Powerlifting is all about the squat, bench and deadlift, right? These lifts make up the foundation and then you have variations of the main lifts like paused or banded squats or deadlifts or exercises with chains. You might possibly – just possibly — also put the bench on an incline or decline every once in a while. You might do some accessory work, too, using the safety bar or dumbbells and throw in some upper back work. But on the whole, you’re a “big three” kinda guy.
It makes sense, seeing as these are the lifts that you’ll do on the platform. After all, why would you bother with non-specific exercises? What place do curls, push-downs and lateral raises have in a powerlifting routine?

Sure, if you’re a bodybuilder, you might be fretting over the size of your brachioradialis or the development of your medial delts, but when you’re focusing on moving maximum weight on squats, benches and deadlifts, wimpy isolation movements just don’t have a place. Or do they?

A Bigger Muscle Is a Stronger Muscle

You can talk about the idea of sarcoplasmic versus myofibrillar hypertrophy all you like, but at the end of the day, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. How many guys do you see with small chests who can bench three plates? Get your squat to 500 pounds for reps and your quads, glutes and hamstrings won't stay skinny. That’s why training for hypertrophy definitely has a place in any powerlifter’s routine.

Your delts and triceps have a serious job to do when you bench, so why wouldn’t you spend some time making them grow? Likewise, those leg muscles will only get so much stimulus from squat and deadlift variations. Adding in isolation movements and single leg exercises will induce hypertrophy, which will carry over to your performance on the platform.

You Can’t Go Balls to the Wall 100 Percent of the Time

Squats, deadlifts and bench presses are great, but you can’t hammer them hard all the time and expect to make progress. Doing that is a short cut to burning out and getting injured. While they can still be made difficult and provide a training stimulus, isolation movements don’t hit your central nervous system nearly as hard, so they can be done more frequently at higher intensities and not impact your recovery.

The Fight Against Injury

Some injuries are unavoidable. Some aren’t. Weak stabilizers are a major cause of injury, particularly when it comes to bench pressing, where shoulder instability is a serious risk factor for injury. Make those small stabilizers stronger and you take your training longevity through the roof.

You Can Only Get so “Functional”

“Functional exercise” isn’t a thing. Functionality depends on what you’re training for, so as a competitive lifter, the most functional exercises are your competition squat, bench press and deadlift. Next in terms of functionality comes slight variations of these—squats with a different bar position for instance, deadlifts with a small deficit or bench presses with an extended pause or reduced range of motion.

Functionality is a sliding scale, and an exercise is never completely non-functional. Some are just more functional than others. The argument of saying that biceps work isn’t “functional” is invalid. It might be less functional, but it can’t be non-functional.

Look Like You Lift

Powerlifters might say, “I don’t care how I look,” but you’d be pretty pissed if someone asked whether you actually trained. Or worse still, you get that skin-crawling question, “Have you lost weight?”

Isolation exercises can be awesome muscle builders and they correct many physique imbalances that powerlifters tend to have. If you could only do three exercises, squats, bench presses and deadlifts would be your three because they give the most bang for your buck. Fortunately, you aren’t limited to just three.

Squats and deadlifts might give you solid glutes, hamstrings and erectors, but your calves (and even your quads to a degree) don’t get much of a look. And with the bench, your rhomboids, lats, traps and biceps get some work from holding your torso stable, but that just isn’t enough to make them grow in proportion with your chest, delts and triceps.

The Best Isolation Movements for Powerlifters

Let’s look at this from a functionality point of view. What isolation movements will have the greatest carryover to your big three? It’s best to judge this using two categories—building muscle in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be hit and hitting weak points and common injury areas.

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If an isolation exercise works for both of these, it makes the list. We also want movements that don’t cross over too much with the main lifts so that you avoid fatigue and burn out. So what are the best “wimpy” assistance exercises for powerlifting? Try the following.

Fly variations: I was at Layne Norton’s VIP training camp in Tampa recently. I asked one of the coaches there, Luke Propst, what his favorite accessory movements for the bench were. Expecting him to reply with close grip presses, board presses and dumbbell presses, I was surprised when he said, “Flyes, man. Heavy ass flyes. They’ll blow up your pecs, and bigger pecs equal a bigger bench.”

You have a load of different fly variations including incline/decline/ flat, dumbbells, cables and chains.

Upright rows: A former bodybuilding favorite and now shunned by the “functional crowd” due to their supposed high risk of injuries, upright rows can be an awesome exercise…if you do them correctly.

Keep your scapula retracted through the movement and take the elbows high. Don’t worry about what your hands are doing. Use a wider grip and squeeze those shoulder blades together as you drive up with your elbows. Variations include dumbbells, the straight bar and the EZ bar.

Shrugs: Shrugs are seen almost solely as a bodybuilding movement these days, and deadlifts can build big traps, but why not shrug as well? If you want a big yoke and you want to reduce your risk of shoulder impingement, get shrugging:

  • Barbell shrugs (from a hang or from a dead stop)
  • Dumbbell shrugs
  • Trap bar shrugs

Go strapless and higher rep. To give your grip a workout as well, you can even use Fat Gripz.

Biceps curls: Call the powerlifting police—someone just said the “B” word. Seeing as biceps tendon injuries are pretty damn common among competitors, strengthening your biceps just makes sense. Sure, you don’t want to ditch your bench day in favor of a biceps blitz, but there’s nothing wrong with a few sets of biceps at the end of an upper day.

  • Barbell/dumbbells/fat bar/cable
  • Standing/seated/incline
  • Preacher machine
  • With added chains
  • In the squat rack

Lateral raises: Best shoulder exercise for boosting your bench? Overhead presses without a doubt. But laterals have a place, too. Again, keep your shoulder blades retracted with the dumbbells at your side and try to explode up while controlling the negative.

You have regular dumbbell laterals, but you could also try kettlebell lateral raises or plate lateral raises. Both of these force you to keep your hands in line with your elbows and prevent you from cheating by shrugging up.

Split squats: I like split squats in a warm up as a way to mobilize the anterior portion of the hips. If you have tight hip flexors, use split squats as a method of active stretching—holding the bottom position for a couple seconds before driving back up again. If you’re struggling to get your glutes firing on your bilateral exercises, get split squats into your routine.

Dumbbells held at your sides works just fine, but for a change of stimulus try off-set split squats by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell on one side or safety bar split squats. The latter take a bit of maneuvering to get into position but offer some variety. You could also try split squats for one and a half reps. Go all the way down, halfway up, all the way back down and then back to the top. That’s one rep. Oh and by the way, there’s nothing “wimpy” about a high rep set of split squats.

Creating Carryover

Don’t think of assistance exercises as a separate entity to your big three training. Whenever you’re performing an assistance movement, concentrate on how it can carry over to your performance on the platform. That means squeezing your glutes hard and digging your heels into the floor, keeping a tight upper back and trying to crush the barbell or dumbbell in your hands even when doing raises, curls or flyes.

If it came down to it and time was a real issue, you could get away with completely neglecting all the above exercises. Your time would be better spent on the main lifts plus their variations. If that isn't the case though, get your assistance work in. Even the “wimpy exercises” have their place.

Mike Samuels is an online coach, writer and powerlifter. He lifts in the GBPF under 74-kg category and has also competed in natural bodybuilding shows with the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation. Mike trains clients looking to get leaner and stronger and specializes in working with natural bodybuilders and powerlifters. You can contact him at www.healthylivingheavylifting.com

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