by Dave Thomas
USAW, RKC, CPT-NSCA
We’re back with another edition of Plateau Busters, workouts you can do in open gym to help you push past plateaus, improve sticking points and generally increase your all results.
1. Glute Ham Developers
You know how if you get food poisoning from a food, or if you hurled because of a certain booze, you can’t really ever consume that item again? Yeah. These are kind of like the Jager of training for us. Pritz and I still have scars from doing these days upon days for our collegiate baseball offseason S&C program. Our strength coach, Jim Roney, was a strong believer of these in athletic performance and he was a man who knew what the hell he was doing.
The only compound barbell movement that’s going to hit the hamstrings hard is the deadlift (and all of her cousins). Sure, you get some ham work in squats and lunges but nothing compares to the deadlift when it comes to pure, relatively isolated hamstring work. Problem is, the deadlift is a very taxing movement on the CNS so when you lift in ranges of 75% and up, you tend to be smoked for a few days with other strength movements, especially anything that’s in a pulling format. You can decrease your load to 40 – 50%, but even then you are working a plethora of other muscles. (These are good things, and the exact reason we deadlift at a high frequency.)
So, how can we continue to strengthen the hamstrings without frying our hardware?
Enter the glute ham machine. It targets the hamstrings complex without all of the CNS depletion of deadlifts. These will target your hamstrings in a way the barbell cannot reach (deep knee flexion with no quadriceps involvement), so expect to be sore after use. Productive sore, but sore. (Try and avoid fast-twitch ballistic movements like sprinting and jumping the next day.)
Benefits: Deadlifts off the floor, running speed, jumping power, athletic performance, injury prevention.
2. Axle Bar Cleans
The axle bar is 2″ in diameter making it almost twice as thick as traditional 31 mm (~1.2″) Olympic barbell diameter. This increase in diameter challenges the grip in substantially greater demand, in effect making the entire life more difficult from the hands up.
With decreased pulling power, it requires that you perform the movement with peak power in all other parts of the body. It’s kind of like there is a man down (hands) and the rest of the team is getting it done in his absence. Further, performing them at high reps is a a physical challenge much more difficult than the eye would have you believe (get ready to huff and puff like Rob Ford).
The axle bar does not rotate like Olympic bars, creating more drag and a more difficult lift.
Ladies, if the axle proves to be too thick, you can get similar results from upping to a men’s 20 kg barbell.
Don’t limit yourself to just cleans. Double overhand axle deadlifts are also an excellent idea for increasing your deadlift and all around bad assery. Coach Robby often takes this a step further to presses and squats.
Benefits: Anything that pulls or grips, improved speed and technique in cleans, forearm hypertrophy
3. Isometric Arm Wrestling Holds
This is a very cool one that Coach Robby is often seen doing at Open Gym. Taken from the sport of arm wrestling, it follows the adage of, “if it looks easy it’s likely extremely difficult”. The purpose of this exercise is to hold or pull the band into your opposite shoulder without your wrist “dumping”, or going into ulnar flexion. We are often challenged in wrist extension in movements such as front rack, jerks and overhead squats but very rarely, if ever, do we place demands on radial and ulnar deviation.
Because it is pure, isometric tension, your back (specifically your lats) is on alert like a solider standing guard, contracting at close to peak tension. This will have carryover to your pulling strength in barbell movements. Check out this article for why isometric tension is the bee’s knees for developing strength and even mass.
If you are looking to add size to or shape your biceps, this is a great movement. It challenges the arms in a way that dynamic movements cannot. Hold this position for upwards of a minute on both arms for five sets and get an arm pump that’s usually reserved for bros only.
Benefits: Wrist strength and health, bicep hypertrophy, grip, forearm function
4. Strict Work
One of the most often overlooked portion of one’s program is strict movement in the range of 8 – 12 reps at 40 – 50% of 1-rep max.
I am very big fan of strict pressing for a few reasons. First, it really teaches tension, contraction and strength in a way that jerks cannot. When you remove the speed and athleticism component of the movement, you are left with raw pressing power. A lot of good athletes can compensate for a lack of unassisted pressing strength because of their athleticism in applying high-speed and sound technique. The best lifters develop both.
This is obviously a very advanced version of strict pressing, but the point is to indicate that there are a variety of ways to progress with your overhead game without having to do 5 x 2 jerks at 90%. Strict press, bench press, alternating DB press, get-ups and others are all great in their own right.
Spend some time developing your strict pressing and see improvement in any movement that takes the barbell overhead.
Benefits: Pressing strength, jerks, overhead squats, snatches
5. Do Less
The more you train, the less volume you need to see gains. I can say that with complete confidence after watching thousands of people train here over the course of four years. The more you do, the less you need to do. I highly recommend you reduce your volume if you even wish to have a shot at continuing to get stronger. Beginners can show up everyday, do everything and see gains for up to a year or even a year and a half. The training curve is just so steep that your body is shocked into immediate gains and that continues for quite some time. However, the body adapts to the stimulus and the gains slow. Otherwise, we’d all pull 500#, squat 400#, clean and jerk 300# and run five minute miles. Once the training wheels come off, you need to train smarter, not harder. Incorporate more rest days, show up only when you’re ready to put in good work, not just go through the motions. Allow the process of recovery to elicit strength gains.
Benefits: Increased returns from your training
Trying to get a result you’ve never had cannot be achieved by doing what you’ve always done. Mix it up.