Sometimes, the world of “smart” training can set up camp with a very discriminating mind towards any exercises that aren’t squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and chin ups.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of excoriating a movement that isn’t compound, closed chain, and multi-joint in nature.
But lifters and coaches alike would be smart to recognize that we’re not competing for the powerlifting championship.
And funny enough, even powerlifters often have a surprising amount of variety outside the big lifts to their own programs.
With all of this said, there are movements that can help your gains that go beyond the standard split squat, floor press and dumbbell row.
I’ve compiled a list of moves that most lifters sleep on but shouldn’t take their efficacy for granted. Chances are you haven’t heard of most of them.
1. Cobra Pulldown
Typical lat pulldowns often use a medium to wide hand grip position that can’t be adjusted during the course of a set. A cobra pulldown allows for a greater stretch to the lat since the hand gets to start further overhead and closer to the midline.
Second, the single arm component allows a lifter to play with his wrist and elbow position which can be quite the advantage when looking for peak stimulation. Set up an inclined bench beside a cable stack and be sure to set the shoulder before each pull.
2. J Rope Pull
Sticking with the lat theme, the J pull combines a stiff arm pulldown with a row pattern that does a good job of mimicking the slanted pattern that the lat fibers travel in.
It is also a way to train both scapular retraction and depression through a loaded pattern, which is unique compared to exercises that generally ask for one or the other.
With that said, this is not a movement to load heavily, and high reps are the goal here. Sets of 12-20 reps are advised.
3. Kettlebell Angled Press
A common issue with upper back strength is the lack of lower trap (trap 3) muscle firing. The lower traps actually contract downwards and can counter the dominance often brought about with the upper traps when they’re strong or tight. As a result, faulty pulling mechanics can be cleared up and target muscles can be hit more effectively.
The kettlebell angled press creates the stimulation for the postural muscles including the lower traps while making use of the lighter kettlebells that many lifters find no purpose for. The fact that the bell is on a handle also makes a lifter have to fight harder for full shoulder flexion position (since the load is slightly below).
On top of this, the “slide-in, slide-out” movement pattern encourages much less deltoid activation since the lever arm is only held long for a brief portion of the movement. In the video, I’m using a 20 pound kettlebell. Be sure to keep a rigid trunk and commit to the deep hip flexion angle. Don’t stand up.
4. Single Leg Pull Through
The single leg deadlift is one of the most popular variations of unilateral lower body training. The problem that I’ve encountered personally and with many clients is that more energy ends up being put into the single leg deadlift in the form of searching for balance and a proper hip position.
This frustrates their ability to tap into hamstring and glute activation and reap the benefits the exercise is meant to deliver. For this reason, I prefer using the variation seen in the video. The force angle directly opposes the hip hinge pattern, and since the trailing leg is banked, it makes the lift much more stable and takes balance out of the equation.
5. TRX Body Saw
For many, ab wheel rollouts can be a bit too difficult, and body saws can create the same anti-extension demand without as much stress on the lower spine due to a shorter lever arm (the elbows are planted on the ground).
Having the feet suspended adds a significant amount of emphasis on the core regardless, and makes the import of the exercise very strong.
6. Paused Rep Deadlift
Most smart lifters don’t avoid barbell deadlifts, but only make variations to their stance or rep range when looking to shake things up for progression. Adding a pause midway through the rep can create added time under tension, but even more importantly, it can clean up many messy areas regarding spine positioning.
It’s very difficult to maintain a paused rep with a rounded back, granted you’re consciously focusing on form. Holding an isometric midway up the shin gives the low back the opportunity to spend an appreciable amount of time in that position, rather than simply pass through it as it does during conventional reps.
Remember: It doesn’t take too long a hold in the pause. 1 – 1.5 seconds is plenty.
7. High Pulls
High pulls are a smart choice for a couple of reasons. First of all, when compared to shrugs, they generally put the traps through a greater range of motion and stronger contraction due to the fact that the shoulder and elbow get to elevate higher.
When compared to upright rows, they lower risk for shoulder impingement due the reliance on trap involvement rather than deltoid (and a depressed shoulder).
Third, and in my opinion, most important, they can deliver the benefits of a power clean without having to deal with a rack position. This is a dream come true for immobile lifters who have difficulty finding the flexibility for the finishing elbow or wrist position. Now they don’t have to force a painful finish, and can still match the weight they clean without a problem.
These lifts can also be done using a snatch grip or anything in between.
8. Dead Bugs
These are often cast off as “too easy” since there’s no real resistance involved. The thing people overlook is that it’s a movement that solely depends on how hard you make it. In the video, I show a variation of the movement that involves holding an isometric press into the wall.
The goal is to press as hard as possible while letting the legs go through the movement maintaining a completely neutral spine. After the first 5 to10 seconds, your abdominals should be trembling.
Other variations of dead bugs include anti-rotational force (resisting a band or partner pulling your arms in one direction), and isometric trunk flexion (trying to “chop through” a blockage or bar located above the face or chest at arms’ length.
Don’t Hate Until you Try
The most common characteristic of internet trolls is that they spend too much time hating what they think is wrong with training methods that they don’t actually find the time to train themselves, let alone try the movements they’re questioning.
That’s why none of them have a physique worth admiring. Don’t be that guy. Implement some of these as assistance exercises to your big lifts, and you’ll probably be happy you kept an open mind.