Almost anyone who trains with weights is chasing a strong squat, a brutal bench press, and a dauntless deadlift. These three exercises, not to mention their grand total, are so bad-ass that an entire sport was built around them: the sport of powerlifting.
The “big three” are used extensively not just by powerlifters but also bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, strongmen, and athletes. They’re the three most popular lifts for good reason; they activate a ton of total-body motor units, they’re very conducive to maxing out, and setting a personal record on one of the lifts can make your entire day better.
These lifts are also impressive once you really get strong! Everyone stops to look when a barbell starts bending and a bunch of plates start clanking around. If you’re a lifter and you’re content with your powerlifting total, then you clearly have a serious hormone imbalance and should seek the help of an endocrinologist (just kidding).
But seriously, what IS the best strategy for progressing on these feats of awesomeness? The answer is…well, there are many answers. We’ll start with a couple of general insights and then get some specifics from a panel of experts who have generously volunteered their personal recommendations.
The First Rule of Getting Strong at the Powerlifts
The first rule of getting strong in the powerlifts is to simply perform them. Over the past century, plenty of strong lifters got that way by just doing the power moves. Although the topic of this article is assistance lifts, I’d venture to guess that 98% of lifters would gain strength and even more musculature if they dropped all other exercises for a couple of months and focused entirely on the three powerlifts. Why is this? Because most people have yet to even approach their “genetic limits” in terms of strength or reap the benefits of a high frequency training program.
However, as is so often the case, all good things come to an end, and eventually even your disciplined training will reach a plateau and you’ll need more exercises to initiate further strength gains.
The first rule of getting strong in the powerlifts is to simply perform them
If you’ve been lifting for a while, then you know that the body likes to progress in waves….sometimes up, sometimes down, then up again. Some months you’ll do everything right and your strength will still stagnate. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you’ll get a sudden boost in strength, often when you’re doing plenty of stuff wrong!
I’ve observed that there is a sort of synergy amongst certain lifts; when one goes up, it has a positive influence on similar movement patterns. For example, squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts all act through the hip girdle (and moreover, these happen to be the three lower body exercises that I perform regularly). I’ve found that when one of them goes up, they all seem to go up. I could try to come up with a rationale and say something like, “Squats maximize quadricep and lumbar extensor activation, deadlifts maximize hamstring and thoracic extensor activation, and hip thrusts maximize glute activation for complete hip, thigh, and back strength”, but maybe it has more to do with ranges and zones, or maybe it’s solely physiologically-related…who knows?
I’ve found this to be true of bench press, incline press, and military press as well – when one goes up, they all go up. Therefore, there appears to be synergy among the groups of lifts.
What is holding you back could be your weak links. A weak link can be an immobile joint, an unstable joint, poor motor control, an inflexible muscle, a weak muscle, a weak movement pattern or strength-vector, a weak range of motion, a weak strength quality (starting strength, limit/maximal strength, strength speed, speed strength, rate of force development/explosive strength, reactive/elastic strength), poor technique, or even poor program design.
Weak links can hold back progress in any of the big three, so the ability to identify and target your weak link for improvement is a critical aspect of programming consistent strength gains. It is also very important to consider anthropometry (body-segment length) in order to understand differences in biomechanics and their impact on weak links.
Additionally, the type of squat, bench press, and deadlift you do will influence your weak links and play a major role in determining which assistance lifts will carry over. For example, front squats might help a full squatter more than a sumo squatter (more on this from our experts).
Choosing the Best Assistance Lifts
Now that we’ve discussed some of the general factors involved in the science of powerlifting, let’s look at some specific philosophies in regards to assistance exercises. I asked eight of my friends in the strength professions to give me their personal opinions on favorite assistance lifts for the three powerlifts. Some of the recommendations are short and sweet, and some of them are more detailed, complete with personal anecdotes and theories, but all of them are straight from lifters who have impressive performances in the big three.
One thing that may be surprising is how many roads lead to Rome…each of these guys has a different take on which assistance exercises deliver the goods. For each one who swears by the glute-ham raise, there is another lifter who finds he can easily live without it. Some do a lot of core work and some feel they don’t need it. So there’s no one-size-fits-all miracle cure here, but lots of food for thought and ideas for you to work into your workouts.
