When it comes to being the best and strongest powerlifter you can be, the last thing you think about is programming and training to remain pain-free. Trust me; I've been there. My training six to eight years ago was vastly different than it is today.
Even though I have decent genetics, good leverages, and a mental fortitude made from my wrestling days, I wish I would've slowed down and implemented more exercises that could have helped keep aches and pains away with performance at the forefront.
Are extra ab work, Reverse Hypers®, and band pull-aparts all you need? No.
The ten exercises listed here will keep you pain-free and help put pounds on your total. End goal: Be a stronger lifter and remain healthier for longer.
What Most Lifters Are Missing
The first thing to remain healthy is filling up "buckets" that powerlifters are missing. We already know the strength "bucket" is overflowing, and probably the hypertrophy "bucket" as well. Chances are your mobility and recovery "buckets" either have holes or are likely neglected across the board. Rather than just telling you to go foam roll or implement some mobilizations, I know that time is important for many people, and the goal is to get the most from the least.
The two areas most powerlifters need to address are improving movement in the frontal and transverse planes. All the lifts we do as competitors (supplemental and accessory work, too) are in the sagittal plane, which means all we do is go up and down all day. This causes the body to get relatively stiff and typically locked into an anterior orientation with low back issues while the body is cranked through extension. We lack the ability to move side to side (frontal plane) and through rotation (transverse), and ultimately get out of the extended position.
Below you'll see ten exercises that can help fill these gaps. You can do them simply as part of your warm-up, a GPP or conditioning day, or even as your accessory work. The major goal is to have things you can take away today and immediately implement without having extra time in the gym, feel and move better, and remain pain-free.
1. Lateral Lunge or Cossack Squat
One of the first exercises that I have been implementing more and more is a lateral lunge or a cossack squat. This is a pretty basic lunging activity, but where you start and what you're looking for depends on where you are. If you're not super mobile, start with the lateral lunge and perfect it before moving to the cossack squat. The goal here is to move side to side and see some improvements in the hips and glutes long term. If you're a sumo puller, you might feel these help your mobility and keep adductor issues at bay.
Where I'd Implement Them: Put these as an accessory exercise on your deadlift days for 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps per side.
2. Landmine Sways
Next up is another frontal plane exercise similar to the lateral lunge, the landmine sway. This is an exercise I use with a lot of my baseball, softball, and basketball players in-season to keep the hips feeling good and mobile with some load. For us lifters, I think this is one of the best active mobility drills you can be doing for your hips and adductors. You can easily adjust load, height, and comfort within seconds, and it'll only take you 1-2 sets at most. The goal is to improve these so your hips can get lower over time, let the adductors get good and long, and ultimately improve your squat depth.
Where I'd Implement Them: I like these as part of my warm-up on lower body days before my first movement of the day. Typically 1-2 sets of 10 reps per side do the trick.
3. DB or KB Side Bend
Now I know what you're thinking, "Shouldn't we just do suitcase carries?"
And honestly, I'm right there with you. I love the suitcase carry, and I believe it's an exercise that should be implemented in your training frequently. However, I do think the side bend has benefits for us lifters.
First, I like that it keeps us moving in the frontal plane. Again, most of our trunk and abdominal work is either about creating stiffness or moving up and down. This exercise will do the opposite of both of those, ideally helping the low back feel better. The side bend will let our obliques and QL get good range of motion that we typically lack daily.
Where I'd Implement Them: I like these for light to moderate loads for 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps per side as part of my warm-up on upper body days. Typically after a hard lower body day, your lower back is left feeling stiff, which can be a good way to loosen things up before hitting the bench.
4. Front Foot Elevated (FFE) Split Squat
Next is the beloved split squat, specifically the front foot elevated variation. I like the FFE split squat because it helps push the body's center of mass backward. This might be tough to understand but hang with me here for a minute, as this theme will carry on the rest of the article.
Everything we do as lifters aims to push our center of mass forward - barbell on our back, arched in the bench press, deadlift, and all the accessory work. This is good, as this is what makes us stronger and better lifters. However, when it comes to feeling better and staying pain-free, we must ensure we do some of the opposite exercises. Elevating the front foot brings the ground up, so when you go down in the exercise, the front foot will need to push you up and BACK. Pair this up with a front-loaded position, and it's even better.
I lean more towards the FFE split squat over the Bulgarian split squat, as the Bulgarian variation further pushes you forward and the pelvis more anteriorly oriented. Use a double kettlebell front rack position to get the most out of this exercise. Increase your lower body strength and size in the glutes, hamstrings, and quad along the way!
Bonus: Your upper back and abs will also see huge improvement, and they are less likely to pitch you forward in your squat.
Where I'd Implement Them: Use these as part of your accessory work on lower body days for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per side.
5. Heels Elevated Cable Zercher Squat
Sticking with our theme of the split squat, next up is an awesome Zercher squat variation. This is an exercise I use a lot with older personal training clients to improve their lower body and their squat depth.
