Beyond the Core Four Barbell Lifts
Beyond the Core Four Barbell lifts lie the Outer Five
Explosive lifts need to be explosive: low reps, done first, no compromise on velocity
When the talk turns to strength training, there needs to be a differentiation made between the three generalized strength types: absolute strength, explosive strength, sustained strength. Each strength type requires individualized attention. Optimally, the athlete adheres to a training matrix that proportionally apportions training time to each of the three generalized strength types.
- Absolute strength: epitomized by a massive powerlifter moving maximum payloads for short distances with no regard for duration
- Explosive strength: epitomized by the lightening-fast Olympic weightlifter moving moderate payloads with maximum velocity over a long range-of-motion
- Sustained strength: epitomized by an MMA fighter engaging in endless drills that require strength be exerted at (relatively) low levels for extended durations
Within the universe of absolute strength training, there are four critical resistance training exercises, the Core Four, that, if done in combination, build and strengthen every muscle on the body. The four fundamental and irreplaceable exercises are the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press. Each of the Core Four has five variations.
If the goal is to expand on the Core Four, to augment the Core 4 what exercises would be recommended? If the Core Four constitute the nucleus, what exercises would constitute the next outer ring of proven-effective exercises? What movements would make the cut? What productive exercises lie beyond the Core Four? There is a strong consensus amongst the iron elite over what exercises would and should be included when expanding the exercise menu…
- Power clean: our first exercise choice is the power clean. This movement embodies explosiveness. Feel free to substitute full squat clean, power snatch, full snatch, clean & jerk, or jerk off the racks, in addition to, or in place of, the power clean. Olympic lifting introduces explosive strength into the training template. Cutting-edge thinking indicates that explosive lifting should be done first in a workout, while the central nervous system is fresh and rested. Limit sets to 2-reps, no more. Explode the reps, take a small jump, repeat. When rep #2 ceases to be explosive, you are done. Place power cleans first on back training day, power cleans make a fabulous warm-up for deadlifting. Use the same 2-rep limit, all-reps-explosive, technique on every Olympic lift or variation. Do not turn an explosive power clean into a ponderous upright row followed by a reverse curl; do not turn a jerk into a slow-motion push-press.
- Rowing: some resistance trainers swear by barbell or dumbbell rowing and obtain incredible results, i.e. they build thick, powerful lats. For others, a sizeable portion of those that row, rowing does nothing. It is all dependent on if you can make the mind-muscle connection – do the lats contract in real time as you row? or not? The major row types are overhand, with various grip widths, under-hand rowing, using a narrow-grip, i.e. the famed Dorian Yates 70-degree row. There are super-strict styles of rowing and purposefully loose styles of rowing. You can row with one or two dumbbells – the goal is to find a row type that you are able to create definitive, measurable, upper and/or lower lat contraction on every rep of every set. The problem for most trainees is they “arm pull” rows. You can activate the biceps to aide or replace the lats as both lats and biceps are used to pull a payload towards the body. Trainees need get the biceps out of rowing. If you arm pull a row you turn a great back exercise into a terrible biceps exercise.
- Arm work: biceps and triceps, or more properly, triceps and biceps. Triceps strength is critical for bench pressing and overhead pressing. Triceps need be trained diligently, regularly, and usually immediately after flat benching or inclining. There is a hierarchy amongst triceps exercises: 1st among equals would be weighted and free-hand dips. Equally as effective are the flat-bench tricep press variations using the barbell, dumbbells, or EZ-Curl bar. Single and double dumbbell tricep work, done seated, standing, or lying, should always be in the tricep rotation. Leave the cable stuff for the very end, or (gasp!) skip it. Biceps are done almost as an afterthought: instead of just standing around waiting to recover between heavy sets of dips or nose-breakers, do a set of bicep curls! Super-setting triceps with curls makes perfect sense, they go together, like ham and eggs or fish and chips. Do not try to set any world records in the curl, stick to 6 to 10 rep sets, pump sets, using different angles, seated, standing, incline, barbell, dumbbells…be imaginative. Improve tricep strength in the important triceps movements and performance in the flat bench, incline bench, press-behind-the-neck and overhead press automatically improve.
- Incline pressing: a proper incline press is halfway between a flat-bench and an overhead press. The classical incline angle is 45-degrees, and a significant percentage of hardcore trainees prefer to perform the 45-degree incline press with barbell or dumbbell, dropping the overhead press or press-behind-the-neck. Within the Core Four, a goodly portion of trainees will switch out the overhead press, standing or seated, done with barbell or dumbbells, for the 45-degee incline press. Kirk Karwoski loved the barbell incline press and hit 455 for 5 reps paused; Ken Fantano would incline press a pair of 200-pound dumbbells for six paused reps. Many hardcore trainees will experiment using a steeper angle, say 70-degrees, this to improve overhead pressing ability and place more stress on the delts. Other hardcore trainees will use a low angle to lessen shoulder strain and make the pushing more pectoral powered. Feel free to use the 45-degree incline press as a substitute for the overhead press within the Core Four. Place it behind flat benching in the regular line-up, or, better yet, give incline pressing its own day.
- Chins, pullups, pulldowns: for those that can chin, do pullups, etc. feel free to include them on back training day, after power cleans (or whatever explosive lift is selected) and deadlifts. Regardless if you chin or do pullups, make sure to identify what muscle you intend to attack, and then determine in real time if the anticipated contraction is occurring. Please do not perform partial rep chins or pull-ups: better five full ROM reps than twelve partial reps. Chins obviously activate biceps to a greater degree than pullups. Experiment with different grip widths to elicit differing muscular effects. Avoid fast, sloppy, choppy, reps. Pulldowns are for those unable to chin or perform pull-ups. The favored pullup/chin strategy of the hardcore is to work up to top sets of 6-8 reps in the weighted pull-up – then drop the extra weight and rep-out with no weight to failure.
Establish your resistance training template around the Core Four, or acceptable variations. Have the time and inclination to do more? No problem! Flush out the resistance training session by selecting exercises from the next outward concentric circle of exercises. Never get confused: The Core Four are irreplaceable and fundamental – do not fool yourself into thinking rows trump deadlifts or tricep pressing trumps bench pressing.
Stay clear on the fact that the Core Four are the meat and potatoes of resistance training. The next concentric circle outside the nucleus are always optional. If time pressed, stick to the Core Four. If you have the time and energy flush out your available training time with our second tier of beneficial exercises.
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 multiple 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.