Here’s what they had to say… I’ll go first…
Squat – Full squat, box squat & hip thrust
I believe that the hip thrust should theoretically transfer more efficiently to the deadlift for many folks, especially at lockout, but I’ve found that when I go awhile without hip thrusting, I seem to lose speed and hip power out of the hole when squatting. The front squat never helped my squat because, due to my personal structure, I’ll always have a big strength discrepancy between my back squat and front squat…I just can’t use enough loading to see a transfer.
I believe that unilateral leg work helps to build squat strength up to a certain point, but after that, further increases in unilateral leg strength don’t seem to have any impact. Abdominal and oblique strength doesn’t seem to limit squat or deadlift strength either, in my experience, because when I stop doing specialized core work, my strength doesn’t suffer and I can still improve.
We could have easily found a guy doing a hip thrust, but it just didn’t feel right
Bench press – Close-grip bench, seated overhead press & incline press
Nothing revolutionary here, but I just want to mention that board presses, floor presses, and dumbbell presses never did much for me. I find I need full ROM and barbells to get any transfer.
Sumo deadlift – Conventional deadlift with shoes, front squat iso-hold & weighted hanging static hold
I pull sumo but have found that I make better gains by focusing almost solely on conventional pulls. If I pull in thick-soled shoes, the extra-inch or so of ROM makes a big difference in terms of strength, and that this helps me pull off the floor with more acceleration when I switch back to sumo with flat-soled shoes. I realize that many smart folks in the industry recommend deadlifting while barefoot, which I believe is a wise-strategy, but I’m just telling you what works for me. You could get the same type of stimulation from deadlifting barefooted while standing on a box, board, or plates about an inch high as well.
Because my grip is often my weak link, I’ve found that weighted hanging static holds with four 45-lb plates does wonders for my grip strength without adding substantial compressive loading on the spine (as is the case with farmer’s walks or barbell static holds). I’ve been experimenting with heavy front squat iso-holds loaded up with about 30% more weight than my max front squat, and I believe that this has helped build up my upper back strength considerably.
Glute-ham raises never worked that well for me in terms of deadlift or squat transfer. I love heavy back extensions and reverse hypers, but they’re more conducive to medium rep ranges, which probably helps more for muscle cross-sectional area increases rather than increases in neural drive. The last thing I want to mention is that squats help the deadlift, and deadlifts help the squat. These two are probably the best “assistance lifts” for each other, but we don’t tend to think of them that way.
Before I give my recommendations, I’ll tell you that I thoroughly systemize (categorize) everything I do. Overall, I split up exercise for the big lifts lifts in four ways:
1. Something that trains the top range of the movement.
2. Something that trains the bottom range of the movement.
3. An unloaded explosive equivalent of the movement to train the mid-range and improve fast motor unit recruitment (the unload also spares the joints after all other high-loaded exercises).
4. Isolation movements that strengthen the muscle involved in the movement.
Because we’re only focusing on assistance movements for each big lift, however, I’ll exclude the isolation movement because it’s the least important of the four categories listed above (in my opinion, anyway).
Here are my top three assistance moves for the squat, bench press, and deadlift:
1. Rack squat (like a rack pull DL; builds the top of the movement)
2. Prisoner squat jump w/ weighted vest (use 20% of BW; increases motor unit recruitment and improves the midrange force development of the movement)
3. Bottom 3-sec pause squat. Using a “big weight”, go down into the hole and remain there for a count of three seconds, then drive up to the top.
1. Rack pulls
2. Kettlebell swing
3. Heavy eccentric deadlift (a.k.a., reverse deadlift)
The Bench Press:
1. Rack press (top range)
2. Plyo pushup w/weight vest (use 10% of BW)
3. Bottom pause bench press (hold bar at chest for three seconds, then press bar up)
Building Strength on the Kettlebell Swing can translate into a bigger deadlift
I’ll keep this real simple.
