips - or using dip bars. Performing high rep sets of tricep dips is a great way of developing tricep hypertrophy.
Alongside these major lifts to develop pectoral, deltoid and tricep hypertrophy, accessory work to improve shoulder health and muscular imbalances is also needed. These exercises should be added to any routine that involves heavy pressing to balance out the muscular development of the shoulder.
To begin with, keep it simple - pull-ups and dumbbell rows will help develop your traps, delta and lats. Pull ups in particular are a great exercise for shoulder health as they also open out the chest and stretch the pectoral muscles. If you can’t do a pull-up do not be afraid (or too proud) to use a resistance band to start with.
Alongside pull ups and dumbbell rows, there are three varieties of raises that can be performed to develop different, hard to isolate muscles of the deltoids. The front raise targets the posterior deltoids, lateral raises the medial deltoids and rear deltoid raises target the posterior deltoids. Utilising these exercises allows you to build up all the muscles of the shoulder, improving shoulder health, stability and strength.
If you're unsure what exactly you need to work on for your bench press or you’re just starting out and need to develop general pressing strength and upper body hypertrophy, the training split outlined below would be suitable for you. To perform this plan, you should be doing two pressing workouts in a microcycle (a microcycle is the shortest unit of training time within a longer, structured training cycle - usually a week).
Bench Press 3x5 @ 75-85% RM
Incline Press 3x8-12 @ 65-75% RM
Lateral Raises 2x15
Spoto Press 3x5 @ 75-85% RM
Shoulder Press 3x5 @ 75-85% RM
Dumbell Rows 3x8-12
Tricep Pushdowns 3x15-20
Dumbell Flys 3x10-12
Face Pulls 3x8
Rear delt raise 2x15
By performing the following split you’ll be developing the technical skills to dominate the bench press - the most technical of the powerlifts - and the hypertrophy necessary to continue progression. In addition to the hypertrophy in your pecs, delts and triceps, this plan will enable you to build up the shoulder strength you need to continue powerlifting and pressing impressive weights!
When trying to find the absolute best mindset to compete in most powerlifters will tend to lean towards sheer rage - regardless of whether this is best for them or not. Some will go to a solemn place, others will get themselves amused beforehand. Regardless of which way they choose to go their destination should be one where they have little to no intrusive thought, no over thinking and no reliance on sheer brute strength. They should get to a position where that mindset is based upon pure instinct. Or based upon...ultra instinct.
Now I won’t go into a full diatribe about Dragon Ball, or its sequels Z,Super and GT (yes, it counts) but I will link you to my previous Dragon Ball-meets-sports-science article where I compared a Zenkai boost to peaking and, more importantly here, I explain what Dragon Ball is. *
However, what is important to know is that in Super, canonically the furthest into the story, Goku gets to a tournament where his team includes none other than his first proper teacher - Master Roshi. Throughout this tournament Goku gets absolutely destroyed by a foe he can’t get anywhere near called Jiren.
In the manga there is a great scene where Goku is trying to rely on just being stronger or transforming (again) to try to overcome Jiren. Until Roshi basically just tells him to fight better and rely on his techniques. Roshi, who at this point is nowhere near the level of Goku, then manage to show a small understanding of ‘Ultra Instinct’ and manages to go toe-to-toe with Jiren for a short time and, thus, inspires Goku.*1
Following this Goku realises that if he focuses less on being stronger or going harder and just hones in on his technique then he will move better, fight better and, perform better technically which results in him achieving the use of ‘Ultra Instinct.’
The idea of switching off and just doing the movement has its base in sports psychology, martial arts and philosophies from various parts of the world, such as Japan where it would be ‘Mushin,’ or China where it would be something akin to ‘Daoism.’
What is the real life Ultra Instinct?
It’s not so much a thing as it is a state of mind. In Dragon Ball, the aim is to switch off their brain from over complicating things and letting their highly trained, highly skilled bodies react by themselves. They know how to fight, so just fight - don’t think about it first, just fight. This sounds really simple but after years of deliberate practice it can be hard to just trust yourself, it can be hard to just turn your brain off.
In the Western world, the most common name for this state would be the ‘flow state,’ whereas in the Eastern areas of philosophy, namely Japan, it would be ‘Mushin,’ which means ‘empty mind,’ or ‘mind without mind.’ I like the idea of ‘empty mind,’ best as this succinctly describes the state you want to be in in order to allow yourself to just do what you need to do.
As ever, a bridge between the Eastern and Western philosophies, particularly when it comes to fighting, is Bruce Lee. He suggested that one should -
Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Be water, my friend."
So, what is Mushin and what does it mean to you, the powerlifter? It is the idea of freeing the mind of fear, of ego, of anger and, of random thoughts. This basically means removing all distractions other than the technique you need - which, as we’ll get on to later, comes through practice, practice and more practice.
The practice of this state of Mushin must be practiced alongside the technique - however, for beginners the technique must take precedence. *2
‘Flow State’ is the scientific name to the philosophical ‘Mushin.’ You could also refer to it as being ‘in the zone.’ You may find that when you are in this zone that time flies due to your lack of distraction to other events which you would usually use to measure time.
Now this state of mind isn’t recommended for the beginner - not because it is inherently extreme but rather - because for it to work best you need to be at a relatively high skill level in your chosen sport. Here I will focus on powerlifting as that's my main area of expertise.
