6 assistance exercises for powerlifting

Despite being highly minimalistic in my program design I’m often caught saying that the three powerlifts aren’t “complete” and therefore not enough for competitive lifters. In other words, additional exercises are necessary in order build strength but more importantly to keep the lifter healthy. Here are five of the most commonly prescribed as of 2021.

Hanging leg raise

A great abdominal exercise if done right. Done right in this case is to think more in terms of a jack knife than a leg raise. Start by hanging from a bar with palms facing away from you, then try to make your feet touch the bar. You want to make sure you pull your upper body forward in order to meet the legs. That obviously won’t happen but the intention is key to properly activate the abdominals.

Now here’s the kicker, it’s not so much the abdominal strength I’m after with this one but rather relieving the lower back after heavy squats and deadlifts.

Standing cable crunch

Like the hanging leg raise, the primary purpose of this exercise to help the lower back, even if most consider it an abdominal exercise. To execute a standing cable crunch, stand with your back against a tricep rope in a pulley machine. Grab the rope with one end from each side of the neck and bend forward. It’s almost a reverse good morning.

Try to do this exercise as a warmup for many reps (several sets of 10-20) before you do any heavy lifting if you have a beat up lower back. It will likely feel better almost immediately.

Behind the neck press

I would rank the behind the neck press as the best shoulder builder I’ve ever tried, possibly tied with the Bradford press. It’s a much more complete deltoid builder than the regular press which you’ll find out through bigger (and more sore) side delts. It’s been heavily demonized for decades now despite most of the ridiculously strong people in the past all put up very heavy behind the neck presses. To do a behind the neck press simply start with the bar on your back and press it overhead.

Enemies of the behind the neck press claim it wrecks the shoulders. I’ve found the opposite – it can be used to fix bad shoulders. Obviously use caution and don’t go heavy the first few sessions. If you have very poor mobility you can start with a broomstick for many reps until it improves. I’ve also had lifters tell me the behind the neck press greatly improved their ability to keep the shoulder blades tucked in the bench press.

Face pull

To perform a face pull use a pull machine with a tricep rope attached. You can grip the rope either with a neutral (or “hammer-“) grip or a overhand grip. Pull towards your face and keep the elbows up and straight out.

This has been a mainstay for most of my powerlifters for years. I suggest very high repetitions (20 or more is perfectly valid) and sometimes even not letting go of the rope between sets. The purpose is not to build strength but to keep the shoulders healthy and it does its job well in that regard. If you have shoulder issues you can start by warming up with face pulls.

Chest supported row

To perform this exercise lie on your stomach on a bench and either pull a barbell or two dumbbells. Either will work but dumbbells will allow for a greater range of motion due to the fact that the bar eventually hits the bench. I like to alternate between the two from cycle to cycle.

For powerlifters the purpose of this exercise is to work the upper back, especially to train the lifter to be able to keep a tight back position. For that reason I’m not a fan of the dying flailing seal that so many do. It’s fine if you want to move as much weight as possible but that’s not the goal. Instead do the opposite and even try to pause the bar at the top (as it touches the bench). It might not always happen but the intention should at the very least be there.

Good morning

There are two ways to perform good mornings, by thinking about bending forward and by thinking about sticking your butt back. The two produce very different results which you should be aware of when deciding on the intention of the lift. In almost every case I suggest “stick the butt back”. It will look almost identical because you will bend over but it will happen as an afterthought. Doing good mornings this way puts more stress on the glutes and hamstrings as opposed to the lower back.

The good morning is just an overall great exercise for your entire backside. I don’t use it to build the squat or the deadlift in particular, or as any form of variation for the main lifts, but simply to build a stronger posterior chain.

Final thoughts

Assistance exercises for powerlifting comes in two forms: those that make you stronger and those that keep your body healthy. Depending on how you program your training you might not need much extra in terms of lifts that make you stronger aside from the competition lifts and variations. The ones that keep you healthy, well, they’re a different story. As you can see from the list they primarily deal with relieving the lower back and making sure the shoulders don’t break due to excessive benching and little pulling. In fact, I’d argue that every powerlifter need at least some extra upper back work.