Coaching, How to improve your technique, powerlifting, squat

The Top 5 Squat Assistance Exercises for Powerlifting

What are Accessory Exercises in Powerlifting?

Accessory exercises are lifts designed to improve your primary compound lifts (bench press, squat and deadlift) that either:

  • Isolate a muscle group: like front squats and quads
  • Increase power output: hang cleans, pause squats or box jumps
  • Are single limb movements: like lunges, that improve unilateral movements and in the long-term improve your core lifts

Or indeed all of the above. They’re usually easier to recover from than the main lift as you can’t handle as much weight, so they don’t fry your CNS.

Training assistance movements is essential in weightlifting and improving your weak points is a surefire way to improving your main lift.

The better your snatch grip deadlift gets, the better your deadlift gets. The difference with powerlifting in my opinion is that the accessory lift has to have exceptional carryover to the main lift.

Bodybuilding is all about isolation exercises, but they have very little impact in powerlifting. Your accessory lifts must allow you to recover, but also improve your weak points.

The hard part is knowing what they are…

The Best Squat Accessory Exercises for Powerlifting

No matter how efficient you are neurologically, you will still need the musculature to support ever-increasing weight. Only doing low repetition variations of the big three means you come up short when discussing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Essentially you need to grow to absorb the additional stress.

As a powerlifter, absolute strength and low rep workouts are your bread and butter, but you need to stimulate muscle growth from all angles to manage heavy weights. Hence why accessory exercises are absolutely critical.

Of course this changes if your goals are bodybuilding specific, but this guide to the differences in training styles between powerlifting and bodybuilding explains it for you.

Because I am that generous to you all obviously.

Squat rack with 150kg of bumper plates on and a belt draped over
An ever-so inviting squat rack

Variations of the squat are all you need to build powerful, robust leg strength. The back squat utilises extreme quad, hamstring and glute strength and it could be argued the best back squat variation is just a slightly less specific variation of it.

For example, as a powerlifter, your absolute back squat is your 1RM. But if you were to perform 5(5), that ‘variation’ would have immense carryover into your absolute squat.

However for the purpose of this I have built out what squat accessory exercises have the best carryover to your absolute squat. If you have a particular weakness, then one of these accessory exercises will be able to strengthen and rectify it.

The Top 5 Squat Assistance Exercises

1. Front Squat

  • Quad Strength
  • Upper Back Strength
  • Core Strength

A particularly quad dominant variation, the front squat has tremendous athletic potential and carryover to the back squat.

Actually more taxing than it’s ‘parent’ counterpart (unusual for an accessory movement), the front squat also prevents the upper back from rounding, strengthens the hip flexors and lower back, whilst increasing absolute strength with sub-maximal loads.

Pro Tip: As a powerlifter, I wouldn’t recommend incorporating front squats until intermediate level, especially given the flexibility required. Giving how taxing it can be, I use it primarily as a volume builder on my heavy back squat day, incorporating a pause to improve the bottom position.

2. Safety Squats

  • Upper Back Strength
  • Posterior Chain
  • Core Development

The safety squat taxes your body much in the same way a front squat does. It’s tremendously quad and core dominant and forces you to work hard to prevent the barbell dragging you forward into the floor.

A man squatting with a safety squat bar

If you’re someone who struggled with shoulder and/or wrist mobility, the safety squat is an excellent alternative. There’s obvious carryover and specificity when thinking of the squat, but there’s equally strong carryover to the deadlift given the stress on the upper back and core.

This is exceptional if you struggle with lockout in the deadlift, as it builds such strong traps. The camber design of the SSB (Safety Squat Bar) is designed to pitch the lifter forward. This is an excellent way to train your posterior chain, whilst improving the entirety of your leg musculature.

Pro Tip: Cycle this accessory exercise in place of a traditional back squat on your next periodised cycle and watch your body become stronger and less susceptible to injury.

3. Heavy Lunges

  • Unilateral Leg Strength
  • Hip Flexibility
  • Spinal Decompression

Nobody likes doing heavy lunges, and for good reason. Unlike the squat the lunge is a unilateral exercise, meaning it works each leg individually.

Most compound movements like the squat and the deadlift are bilateral movements that train both legs at once. Sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day seriously hampers your hip flexibility. The technique required here places a stretch emphasis on your hip flexors.

A man lunging with his foot on a barbell

Anyone that regularly utilises heavy lunges will know how taxing it is on your balance and the amount of hip flexibility required.

In lieu of this, it’s a fantastic core stability builder that doesn’t require a weight belt. This means you can work your serratus anterior muscle(s) effectively.

