When I trained at Westside Barbell, Louie Simmons loved to emphasize how important tricep isolation work is for building a bigger bench. I absolutely agree - after all, strong triceps equal a better lockout and safer elbow joints, equating to a much better bench press over time. So what were Louie’s favorite methods for building up the triceps? Well, hitting the triceps, and hitting them often.
Aside from various triceps isolation exercises, Louie had one bit of advice that stuck with me - to do sets outside of your normal workout. An exercise band, he pointed out, is easily portable. You can loop a band over a hook or pipe somewhere in your house and do banded triceps pushdowns very easily. By doing a set here and there throughout the day, you can add a lot of volume for the triceps without having to go through the humdrum of hitting them over and over again in your traditional workout format. Do some tricep pushdowns while watching tv, before brushing your teeth, while you’re waiting for tea water to boil, etc. In this way, you can get in much more volume than you normally would.
Admittedly, this form of volume might not be the best. You’d rarely be training close to failure since the movement would be performed fresh with every set, so you’d either have to do a ridiculous number of repetitions to burn yourself out or simply perform fewer repetitions and rarely get a good pump going. Since we know that training closer to muscular failure results in better strength and muscular gains, this is a definite downside. However, since you can get in a lot more volume, chances are that this added volume will outweigh the small negative you get from not training close to failure.
Of course, this method can be applied with nearly anything, provided you’ve got equipment on hand. Core exercises and bodyweight exercises come to mind most often as the kind of stuff people would do, but there’s endless possibilities. A pair of dumbbells in a bedroom can equal bent over rows, floor presses, overhead presses, lateral raises, bicep curls, or light squats or deadlifts. A kettlebell can be used for deadlifting, swinging, or squatting. A band or two can be used for triceps, biceps, or the powerlifter’s favorite, pull-aparts. Since I’m lucky enough to have fitness as a profession, I can literally just walk over to a rack and perform a few muscle snatches if I’ve got a bit of time off.
In general, these motions should be kept very light, particularly if they’re a compound exercise. The point of these mini-workouts is to add volume without significantly taxing the body, which would interfere with your regular workouts. You can probably do isolation exercises such as triceps pushdowns, bicep curls, or lateral raises without much worry, since your body tends to recover from them pretty quickly. However, when it comes to stuff like presses, rows, squats, and deadlifts, you should be careful to keep them really light - the point here is to grease the wheel, just to keep moving a little.
This strategy isn’t for everyone. Admittedly, one problem with microworkouts of this type are that they’re a lot easier to forget about - think of all the people who promise that they’ll do x number of pushups or situps in a day and then forget all about it. When the equipment is in your house, with lots of other stuff to distract you from it, it’s very easy to miss your mark. This is the bane of casual home gym exercisers everywhere, and if you're one of those types, this strategy probably isn't for you.
Another consideration is progression - you’ll want to either get a series of dumbbells or a plate-loaded dumbbell set so that you can change the weights regularly to stave off stagnation. If you don’t have more than a couple set weight dumbbells, the only variable you can increase to keep pumping up the difficulty is total reps, and sooner or later you’ll be doing reps all day when it would be easier to just get a heavier weight.
Light accessory movement microworkouts certainly aren’t for everyone. However, the above issues are probably not a challenge for a dedicated performance athlete looking to have an edge over the competition. If you’re looking for a way to kick your strength or muscular gains into overdrive, microworkouts may be a useful tool in expanding your arsenal.