Smash Plateaus with Specialized Variety
As an avid strength enthusiast and coach, I feel like I am the target of every ad on social media that touts a gadget that will "add 100lbs to your bench press in just two weeks!” Or an article will pop up in my feed that promotes lifting under water in a swimming pool, which apparently helps any athlete crush a new dead lift PR. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I do hear about funky new training tools and ideas all the time. None of us wants to miss out on the latest cool trick that makes us stronger!
When it comes to lifting heavy though, it’s usually the simplest strategy that gets the job done long before we have to resort to using gadgets, cheats or trendy tricks; these are more for entertainment fitness anyway. In honing the skills of tension, relaxation, explosiveness and strength, there are no short cuts. Dedicated practice of the fundamental lifts is almost everything we need, however, plateaus do exist, and there are circumstances that call for a more tactical approach; recovering from injury, overwhelming stress levels outside the gym, or just dealing with changes in body composition are all such examples. So what can we do to keep progressing when faced with such challenges in training?
The stronger we get, the smarter we have to work to get even stronger. In martial arts, the journey to the black belt seems long, but it’s actually just a fraction of the journey required to reach new levels beyond the black belt. The truth is that the more you expose an organism to a given stimulus, the less responsive it will become. The biological law of accommodation states that this is a physiological imperative. We can’t fight it. So the longer you repeat an exercise, the less effective it might be at promoting a change. Ah the horror!
But wait… This principle is juxtaposed by the law of specific adaptation to imposed demands, which states that to be good at something, you have to practice it over and over again. This leads us to conclude that the best training paradigm is to use stimuli that are both different and the same all at once! Enter Specialized Variety and assistance work. Slightly different variations of the same exercise or skill can help to safely smash through plateaus and ensure that we’re still getting good at the right set of competencies without distracting our focus. Strength practice, especially for Powerlifting, benefits tremendously from this principle, and our Breakthrough Barbell Club is using this tactic right now as they prep for competition. Here’s a sneak peek at how they’re capitalizing on this principle.
In order to promote even greater lower body strength gains without running the risk of over-training the barbell Deadlift or Back Squat, the team is currently using the following:
Double Kettlebell Front Squats - Used as part of a separate “Light Day" of practice, this technique requires that the load is held in the rack position, enabling a full extension of the hips at the lockout and intensely works the midsection for more stable Back Squats on game day.
KB Goblet Squats - Used as movement prep to assist with finding depth in the squat (we have to break parallel in competition), as well as a light skills practice that shifts focus from week to week on the three phases of the lift; eccentric (slow negatives), isometric (pause squats) and concentric (explosive lockouts), building more strength and confidence throughout the entire lift.
Kettlebell Ballistics - Swings, Cleans and Snatches provide a hinge movement that also incorporates explosive power. This carries over to the barbell Deadlift, yielding surplus power to overcome challenging sticking spots.
Hip Bridges and Calf Raises - While the ballistics help with an explosive component, these movements provide additional practice time on the grinding skills, and slow strength requirements at the bottom and very top of the Deadlift where we need a little more gunpowder than dynamite sometimes.
For an upper body strength boost, our powerlifters are also using a few more Specialized Variety and assistance lifting skills to round out their training:
Kettlebell Floor Presses - Many of the same rules apply here as they do in a standard Bench Press; abs must be braced, shoulders are packed, the forearm remains vertical. The KB Floor Press, with its offset center of mass, is also a subtle push variation that helps to strengthen the wrist and the triceps at the mid point of the lift and especially the lockout.
Push Up Variations - The benefits of this old timey exercise are almost too numerous to count! These can be used to focus, once again, on the skills required in each phase of the barbell Bench Press; slow active negatives (eccentric), tight low planks (isometric), and explosive lockouts (concentric). To ice the cake, we add in some suspension via the TRX and the element of shoulder stability is addressed without getting too risky as each athlete can adjust the level of difficulty quickly and easily by leaning more or less as needed.
With just a few subtle variations to the core competencies, it is possible to continue building tremendous strength while avoiding plateaus and over use problems. It’s also good to stay out of any rabbit holes filled with additional equipment purchases and strange alterations to any foundational skills whenever possible. For powerlifters, Specialized Variety lifts use the same set of skills as the fundamental big three, but applied just a little differently they can help to stimulate new growth; tricking the central nervous system into thinking it's doing something different when in fact, it’s the same. This is like having an ace up your sleeve in a high stakes card game, but it’s totally legal! Armed with this tactic, It’s going to be very exciting to see The Breakthrough Barbell Club celebrating their strength in competition once again next month!