Here’s an excerpt about supplementary exercises from my free e-book, Seek and Destroy: A Powerlifter’s Guide to Identifying Weak Points and Improving Technique. It’s got over 90 pages of information to teach you how to pick exercises and program them to eliminate your own specific weaknesses as a powerlifter. And it’s all yours when you sign up for my mailing list.
In general, I tend to prescribe supplementary exercises in one of three ways: working warm-ups, top sets and backdown sets.
I came up with the concept of the working warm-up while training team sport athletes. I spent the first good chunk of my coaching career as a sports performance coach, and as we were aiming to help young athletes sprint faster and jump higher, we found ourselves leaning on many of the tactics of the world’s top track and field coaches. What we discovered was that these coaches used lots of part practice: breaking movement skills down into their individual parts before then practicing the complete skill later in the training session. For example:
- Marching, skipping and bounding before sprinting
- Snapdowns and pogo jumps before plyometrics
- RDLs, clean pulls and front squats before Olympic lifts
Motor skill development research shows us that this order of operations (part practice followed by the complete skill) is necessary for the drills to have any significant impact on the larger skill. If you marched and skipped after sprinting, the athlete would experience little-to-no carryover. It makes perfect sense when you put it in the context of warming up for other sports.
- Baseball: hit off the tee, take soft toss, face live pitching
- Golf: practice on the driving range, practice on the putting green, play a full round
- Basketball: dribbling drills, shoot-around, play a live game
I noticed two things when using the part practice approach: the athletes got a lot better at sprinting, jumping and lifting by warming up this way, and they took the drills a lot more seriously when they were able to see the immediate positive impact on their sport-specific movements. I had a revelation: I could use this same approach with my powerlifters.
In powerlifting, specificity is hailed as king. To get better at squatting, you have to squat over and over again. We’d always do the competition-style movement first, and any variations of the main lift would be done afterward for technique work with lighter weights. I decided to flip that on its head. The working warm-up was born.
Instead of placing supplementary exercises after the main lift, I started having the majority of my lifters do them before the main lift as a warm-up. If I wanted my lifters to actually learn something from their supplementary lifts, we needed to bring these lessons back full circle to the main lift. Think about it: if you deadlift once a week, and you do deficit deadlifts after your main deadlifts, it’ll be a full seven days before you get to practice deadlifts again. Will the information you got from deficit deadlifts still be fresh in your mind, able to be applied to your main deadlifts? Motor skill development science suggests that the answer is no.
By adopting the working warm-up approach, my lifters saw rapid improvements in technique. They became more consistent under heavy loads and needed less verbal cueing to maintain their technique. And, best of all, they started taking their warm-up sets more seriously because they required more focus. They were now more dialed in and ready to attack their heavy main lift of the day.
I highly recommend using supplementary exercises as a working warm-up to improve technique and deepen your movement skill repertoire. It has been one of the most important fundamental changes I’ve made as a powerlifting coach.
In most cases, these supplementary lifts are best served as exactly that: a supplement to the competition lift. However, certain variations can be effectively used for the main exercise in a training session and can use a top set approach. A top set involves working up to one heavy, low-rep set (usually for 1-5 reps) before reducing the weight and performing additional sets. For example, if you wanted to work up to a top set of 3 reps at 405 pounds, your warm-up sets might look like this:
Bar x 8-10
135 x 5
225 x 4
275 x 3
315 x 2
365 x 1
385 x 1 (last warm-up)
405 x 3 (top set)
Certain supplementary exercises are more loadable than others and therefore better served in a top set role. For example, a pause squat or box squat is easier to perform for a heavy set of 1-5 reps than a Zercher squat, where the lifter’s ability to hold the bar will fail well before the weight gets heavy enough to challenge the legs.
While I firmly believe in the power of working warm-ups, there’s still a time and place to use supplementary exercises for backdown sets. That is, perform one or more heavy top sets of your competition lift, then reduce the weight and perform additional sets of a different exercise. For example:
Competition Bench Press: Work up to 1×3 @ 9 RPE, then 1×3 @ 95% of top set
Close Grip Bench Press: 3×5 @ 80-85% of top set
This lets you strengthen weak points without the risk of adding unnecessary fatigue to your top set(s). You may not improve your technique as readily as you would with a working warm-up, but if hypertrophy is your goal, the backdown set method is the way to go.
Destroy Your Weaknesses
If you liked these tips, you’ll love the Seek and Destroy e-book. Whether you’re a powerlifter, coach or both, it’ll help you clarify your thinking when programming and performing different squat, bench and deadlift variations with the intention of improving technique and eliminating sticking points. Fill out the form below to claim your free download!