Best Assistance Exercises for Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press

Written by  Adam Kitchen
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If you're struggling on the big three - that is, squat, deadlift, and bench press - then these three, simple movements may be all you need to push you past that plateau.

One of the most elegant functions of the human body, in my opinion, is its compensatory actions it spontaneously will force upon us when we try to force it beyond reason.

Good examples of this include hyperextending the spine to complete a deadlift or squat, or the elbows tucking in ferociously on a bench press. Granted, these are negative compensatory actions we want to avoid and can inflict damage upon the body done long-term, but they are never the less short-term solutions intended to 'save' us from the stress of very heavy loads.

The solution to rectifying these compensatory actions? Simple. Identify the weak segment of a particular lift, and integrate exercises to strengthen those particular muscle groups. Whilst there's not a ubiquitous solution for every individual, there are some too frequent mistakes; i.e, hyperextending the spine, for example, is a very frequent occurance that we can provide universal advice upon.

Without further ado, lacking the scientific jargon and terminology you're usually pummeled with, here are my three favourite assistance exercises to complement the big three lifts.

Exercise: Deadlifts

Problem: Rounding the spine

Solution: Good Mornings

Good mornings are without question, the best deadlift assistance exercise. In fact, they're just a tremendous exercise in general. They might not be your first port of call as a bodybuilder, but if you're an athlete, or interested in performance, they're one of those unparalleled movements for what they offer.

Working the whole posterior chain, good mornings will induce tremendous stress on your lumbar region, hamstrings and glutes.

For me, the best aspect of good mornings is the fact that they teach you incredible 'stability', and how to hold a neutral spine. I don't know if you've seen many deadlifts in your gym recently, but a crooked spine looking like self-inflicted scoliolsis is the most common mishap for hapless deadlifters who genuinely try to not screw the lift up. The good morning will rectify this; to an extent. Holding a neutral spine when deadlifting is crucial, and besides generally weak hamstrings and over-assertive quad and lower back dominance, it's a big, big problem that causes the lifter to make himself vulnerable.

One last benefit of good mornings: to some degree, they help stretch the hip flexors. If you ever do a good morning properly, then it will push your ass and stretch the hip flexors, which is another neglected principle of correct deadlifting form.

Here's a video of good form: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYOzw-Q0RfY

You don't need to come that far down, and you certainly won't be able to maintain a neutral spine with reasonable weight once you do so - a bit of rounding is inevitable. My advice would be to come to a depth that is comfortable to you just before parallel to the floor, and push the hips forward (as you would with a deadlift) to complete the lift.

Rep range recommendations vary. I personally prefer lower rep ranges, and making the movement more explosive. I suggest you do the same. 5-8 reps at a maximum over 3-4 sets. Start off light, and then add weight as you would with any exercise patiently, and slowly.

Exercise: Squats

Problem: Quad dominance

Solution: Glute Ham Raises

When I talk about squats, I get a little too excited. Then, like deadlifts, the reality brings me crashing back down earth: Most people's squat form, is not just bordering on the horrendous, it is absolutely diabolical. It is atrocious, and very hard to look at.

There are numerous problems that I could sit and discuss all day pertinent to poor squat form. If your problem is simply hitting parallel or below, you need to work on your hip mobility and muscle length-tension relationship especially. The following advice is for people who have sufficient flexibility to go to the required depth, but their form is still poor.

OK, with that disclaimer aside, this is where glute ham raises come in. Quite frankly, the ultimate hamstring / glute builder. If you haven't heard of this exercise before, you probably haven't been in the game long enough to know it is brutal, and therefore, as with other movements, highly avoided.

Why put significant effort into strengthening the hamstrings? The reason is because most people possess too much strength in their quads and don't have adequate hamstring strength. They push forward with their knees travelling over their toes, and round the back on the way up. They can't "sit back" into the squat as you're meant to, and release the full potential that true hamstring strength offers in assisting the movement. They're a victim of bad habit; I know, because I have been too for years.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne_pPfxb-_8

If you don't have access to that piece of equipment, sticking your feet under a bench, or a station at the latpulldown or other common abbreviations you will find on Youtube.

This is a brutal exercise that shows no mercy. Don't be surprised if you cannot complete one rep; it's unlikely you will be able to do two good repetitions at first go. Stay persistent with them, and keep doing them more frequently.

Control the negative if you're new to them, and build up the reps each workout until you can start accommodating additional resistance. Start off with 15 reps per workout, and move up to 20, 25 with your bodyweight, and watch your hamstring strength fly up in no time.

Exercise: Bench Press

Problem: Weak triceps

Solution: Decline close-grip bench press

Most guys still don't realise that the triceps are the primary mover in the bench press - not the pecs. You need to learn how to tuck the elbows and utilise the true potential of powering through your triceps. Until then, it's inevitable you'll encounter a plateau, and worse still, injuries will take precedence over your progression.

I realise my selective exercise may be a bit contentious for bench press, but I truly believe that a decline, close-grip bench press, offers superb bang for your buck in exercise efficiency. There's just no other exercise that puts the triceps under such a strenuous load and is comfortable on the shoulder joint and elbows in my experience. As such, you get the ultimate test of triceps power. Simply pushing the bar up and down on a decline platform with a close grip is a simple and effective way of bringing your pressing power up to par.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaYp8DA8-Kc

That guys grip is a little close. I recommend slightly edging your grip out a little further, but not too much to incorporate more deltoid and pec activation. We want to emphasise the triceps predominantly.

For this exercise, your rep range can vary a fair bit. I know some guys like higher reps on these, where others - including myself - like to utilise lower rep ranges and really concentrate on explosiveness through the concentric. Both strategies work well.

 

Hopefully you enjoyed this piece. The key to utilising assistance exercises correctly is to be efficient with your choices, and use them to supplement the lift you're trying to improve - not replace them. I always recommend prioritising them second in your workout, immediately after the main compound lift. Treat them with the same respect as the big three, trying to increase the increments gradually and progress with strength on them.

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