Glute ham raises, good mornings, and speed squats w/chains or bands
Board presses, close-grip bench, and pin presses
Glute-ham raises, band assisted pulls, and Romanian deadlifts
For me personally, the bench and squat answers are not very exciting because I’m naturally built to squat and bench. I have short legs and arms, which means that my biomechanics for these lifts are great. I also have a pretty wide waist even when I’m super lean, which also helps with my squat.
In my experience, someone who is ideally structured for a lift really doesn’t require many assistance exercises, if any at all. The further your body proportions are from the ideal for a lift, the more important the assistance work becomes.
In my entire lifting career, I rarely used any assistance exercises for the squat, except for the front squat, Even then, I didn’t really see it as an assistance movement to boost my squat, but more like something I needed to work on for my Olympic lifting performance.
I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have personally used a leg press, I rarely did lunges (and never for more than a few weeks at a time), and except for the last few weeks of a bodybuilding prep, leg extensions were not really part of my routine. Now I’m not saying that these exercises are worthless, just that I personally did not need them.
Also, my squatting style is a close-stance, upright torso one (also known as an Olympic squat), which means that the posterior chain muscles are not as important as they would be in a wide stance powerlifting-style squat. Therefore, stuff like glute-ham raises, reverse hypers, and the like didn’t really transfer to a gain in my squat.
When I competed as an Olympic lifter, we squatted or front squatted 5-6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. With that much volume I really didn’t need (nor could I handle) a lot of assistance work.
I did find a significant correlation between increases in my front squat and my back squatting gains, but that may not be true for everybody. In my case, my back squatting style was mechanically similar to a front squat, which meant that gains in the latter easily transferred to the former.
The same was somewhat true for the bench press. I’m not as mechanically suited for the bench as I am for the squat, but it is still a favorable lift for me. My thick torso and short arms help, but my narrow clavicle is somewhat of a hindrance, especially in light of shoulder pain that limited my performance.
As I said about the squat, simply doing more squats was enough, but for the bench I did need some assistance work. I found that the exercises that gave me the best gains were the overhead press and push press. I actually count those two as one exercise because I ramp up the weight gradually, starting with a shoulder press, and as the weight gets heavier, I switch to a push press. In fact, my biggest bench press performance came when I was specializing on my overhead strength and barely did any bench pressing.
Furthermore, it seems like working hard on the overhead press makes my shoulders injury-proof, whereas specializing on the bench always resulted in my shoulders hurting within three weeks, which obviously limited progress.
Now the deadlift – that is another story! I have the absolute worst structure for the deadlift: short arms and a long torso. This means that I need A LOT of assistance exercises for the deadlift to make it go up. However, because of my structure, the deadlift imposes an immense stress on my nervous system, and therefore I actually can’t train it too often. In fact, I can’t train the deadlift more than once every 10-14 days if I want it to progress.
Because of my structure, the start of the movement is the most problematic for me, so deadlifts from a deficit (standing on a podium) and snatch-grip deadlifts are my go-to-exercises. I also found that increasing my front squat really helped my deadlift, but then again I deadlift ”Olympic lifting style”, which means that my deadlift starting position is more like that of a clean: the knee angle is smaller, the hips are higher, and the shoulders more forward as compared to a powerlifting deadlift. My position involves the quads to a greater extent, which is why the front squat helped me. Someone who deadlifts with a higher hip position might not get that same benefit.
Increasing my front squat really helped my deadlift – Christian Thibaudeau
Heavy single-leg work (split-squats, step-ups, lunges), front squats, and a stance that you don’t normally use (if you squat wide, then squat narrow…and vice versa).
High-rep dumbbell bench, higher volume tricep work, and some kind of overhead lift (military or push press).
Pulls from a deficit/standing on a block, low rack pulls from mid-shin/plates 2-6″ off the floor, and high-volume low-back strengthening (back raises, good mornings, etc.).
I always got the most out of pure specificity…I had to squat to get better at squatting. It didn’t matter if it was box squatting, front squatting, or something else. If I had to pick an assistance exercise, however, it would probably be heavy single-leg work, especially with a variety of bars (regular Olympic, giant cambered bar, safety squat bar, etc.).
Nothing ever helped me as much as heavy board presses. These got me more comfortable with heavier weights in my hands, which was huge for me with my smaller wrists.
