Variation Exercises to Increase “The Big 3” Lifts
So you’ve made it through your first linear progression/beginner program and are moving on to bigger and better things. Awesome! This means you’re probably about to be introduced to the world of variation exercises.
Moving into more intermediate style programming you’re going to notice you’re squatting, benching, and deadlifting more than just once per week. Along with these additional training sessions you may realize it’s no longer just the normal lifts you’re used to. You start seeing things programmed like “3-0-3 Tempo Squats”. “OHP Pin Press (set to forehead height)”. “Deadlift with medium band resistance”.
It can be overwhelming at first seeing all these new “variation exercises” when all along you thought it was just the squat, bench, and deadlift.
We’ll look into some of the most common variation exercises that get programmed. See which variations are most commonly used for what purposes. And hopefully by the end you’ll understand how you can program these in for yourself!
Pauses and Tempos:
Pauses and Tempos make up the bulk of variation exercises you’ll see programmed.
These require zero additional equipment (save for the barbell) and are generally speaking quite easy to pick up.
Pauses and Tempos mess with the cadence of a lift. They will force you to either dead stop somewhere in the middle of the lift (pause). Or require you travel slowly throughout a portion of the lift (tempo).
This is great for a few reasons. For one, it’s a perfect teaching tool. Slowing down a lift in the case of a tempo gives new lifters more time to think through their cues. It also makes it easier to control their body. Overall, they simply have more time to reinforce solid technique habits. Likewise, if they have to pause somewhere in the lift this stops a beginner from relying on momentum to move the weight. With a pause the only way that weight is coming back up is with proper mechanics.
From an intermediate/advanced lifter perspective they get the same benefits a beginner would AND it’s making the lift more difficult. Returning to normal variations of the squat, bench, and deadlift can seem like a breeze after a long programming cycle of pauses and tempos. Along with this the pauses and tempos will increase the amount of time muscle fibers are under tension (“time under tension” being a key driver for hypertrophy) making these great muscle building variations.
Finally, pauses and tempos are fantastic for “load management” in a program. You simply aren’t going to be able to lift as much as your normal squat, bench, or deadlift if you have to slow down your reps.
This is a good thing.
Proper load management like this can keep you from running yourself into the ground. While still allowing you to get a proper stimulus out of training. For this same reason pauses and tempos are often utilized for injured lifters. Again, both to control load and to allow them to get reps in without pain (slowly controlled reps anecdotally tend to be more comfortable in pain situations).
Overload variations consist of any lift in which the lifter can lift a “supramaximal” load compared to the normal “competition style” variation of that lift.
For example if you slap on Mark Bell’s slingshot accessory for bench press, you are going to be able to lift more weight than you would be able to under normal circumstances. This would be considered an overload.
Other lifts that tend to fall in this category reverse band lifts, equipped lifting, reduced rom movements, chains/bands.
I believe overload variations can initially be looked down upon as just ego lifting.
“Oh you’re just doing that lift so you can add on more plates, you’re not actually lifting that weight.”
However, applied properly, I think overload movements can be great for helping someone who really wants to drive up their strength progress.
Saying “the equipment is doing all the work” in the case of an overload movement is a bit of an oversimplification. Is it assisting you? 100%. Could you lift this weight without the assistance. Probs not. But, if we look at something like say the slingshot bench again, every time you unrack and rerack the weight, and for a short period of ROM, it is quite literally, “all you bro.” So even though you are being assisted you are slowly conditioning yourself to feeling that heavier weight in your hands.
Now, come back to your normal unassisted lifting and suddenly that weights not as scary anymore. You’ve already felt what it feels like, this isn’t an entirely new stimulus to you, and you’re going to be that much more confident.
That’s why I like overload variations so much.
It’s putting you in the mindset to constantly be ready to progress to that next weight on your raw lifts.
Can this still turn into ego lifting? Or course. But so long as you are using these lifts with a purpose I think they are great.
Reduced ROM Movements:
“Reduced ROM? Why would I do that? I squat ATG bro, all day, everyday.”
So at first this may seem counterproductive. Up to this point all you’ve been told is how important it is to cover a full range of motion on your strength movements. This is true.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no benefit to be had to shortening the ROM of a given movement.
Movements that fall into this category include pin variations, block pulls, board presses, floor presses, box squats, basically anything that can be used to force a shorter ROM.
Like we just went over a very straightforward reason to shorten the ROM is to make a movement an overload. Generally speaking if the bar doesn’t have to travel as far you’re going to be able to load a bit more weight. Not always the case…but usually.
Other’s like to focus on a very specific point in a movement. For example, it’s common to see a forehead height pin press thrown in for someone’s strict press variation, as that’s a common sticking point for many individuals.
For some of these variations, you don’t necessarily need to reduce the ROM. Pin variations, and variations like the box squat can be set to a full ROM where you still pause on the pins or box. This effectively turns into a pause rep (some would considered it slightly harder) and it gives you some positioning feedback. So, if you were a powerlifter who wanted to squat to perfect depth no lower/no higher you could practice with pin or box squats.
There’s many creative ways these style variations can be used don’t look down on them just because it’s not full ROM.
Chains and Bands:
Chained and Banded variation movements have built their success on the sole reasoning that they make you look like a badass while you lift.
Okay so they’re actually pretty useful too I guess…
Chains and bands fall under a category of variations usually referred to as “accommodating resistance”, or “variable resistance”. All that means is that the true weight you are lifting at any given point in the movement is constantly changing. Changing in a predictable way of course, but changing nonetheless.
This should make sense if you think about a chained deadlift. In the starting position all of the chains are on the floor. You aren’t actually lifting them when you first start the movement (the floor is). As you begin to pull the barbell up, more and more chain links leave the floor with it. The true weight that you are lifting will continue getting heavier as more links leave the floor until, ideally, you have locked the bar out and all the chains have left the floor.
Banded lifts follow the same idea but you may find you hit all of the band tension much more quickly than chain links slowly leaving the floor.
Either way, these make for excellent variations.
The constantly varying resistance of these lifts make them feel distinctly different from other variations. Much like an overload movement they can be useful in helping you “taste” that next weight progression you are shooting for.
If nothing else, these variations are just downright challenging. Not to mention fun. Not to also mention, you’re gonna get a sick pic for instagram out of them.
This obviously doesn’t encapsulate every single lifting variation you could possibly do. But these are the main variations you’ll see pop up time after time.
Don’t get too caught up in pinpointing if one variation is superior to another. It’s all lifter dependent and goal dependent.
The best advice I can give you is be willing to try a lot of variations to figure out what you respond best to. Don’t just immediately write something off because it looks a little goofy, or it’s not what you are used to. Try it all!