Powerbuilding Programs: How to Incorporate Supplementary Work

We’re working on a series here – if you’re new, make sure to check out part one and part two (I think my arms look especially good in part two). But just in case you don’t have time for that, here’s a quick recap.

1. Adding hypertrophy work to a strength-focused routine can be tricky, because it requires balancing recovery resources while pursuing two different goals – each of which requires slightly different methods of training.
2. The most straightforward method of adding hypertrophy work involves increasing volume of exercises that target lagging muscle groups.
3. We add just enough of that work to stimulate the muscles without eating into our recovery too much. We measure that using the pump – and it’s not a perfect measure, but it’s close enough.

The last step requires that we fit that added supplementary work into the context of our current strength program.

Again, this can be a little tricky, because when we’re talking about strength, we’re also talking about movements: the squat, bench, deadlift, and variations of those. When you ask a powerlifter what he’s training that day, he’s going to tell you something like squat or bench, not legs or chest. But obviously, when we’re talking about size, we’re talking about muscles. For bodybuilders, it’s leg day or arm day – not squat day or curl day. This gets back to what we talked about it part one of the powerbuilding series.

So again, while there’s never one right answer, there are some guidelines I can suggest.

As Much Overlap As Possible

I think this one is pretty intuitive, but it still bears mentioning. You should try to arrange your supplemental work to maximize your recovery for the muscle groups in question, which means taking into account the primary movements you’re training as well. If you’re following a typical upper/lower powerlifting split (bench, squat, bench, deadlift) then you wouldn’t want to train your triceps and chest on squat day – you’d train them after bench, so that they’re not sore the next time you go to bench.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Take lats, for example: in traditional powerlifting splits, you’ll usually see lats on bench day. That works because upper back work for the powerlifter usually means a couple of half-assed sets of seated rows and band pull-aparts. But if you’re training for maximum pump in your lats, they’re going to be a bit fatigued – and then when you go to pull the next day, your deadlift will probably feel a bit off. That’s because the deadlift requires quite a bit more lat strength than the bench (for a raw lifter, anyway).

Shoulders are another great example. If you blast the hell out of them on bench day, you might have trouble getting under the bar and finding a good rack position for your squats a day later.

Again, this will all very much come down to individuality, but it’s important you account for recovery when programming your supplemental work. In our example above, maybe your split comes out looking something like this:

Day 1: Bench press, pecs, triceps
Day 2: Squat, quads, biceps
Day 3: Bench press, shoulders, calves
Day 4: Deadlift, lats, hamstrings

Notice how we put biceps on day 2, after squatting. That’s because bicep training shouldn’t interfere with your bench, but it very easily could make it harder for you to train lats effectively.

Movements First, Muscles Second

There’s an infinite number of different ways you could rearrange the split above, but when you’re trying to figure out how to program your supplemental work, I strongly recommend that you focus on movements first, and muscles second. That means if you have to decide between maximizing your recovery for your squat training or your lat training, you favor the squat, every time. That’s because (A) we’re talking powerbuilding here, so strength is still the major focus, and (B) regardless, for the majority of lifters, the heavy compound lifts are going to add vastly more strength and size than supplemental lifts.

Let’s use another example to see how this looks in action. Let’s say that, using the split above, you’ve determined that you really need to train your shoulders two times per week for them to really grow. But you also know that when your shoulders are sore, you have a difficult time squatting and benching. How can you work this into the split?

It’s actually a trick question. In this case, I’d recommend adding a training day in addition to rearranging your split, so that you can maximize your recovery for squats and bench. So maybe you come up with something like this:

Day 1: Bench, pecs, triceps
Day 2: Squat, quads, biceps
Day 3: Bench, shoulders, calves
Day 4: Shoulders
Day 5: Deadlift, lats, hamstrings

Yeah, you’re training shoulders two days in a row, but you also know that you’ll be fresh for your bench and squats, which, in the context of a strength routine, is your top priority. Remember: training for strength and size together sometimes requires tradeoffs. That’s okay.

Emphasize Weaknesses

I think this last point is the most important one. When you’re powerbuilding, the goal of your supplemental work is to fix your weaknesses. That means you don’t have to include supplemental work for everything. I’ve been lucky to have pretty decent quads just from squatting and deadlifting – a few sets of leg extensions aren’t going to do anything except tire me out. I’m much better off skipping those and doing some extra work for my pecs and triceps instead.

Emphasizing weaknesses also involves paying attention to the order of the exercises you train each day. Again, movements come first! But after you bench, if your triceps are really lagging, it’s a good idea to train them before you move on to shoulders. That’s because you’ll have more energy earlier in your workout, and you’ll be able to train harder and focus better because of it.

Even when you’re talking about one specific muscle group, it’s useful to think about the order of exercises you’re training (assuming you’ve got more than one exercise per muscle group). Let’s say your triceps are really lagging, and so you’ve decided you need two or three exercises to bring them up to par.

In that case, start with the exercise that gives you the best mind-muscle connection. When you can really feel a muscle working hard on one particular exercise, it makes it easier to activate that muscle on other exercises. So if you have trouble squeezing your pecs on incline dumbbell presses, maybe you start with cable crossovers, get a sick pump going, and then move on to incline dumbbell presses Yeah, you’ll probably have to use lighter weights, but that’s okay, because the purpose of the presses is to help add size to our pecs, not strengthen them (although there is of course some overlap).

There’s another benefit to starting with the exercises that give you a mind-muscle connection: they’re usually easier on your joints. For example, starting with dumbbell kickbacks and getting a little blood pumping through your arms can help to keep your elbows happy when you move on to heavy skull crushers. That’s really important to consider in powerbuilding, since you’re probably already giving your joints a beating with your heavy compound lifts.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.