Pro Tip: Utilise lighter lunge workouts to enable spinal decompression. Whilst hypertrophy in powerlifters is oft neglected, your spine will suffer from compression. Lunges (and hanging in the pull-up position) will help rectify this.*

*Ideally you’d use a reverse hyper machine, but they aren’t always available

4. Box Jumps

  • Extreme Athletic Carryover
  • Fast Twitch Fibres
  • Minimally Taxing

Jumps of any kind are a greatly underused exercise when looking to build a huge squat or improve athletic performance.

Box Jumps help to train fast twitch fibres and improve your ability in the stretch reflex portion of the squat.

Arguably their greatest asset is how simple they are to program. Even weighted jumps could never be described as a taxing movement in comparison. Whilst their absolute carryover isn’t perfect, they help build overall athletic performance and have far greater benefits than traditional hamstring curls or quad extensions.

Particularly endorsed by Louie Simmons as part of the Westside method, they’re a fantastic developer of GPP (General Physical Preparation), that are suitable for all levels.

Pro Tip: You can use weighted versions by holding plates of the box at your gym isn’t high enough. If there aren’t any boxes then just perform plyometric broad jumps.

5. Box Squats

  • Improve Flexibility
  • Hip Strength
  • Less Taxing

The key to box squatting is to utilise a box low enough to reap the rewards. Somewhere around 10-15 inches depending on your anthropometry.

The box allows you to sit further back than in a traditional squat. This recruits more muscles from the hips, hamstrings and glutes. Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell are huge proponents of it and it certainly has tremendous benefits.

For one, it’s easier to recover than with an actual squat, making it an ideal accessory exercise to the core lift. Secondly it strengthens the primary muscles required in the squat (hamstrings, quads and glutes) and can be an incredibly effective method in rehabbing after knee injuries given the different stresses placed on the body.

Pro Tip: Start with a box you feel comfortable sitting on (around parallel). Then reduce the height by half an inch each time if possible to reach the desired 10-12 inches required to ideally train the hips, glutes and hamstrings.

How many Reps should I do for Assistance Exercises in Powerlifting?

I’d love to give you an absolute answer but there really isn’t one. It entirely depends on the way you setup your programs. You have to understand periodisation in weight training, period.

For example, I typically use the above assistance exercises as my primary lift on my heavy days. This may seem like an odd way round, but because you can’t lift as much with an assistance lift, the overall load on your CNS if lower.

For me this means I can work on my weak points with assistance movements whilst cramming in volume on my main lift. This allows my programs to go on for longer, meaning more overall volume (under my MRV) is achievable and, more importantly, recoverable.

HOWEVER… I understand this isn’t the answer you’re looking for. But it really is dependent on a number of variables.

For example, if you primary goal is to increase the size of your quads, then back squatting twice a week with a heavier day and a day to add sufficient volume is a good start.

Adding in 4 sets of 8 – 10 reps on front squats is going to be an incredibly efficient way to maximise hypertrophy with a lift that has genuine carryover to your main lift(s) – back squats and sumo deadlifts. As long as you can recover from it and it doesn’t impact on your primary lift too much it’s fine.

But for something like box squats, I would only use that as a way to train a heavy variation of the squat. It’s unlikely I would go over 3 reps per set because it’s a developer of power. Not something that’s particularly efficient at driving hypertrophy gains.

So what Squat Variation should I choose?

I’m sure the answer your looking for isn’t ‘it depends‘ however it absolutely does. You need to first establish what the weakest point of your squat is. Does your hip flexibility hold you back? Are your hamstrings more powerful than your quads?

By using the above guide you will be able to identify your areas of improvement and rectify them with corrective exercises.

If you’re looking for the best way to factor in squats and squat accessory exercises, I use the below format and find it sustainable and practical:

  • Volume Day: I have one day for volume in the traditional back squat format. Usually something like a 5(5) or 6(4) with around 80-87.5% of my 1RM*.
  • Heavy Day: One day a week I work up to a heavy double PR in the back squat. I then perform 2 back off doubles at around 3-5% of this lift. I then run a 3(5-6) of paused front squats at 75-82.5% to improve my quad strength and power out of ‘the hole.’ Whilst taxing and able to generate eu-stressors, the volume and weight combined allows me to continue progress until I deload.

*Prilepin’s Chart gives the perfect structure of the set(rep) scheme you should follow as pictured below

Prilepin's Chart
Prilepin’s Chart

Where should you look when Squatting?

You should look almost directly ahead when squatting. If you look down towards your toes you’ll tip forwards. If you look too far up you’ll lose balance and topple backwards.

Pull your chest up and contract your shoulder blades so you have a very solid, balanced upper body.

What are you favourite squat variations? Let me know in the comments

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