Powerlifters live to squat, bench, and deadlift. But even if you specialize in the competition movements, they can't be all you do in the gym. Variations of the big three and smart accessory work are essential for lifting big numbers, preventing injury, and building general physical preparedness.
Many people either neglect these extras, overdo them, or don't choose the right ones. They waste their time on lifts that won't transfer well, and overwork the wrong muscle groups. This is where having an experienced coach comes in handy, and taking notes from some of the top powerlifters helps, too.
Both Robb Philippus and Laura Phelps hold world records in powerlifting and have years of experience under their lifting belts. They agree that varying your exercises and adding accessory work are non-negotiables if you want to improve.
"The biggest thing about incorporating variations is that it gives you a fresh look at submaximal weights that increase the time under tension and reveal weak points," Philippus says.
Phelps, who comes from a background in equipped lifting and is a member of Westside Barbell, is a huge advocate for making accessory movements the major portion of your training and credits them for an injury-free ten-year career.
"Emphasizing what we call 'special exercises' can help correct movement patterns or strengthen points of weakness that the larger compound lifts can expose, but not necessarily fix," Phelps explains. "It's also a great way to train when you have a tweak that you're trying to work around and be able to maintain your strength for the main lifts while rehabbing it."
Here are their most powerful extras for supporting the big three:
1. Glute-Ham Raise
"GHRs are an incredible isolated hamstring developer that still recruit from your glutes and calves, as well. The angle also has more of a transfer to the squat than a standard leg curl and makes it more challenging than other hamstring exercises. You're using body weight, so you don't have a machine helping or guiding you either."
Master these with bodyweight first, then try adding bands or holding a plate.
2. Lunge Variations
Lunges can be uncomfortable and exhausting—because they work. There's no "best" variation, so choose one that gives you what you need. Weak core and upper back in your squat? Front rack it. Need that deep glute work? Go Bulgarian.
"We do a ton of different variations—standard barbell back lunges, or with an SSB or regular barbell with chains, front rack, Bulgarian split squats. Any of these are awesome because they're a total leg developer: hams, glutes, quads, everything. You really can't go wrong with any of them."
1. Pause Squat
"The pause squat allows the lifter to become comfortable being in the hole of the squat, where many novice or beginners are most likely not. It also increases time under tension, and you'll learn where your weaknesses are, whether it's mobility or strength out of the bottom. It can help fix bar position, head position, and bracing ability, too."
The pause should be completely motionless before you ascend out of the hole. This helps ensure you're staying tight and controlling the weight.
2. Hatfield Squat
You'll most often see this squat performed with an safety squat bar (SSB), inside a power rack or with a racked bar at arm height for support. It's easier on the shoulders and forces you to keep the bar over your midline.
"With this you can overload the bar without changing the motor pattern of the hips. It teaches the lifter to sit back into the squat, too. Most people get very uncomfortable doing that; they feel that transition into the heels and get gun-shy actually committing to the lift. When you overload with up to 20 percent over a max weight, it can really help a lifter learn how to not question the movement."
The Bench Press
1. Dead Press
"The dead press is going to target right where the sticky point is in the range of motion and focus on the lockout. Working up to a 1RM within 80 percent of your full competition bench would be the goal."
Set up your bench inside a power rack or on a bench with safeties, with the bar resting a quarter of an inch to two inches above your chest depending on your arm length. Your form and execution should be the same as your regular bench press—that includes foot placement, arch, and upper-back position.
2. Spoto Press
The Spoto press can be done with various grips, chains, or bands. Use your normal technique, but pause an inch or two above your chest, rather than on your chest.
"This is going to show you where your form breaks down. It's very hard to stay tight for the amount of time it takes to do this lift. You aren't totally limiting the stretch reflex, but you're going to reduce it quite a bit. This will help with overall tightness and learning to fail in position."
1. Paused Pin Floor Press
This move is similar to the dead press, but performed from the floor. This too will challenge your triceps and lockout, especially if you add chains.
"You should come to a complete pause with your elbows on the floor. The idea is letting the bar "die" on the pin or the floor—that's what teaches you how to keep your back tight and recruit those upper-back muscles to press the weight. People don't really know how to press off their chest with their lats or upper back and end up driving with their shoulders. This is a really good corrective exercise for that."
- Tate Press with Dumbbells
"I like these because they work the lower part of your triceps just above your elbow. Those are the muscles that really flex your elbow and lock weights down. If you've never done them before, it might feel odd, like it's bothering your elbows, but that's usually because that part of your triceps has never been worked."
Lie on a flat or decline bench. Hold the dumbbells over your shoulders, then slowly extend the elbows straight out to the sides, simultaneously rolling the dumbbells inward and down toward your chest. Lightly touch your chest and slowly roll the dumbbells back up.
1. Good Morning
"This movement mimics your deadlifts basically without the arms. The best part is that it builds your abs and your spinal erectors, which is going to help you move way more weight off the ground. The stronger your good morning is, the stronger your deadlift will be. Anderson style, where you do it from the bottom up, mimics the deadlift more than anything else."
Phelps prefers performing these with a specialty bar like the SSB or cambered bar because it takes pressure off the shoulders. If you don't have access to those, a straight bar works just fine! Focus on the hip hinge: pushing your hips back into the proper position, engaging the hamstrings, and keeping your upper back and abs tight as you bring your chest down. Once you hit the point where your hips would be at the top of your deadlift setup, hinge back up to standing.
2. Reverse Hyper
Reverse hypers emphasize the posterior chain by hooking your feet through a loop connected to a pendulum and using your legs to swing the weight front to back, focusing on the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. If you don't have this machine, back extensions on a GHD are a great alternative.
"Not only does it prehab or rehab your spinal erectors, it builds them, too. We'll do them lighter at full range of motion for more of a dynamic stretch for your hamstrings. It also recruits blood flow through your actual spinal cord, which brings in oxygen for healing. Other times, we'll go heavy with low reps to really build those erectors."
1. Deficit Deadlift
"Something I've always struggled with in my own deadlift is locking out. My theory on deficits is that it puts you in a negative starting position with a lengthened range of motion, making the lockout even more difficult."
A 1-4-inch deficit is most common. Your setup should be the same as your regular pull, but with lighter loads since you're pulling from a farther distance.
2. Paused Deadlifts Below the Knee
This should, again, be executed just like a normal deadlift, only pausing just below the knee as clearly stated by the exercise name itself. The pause should be motionless.
"These will increase the time under tension, just like in a pause squat, and force you to learn how to keep your back in position. The biggest thing I try to teach is that we never want to change our back position from where it is at the start of the lift. If you are missing lifts and/or coming out of your technique, the paused deads will help."
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