Sunday, May 30, 2010

Assistance work for the raw powerlifter

Ahhhhhhh the topic of assistance work in powerlifting. This topic gets far more talk time than it should in the grand scheme of things. Assistance work does matter, but far too many guys get wrapped up in all the X's and O's of their assistance work and then wonder why their big lifts are moving as well as they would like. So I am going to cover my philosophy, if you will, about picking assistance work.

Adaptation specific -

My buddy Ed Koo and I were talking a few weeks ago about how specific the body is with moving big weights. His longtime training partner is an older fellow who pulls over 600 like the sun sets and rises. Ed said he quit pulling for a few months and was able to increase all of his other exercises for hamstrings, upper, and lower back. When he came back to deadlifting he went to pull 605 and it was STAPLED. I would expect it to be. For every guy that says he gained on the "no deadlift" program I will show you hundreds of other guys who lost strength that way. The "don't deadlift to increase your deadlift" may work for guys with perfect leverages to pull, but for the majority it's about as backwards as a philosophy as you can get.

Don't do something to get good at it? I'm not sure how that ever made sense to anyone. Ed's training partner got stronger in all of the musculature areas involved in pulling, but his actual pull went into the gutter. I experienced this same thing when I tried focusing on good mornings and box squats to increase my pull. I hit PR's in both the good morning and box squat and did speed pulls on a different day. When I went to pull heavy, weights I had previously moved easily, were ridiculously hard or stapled to the floor.

Get good at a lift by doing that lift. Especially if you aren't good at it. If you want to pick an assistance lift for that lift, pick one that mimics that lift very closely. You also must remember that you need to keep doing the main lift, even if the assistance work has great carryover. This is because of motor function. I believe that you can indeed train the main lift with lower percentages and push an assistance lift in weight that gives you good carryover. I intend to do this with my bench press for the upcoming meet.

Benching heavy every other week has worked well for me, however I believe that benching every week, but lighter, and pushing my incline hard will yield good results. My incline shot up using this method to right around 400 pounds and all I was doing was hitting 225-250 for a few sets of 15 after my heavy singles on bench. I believe this method will work for my bench as well, and not beat up my shoulders and elbows. Leaving me fresh.

So remember to train movement patterns, not muscle groups. Training the muscles involved in a lift doesn't mean that lift will go up. Performing the lift itself is the most important part.

Figuring out "weaknesses" and what to pick -

If there is any single "term" out there about assistance work that makes me chuckle it's when the "find your weakness" chant. Look, let's get real. The MAJORITY of guys have enough trouble setting up a program and following it. They have no idea how to "train weaknesses" and second, I'm not sure that's how it works anyway. I beat my hamstrings to death for years and was left with a deadlift that wouldn't budge no matter how strong they got. It wasn't until I stopped that shit and just started pulling heavy from the floor and from boxes that it started moving. According to some people, getting my hamstrings strong was the real key. Maybe it was, but the deadlift as it turns out, builds the hamstrings better than just about everything else. So I actually used the deadlift and a couple of variations of it, to build my deadlift. CRAZY I KNOW RIGHT?! /sarcasm

In my experience, finding the right assistance exercises just comes from trial and error. Lots of guys have been told to build their triceps to get a big bench and then spend all day doing pushdowns and skull crushers and their bench doesn't move. If simply building big, strong triceps were the key I promise you that everyone would have a big bench. I've never met a guy that didn't put considerable time into training his triceps.

So this is my own personal theory. You can take it, or give it right back (AnchorMan reference right there). Add in ONE assistance movement to supplement your main movement (do it after your main lift). Give it 4 weeks and push it hard in the 5-8 rep range. If it's a bodyweight movement, then shoot for a certain number of reps or do both (a top set of 5-8 followed by getting bodyweight for a certain number of reps).

You should improve in strength on it. If you main lift improves, it is helping. If it does not, drop it and try something else. Don't beat your head against a wall because someone told you that you have to do a particular exercise. Sometimes an assistance movement is building a weakness, thus improving your main lift, and sometimes it is improving your "strengths", and also improving the main lift.

