New to powerlifting? Not sure which exercises are necessary to become a great powerlifter? Let’s review the big three as well as the best powerlifting exercises for beginners.
Considered the king of strength and muscle-building exercises, the barbell squat is a compound exercise that targets the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and, to an extent, your abdominals.
Barbells squats provide the most bang for your buck as they have been shown to be extremely effective at increasing strength, building serious muscle mass, supporting fat burning, and skyrocketing raw power. Barbell squats are also one of the big three exercises in powerlifting, which means you must become great at them if you want to set new personal bests during your powerlifting meets.
To perform a barbell squat:
- Position the barbell across your traps (You can also opt for a low-bar variety, but we recommend this for more advanced lifters)
- Place your feet at or just outside of shoulder width
- Stand tall with the barbell and brace the core
- Bend at the knees while you drive your hips back
- Lower yourself towards the ground
- Pause once your thighs reach parallel (or go beyond parallel if you have the flexibility)
- Contract your quadriceps and glutes as you stand back up
Check out our article for more tips on how to master the barbell squat.
If the barbell back squat is the king of strength building, the barbell deadlift is, without question, the queen. The deadlift is another compound exercise that activates your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, calves, quadriceps, and abdominals. You may also feel the deadlift in your biceps and front deltoids.
When it comes to developing explosive power, the deadlift is your go-to exercise. Like the barbell back squat, if you want to compete or attend powerlifting meets, you don’t have a choice; you must know how to execute a perfect deadlift. Outside of powerlifting, the deadlift can be used to support weight loss, muscle building, and functional movement patterns such as learning how to properly bend down to pick something up.
Here’s how to perform a deadlift:
- With a flat back, keep your hips above your knees
- Take a deep breath then pull the barbell up slowly
- Pull in a straight vertical line with an overhand grip and straight arms
- The barbell should touch your shins but not drag against them
- Once the barbell is at your thighs, lock out your hips by tightening your glutes
- Do not lean back
- Exhale your breath as you slowly lower the barbell back towards the ground
- Push your hips back but do not bend at the knees until after the barbell has passed them
Learn more tips and tricks for perfecting your lift with our deadlifting checklist.
Between the squat and deadlift, the lower body and back are well taken care, now for the upper body. The barbell bench press rounds off the big three powerlifting exercises; it’s also a testament of strength in the weight room for average Joes. Targeting your chest, front deltoids, abdominals, and triceps, the bench press is a must for anyone who wants to upgrade a shirt size.
This classic chest builder is a tried-and-true way to build muscle, boost strength, and burn fat. In the world of powerlifting, the bench press can be the make-or-break point for a lot of men and women trying to set a higher total number. If you focus all of your time on your legs and skip out of chest day, this is where you’ll hurt your score.
Want to crush your bench press? Here’s how:
- Lie on a flat bench with your feet flat on the ground (If your legs don’t reach, you can use the foot rest at the end of the bench)
- Brace your core and pinch your shoulder blades together for stability
- Use a grip that is just outside of shoulder width
- Focus the tension in the chest as you push the barbell straight up
- Slowly lower the barbell towards your chest
- Pause at the bottom then push the barbell back up – Do not lock out the elbows
Learn how to increase your bench press with our article.
SHOULD YOU WEAR A BELT FOR THE BIG THREE?
The answer is “maybe.” This all depends on the type of meets you go to, how much weight you’re pulling, and whether you’ve maxed out your raw grip strength.
A weight belt is an important part of powerlifting, but it should be looked at more as a supplement or complement to your lifting. You shouldn’t rely on a powerlifting belt for every set. We recommend focusing on improving your natural power and raw grip strength, and only when you’re pulling some serious numbers should you incorporate the weightlifting belt.
One of the best ways to increase grip strength is with Alpha Grips, which can be slipped on to any type of barbell or dumbbell.
ARE THERE OTHER EXERCISES TO IMPROVE THE BIG THREE?
