Written by: Thomas Willoughby
What are “filler” exercises?
A filler exercise is an exercise or movement pattern you perform during your warm up and in between sets of your primary exercise. They aid to improve movement quality and efficiency. They are not designed to be fatiguing, and should not have a negative effect on the performance of your main lift.
Who will benefit from “filler’ exercises?
Anyone who needs to improve movement quality, exercise efficiency or to activate and bring up lagging muscles. By this I mean, upper back during a bench session and glutes during a leg session.
Why add filler exercises into your program?
If you train with me at Southern Highlands Strength and Conditioning, it’s safe to say that your end goal is to increase performance; whether that performance be, an increased speed and agility on the field or increased strength across the Squat, Bench Press & Deadlift.
To achieve this, there are a number of factors that come into play. High on that list is improving movement quality and efficiency. To prevent imbalances and injuries we need to strengthen the smaller muscle groups that usually taken over by the larger, more powerful ones.
What “filler(s)” to use and when:
There are so many “fillers” to choose from, to help simplify this, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites’ below that cater to the three frequent issues I see in my gym. You will find that my athletes and members will use these as there ‘go to’ fillers every training session.
- An Unstable Bench Press due to weak Upper Back
Without a doubt, Band Pull Aparts (BPA’s) are my number 1 suggestion to improve stability on the Bench Press. I recommend performing 10-15 reps between each warm up and working set. I have found that as my members get further into their working sets, their form improves rather than deteriorating under fatigue.
- Trouble “Switching Glutes on”
Glute bridge holds (with Hip Circle or resistance band) for 20 sec + 10 Hip Thrusts
Funky Frog Hip Thrusts x 10-15
Banded Side Steps 2 x up & back (of 10m turf track)
Just like the BPA’s, these exercises can and should be done throughout your warm up and into your warm up sets. I personally like these “fillers” to be finished before your last warm up set. At this point you should be able to feel that your glutes are “on”. An example of a change you may notice in a squat is: if your knees previously moved inwards in the bottom of a squat, they should now maintain a stronger position throughout the whole movement.
- Improve Squat depth
There are many factors why someone’s squat may not be as deep as the next person’s, but rather than getting into that debate we’ll address the most common issues and the ones that can be rectified by adding in filler exercises (I would just like to note here that not everyone has to squat below parallel, if your sport demands that you do – Powerlifting for example – then yes, your hip joint must come below your knee joint. If you play a field based sport, there is really no need to squat super deep; especially if your body’s natural mechanics inhibit it).
The first thing to look at is technique! Get this right, and providing you don’t have any mechanical issues, you’ll be sorted. To aid in this process, the first “filler” I add in is Goblet Squats. I tend to put them in my member’s warm ups and during the warm up sets to groove correct motor patterning.
When assessing someone’s squat, I like to work from the ground up. If these is dysfunction in the ankles, it can cause issues further up the kinetic chain. If you check out my The importance of Warming Up Blog, you’ll see what I like to do for the ankles and calves during my warm ups.
I see a lot of people folding in half once they get to about the half way point in a squat of a squat. At first this looks as though they have really tight hips (which they most probably do) even if they stretch these every day more than likely they will still be tight. This could be due to a weak core. (Remember that the spine needs stability and if it doesn’t get it from your core, it will take it from the next available joint being your hips!) Adding in some Rolling Planks into your warm up alongside a structured core program will help this dramatically.
If you are having these issues during your sessions, give these fillers a go during your next workout and let me know the difference!
If you are experiencing different issues and wish to implement fillers into your training, here are 3 rules to follow which will help determine what exercises to choose:
- Mobilise what is tight
- Strengthen what is weak
- Choose movements/exercises than are non-fatiguing and WILL NOT impact the performance of your main lifts
While incorporating “filler” exercises in athletes, or people trying to improve athletic performance, is valuable; it is just as valuable, if not more, to utilise these for complete beginners. The exercises can help with proper movement mechanics and strengthen areas that have become weak due to a sedentary lifestyle.