Let's cut through the bullshit here. The bottom line is improving your main lift. Sometimes taking what you are good at and making that better is just as good as improving a "weakness". Throw out the "train your weaknesses" mantra and worry about what is helping the lift instead. Then you can cut through doing a lot of bullshit and figure out exactly what is working for you.

So if you are improving on strength in the assistance lift AND the main lift, then credit the assistance lift, and ride it out until the main lift stops moving. If the assistance lift is moving up and the main lift is not, drop it. Again, focus on the real key, improving the main lift.

When the main lift stops moving try something else as your assistance work and repeat the above.

Assistance for the Squat -

For me, the squat itself is enough. I have done every leg exercise in the history of lifting (or at least I think I have) and just squatting has always worked the best for me. I will give some variations I think have good carryover, but I honestly believe of the three powerlifts the squat is the one that requires the least amount of assistance work.

Pause Squats -

In my opinion pause squats are probably the single best assistance exercise a raw guy can do. Remember when you aren't wearing equipment you need to train the bottom portion of the movements. And with pause squats you will build a lot of strength coming out of the hole. I ran 6+ weeks of pause squats only and can say they will also grease your form like no other. Your sit down and core have to be super tight in order to move some "big" weights out of the hole. If you don't believe me try sitting down in the bottom then letting your breath out and watch what happens. This is a pretty interesting test. It will let you know right away how important it is to be tight in your midsection to move strongly out of the hole.

An easy way to put pause squats into your routine is to either just do pause squats for 5 sets of 3 (same weight) or to do them after regular squats. Take of 50-90 pounds of what you did for your top set of squats, then knock out 2-3 sets of 3-5. If you are running something like 5/3/1 you could use the first set plugged in for a percentage for pause squats and shoot for the required reps (so it would be 5,3,5 over three weeks).

Front Squats -

My feeling on front squats are fairly mixed. I think they do an awesome job of developing full body strength, maybe even more than the squat in some aspects, however as far as getting carryover to the actual back squat, I never got much out of them. Lots of people swear by then however so throw them in there and work hard on improving them and see what happens.

Box Squats -

For the raw guy, I believe box squats are incredibly overrated. Even on a below parallel box. When you sit down on a box and unload that bottom portion it creates an environment that is the opposite of what a raw guy needs. I've addressed this movement before in my article about raw squatting so I won't go into it again. I think that box squatting has turned into what HIT turned into in the 90's with guys training once every three weeks. Box squats aren't Gods gift to great squatting. It is a great tool for teaching beginners how to squat and in my opinion great for multi-ply guys, however for raw guys I don't think it is a good assistance movement. That's just from my own training and talking to a lot of other raw guys.

If you do want to do them, what I suggest is just TOUCHING the box then exploding up. This way you're not unloading the quads and hams at the bottom. Again, as with anything, work them in, give them a fair chance and figure out if they work for you.

Hack Squats -

Hacks are interesting in that you are in a fixed movement yet the quads work harder than they do in a regular squat. I am fairly intrigued about inserting hacks as an assistance movement for my squats for my meet prep. This may happen. If so I will document it here.

Zercher squats -

More worthless than rubber lips on a woodpecker for powerlifting in my own opinion. Great for strongman training. Again, try em out and see what happens. Yuck.

Leg Press -

Uh oh I brought up the leg press! This violates my "similar movement pattern" rule. However lots of guys have used the leg press as a good movement to aid their squat. Andy Bolton, Steve Goggins, Eric Lilliebridge, etc. I used to love leg pressing but once I got to where I could do 10 plates per side for high reps it just became exhausting to load all of those plates on and off. Some guys really like the 1-legged version for this reason better. Try em out and see what you think.

Bench Press -

Grip variations -

This is probably the best overall way to work on increasing your raw bench in my opinion. You can do your competition grip work, then do some close grip and then wide grip stuff. This was really common back in the 70's and 80's before the shirts got crazy.

