Don’t get me wrong, I love the big three and their variations as much as any powerlifter.
But if there’s one thing I learned in my years as a pro bodybuilder, it’s that being strong in a variety of exercises and angles, keeping your muscle strength and size balanced and symmetrical, and being an all-round versatile athlete will make you better, stronger, more muscular powerlifter — and one who is less prone to injuries.
For years, powerlifters mostly trained their neurologic system, which makes a lot of sense when it comes to 1-rep maxes. I mean, the most important thing to a powerlifter is to get strong in single lifts in the big three, and specific work is absolutely important to do that.
The norm used to be a focus on the big three and then do a few very specific variations of those movements to fix sticking points: pause squats, board presses, rack deadlifts — your classic accessory work.
But as we started to see a lot of crossover between bodybuilding to powerlifting, a lot of powerlifters picked up their bodybuilder friends’ training methods, and out of nowhere we have started to see jacked, lean powerlifters breaking world records that had stood for years. When we look more closely at how they train, there’s usually one big difference: the kind of accessory work they are doing.
Why You Should Go Beyond Variations on the Big 3
Remember, muscle moves weight. No matter how efficient you are neurologically, you will still need the muscle to support that — and only doing variations on the big three will always leave you in a far from an optimal place for hypertrophy.
You’re also only strong as your weakest link, and you need muscular balance. The human always seeks balance and homeostasis in all of its systems, and your progress will be hindered if it feels this lack of balance puts it at risk.
Lastly, remember that learning to “feel” a muscle will help you recruit more motor units to move it. When you do a larger variety of exercises, you learn to work the muscle and not just the movement. This can go a long way to improving your total.
Here are my “must do” exercises that aren’t variations of the big three. They give incredible value and without a doubt will turn you to a better, stronger and for sure better-looking powerlifter.
1) Pull-ups/Chin-ups in All Grips and Variations.
Bodybuilders call it the “upper body squat” and for a good reason: it’s hard to do, slow to progress, and if you get good at it, it can become a whole session by itself.
But for some reason when you ask a heavyweight powerlifter to do ten bodyweight pull-ups (not to mention weighted pull-ups), you’ll often get the “what’s wrong with you” look right away.
Here is why you absolutely should make it a regular part of your training program: overall upper back development. We’re talking about lats, rhomboids, rear delts, mid traps, and even some biceps. Each and every one of those muscles has an important function in all three lifts. In each of the big three, it’s critical to keep the upper body tight and that’s close to impossible without good development of every one of those muscles.
Plus, it will encourage good posture and will give you a much wider and more aesthetic look. Besides, no one should be able to pull 600 pounds without being able to pull up their own bodyweight!
[Here’s why the difference between chin-ups and pull-ups is important to know.]
Does anyone ask what is arguably the single best exercise for building the chest and triceps? Well, the dip would be a top contender.
It will give you serious development and strength in both the chest and shoulders (if you go deep into the descent) and it’s a great way to offer some variety to the chest and triceps after all that benching. Most pressing exercises performed by powerlifters will not be on the vertical plane, and being strong in all planes and angles can come as a great asset when your body is trying to lift a max attempt.
[Have trouble with ring dips? Here are some simple alternatives to help you get there.]
3) Sitting Dumbbell/Barbell Shoulder Press
Strong shoulders = better stability and strength in the bench, better ability to get tight in the upper extremities, a great “shelf” for the bar in the squats, and a lower injury risk in all three lifts.
[What’s the difference between sitting and standing shoulder press? Different muscles are worked. Here’s how to pick the best variation for you.]
4) Lunges or Bulgarian split squats
Unilateral work is super underrated when it comes to powerlifting.
It’s essential for identifying imbalances between limbs and muscles and it helps with both stability and, in some cases, mobility. Doing only the big three can often fix us into certain movement patterns, and then the body tends to recruit the same muscles and motor units, even if there are other muscles that can help.
Besides, lunges are great for lower body strength and development and will help expose weakness and what areas you need to work on. They aren’t fun, but they’re so helpful.
[What are the differences between lunges, back squats, and Bulgarian split squats? Here’s our complete breakdown!]
5) Any Rear Delt Isolation Exercises
The rear delts are so underrated in their importance for bench, squat and deadlift that it’s shocking. The benefits that strong, big rear delts can provide are endless: stability, injury reduction, general strength and better overall shoulder function, and more.
It’s a muscle that can and should take high volume and frequency, mostly in high rep ranges. In some cases it can be trained daily. Dumbbell rear lateral raises, resistance band pullaparts, face pulls, and bent over rows are all great. It’s a crime to neglect the benefits this muscle can give you.
[Rear delt exercises are a critical component of scapular health — here are ten exercises to keep your scaps firing on all cylinders.]
Add these five accessories into your powerlifting routine and see your PRs and appearance drastically improve. You can thank this old, beat up ex-bodybuilder later.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image via @elleryphotos on Instagram.