A Contrarian Approach to Improving Your Big Lifts

By January 14, 2018Blog

Take what you’ve been told and throw it out the window. If you want to progress your big lifts, you need to work on isolation exercises to improve your weaknesses.

I’ll never forget the moment I first learned the concept. It was like an epiphany that I had seen and felt come to fruition in practice but had never actually been spelled out for me.

I knew it was the truth as I read the words, but I had never truly grasped its importance. The concept was emerging in a fitness industry that had seen countless trends take over since the glory days or Arnold and Lou.

It was 2011, and I had just graduated university. Degree in hand, I went to work at a high-performance gym, one of the best in the city to be exact, Focus Fitness.

They did things a little different than most gyms. The workouts focused on getting really strong, then building athleticism on that strength base. The unstable surface phenomenon was just ending, but I had been in university during its height, and thought “functional” training was the be-all, end-all.

And that was when I read it. A couple weeks into my first training job, and I couldn’t even tell you who wrote it, but there it was, in all its glory.

“Get really good at the basics. Master the squat, deadlift, bench press and chin-up and you’ll be strong enough for most activities in the gym and in life.”


Most of what I coach now relies on that exact principle. Master the fundamental movements and the rest will fall in line.

But what if it’s harder than it looks to master those movements? What if your compound movements aren’t getting any better?

A lot of people can’t even get to the part where they’re doing the compound movement.

It seems you need to go back to the era when isolation exercises were all the rage. The time when doing bicep curls in the squat rack was actually cool and no one cared much for functionality, they just wanted to look good in the mirror.


You have to find the weak spot, which I’ll outline below; and attack it. You have to force it to keep up with the rest of its component parts, leaving no doubt.

What am I talking about?

Well, most training doctorate states that you should heavily focus on the compound movements like squats, deadlifts, bench press and chin-ups. This leaves the isolated exercises until later, essentially just used to hit the muscle groups you may have missed earlier in the day.

But what if you could use those isolation exercises with more purpose? What if you could use them specifically to improve the big lifts?

I think you can, and here’s how.


The number one goal when it comes to squats? Move more weight and don’t get hurt.

While everyone knows you need strong glutes for a strong squat, many people don’t understand that the glutes do more than just get you up off the toilet.

They actually play a major part in stabilizing the hip and knee, a couple of pretty crucial joints when you have hundreds of pounds on your neck.

It’s the external rotators like glute medius and glute minimus that tend to cause a lot of problems. If your knees ever have a tendency to fall towards the midline of your body or you have knee pain during a squat, your external rotators are probably weak.

Lying Clamshells and Straight Leg Raise

This is a great starting point since a lot of factors like hip movement are controlled, forcing the glutes to fire.

However, it’s not very specific to the squat.

Seated or Half Squat Abductions

This is much more akin to the actual squat pattern and once you have enough control to understand how to get the glutes firing, I’d go with this before squats.

There’s also the option of simply putting a mini band around the knees for some external feedback while you squat. Make sure this isn’t on a max set, but don’t hesitate to give your hips a little wake-up call.



The deadlift is one of those movements most people (including me) could work their whole life trying to perfect. A tweak here or a change there could make all the difference between ripping the weight off the floor and being stuck like a magnet.

It could be the difference between feeling a shot of pain radiate across your lower back and noticing your glutes and hamstrings fire in all their glory.

But strengthening a couple of key areas can help you not only get the bar off the floor, but impress everyone with the aesthetic benefits of the mother of all pulling.


Most lifters don’t even think about the lats when it comes to deadlifting, since it focuses on the lower posterior chain.

But make no mistake, the lats are intimately connected to the lower posterior chain and play a huge part in helping rip massive weights off the floor.

Not to mention, being able to engage the lats is huge in terms of shoulder health.

Honestly, any pulling movement will work, as long as you set up properly. Once you grab the implement you’re lifting, make sure the chest is proud and the shoulders are pulled back in the sockets. Squeeze the armpits to pull and be sure to stop before your shoulder rolls forward.

That roll is an indication you don’t have the range of motion needed, and the neck, anterior shoulder and biceps are taking over.

The best, and most specific movement I’ve found to target the lats before deadlifting is straight arm pulldowns. Once again, this all depends on the set-up and execution. The weight does not need to be substantial, just enough to wake up the lats.


“If you can’t hold onto it, you can’t lift it.”

Still one of the most frustrating quotes I’ve ever heard, especially after I had just missed a max lift thanks to the bar slipping out of my hands. But this one’s so true it hurts.

Grip and forearm strength are one of the most often overlooked components of lifting heavy. So make sure you add in as much as you can, but save it until after your deadlifts are done.

Heavy Carries

Nothing puts hair on your chest like a heavy-ass carry and nothing will get the competitive juices flowing better than seeing who can carry the longest.

Just be careful not to break a toe. Grip it and rip it.