I feel like my best results came when I was consistently pulling against bands and/or chains for speed at least once a week (in conjunction with heavier pulling on another day each week).
Board Presses can be a great exercise to bring up the Bench Press
1. Personally, I have the knees of an 80 year-old man due to some overuse injuries I’ve accumulated throughout the years. However, when I’m diligent with my soft tissue work, I’m able to manage the discomfort. All that said, I’m a firm believer in what Dan John always preaches: “If it’s important, do it every day.” With that in mind, I always try to get some form of squat variation in with each and every training session. This doesn’t mean I load up my squats every time (a big mistake many trainees make, and then they wonder why they’re always hurt), but I make a concerted effort to implement that movement pattern in every training session nonetheless.
Goblet squats have really been a lifesaver for me, and I think there’s something to be said about teaching someone what it feels like to attain a nice, DEEP, squat position. Through no fault of their own, powerlifters squat to their box (to ensure proper depth) and call it day. However, I just feel that there’s a lot of benefit for everyday life (not just powerlifting) in having the ability to achieve a deep squat that will help in terms of joint health, posture, and performance.
All in all, adding in some low-load, deep, squat patterns will keep the knees happy.
2. Basic movement quality in general: There’s no denying the fact that powerlifters know how to squat – they’ve perfected it. Even still, as I noted above with the squat, there isn’t a whole lot of amplitude in your typical “powerlifting squat” (I’d go so far as to say that a pregnant pig has better movement quality than a powerlifter).
That said, I think including some basic movement training pays a great benefit. Skipping drills, lateral movements (slideboard, side shuffling, etc.), dynamic flexibility circuits, and even the prowler (where you have to really drive that hip extension and “push” away from the floor) are all great options.
3. Anderson back squats: There’s really no “cheating” on this one…no bouncing off the box or “rocking”, for that matter. You set the pins to a depth that allows you to get to juuuuuust below parallel. Unrack the bar, lower yourself until the bar sets on the pins… PAUSE…and then explode up! If you want to develop starting strength, this is where it’s at.
1. Technique work – Most guys have bench technique that makes my eyes perpetually bleed…flat back, no arch, elbows flared out, arghhh. A lot of times, in order to get an increase on the bench, you have to learn to check your ego at the door and take one step back in order to take two steps forward. Take some weight off the bar and learn to bench the right way! The only way you’ll improve is to get under some submaximal loads and DRILL the technique till you’re blue in the face. Taking it a step further, getting a solid training partner who you can trust to give you a proper hand-off (and won’t grab the bar as soon as it slows down and then yell, “All you…it’s all you, dude!”) would be a step in the right direction as well.
2. Board presses – I LOVE board presses. For starters, it gets you used to “feeling” what it’s like to hold a heavier load. Let’s be honest–half the battle is getting past the thought of “Holy shit, this is heavy!” as soon as you un-rack the weight. Secondly, when done correctly (not bouncing the weight off the board), these are a great way to develop explosiveness off the chest, which is where I fail the most often (and coincidentally, where most trainees do as well). I’ve found that my two-board press is pretty much on par with what my actual 1RM is with the bench. The key is to really “sink” the bar into the board.
3. High volume dumbbell work – I’ve found that when I really hammer high volume on the dumbbell work (like a 5×8 scheme), I see my bench go up fairly quickly.
1. Ahhhh, my bread and butter. Speaking purely for myself, I respond VERY well to a lot of volume with the deadlift. It seems the more I deadlift (say twice per week), the more my deadlift goes up. I’ll use one day to get a fair amount of volume (trap bar deadlift for 4×5-6 reps earlier in the week) followed by a heavier me-against-the-fucking-bar day later on in the week (conventional deadlift, where I work up to a heavy doubles or singles later on the week).
2. Goodmornings – Again, this is coming purely from a personal viewpoint, but I’ve found that when I hit the goodmornings and they go up, my deadlift almost always goes up as well. I love giant cambered bar goodmornings because they tend to be a little easier on my shoulders.
