You won’t continue making strength gains unless you’re making some size gains too. Bring up your lifts by building more muscle. Here’s the plan.
Despite all the neurological factors that contribute to strength, the fact remains that it’s the muscles that are moving the weight once the bar is loaded.
When I was powerlifting, I was a huge proponent of working the actual lifts and becoming efficient at them. It’s the law of specificity: we’re going to get better at what we repeatedly practice. But there comes a point when technique is no longer the issue. Eventually, when you plateau, your primary roadblock may be something as simple as needing more muscle to move more weight.
It’s true that you can often eat your way to a bigger total (the total amount of weight you can lift for the bench, deadlift, and squat) and more absolute strength. But that often means a loss in relative strength, and just piling on slabs of fat to obtain better leverages. You know what else gives you the same leverage advantage? More muscle.
Strength athletes don’t often have long cycles where their focus is strictly on hypertrophy, and I’m not sure why. They treat hypertrophy or “bodybuilding” training a lot like Hollywood treats monogamy. They don’t take it seriously and don’t stick with it long enough.
A few sets of high-rep cable pushdowns at the end of a workout isn’t serious hypertrophy work. I’m talking about a few months of hitting rep PRs and inducing a whole new level of musculature to work with afterwards.
The more jacked you get, the more you raise the strength ceiling potential when you do move back into a maximal strength training cycle. It only makes sense to have a few months out of the year when you put the big three lifts on the back burner. During that time, focus on some lifts that are similar and will transfer over into your competition lifts, but are geared more towards building overall musculature.
There’s a right way and a wrong way for strength-focused lifters to do this. The right way involves:
- Movement selection that pertains to improving the lifts via mechanical similarity.
- Swapping low-rep work for higher rep ranges.
- Improving stability in the kinetic chain
- Addressing the muscles that have been the weak links in the squat, bench press and deadlift.
No article can be comprehensive enough to address everyone’s personal weaknesses, but I can tell you what most guys should be doing for hypertrophy. And it won’t just get them more muscle, but also the potential for a bigger total afterwards. Let’s get into it.
There’s no point for a powerlifter to spend months working on leg curls to improve his deadlift. Just like there’s no point in doing leg presses to improve your squat. Any movement that’s chosen during a hypertrophy cycle needs to have some degree of similarity to the big lifts so that there’s carryover. They won’t be exact, but they should have some semblance of the big three movement patterns.
The first thing a competitive powerlifter should do is lose the lazy mantra of “anything over 5 reps is cardio.”
Sets of 8 all the way up to 20 is where you’ll get the most growth potential. There’s a reason why bodybuilders frequently work in this rep range. Because it works. No one gets massive on singles, doubles, or triples.
This doesn’t mean you train lightly. I’m not sure why people think moderate to higher rep ranges means light weights. Training moderate to high reps and going as heavy as possible in those rep ranges will produce slabs of muscle. Arnold said so, and he was alright in the muscle department.
The expression “You can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe” often makes people think of lower body strength, but think of it in terms of stability too. The less stability you have, both in your technique and the musculature that provides stability, the less you’re going to be able to lift.
Improving stability is also great for injury prevention. Stability means that the muscles that stabilize the joints are big and strong, and that the actual stabilizer muscles that work antagonistically to the primary movers are big and strong as well.
Let’s look at some movements that should be included in the strength athlete’s hypertrophy program.
When I was learning how to bench press properly for powerlifting this is the movement that helped me the most with learning proper elbow travel. If you’re benching with your elbows flared wide then expect an eventual rotator cuff or pec tear. Tucking the elbows, at least to some degree, allows you to load the upper back and lats as support for the bench press.
Dumbbell bench pressing also gives the joints a bit of a break because you’re not locked in to the barbell. The shoulders, elbows, and wrists get quite a bit more play during the range of motion. For the powerlifter who has achy shoulders and elbows, which is just about all of them, taking a break from the bar and using dumbbells for a while can alleviate some of those problems.
Lastly, the dumbbell bench press means the stabilizers have to work a bit harder due to balancing the dumbbells. During the hypertrophy phase the palms facing dumbbell bench press offers up a lot of bang for the buck. Here I like to do sets of 8, 15, and 25. Taking each of them to failure and going as heavy as possible on each set.
There are a lot of powerlifters who need to emphasize overhead work. I’ve never seen a big bencher with tiny shoulders. So it’s important to pay a little bit of attention to them.
Use dumbbells for this to strengthen the stabilizer muscles, and go for high reps, around 15-20 per set. This forces you to not go too heavy, and the delts are mostly comprised of a lot of slow twitch muscle fibers. You can also play with angles here regarding the degree of incline you press from. Just don’t turn it into an incline dumbbell press and call it an overhead dumbbell press.
