3 Exercises For Breaking Powerlifting PRs - Gymtalk

3 Exercises For Breaking Powerlifting PRs

I’ve listened to enough of Chad Wesley Smith’s Strong360 podcasts to appreciate that the best way to improve one’s competition powerlifting PRs is to simply focus on those lifts in training.

But when you’re really maxing out on squat and getting frustrated that you can’t seem to add even 2.5kg to your 1-3 rep maxes, is throwing more weight on the bar and just trusting your body and mind to respond really the best option?


The body is such a powerful tool that you can often surprise yourself, but get it wrong and you’re going to appear on a YouTube ‘fails’ compilation along with ‘throwing up while deadlifting guy’ and ‘woman falling off pull up bar attached to a door frame’.

Some funny, some tragic.

The mechanics of the big three (squat, bench press, deadlift) necessitate the activation of at least two muscle groups functioning in harmony to produce optimum power and speed in the lift.

As such there are several tweaks you can make to your accessory work in order to smash any powerlifting plateaus.

I’d love to tell you that bicep curls and rear delt flies are going to add 10kg to your max squat, but in reality these following three exercise are just as arduous as the lifts you’re trying to improve.

Split squats

Focused lift: squat

In raw powerlifting (belt/knee wraps), it’s very rare for a lifter to fail a rep at the top of the movement since there is no reliance on a lifting singlet to carry you through the bottom of the movement.

You need to be strong throughout.

As such, raw lifters need to be at their most technically aware at the bottom of the squat, or ‘in the hole’, and just as strong to counteract the loss of quad muscles when below parallel.

Common issues at this point include either lowering the weight too slowly and thus not utilising the momentum/torsion of the negative phase to spring back up, or not activating other lower body/core muscle during that crucial transition.

Split squats will help you with the latter, namely the glutes.

They will also aid your ankle and knee stability.

Most powerlifters will be doing stiff legged deadlifts or otherwise for hamstring strength and development, but it’s much harder to really isolate the glutes.

The split squats are the ideal exercise for targeting your glutes and improving your squat.

Simply set up the rack as you would normally for squats but position a bench behind you.

Once you’ve unracked the bar, place one foot on the bench then squat down until your elevated knee just reaches the floor before squatting the weight back up.

I recommend either starting off with an empty bar or on the smith machine (sacrilege I know) just to get used to the balance and mechanics of the movement.

The benefits of the split squat are highly scalable as not only will you hit your glutes like never before (the DOMS is like the Monday after a weekend with Louis Spence), but the nature of the split squat also means you’re going deeper than you ever would on normal back squats.

You can also perform the split squat with dumbbells but the movement isn’t as transferable.

Essentially the split squat is a supercharged version of the lunge but with increased benefits.

Give it a go and get ready for gains – and probably a few new pairs of jeans!

Standing military press

Focused lift: bench press

If you use the same grip positioning for military press and your bench, then this lift will not be dissimilar to the bench press, albeit activating different muscle groups and following a different plain of motion.

The military press will help you with the explosive element of the bench press once the ‘press’ command is given at the bottom of the negative phase of the rep, provided it is performed ultra strictly (no knee jerking).

The military press requires greater core activation than the bench press, which is certainly transferable, and there is no build up of torsion from the negative phase of the lift, since you start with the bar resting on your upper chest/delts.

The split second activation of muscle groups is vital to ensuring momentum at the very bottom of the bench press movement.

Train this via a strict military press.

Become strong in this movement and your chances of having a bar stuck on your chest will be reduced.

Also, if you want to improve wrist/grip strength, then I can also recommend cleaning the weight into position on each rep.

However, this causes a greater level of fatigue which might prevent your from lifting as much weight in the press movement.

Bottoms up good mornings

Focused lift: deadlift

Ideally this exercise would be done from chains, but if not available then simply set up the safety bars on your power rack so that when you’re setting up under the barbell, you’ll be roughly in the same position as you would be at the bottom of a good morning.

Hence the name.

Then it’s pretty much the same movement, racking the bar in the safety pins after each rep so in essence each rep is a deadlift.

Mind… blown.

Much like the other two exercises, with this lift you’re trying to aid the explosive movement of the (dead)lift by really activating your glutes, hamstrings and posterior chain.

The increased lower body/back strength will also aid the squat, but be wary about not going too heavy on this movement early on at the detriment of your competition lifts.

The beauty of this exercise, and its transferable benefits, is the enhanced ability of your body to recruit muscle fibres and produce force, which is paramount in the split second at the beginning of the deadlift.

Signing off

As previously mentioned, solid programming, progression and periodisation of the ‘big three’ is ultimately the most important factor in increasing your powerlifting PRs.

But these three described exercises can really help you supercharge your strength and mobility and avoid stagnation.

There’s a big tendency to hit the leg extensions or lat pulldown after a gruelling set of squats/deadlifts, and of course having a well-rounded muscular physique isn’t going to hinder one’s powerlifting prowess.

But consistently add these three exercises into your programming and you’ll be suckling at the teats of the goddess of gains, eating at the high table of the Swoltan of Strength, and lifting a fuck load more weight.


Over to you

Do you incorporate any of these accessory lifts in your programme?

Thinking of giving them a go?

Any thoughts or questions?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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  1. Great information!

    Really I want to lift big weight!

  2. Some great advice in this little post!

    I am definitely going to put these accessory lifts into my lifting routine.

  3. This poses several questions

    1. The Russians proved in the 70s that unilateral lifts do not improve bilateral lifts so lunges only created size (pump) and don’t actually help the squat at a CNS/PNS level.

    2. The overhead press and bench are mutually exclusive due to muscle activation and joint angles meaning one hand does not wash the other.

  4. I like this article and agree with the 3 exercises although I would add that they are not made for beginners but experienced bodybuilders.

    I’m also a bodybuilding fan and write articles on the matter.

    Would you allow me to write one for you?


    1. Hi Josh.

      Agreed, this article is definitely aimed at more experienced lifters.

      Most beginners shouldn’t be too concerned with trying to add 5lbs to their max squat.

      Where are you blogging?

      Let’s have a read of your work.