Incline -

I have fallen in love with incline as a bench builder. No it's not in the same plane but I can move pretty decent weight on incline, and for whatever reason it has great carryover to my bench. Remember, I define carryover as "the assistance lift goes up and the main lift goes up in conjunction". In regards to incline and bench when one goes up the other one does as well. Now I don't mean to say I could do incline only and increase my bench. I still have to actually bench.

Dumbbell bench -

A lot of guys like dumbbell bench to aid their bench. I like dumbbell benches for rep work but never noticed they made my bench feel better. I do think they have a lot of merit, I just don't know why. HAH!

Cambered Bar Bench -

This was a favorite of the great bencher Mike MacDonald. Be careful if you use these. You don't have to bring the bar down to touch actually, just bring it slightly below the usual ROM for bench. Again, be careful on these because they can be rough on the shoulders.

Deadlift -

Box Deads of various heights -

What I call box deadlifts is when you put the weight on the box, not standing on the box (I call that deficit deadlifts). I also only advocate pulling off the box from below the knee. I did above the knee for a long time and never found any carryover to the floor. Again, your mileage may vary so try each out. I will say that when you pull from below the knee you will find spots where you are weaker than you are from the floor. TRAIN THAT AREA!!!! It will suck but it will help your deadlift tremendously.

Deficit Deadlifts -

If you do these mind the height of what you are standing on. If you get too high you can get more quad involvement and it kind of becomes a whole new lift. I find that is the case for me anyway, and then when you go back to the floor there isn't as much carryover. Try smaller deficits at first, like standing on a single plate.

Stiff Legs and Romanians -

I did well with these too. Pulling stiff legs for high reps works pretty well because you stay a little lighter.

Conclusion -

Like I said, throw in one assistance movement at a time and work it hard for a few weeks. As it improves make notes of what is going on with your main lift. If it doesn't improve in some fashion, drop the assistance movement. And once again, remember that like all good things it must come to an end. In the end it is all about improving the main lift, so judge the worth of your assistance work based on what is happening with your main movement. Not the other way around.

Run,Lift,Bang -



  1. Good article. One thing you didn't mention was the overhead press. Would you consider that a bench assistance move or just its own thing? Obviously not being competed, it is less important than the big 3, but guys like Wendler have placed the press pretty high on their list of things to do. Interested to hear your thoughts on the press in a powerlifter's training routine.

  2. I think overhead work is important for sure. Lots of guys get good carryover from the overhead, I just wasn't one of them. And the standing press has always been one of my best lifts (275x3 strict). I was able to push my overheads up fairly easy and watch my bench do nothing. I did less overhead pressing this past year and my benched moved more. Matt Kroc also has tried to incorporate overheads into his pressing at various times in the past but then would find that his bench would actually start suffering as well. I do more seated dumbbell pressing now if I am going to press overhead and I stay light on them (no heavier than the 100's).

    On the flip side of that, some great benchers swear by overhead pressing. Who can argue with guys like Ted Arcidi?

    So long story short, I think that overhead work really varies greatly from person to person in terms of what it does to the bench. For this reason I didn't address it as much but you're certainly going to want to play with it just like any other exercise.

  3. Another good article. What is your feeling about more "isolation" assistance work for the SQ and DL, specifically things like back raises and GHR's? I go back and forth with stuff like this and feel like I "should" be doing them, but I wonder if I would be better off doing light/moderate RDL's or GM's. Thanks.


  4. Sean,
    I think both back raises and GHR are solid movements, however I'm not sure how much these kinds of exercises really increase the main lift either. If you're REALLY weak in the hams and low back then these could be great for you. However if you are pulling 600+ I'm not sure how much you're going to get out of them. I personally think you're better off using the romanians and stiffs. If you are going to do hypers or GHR the thing I recommend with those is a LOT of volume. 5-8 sets of 15+. I think results with those kinds of exercises tend to be better when you up the volume considerably. I still recommend just sticking with only 1 at a time to see what it is really doing for you. So try em out. Do em for a month with some good volume and see if your squat or dead move up because of it.