The banded pull-apart is a great upper back movement, and wonderful at improving shoulder health, upper back stability, and tightness for benching. A great way for powerlifters to add these to their training is to do them in the same plane as the standard bench press: lying down on a flat bench with both scapular depression and retraction.
Hold in the contracted position for three seconds before releasing. This creates stability in the setup and helps balance out the pushing versus pulling work on bench day.
Most big-three guys don’t think you need bicep work. But having strong forearms and biceps will help the bench. How? These muscles stabilize the elbow joint. Neglecting bicep work is a great way to end up with horrible elbow pain, which is a common occurrence, yet they seem to not know why.
Now these are not the swinging dick hammer curls you see from a lot of guys where they use ultra heavy dumbbells and get almost no tension on the biceps and brachialis.
Instead, do these with the dumbbells started on the front of your legs. This prevents cheating at the start of the movement, which means all of the tension gets hogged by the forearms, brachialis, and biceps. To add some pain to it, you’ll be doing sets of 30 here.
Having a strong grip for deadlifts is important. You can’t deadlift what you can’t hold on to. The thing is, grip work is boring. By ditching the straps and getting in some high reps, you’re killing two birds with one stone. It’s bad-ass hypertrophy work for the upper back mixed with holding on for dear life for a couple of all-out sets. Do 20-30 reps here, Kroc-row style.
This was my bread and butter for improving the deadlift, and it’s possibly one of the best overall posterior chain developers ever.
A lot of people think of this as a hamstring move, but if you’re going heavy you’ll know the brutalization they cause for the erectors, lats, and entire upper back. This is a total back movement. When your strength on this lift goes up, don’t be surprised when your deadlift goes up right along with it.
I use a mixed grip but if you want to do these with a hook grip or straps to balance out that pesky twist in the spine that comes with a mixed grip that’s okay too. Keep the reps a bit lower than most other movements here. Once fatigue sets in, it’s easy to get very rounded and end up with too much spinal flexion.
If quads are a weak point, make these your new BFF. I wish I’d done these in the years I was powerlifting when I kept having quad strain after quad strain.
Unlike barbell pause squats where you can sort of sit down on your hamstrings and unload just a bit, with the paused hack squats the quads essentially have to keep you suspended in a very intense isometric contraction at the bottom. There’s zero unloading of the weight, especially if you don’t cheat and let the apparatus rest on the safety stops. Your vastus medialis will be screaming for mercy.
The other great part about including these is that if your deadlift is weak off the floor, the improved quad mass and strength should fix that as well.
Hacks will also give your hips and lower back a little bit of a break as well. A lot of lifters don’t realize just how overworked those areas can get when squatting and deadlifting every week. How many times have you heard a guy say he took a layoff, only to come back in and deadlift or squat some new PR?
Fatigue in those muscle groups is a primary reason why someone can’t get past a certain weight, or is suffering from too many poor workouts in a row. So don’t sweat taking a break from barbell squatting for 8-12 weeks. You’re still working the quads and the posterior chain will still get hammered on back and deadlift day.
With split squats or lunges (an alternative) we’re building the muscles involved in the squat, but also improving ankle and knee stability. Once again, we’re taking time out to ensure that the musculature and the joints that work in a support role are addressed.
There’s no reason to turn into a bikini bunny and grab itty-bitty dumbbells. Grab some heavy ones that you can hit a couple of all-out sets of 15-20 reps with. Everything from your quads to hams to glutes will be toast.
- Palms-In Flat Dumbbell Bench Press: 1 set of 6, 1 set of 15, 1 set of 25
- Rest 3 minutes between each set
- Seated Dumbbell Press: 2 x 15-20+
- Lying Band Pull-Apart: 4 sets of as many reps as possible with 3-second holds
- Strict Hammer Curl: 3 sets of 30 reps
- Paused Hack Squat: 2 x 10 or 1 x 20+ all out
- Split Squat: 2 x 15-20
- No-Straps Dumbbell Row: 2 x 20-30 reps
- Deficit Stiff-Legged Deadlift: 1 x 6, 1 x 10
- Rest 3 minutes between sets
There’s not a ton of movements listed here because the purpose is to hit rep PRs, to build the most muscle that’s most used for the big three, and to create a more stable foundation from which you’ll lift.
This doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a few more exercises to round out a more personalized routine. It’s up to you to find and address your personal weak points. But making these lifts a staple of your training for 8-12 weeks is a good place to start.