3. Kettlebell swings (done the right way) – Watching most people do kettlebell swings is like watching that scene in Swingers where Mike calls that Nikki chick and keeps getting cut off by her answering machine…it’s cringe worthy. Needless to say, most people tend to do what’s called “squat swings,” and then wonder why their backs are killing them. Done the right way (with a hip thrust), kettlebell swings are a fantastic way to teach explosiveness, which will have a lot of carryover to the lockout of the deadlift.
The ab-wheel rollout is one of the most beneficial exercises for boosting the squat. Most people have enough strength in their legs and posterior chain to squat heavier loads than they’re lifting; however, you must be able to transfer that force through your core. The ab wheel rollout builds abdominal strength while teaching you to brace your core, two key components to elevating your squat numbers.
The floor press with dumbbells carries over well to a barbell bench press. First, the floor press allows you to lift heavier loads, which forces your nervous system to recruit more motor units. Second, dumbbells build stability strength at the shoulders. Third, the floor press emphasizes the triceps, a key set of muscles that must be strong for a big bench.
A single-leg deadlift with dumbbells is excellent for boosting your normal deadlift. It’s an effective assistance exercise for three reasons. First, it unloads your spine so that you can build strength without compressing your spinal discs. Second, it strengthens the outer hip musculature, an area that is often undeveloped. Third, the single-leg deadlift forces you to brace your core in order to keep your torso from rotating, and this added core strength allows you to lift heavier loads.
The ab-wheel rollout is one of the most beneficial exercises for boosting the squat – Chad Waterbury
1. Glute-ham raise – Rarely are the quads not strong enough to lock out the squat. Due to a variety of factors, most people tend to be slightly more quad-dominant with weak hamstrings. For this reason, I don’t usually find quad-dominant exercises to have great carryover to the barbell back squat. Don’t get me wrong, single-leg squatting variations such as split squats and pistol squats are great for athletes, but if you are talking about bang-for-your-buck exercises, these will not be at the top of your list for improving the barbell back squat. Instead, the glute-ham raise would be an excellent choice for bringing up the squat. If your posterior chain gets stronger, you will squat more.
2. Power wheel rollout – Like the deadlift, the squat requires a very strong core. Most people already have the leg strength to get the weight up. One of the reasons you can always leg press a ton more weight than you squat is because the leg press removes the abs, obliques, lower back, (e.g., the weak links). To improve your abdominal strength, you need a heavy exercise that will target the abs without compromising the health of your spine. Many strength coaches recommend heavy weighted situps for this purpose. While that exercise will strengthen your abs, it’s a little too risky to recommend. I prefer the power wheel rollout instead. This exercise targets the abs effectively and does an outstanding job of strengthening them while sparing the lower back. You can add resistance by progressing from doing them on your knees to on your feet (use a wall to block forward progress of the wheel when first attempting to do this–the jump from knees to feet will be too extreme and you have to take it in steps) or by wearing a weighted vest. Before using the power wheel rollout, I would recommend mastery of basic and advanced versions of planks, however.
3. 45-degree back extension – The back needs to be very strong to squat a lot of weight. Many people crumble forward due to a weak upper back, but as we’ve already covered deadlifts, rack deadlifts, and one-arm rows, I’ll focus instead on the lower back. Again, deadlift variations are the best exercises for improving lower back strength, but for the reasons mentioned above, we can’t do nothing but deadlifts all the time. Good mornings are very effective and have a great carryover to the squat, but I personally find them a bit too risky and too stressful to use regularly. After the main lifts are done, I like to minimize the joint and CNS stress throughout the rest of the workout. For these reasons, I prefer the weighted back extension. These can be loaded by holding a heavy weight or medicine ball at your chest, holding a straight/safety/cambered bar on your back, or by wrapping a band around your neck. Be sure to flex at the hips and not the spine when doing these, and keep the load and reps in a safe range.
4. Barbell hip thrust and glute bridge – I’ve been seeing some impressive results lately from both the barbell glute bridge and barbell hip thrust after being introduced to them by Bret Contreras. However, it’s a little too early for me to comment on their transfer to the squat and deadlift with any authority because I’ve only been using them regularly for the last few months. I would defer to Bret on these exercises, but will definitely be keeping them in my arsenal, using them with all of my clients, and expecting to see them both moving up my list of top assistance exercises for the squat and deadlift.
