6 Elite Powerlifters Share the Most Underrated Accessory Exercises

“If you want to get better at the squat, bench, and deadlift, you just need to squat, bench, and deadlift, bro!”

That’s one of the most important powerlifting “rules” you should break. The sport that goes through trends like many others, and “stick to the big 3” is one that returns to vogue with regularity. Smart athletes know that’s B.S.: accessories are critical to avoiding injury and muscle imbalances, and they can helping to connect the “chain” of muscles used in compound lifts to bring your total higher than you thought possible.

We spoke to some seriously impressive athletes and coaches in the game to find out which accessories they wish more powerlifters would perform.

Good Mornings

Blaine Sumner, IPF Open World Record Holder in the Squat (505kg)

Most people think of good mornings as a hinge movement and more targeted to help the deadlift. But GMs have been my bread and butter squat tool for years. No matter if you squat high bar, low bar, upright, or lean, the vast majority of squat failures occur when the hips start to outrun the bar vertically.

This means that for almost everyone, the closer a squat is to maximum effort, the more it will resemble a “pseudo good morning.” So by strengthening this pattern, it helps two fold: you strengthen the squat pattern, but you also strengthen the technique of finishing a heavy squat and get used to the different leverages. You strengthen the ability to grind through maximum difficulty lifts.

[Good mornings are one of our top 4 best exercises for low back strength. Don’t miss the rest!]

Heavy Holds

Jen Thompson, IPF Word Record Holder in the Bench Press, 63kg Class (142.5kg)

One of the accessory exercises I think has made the biggest difference in my bench press is heavy holds.

Heavy holds are an isometric exercise and if done correctly, they can improve your concentric strength. For those who don’t know, concentric strength is the muscle contracting or the pushing part of the exercise. It also builds your smaller stabilizing muscles.

To do this exercise you will pick a weight that’s about 150% of your current max single. (So a 300-pound weight for an athlete with a 200-pound 1-rep max.) Have someone lift it out to you. Keep your elbows locked but let the weight settle into your shoulders and chest. Hold for 15 seconds. While holding the weight, concentrate on driving your hips towards the bar maintaining contact with the bench. Also work on the “pinky squeeze” which essentially tweaks your elbows, engaging your triceps.

Personally, the overloading of the exercise makes the rest pf the training seem incredibly light. I perform these right after my warm ups before my set work.

The Face Pull

“Silent” Mike Farr, YouTube Personality and Strength Coach at Kizen Training

Although I am a big proponent of specificity and choosing proper variations of the “Big 3” to help build muscle, strength, and fix imbalances or weaknesses, I do believe that for health, building muscle and longevity there are some really valuable accessories that everyone should have in their tool box.

My #1 favorite is probably the face pull. This exercise compliments the squat/bench/dead by building a bigger yoke. (It never hurts to have traps like the Swiss Alps, either). I use it to warm up for every training session, get some blood into the athletes’ shoulders and upper back, and strengthening some rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor) for prehab with all the pressing we do in training.

Breath Pause Squats

Greg Nuckols, Drug-free Powerlifter, Editor of Stronger By Science

Basically, you take a really light load, we’re talking 20 or 30 percent of your max, squat down as deep as you can, and take full, deep, diaphragmatic breaths, inhaling as deep as you can and exhaling as much as you can. And just stay down there for 30 seconds to a minute, or you can count ten or twenty breaths.

One, a lot of people just generally feel uncomfortable in the hole, so a fringe benefit is they psychologically help with comfort down there.

It also helps with people with depth issues, it’s a really good warm-up exercise for deeper squats, and it helps people brace a little bit better. Essentially, you’re getting in reps of losing some tension, then breathing back in and re-bracing. So, it’s in a controlled enough environment that you can really focus on that bracing and breathing aspect.

[Check out our complete guide to the benefits of pause squats here.]


Low Intensity Cardio

Jacob Tsypkin, Founder of TZ Strength, Consultant at Juggernaut Training Systems and Complete Human Performance

I think one of the most undervalued aspects of supplementary training for strength athletes is some baseline aerobic development. Sets of ten aren’t cardio, no matter how much we may like them to be, and direct aerobic work has benefits for long term strength development, primarily through improving the athlete’s work capacity, i.e., increasing the athlete’s ability to handle training volume.

I’m not talking about “active recovery”, which is a somewhat misguided concept. But, it is based in a key truth – the processes behind recovery are mostly aerobic, and developing sufficient aerobic capacity is necessary to optimize recovery.

A few guidelines for implementing aerobic work into your training:

  • Keep it low intensity, something like 65 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate.
  • Total volume is more important than duration/session. You don’t have to sit on a bike for 90 minutes at a time. If you lift 5 days/week, try fifteen minutes at the beginning or end of each session.
  • Biking or rowing are usually better options than running – double that recommendation for larger athletes. It’s often difficult to control the heart rate while running, particularly if the athlete doesn’t have well refined running mechanics.

The T-Bar Row

Emily Hu, RPS World Record Holder in the Bench Press, 120lb class (275lb)

You use your upper back to support every lift, so a big upper back equals better core strength for each lift. Obviously for the squat, as your upper back helps maintain the bar stability, but even for the bench —  it controls the descent.

I love the straight barbell row but for myself, personally, my technique sucks. It’s very easy to cheat on that movement, so I use the chest-supported T-bar to pre-empt my cheating.

Featured image via @ami_the_benchbrah, @silentmikke, @jenthompson132, and @thevanillagorilla92 on instagram.