Recently Bret Contreras asked me for my top three assistance lifts that bring up the bench, squat and deadlift. I’m not a big fan of the barbell bench press by any stretch of the imagination (the military press is a far better, more functional, safer lift) but if someone wanted to bring it up and asked for my help here’s what I would recommend, along with three lifts to bring up the squat and deadlift as well…
Rack Deadlift/ Inverted Row- To bench press a lot of weight you need a big, thick, strong upper back. There is no other exercise that will build those qualities more effectively than a rack deadlift with a scapular retraction. This is a very stressful exercise, however, so you can’t do it all the time, especially if you are deadlifting from the floor as well. For that reason you need to rotate it in and out based on your recovery ability and how often and when you are doing other forms of deadlifts. When you are not doing this exercise a more spine sparing exercise like a weighted, inverted row would be your top choice. Many coaches prefer a chest supported row but I always like to move the body through space and use more functional exercises whenever possible so a row performed on blast straps, rings, TRX straps, ropes, etc. while wearing a weighted vest would be my top pick.
Suspended Pushup- To get out of the bottom you need big strong lats but you also need chest and shoulder strength. Again, since I often favor bodyweight movements whenever possible for assistance work I prefer a weighted (wear a weight vest, drape chains across your back or have a partner hold weight on your back), suspended pushup to a flat dumbbell bench press. This can be done on rings or blast straps and will develop awesome stabilizer strength and all around pressing power. It’s also less stressful than pressing with heavy dumbbells or a bar.
Dumbbell Military Press- Shoulder strength is also incredibly important for building the bench press. In this instance, because handstand pushups are nearly impossible for the majority of people I favor a dumbbell exercise over bodyweight. Dumbbell military presses can be done with your palms pronated (facing forward) or semi supinated (facing each other). I suggest using both variations.
Glute Ham Raise– You need a strong posterior chain in order to deadlift a lot of weight. The best way to develop a strong posterior chain is with some type of deadlift. But since variations of the deadlift are very stressful to the CNS, joints, etc. we can’t do nothing but deadlift all the time. That’s where the glute ham comes in. There’s no joint or CNS stress and the glute ham can be done as often as five days per week if you really need to bring up your hamstrings.
Top Range Suitcase Deadlift or Suitcase Deadlift Iso Hold- The obliques are very important in locking out the deadlift. If this doesn’t make immediate sense do a heavy deadlift workout and tell me how your obliques feel the next day. Louie Simmons has always preached the importance of strong obliques for locking out a heavy deadlift and has always recommended heavy oblique work. Years ago I recommended side bends, but after familiarizing myself with the work of Dr. Stuart McGill I have moved toward more spine sparing oblique exercises. Woodchop variations are good but I find they have little transfer to the deadlift. Instead I prefer the suitcase deadlift performed in a rack off pins set above knee height. These can be done for reps or just as a static hold. I like to use both variations. Along the same lines you could also do one arm farmers walks, which also have the added benefit of improving stability throughout the lower body as well.
1 Arm Dumbbell Rows- You need strong lats and a strong grip to deadlift a lot of weight. The one arm dumbbell row will give you both of these, provided you do it without straps. Sets of 5-20 reps can be done.
Glute Ham Raise- Rarely are the quads not strong enough to lock out a weight in the squat. Because of a variety of factors most people tend to be slightly more quad dominant and have weak hamstrings. For this reason I don’t usually find most quad dominant exercises to have great carryover to the barbell back squat. Don’t get me wrong, single leg squatting variations such as split squats and pistol squats are good for athletes but if you are talking about bang for your buck exercises, these will not be at the top of your list for improving the barbell back squat. If they did that you would see a lot more lifters (versus none that you see now) doing them. For these reasons, the glute ham raise would be an excellent choice for bringing up the squat. If your posterior chain gets stronger you will squat more.
Power Wheel Rollout- Like the deadlift, the squat requires a very strong core. Most people have the leg strength to get the weight up. That’s why you can always leg press a ton more weight than you squat; because you remove the abs, obliques, lower back, eg. the weak links. To improve your abdominal strength you need a heavy exercise that will target the abs without compromising the health of your spine. Many strength coaches have recommended heavy, weighted sit ups for this purpose. While that exercise will strengthen your abs it’s a little too risky for my taste to recommend to everyone. I prefer the Power Wheel rollout. This exercise targets the abs effectively and does an outstanding job of strengthening them while sparing the lower back. You can add resistance by progressing from your knees to your feet (Use a wall to block your forward progress of the wheel when first attempting to do this as the jump from knees to feet will be too extreme so you have to take it in steps.) or by wearing a weighted vest. Before using the Power Wheel rollout I would be sure to have mastered basic and advanced versions of planks, however.
45 Degree Back Raise- You need a big, strong back to squat a lot of weight. Many people crumble forward due to a weak upper back. But since we have already covered deadlifts and rack deadlifts along with 1 arm rows, I will instead focus on the lower back. Again, deadlift variations will be the best exercises for improving lower back strength, but for the reasons mentioned we can’t do nothing but deadlift all the time. Good mornings are very effective as well and have a great carryover to the squat but I personally find them to a bit too risky and too stressful to use regularly. When the main lifts are over I like to minimize the joint and CNS stress throughout the rest of the workout. For these reasons I prefer the weighted back extension. These can be loaded by holding a heavy weight or medicine ball on your chest, holding a straight, safety or cambered bar on your back (even though you are holding a bar the weight will be far lighter than it would during a good morning) or by wrapping a band around your neck. Be sure to flex at the hips and not the spine when doing these and keep the load and reps in a safe range (8-15).