If you’re at your competition and about to hit your first squat you want to be able to just get under the bar and do your thing. You don’t want to be distracting yourself with concerns about whether or not your left foot is in line with your right foot or whether you’ve left the stove on at home. You want to routinely set yourself up in an efficient, practiced manner and just do.
But how do we get to this stage you might ask?
The answer won’t surprise you; it’s practice. Deliberate practice is the main thing you need in order to become an expert. Dr Ericsson claimed in 1990 that for you to become an expert in your chosen field you will need to clock up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.*3
There are a few things to consider about that previous paragraph. Firstly, it has to be deliberate practice and not just going through the motions (eg, practicing to be an F1 driver compared to driving around town every day). Secondly, it doesn’t always apply to sport - some people have an innate talent - however, most people will still improve with consistent, deliberate practice. Thirdly, it’s an organic pursuit. You don’t necessarily get to a point and become an expert and unlock all of these skills, you will get better as you go and can apply various principles (including ‘ultra instinct’ to your performances).
Going back to the powerlifting example, if you do get to a competition then it is highly likely that you have trained towards it. Practicing the skills and increasing your strength and having gone through some kind of competition strategy. In this time you will have learned how to do the lifts to the technical standards, but also applied some time to learning how it works best for you.
It is very easy to get to a good standard and then stay there. This idea is called the ‘ok plateau,’ and I won’t go too much into it here but I’ll leave a note below.
In my experience, I try to get my lifters to set up in a similar manner each time so that they don’t need to overthink it, they don’t need to worry if this minute thing is right or not - it just is. Specific, deliberate practice on this mindset is very important, and the constant practicing of the squat, bench press and deadlift set up will encourage you to find what works.
Personally, I can not get ready in an angry or overly hyped way as it distracts me more than the extra bit of aggression is worth. I like to be in a happy, almost humorous state of mind to just switch off when I need to. Other people might need aggression, but as stated above, it can lead to more distractions.
Ultra Instinct vs Getting Hyped.
Ultra Instinct, the flow state (or Mushin), should be focused upon the set up for the lift through to the lift itself as this is the time where the technique is most important.
Personally, I think too many people go straight for the “get angry,” approach and as a result of this they don’t try other styles to get into this zone. If you use the wrong style of psyching up you will likely find that you’re leaving kilos on the platform and not performing as well as you potentially could.
A potential problem with preparations that require a lot of emotional energy, whether that be anger, rage or sadness,etc is that the more you get used to it the less effective it can be. Which means that if you get yourself angry and hyped up for near enough every lift, or every workout, when you get to a competition it won’t work anywhere near as well due to the law of diminishing returns. This constant drawing on emotions will burn you out mentally, emotionally and physically very quickly too - this is one reason why I tend to lean more towards a controlled, calm approach.
To apply this to your powerlifting, or any performance based event you will need to deliberately practice it. If you’ve practiced to a point where you are technically proficient in the squat, for example, then you can now practice getting into this mindset.
You might find that you need to tap into some anger, maybe some laughter, maybe even some serenity. Find what works and get really good at channeling it.
Also, make mistakes and don’t be afraid to do so. Making mistakes is how we get better at things, you should make a mistake and then think “well, I won’t do that again.” Try various ways and if they don’t work “take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine...the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can.” After you have made loads of mistakes you will then be left with a few ways of doing things well, eventually you’ll whittle these down to something that works particularly well. *4
It is easy for me to write that you should just keep trying until you find what works but a lot of people will not be able to quieten their distracting thoughts that are spinning around their head while trying to prepare for a lift. This is where a good degree of mindfulness and meditation can come in handy. This will teach you to shut off some of these more anxious thoughts and let you just be, without having to think about it.
For me, it wasn’t until my 3rd full competition that I started to realise what type of motivation worked best for me, so from then on the idea of relaxing and enjoying the moment is what I started focusing on for getting my head into it from then on.
Some people might find that singing to themselves turns off that part of the brain that second guesses you. Others might find certain music, along with mindful meditation, gets them into that Ultra Instinct state.
You can see an example of the singing application via one of my favourite tv shows here.
Alcohol also helps to shut that function of the brain off - hence people making so many bad decisions under the influence - however, it is only at the initial stages of intoxication that this happens and I definitely would not suggest either training under the influence or matching the amount you drink to the amount you train.
Your hair and eyes won’t turn an interesting silver colour but you will exude calmness while performing perfect technique (or as perfect as your technique work has gotten you to) when lifting on the platform.
Getting to this point takes a lot of deliberate practice, practice in the technical aspects of lifting and practice in controlling your mind, your anxieties and your ego. Keep practicing, keep trying different ways and make mistakes but learn from them.
All the Dragon Ball mangas, obviously.
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Bounce by Matthew Syed.
Intuition Pumps by Daniel C Dennett.
* http://dannyleeonline.co.uk/blog/ascend-your-level-with-a-real-life-zenkai - nerd out here.
*1 - In the anime, it takes Goku to be hit with his own deflected spirit bomb to discover ultra instinct.
*2 - https://shotokantimes.com/2019/09/03/what-is-mushin-and-how-to-achieve-it/
*3 - I have written a little more extensively on becoming an expert, and a little on Mushin, in the past - you can find it here - https://propanefitness.com/how-to-become-an-expert-guest-post-by-danny-lee/
*4 - Daniel C. Dennett - Intuition Pumps - And Other Tools For Thinking. While on this topic, also check out Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.