Fat Grip Work

You can do carries, shrugs or direct arm work with Fat Gripz attached to the implement for a massive forearm challenge. Just be prepared to use a humbling weight.



Everyone wants to bench press more weight. What’s holding many of them back may surprise you: lack of shoulder and back stability.

They’ve got the pecs and anterior delts to do it, but they just can’t get that bar stable enough to push it off their chest.


The top half of a bench press rep, also known as the lockout, is almost all triceps. The pecs and shoulder do the majority of the work getting the bar off the chest, but once you pass the “sticking point”, you’re gonna need your tris.

To really hit the triceps head-on, I like skullcrushers best since they’re a close relative to the bench press and it’s very hard to cheat.

*Great advice at the 0:30 mark, “Careful guys, don’t drop the weight on your face.”

However, with a little coaching, we can get even closer to the movement in question with one of my new favourites, the close grip floor press.

The main focus here should be twofold – keep the elbows as tight to the body as you can and press the back of the shoulders into the floor as you press the weight up.

Too many people round their shoulders due to lack of mobility and end up hammer the front delts, which often don’t need more work.

Rotator Cuff

I know, I know.

Dude, it’s a bench press. I son’t need to strengthen these little muscles in my back for a bench press.

The mistake of all meatheads right there. A balanced shoulder is the key to building your bench and banishing injury for good.

Bottom Up Carries

Grab a light kettlebell, especially if you’ve never tried this before. This allows you to get used to the fact that there’s a weighted ball of metal near your cheek that only your grip and shoulder stability can keep from falling.

Start light and progress… because no one likes a guy who had half his face taken off by a kettlebell. Your elbow is your dial of difficulty here: Start low and bring it higher if it’s too easy.

Band W’s

Although you feel like you’re not doing much, there’s a frenzy of activity below the surface in the rear delts, lower and middle traps, and even the lats with this exercise.

You’ll probably start shaking after 5 to 6 reps if you’re doing it right. Keep high tension on the band the entire time, stapling your elbows to your sides to create a “W” at the top of the rep. Go. Slow.



Ah, the ultimate goal for most people who come into the gym, particularly women – the chin-up.

As for men, we just want to do more, or at least a respectable amount so we don’t get made fun of like Sam Bennett, the kid at the NHL Combine a few years back who couldn’t do any.

Yeah, he didn’t finish it. Photo courtesy of The Hockey News

There are millions of articles out there about getting to your first chin-up and most of the tenets are the same.

Pull lots. Hang from the bar for extended periods, with both straight and flexed arms. Do hollow holds.

I’ll touch on some of those, but sometimes you’re just gonna have to bro out, broseph.


Yes! Finally.

I’m telling you that you should be hitting biceps.

Look, it’s no secret these are the bane of many trainers’ existence, and I’m not here to tell you to spend a full day on arms, but the biceps play a major role in chin-ups, and should be treated as such.

You just need to ensure you actually hit the biceps with focused, useful work in order to push you towards that chin-up.

Incline Curls

When done correctly, these will torch your biceps. The incline set-up puts both ends of the muscle on a stretch; over the shoulder joint and the elbow.

Take less weight than you normally would, and do these late in your workout.

Notice that his shoulders never roll forward, even as he gets near the bottom of the rep.

Zottman Curls

I got this beauty from my man, Alex Mullan.

This movement does double duty, working both the biceps and the forearms. Make sure you maintain good posture and control the descent.


Do chin-ups right and you will most certainly feel your abs working. The core is the key to keeping tight and allowing your upper body to do the work while your lower body hangs underneath.

No tension = no rep.

Hollow Holds

When done correctly, these are some of the most challenging progressions you can do in the gym.

A 90 degree flipped version of a hollow hang (below), the position directly mimics the bottom of a chin-up, and should be used to build context for getting under the bar.

Here are some great progressions to move you along.

Stability Ball Plate Crunches

Lately, I have been loving these due to their simplicity and difficulty. Crunches directly target the anterior abdominals and have an added benefit of some shoulder stability.

The best part, there’s no way to cheat this movement. Keep the arms straight and drive the plate as high as possible, controlling yourself down.


I said it before and I’ll say it again, “If you can’t hold onto it, you can’t lift it.”

Same goes for chin-ups.

One more thing I would recommend here is working on hanging holds. Either at the bottom of the rep, known as a hollow hang; or the top, known as a flexed arm hang.

So, whether you’re working your way up to one of these fundamental movement patterns like a barbell deadlift or a chin-up, or you simply want to improve – take a closer look at using some targetted isolation exercises to get you there.

At their core, these compound exercises use specific muscle groups, and if those are lacking, you’ll struggle to improve.

Don’t let a lagging muscle group be your demise. And never worry about hitting a few extra dumbbell curls, not that you would anyway.

Yours in isolation and compound,


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Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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