1. Glute-ham raise – You need a strong posterior chain in order to deadlift a lot of weight. The best way to develop a strong posterior chain is with some type of deadlift, but since variations of the deadlift are very stressful to the CNS, joints, etc., we can’t do all deadlifts all the time. That’s where the glute-ham raise comes in. This exercise does not produce joint or CNS stress, and glute-hams can be done as often as five days per week if you really need to bring up your hamstrings.
2. Top range suitcase deadlift or suitcase deadlift iso-hold – The obliques are very important in locking out the deadlift. If this doesn’t make immediate sense, do a heavy deadlift workout and tell me how your obliques feel the next day. Louie Simmons has always preached the importance of strong obliques for locking out a heavy deadlift and has recommended heavy side bends. Years ago, I recommended the same, but after familiarizing myself with the work of Dr. Stuart McGill, I have moved toward more spine-sparing oblique exercises. Woodchop variations are good, but I find they have little transfer to the deadlift. Instead, I prefer the suitcase deadlift performed in a rack off of pins set above knee height. These can be done for reps or just as a static hold (I like to use both variations). Along the same lines, you could also do one-arm farmers walks, which also have the added benefit of improving stability throughout the lower body.
3. Heavy one-arm dumbbell rows – To deadlift a lot of weight, you need strong lats and a strong grip. The one-arm dumbbell row will give you both of these, provided you do them without straps in sets of 5-20 reps.
Heavy one-arm rows can help build strong lats and a strong grip – necessary for a big deadlift
1. Rack deadlift/ Inverted row – In order to bench press a lot of weight, you need a big, thick, strong upper back. There is no other exercise that will build those qualities more effectively than a rack deadlift with scapular retraction. This is a very stressful exercise, however, so you can’t do it all the time, especially if you are deadlifting from the floor as well. For that reason, you need to rotate this one in and out of your regular routine based on your recovery and when/how often you’re doing other forms of deadlifts. When you’re not doing this exercise, a more spine-sparing exercise like a weighted inverted row would be your top choice. Many coaches prefer a chest-supported row, but I always like to move the body through space and use more functional exercises whenever possible, so rows performed on blast straps, rings, TRX straps, ropes, etc. while wearing a weighted vest would be my #1 pick.
2. Suspended pushup – To get out of the bottom, you need big strong lats, but you also need chest and shoulder strength. Again, because I always favor bodyweight movements whenever possible, I prefer a weighted suspended pushup (wear a weight vest, drape chains across your back, or have a partner hold weight on your back) to a flat dumbbell bench press. This exercise can be done on rings or blast straps and will develop awesome stabilizer strength and all around pressing power. It’s also less stressful than pressing with heavy dumbbells or a bar.
3. Dumbbell military press – Shoulder strength is also incredibly important for building the bench press. In this particular instance, I favor a dumbbell exercise over bodyweight, because handstand pushups are nearly impossible for the majority of people. Dumbbell military presses can be done with your palms pronated (facing forward) or semi-supinated (facing each other). I suggest using both variations.
So there you have it: nine accomplished lifters’ best recommendations for unique approaches to the assistance lifts based on the individuality of the athlete. In short, there’s no one magic formula–finding out which ones work for YOU takes some consideration of your training level, your weak links, your body mechanics, and your particular lifting stance, among other factors.
The good news is that there’s a deep toolbox of good assistance exercises out there and lots of ways to use them to build your bench, squat, and deadlift. If you want to continue to increase your strength on the big three, it is imperative that you learn what works (and what doesn’t) using some selective experimentation and a lot of heavy lifting!
Thank you to our experts for sharing their hard-won personal experiences and giving gym rats everywhere some food for thought.
Written by Bret Contreras
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Best Assistance Exercises for the Three Big Powerlifts discussion thread.
About Bret Contreras
Bret Contreras received his master’s degree from Arizona State University and his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Bret has been published on many online fitness websites and his work has spread to Men’s Health Magazine and Oxygen Magazine.
Bret invites you to follow him by checking out his blog.
You can also download his ebook here – www.thegluteguy.com