This variation has a lot going on, so let's break it down. First off, having the heels elevated lets the body sense the heels more so that we can get the pelvis in a more neutral position and naturally increase squat depth. Secondly, the cable is also pulling the body forward, so to combat that, the lower body will need to push up and backward. And lastly, by having the Zercher position with the cable and strap, the backside will open up and be less extended.
This is an amazing way to get a lot of quad work in if you don't have access to a leg extension machine or reverse sled drags while simultaneously helping improve your squat depth (if you have issues in that department).
Where I'd Implement Them: These work best as a lower body accessory exercise on squat or deadlift days, ideally for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps. Focus on quality reps and depth over pushing super heavy weights.
6. Cicinelli Turtle Roll
This is probably one of the most awkward-looking exercises you'll ever see, but it's also humbling. This exercise aims to balance out all the extended base work we do as lifters and get in some quality flexion. The kicker is that we'll need to create quality flexion with our elbows and knees as we try to keep the yoga block (or med ball) squeezed while we roll. The rolling will help open up the backside and use physics to our advantage to have our guts inside us move towards our diaphragm and pelvic floor throughout the rep. It can help aid mobility as those tissues expand and contract. Be warned, your abs will be feeling these, I promise.
Where I'd Implement Them: I like these as part of my warm-up for 1-2 sets of 10 reps. They also work well as your main trunk work for the day for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
7. Reverse Crunch
We have the infamous reverse crunch to round out this theme of helping offset the extended position. This is an amazing ab exercise, but for powerlifters it's even better as we fill in a lot of gaps that typically get overlooked.
By performing these with some good intentions, we can train in safe movements of flexion while simultaneously opening up the backside after a heavy squat or deadlift day. The key is to go good and controlled, ideally in a segmented-based move so that it feels like each vertebra is slowly going back towards the ground and getting as round as you can at the top. These will feel really good on your lower back after a heavy lower body day.
Where I'd Implement Them: These can work well as part of a warm-up for 1-2 sets of 10 reps or as your main trunk work for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
8. Cross Connect Walking Lunges
Earlier I talked about how powerlifters don't do much to rotate in our training. The cross connect walking lunge is a great way to get in some rotation about the body without doing Russian twists and similar exercises.
The key thing with this exercise is to over-exaggerate the rotation while performing the lunge. You'll want to keep your arms up and think about bringing your elbow towards your upstance leg. This will mimic the phases of gait but also get the ribs rotating naturally. These won't be hard for most lifters, but they will feel awkward. You might feel some outer glutes and inner thighs while you do them, which is completely normal.
Where I'd Implement Them: These will be best served as a warm-up for 1-2 sets of 10-15 steps per side. Just focus on being fluid and rotating in the upper body.
9. Half Kneeling Landmine Overhead Press With Opposite Reach
Speaking of getting more rotation, this is one of my favorite upper body exercises to help improve not only rotation but shoulder and hip health as well.
To start, by performing a landmine press, we're going to get some good serratus anterior work which can be great for powerlifters that are constantly pulling their shoulders down and back on a bench press. Chances are your serratus is pretty weak, and this can help keep your shoulders feeling good well past your powerlifting days.
Secondly, being in a half-kneeling position ensures we can keep the hip flexors lengthened and help prevent ourselves from going into that extended position even more. And lastly, by reaching with our non-working arm, we can keep the ribs moving and rotating, similar to our gait cycle. Feel free to load the weights up here so long as you can keep your technique crisp.
Where I'd Implement Them: I like these on upper body days as an accessory exercise, usually for 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps per side.
10. Bent Over KB Row With Thoracic Rotation
And last but not least, we've got this amazing bent over row variation that can also get the ribs and body moving about rotation. I usually love this exercise for my baseball, softball, tennis, and swimming athletes. As lifters, we love to train our upper back, so here we can get a two-for-one deal. Chances are you're not going to be able to use weights as you would with a regular bent over row, but on the other side of the coin, you're going to open up your upper back and have things feeling good after the fact. Just ensure you're keeping your body in a good neutral position and focus on getting long and rotating.
Where I'd Implement Them: I like these at the end of an upper body day for 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps per side.
Just The Beginning
I know this was a lot of information to throw at you in one article. Hopefully, there were some exercises you've likely never seen or thought about implementing when it comes to improving your lifting. If you're clueless about where to start, ask yourself what you believe you need more in your training. Need more rotation? Pick one to two exercises to start implementing. Is the low back super cranky? Find a frontal plane exercise and an exercise to help open up your backside.
I've been using many of these exercises almost daily, and my body has been thanking me for it. I wish I had implemented them ten years ago. If you have specific questions or want other examples, feel free to reach out. Best of luck staying pain-free and strong!
Header image courtesy of Meana Albersworth
Brandon Smitley is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University where earned his Bachelor’s degree in Health and Fitness, and of Indiana State University with his Master's Degree in Coaching. His best lifts to date are a 567-pound squat, 330-pound bench, 510-pound deadlift, and 1377-pound total in the 132-pound weight class! Brandon holds his CSCS, USAW, and CPT certifications. He has opened THIRST with his wife, Adrian, to help athletes and others realize their full potential from proper strength training methodologies.