Coach Caleb’s Corner – Smash Your Plateaus with Specialized Variety

Coach Caleb’s Corner

Smash Your Plateaus with Specialized Variety

The stronger you get, the smarter you have to work to get even stronger. Plateaus do exist, and putting in more reps of the lift in question almost always gets the job done… almost always… So what can we do when we hit a plateau in training?

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 can be. Ah the horror! But wait… This principle is juxtaposed by the law of specific adaptation to imposed demands. It states that to be good at something, you have to practice it over and over again. Yes, you guessed it, I’m saying that the best training has to be different and the same all at once! Enter Specialized Variety.

Slightly different variations of the same exercise can help to safely smash through plateaus and ensure that we’re still getting good at the right set of skills. Strength practice, especially for Powerlifting, benefits tremendously from this principle. Let’s look at some fun examples!

When you start to feel stuck building strength in your lower body, consider adding in some Zercher Squats as Specialized Variety.

  1. The Zercher Squat – This technique requires that you hold the barbell in the crooks of your elbows, enabling you to fully extend your hips at the lockout and intensely work your midsection (check out this video.) How might it be applied to programming? Well if it’s the off season, you might consider running a complete training cycle using the Z-Squat instead of your Back Squat. If you’re in the middle of prepping for a max Back Squat, you might add Zerchers to your training week on a light day in 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps at 40-50% of your Dead Lift SRM. Alternatively, you could add them as drop sets to your heavy day, finishing your training session with 1-3 sets of 3-5 reps. These are just a few ideas to play with. Of course, a good coach can recommend the best way to supplement your training with this effective lift, based on how your program is structured.


When you want to give your upper body strength a boost, practice the Close Grip Bench Press as Specialized Variety.

  1. The Close Grip Bench Press – All the same rules apply here as they do in your standard grip bench press; brace, pull the shoulders down, force the chest up and row the bar to the sternum with vertical forearms.  Set your grips touching the smooth part of the bar with your index fingers to achieve the narrow position that makes the magic.  Imagine tearing the bar apart throughout the move, and pushing yourself away from the bar as you press (check out this video.) This subtle bench press variation strengthens the triceps, the mid point of the lift and especially the lockout.  Add the close grip presses to your light and heavy days in sets of 5 or so.  With practice, you might be lifting as much as 90% of your regular grip single rep max, eventually, but mostly work within the 60-80% range.  You will soon feel the carryover in not only your bench press, but also your kettlebell military presses as well!


When you need to give yourself a bit more fighting power for picking up something (or someone) heavy that just doesn’t want to budge, work on Static / Dynamic Deadlifts.

  1. The Static / Dynamic or Isometric Deadlift – In order to include these in your programming, you need to first get a solid understanding of how to properly “wedge” in your dead lifts.  This powerful technique develops a lifter’s skill at “wedging” themselves safely between the barbell and the floor, maximizing leverage at the critical start of the lift.  To perform the static / dynamic lift, you isometrically hold the wedge position for about 2-3 seconds before explosively finishing the pull with a solid lockout (check out this video.) Use about 60% of your deadlift max and practice a few sets of 1-3 of these on a light day to supercharge your starting strength!

If you’ve been stuck on a goal weight for a while, the temptation to try some trendy new training aid hits pretty hard!  As an avid strength enthusiast and coach, I often get asked things like, “Caleb! Have you heard about the new Wahmmy Bar?  It will add 100lbs to your bench press in two weeks!” Or, “Hey! If I lift in a hyperbaric chamber, will I be able to crush a new dead lift PR in my next session?”  I’m exaggerating, of course, but I do hear about funky new training tools and ideas all the time.

In my own quest to go from a double bodyweight deadlift to a triple bodyweight deadlift admittedly there have been times I’ve thought about trying some off the playbook method or equipment to progress, but ultimately eschewed it in favor of the StrongFirst secret weapon; Specialized Variety.  As such, I’ve been able to move from a 2.5x bodyweight deadlift to a 2.9x bodyweight deadlift in recent years.

With just a few subtle variations to the core competencies, you can build tremendous strength and avoid plateaus without falling into any rabbit holes filled with additional equipment purchases and strange alterations to your foundational skills.  Specialized Variety uses your same skills, applied just a little differently, to stimulate continued development in awesomeness!

Cheers! Caleb

PS – Speaking of core competencies, it just so happens that Breakthrough Strength & Fitness will be hosting a Bench Press and Back Squat Clinic, on May 12th. We will be covering the tried and true StrongFirst methods for safely using these fun and functional lifts to build superior strength.  Click here to learn more!

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