by Robert Maxwell
Proper workout structure is crucial for muscle gain, and this means hitting the 4 main lifts: squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press. These compound barbell movements make you bigger and stronger, but they’re not enough on their own. Train only these 4 and you’ll miss out on serious gains. That’s where assistance lifts can help. Designed to hit smaller muscle groups and improve your main lifting numbers, assistance lifts must be chosen wisely. With so many fancy machines in most gyms, you might be tempted to try whatever looks interesting. Resist this urge. Assistance lifts should be picked for how well they support your squat, deadlift, press, and bench. They should also take workout efficiency into account. Which assistance lifts should you choose? Here are 5 I feel should be in everyone’s program.
Proper programming means an equal balance of pushes and pulls, and that’s one reason dips are vital. Curls are a pull, and must be balanced with a corresponding push for strong, even arm development. Full depth tricep dips are like squats for your arms. No other movement hits triceps as fully. For many gym goers, training arms means only curls. Trouble is, triceps make up way more of your upper arm – around 75%. If you’re not training them just as hard as biceps, your arms will look pretty strange. Dips also improve other lifts. Bench press is mainly a pectoral movement, but places tension on the triceps, too. Dips mean bigger arms and a better bench performance.
Both main upper body lifts, overhead press and bench press, involve moving the barbell with your arms. Biceps and triceps aren’t the main muscles in these lifts, but strong arms are crucial for performing them. That’s one reason curls are essential. The other reason is size. Biceps tend to be overemphasized by men who lift, but that doesn’t mean they should be neglected. Big, powerful arms are one of the first features women look at in a man, and if he lacks size here she won’t care much about development in other areas. Curls should be done at least once a week. Proper form is vital. Many bodybuilders swing their backs so they can curl more weight. This is foolish. If you want bigger biceps, strict curls are the way to go.
A big bench max isn’t as impressive if you can’t lift your bodyweight. Being large doesn’t let you off the hook, either. Everyone should be able to do pull-ups and chinups. They’re great for building a thick, strong back, and unlike other lifts, can be done anywhere you can hang from. They hit biceps from a different angle than curls, leading to fuller arm development. Pull-ups and chinups are dragging movements with direct carryover to deadlift, another dragging movement. As a pull, they’re also a nice countermove for upper body pushes like bench and overhead press. Once regular pull-ups and chinups get too easy, up the anti by wearing a weighted vest or pinching a plate between your knees.
Many novice lifters assume the only way to properly train hamstrings is leg curls. This isn’t true. Whenever possible, I recommend barbell movements rather than machines. Barbells allow for more natural, less assisted exercise. The best movement I know for hamstrings is Romanian Deadlift. Done like conventional deadlift without the knee bend, RDL hits the whole posterior chain: lower back, hamstrings and glutes. It’ll make your conventional deadlift stronger, and ensure you don’t neglect hamstrings when training legs. It’s particularly helpful for learning to keep your back straight and core braced, which applies to nearly every barbell movement.
If you’re serious about building big, powerful legs, you should be squatting twice a week. Legs are made to take lots of abuse, so growth means high training volume. Nothing builds quads like heavy barbell back squats, but I don’t usually recommend them more than once a week because of wear and tear. Enter front squats. They’re different enough to give your knees and hips a break, but similar enough to blast your legs. They have lots of carryover to back squats, so your numbers will go up on both. Bigger squats mean bigger legs. Front squats hit quads hardest, with less emphasis on hamstrings and glutes than back squats, especially low bar.
Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50