  5. The popularity of "Westside" has overridden common sense, which is :specificity. I made my best gains as a powerlifter on Sheiko and my best as an Olympic lifter while doing nothing by the lifts + squats. I've tried the "other ways" i.e. pushing up assistance lifts, using bands/chains, etc. Didn't work. IF you decide you have a "weak point", say its the lockout on bench, then do a movement as specific to the bench as possible, like board presses. Staying specific but allowing for overload at a particular range. Best point was most people can't even manage programming and planning yet they worry about doing "magic" exercises to make them elite lifters. Great article!

  6. Great article. Unfortunately, I am one of those who stresses about assistance when I should probably just focus on pushing up the big lifts, so this was gold for me. I'm pretty weak by some standards, with a max DL of 450. I have no idea what my weak points may or may not be, so I'm thinking about just being very bare bones and simply using the lifts, but with more volume, e.g. do the deadlift and then back off with more deadlifts or simply just up the deadlift volume. Do you think this is workable? Thanks.

  7. Tom,
    Yes absolutely. This is what I will be doing with my own deadlift. Working up to a single at a certain % then doing two back off sets of 5. I credit the conversations that Ed and I have been having as finally settling on the sets and reps for this.

  8. Thanks for that, Paul. I've been a low repper/low volume type for some time and have read your Blue Collar Strength & Mass and Strength Standards atricles with some interest. I'm going to give some medium to higher reps a go for a while and see how I go. This ties in with simply adding volume as 'assistance'. Interestingly, when I've come off a repping cycle in the past, I usually set a PR, even though I feel like I'm pissing about in the shallow end by not working at 90% of 1RM or whatever. I read a post on P&B a while back - I think it was WildGorillaMan Strongman Training or something - it recommended going for a rep max, resting and repeating until you can only achieve half the reps of the first set. So, high rep DLs on Monday (plus not much else)!

  9. Great blog, need to stop back more often

  10. Paul,

    Do you consider chins and rows to be deadlift assistance or bench assistance?

  11. Deadlift. This whole "do back work for your bench" stuff is really kind of silly.

    You should do back work to keep things in balance in terms of musculature with your pressing muscles, but the prime mover in the bench are the triceps, pecs, and delts.

  12. Thanks Paul,

    From reading this website I think I am going to start using a simple Workout A/B 3 days a week schedule:

    Workout A:
    Bench: 2 working sets, 1 back off set
    Incline: 2 working sets

    Workout B:
    Squat: 2 working sets, 1 back off
    Deadlift: 2 working sets, 1 back off set
    Pause Squats: 2 working sets
    Chins: 50 reps
    10 minutes hard conditioning

  13. This is the kind of split I will probably return to after this meet when I start back up fighting again.

  14. ....what I would advise there also is to squat heavy one workout, and pull light, then squat light the next workout, and pull heavy.

  15. What rep range do you consider to be heavy and light? 5-8 for heavy and 9-20 for light?

  16. For assistance work everything should stay above 8 reps. Just a general statement.

  17. This made me think of swinging a baseball bat compared to the basic lifts. If i wanted to be the best DH hitter in baseball and make the most $$$ i gotta get reallyyyyy good at swinging a bat against live pitching. If i stopped hitting against live pitching shortly to just do drills that mimic the swing and/or go lift weights in hopes of hitting the ball harder/further to be a better hitter that would be foolish. I'd come back slightly stronger but my mecahnics and movement pattern of swinging the bat would be f*&^ed! because i left out the best way for me to actucally get better..... HITTING LIVE PITCHING!!! now i could work on mechanics, hit off a tee, hit in batting cage at slower speeds, and lift weights to hit the ball harder, but I MUST continue to hit live pitching in hopes of becoming a better hitter. Same goes with the basic lifts, you must practice like you play. There will be assistance lifts that'll have good carry over to improve the main lifts but nothing will ever replace that main lift, they are the most loadable lifts designed to get you the strongest compared to others. You can use less weight, more volume, practice technique with lighter weight, mimic the movement in other ways , but nothing will EVER replace squatting, benching, and deadlifting .You must continue to practice the skill you desire to get better at.
    Thanks for listening to my comparison it made me think of all that time i spent to become a better hitter in baseball, same thing applies in powerlifting!!! love your articles, keep em coming!!!!