Expanding on the ultra-basics with assistance exercises.

Absolute strength master getting his psych on prior to a maximum attempt: as is evident, powerlifting’s short movements using maximal payloads along with carefully chosen assistance exercises build herculean mass.

There are three generalized types of strength: absolute, explosive and sustained. Absolute strength is best exemplified by a limit power lift wherein a maximum payload is lifted for a short distance with no regard for velocity or time. Explosive strength is best exemplified by an Olympic lift, a snatch or clean & jerk. A moderate payload is hoisted for a (relatively) long distance with maximum velocity. Sustained strength purposefully injects muscular exertion into an aerobic format and is exemplified by an extended kettlebell session, sprinting up hills or perhaps hoisting or dragging strongman implements for extended periods.

In the world of absolute strength, squats, bench presses, deadlifts and overhead pressing form “the core four.” These four lifts are the ultra-basic lifts. Frankly, to maximize absolute strength and increase muscle size, mastery of the four lifts is all that need be done as these four lifts attack every muscle on the human body. In elite absolute strength circles, technique is taken to a high art, precision techniques are taught, technical benchmarks established. Techniques are mastered over time and with continual repetition.

While the four lifts form the irreducible exercise essence, often the athlete wants to do more. The core four can easily be expanded depending on the goals, wants and needs of the trainee. When the athlete wants to expand upon the core four (and there are five variations of each of the core four lifts) there is a hierarchy of “secondary” exercises, a ranking of auxiliary exercises that “assist” the core four. If the core four are the nucleus, these key assistance exercises are protons that form the next outer orbit.

Top Tier Assistance Exercises

Back                power cleans & snatches, various row types, power rack pulls

Chest               incline barbell and dumbbell press, dumbbell flye

Legs                stiff leg dead for hamstrings, lying leg curls, calf raises

Shoulders        push jerks, rack work, Williams front raise, machine pressing

Arms               curls, dips, tricep exercises

The core four could be expanded with great ease. First, establish the optimal training frequency. Work backwards from there. How many days a week do you want to train? Two? Three? Four? Five times a week? If, by way of example the athlete decided that they wanted to train four times a week, the expanded program would be easy to lay out…

Monday           legs                              front squats, hamstring deadlift, calf raises

Tuesday          chest & arms               dumbbell bench press, dumbbell inclines, spider curls, dips

Wednesday     off

Thursday         off

Friday              back                            power clean, deadlift off a weight plate, barbell row, chin/pulldown

Saturday          shoulders & arms        barbell press, seated dumbbell press, DB curls, nose breakers

Sunday            off

5-rep top sets: front squats, deads off a plate, dumbbell bench press and barbell overhead press

8-rep tops sets: hamstring deadlifts, dumbbell incline press, seated DB press,

8-10 rep top sets: spider curls, dumbbell curls, dips, nose-breakers, calf raises   

In each session, one of the five variations of the core four are selected and performed. These core exercises are augmented with additional assistance exercises. The order and flow, the construction of each of the four workouts is given a great amount of thought: the progression of exercises follows a logical flow and order.

Leg and back work are purposefully placed at opposite ends of the training week. The muscles of the glutes, erectors, upper quads, abs and hamstrings are blasted twice weekly. The intensity of leg and back training tax the central nervous system. Keep legs and back separated to optimize workout performance and accelerate recovery.

Power cleans, or any explosive Olympic lift that happens to be being practiced, always need be done first in the workout.  The cutting-edge thinking on explosive strength is that, optimally, explosive training need always be done when the body and the central nervous system are fresh. Explosive reps are limited to singles and doubles, no more. Past the second rep explosiveness plummets. If the “quick lifts” are buried deep in the workout, if reps are pushed past three, the central nervous system burns out and explosiveness nosedives.

The generalized warmup procedure is to perform high reps on the first set in each exercise. A high rep set raises core muscle temperature while grooving in technique. The number of warm-up sets depends on the top set poundage – it takes more sets to get to 405 x 5 in the deadlift (warm-up sets with 135, 225, 275, 315, 365) than it does to get to 155 x 5 in the overhead barbell press (95, 115). Reps are lowered as the poundage increases. Results are logged for every set of every exercise.

If you had three days to train, train legs on the first training day, train bench and arms on the second training day and back and shoulders on the third day. Fewer sessions mean longer sessions. When you expand the core four menu with assistance exercises allot more time. The idea is to extend the session duration without diluting the intensity. How far can we push the duration envelope before results nosedive? Where is the tipping point?

The number one question we are asked is, “what about resistance machines? They are everywhere. They dominate the commercial gym landscape – yet we don’t – or won’t – even mention them – what’s up with that?!” When it comes to depth of muscular inroad, machines are inferior to free weights. Pick any exercise, say, a bench press or the machine equivalent, the seated chest press. Why is the machine version inferior? Machines eliminate the 3rddimension of tension, the need to control side-to-side motion.

With an exercise machine, the user pushes or pulls within a mechanically frozen motor-pathway allowing muscle stabilizers to lie dormant. Machines are the Lite beer of progressive resistance training. Hit the core four variations and the “approved” assistance exercises first, still have energy then feel free to add machine work – just don’t let it replace the free weight movement it mimics.

It is only natural to want to expand on the basics. Each of the core four have five variations that can be and should be rotated over the course of the training year. Expand the core template with Tier I assistance exercises. Mastery of the core four is progressive resistance training bootcamp. It lays the foundation for all that follows. Layer on the assistance work with great care and attention.

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About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.