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The quest for bigger numbers on powerlifting moves leads lifters to load up their program with a high volume of exercises like back squats, deadlifts, and the bench press. This approach definitely helps to groove movement patterns and develop efficiencies that will pay off in higher numbers down the road. But, repeating the same exercises day after day can overload the same muscles and tissues, eventually leading to overtraining. In order to stay fresh while also seeing gains in strength, it’s imperative to include a variety of exercises in your program that are still tailored towards improving your main lifts.
The best assistance exercises mimic the same movement pattern as the primary exercise, but emphasize slightly different parts of the motion or load the body in a different way to give you a break from the routine. Some make use of partial ranges of motion while others use a different stance or tempo. In doing so, they allow your body to recover and adapt to a new stimulus—a recipe for more strength down the road.
With that being said, if your goal is to increase your bench press, then you should incorporate bench-pressing in your routine to practice the lift. Every few weeks, cycle off the main lift and switch to one of the following secondary lifts to give your body a chance to recover.
Assistance Exercise: Floor Press
Many guys lack power coming out of the bottom of a bench press. The floor press utilizes a smaller range of motion to focus on building explosiveness in the chest and triceps. The reduced range of motion also helps out lifters that may have shoulder pain when using the full range of motion on the bench. To make the most out of this exercise, lower the weight slowly under control until your elbows touch the floor. Pause for one to two seconds then explode up locking the weight out at the top. Focus on performing sets of three to five reps with a challenging weight to build power and improve your strength on this chest-building staple.
Assistance Exercise: Box Squats
The box squat will take your lower body power to the next level. By separating the lowering and lifting portions of the lift, box squats force lifters to generate power to come back up off the box. This increased power demand translates to a quicker and more explosive drive out of the bottom of the barbell back squat. To build your lower body power, choose a box height that allows your thighs to hit parallel with the floor. Lower slowly down to the box. Wait for one second before exploding back up to the starting position. To prevent injury, focus on keeping your core extremely tight, especially when pausing at the bottom of the exercise.
Assistance Exercise: Rack Deadlift
A high volume of deadlifts can wreak havoc on a lifter’s lower back. To still develop grip strength and work on hip extension, reduce the range of motion by starting the movement at knee height. This variation inclines the torso and reduces the stress on the lower back. As a bonus, due to the reduced range of motion, you’ll be able to lift heavier loads further strengthening the glutes and hamstrings and bolstering your grip for when you return to full range of motion. Set up a rack to rest the bar about knee height. Perform the lift allowing the barbell to come to a complete rest on the rack before preparing for the next repetition.
Assistance Exercise: Push Press
Strict overhead pressing isolates the shoulders and upper body as the primary source of power and strength. This is great for building powerful shoulders, but lifters can often plateau, unable to move up in weight, despite numerous sessions of heavy pressing. The push press incorporates the lower body as a source of power to enable the lifter to train with heavier weights. By adding power from the hips into the mix, lifters can hoist much heavier loads, eventually translating to greater power when they return to standard pressing. When performing the push press, start with lighter loads to master form before working up to two to three rep maxes.