While it’s important to train using squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, to avoid boredom and challenge your body, you should consider incorporating other exercises into your routine. The following exercises can complement the big three, helping to increase your overall strength and gains.
This lower body exercise can be performed with either a barbell or a set of dumbbells or kettlebells. It targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hip flexors. You can perform a front, lateral, or reverse lunge, and each one will emphasize the activation in a different part of the lower body.
Lunges are an excellent complement to the big three because they you can go heavy with dumbbells or kettlebells and not put any excess strain on your back as you do with a barbell back squat. This ensures you can train for powerlifting without jeopardizing your meet day performance.
To perform a lunge:
- Stand tall while holding a pair of dumbbells or a barbell across your traps
- Step forward with your left foot, leaving the right in place
- Lower your body until the left thigh is parallel with the ground
- Kick back up into place
- Repeat on the other side
Another excellent mass builder for your legs, the leg press is a perfect way to move serious plate numbers without the strain and compression on your back. The leg press primarily targets the quadriceps, but depending on foot placement, you can emphasize the glutes and hamstrings. The leg press is easy to set up and doesn’t require a spotter since you have the safety bars at arm’s length.
One thing to take note of is that depending on your level of flexibility, your hips may naturally start to pull inward during the leg press. We recommend focusing on stretching your glutes and hip flexors before jumping into this exercise.
Here’s how to do a leg press:
- Adjust the seat so that you can get a full extension from your legs – With most people, the quadriceps will touch or come close to touching the chest
- Keep your butt in the seat as you lower the weight towards yourself
- Pause once you feel the stretch in your quads and hamstrings
- Push the weight back up, but do not lock out the knees
LYING LEG CURL
A great way to isolate the hamstring muscles, the lying leg curl can be performed on a machine, Swiss ball, or as a gliding seat leg curl. You may also feel your calves working a bit with this one, especially if you’re nearing burnout.
The leg curl is a great way to boost your deadlifting performance because you’re able to isolate each individual leg and correct strength imbalances. Leg curls are also excellent for building endurance and increasing muscle mass.
Here’s how you can perform a leg curl (on a machine)
- Adjust the padding so that it aligns with your ankles
- Keep your hips down for this exercise
- Focusing the contraction in the hamstrings, squeeze and lift the weight
- Slowly lower the weight, but don’t let the weight plate touch the stack – Instead, jump right into the next rep
Another quad-dominant exercise, the seated leg extension allows you to isolate the quadricep muscles. The benefit of this is that you’re able to pre-exhaust a muscle, correct strength imbalances, and focus on muscular endurance. Given the proximity of one machine to another, we recommend pairing this one with the lying leg curl.
To perform the leg extension:
- Align the padding with your ankle
- When pushing the weight up, focus the contraction in your quadriceps
- Pause at the top and squeeze the muscle
- Slowly release and lower the weight, but do not let it touch the weight plate stack – Instead, jump right into the next rep
BENT-OVER BARBELL ROWS
Let’s focus on upper body now, shall we? The bent-over barbell row is one hell of a compound exercise. It primarily targets your lats and middle back, but it also hits your biceps, abdominals, and rear deltoids. Bodybuilders use this exercise to build big muscles, but powerlifters can use it to complement their bench press by supporting healthy posture. How is that possible?
It’s all about complementing opposites. To support healthy posture and proper form, you need to work both the front and back of your body. Since a forward-favoring lift like the bench press demands so much from the front of your body, if you skip back exercises, you risk developing a forward-favoring postural distortion pattern.
Here’s how to do a bent-over barbell row:
- Hold a barbell in front you
- Bend slightly at the knees
- Kick your hips back a bit and bend at the waist until your upper body is near parallel with the ground
- Squeezing your back, lift the barbell towards your solar plexus (beneath your chest)
- Pause at the top then slowly release – Do not lock out your elbows
OVERHEAD PRESS (MILITARY PRESS)
Also known as the military press, this shoulder exercise is a great way to increase power-based lifts and build more muscle mass. It can help to promote good posture so long as you don’t overdo it. You can use a barbell or a pair of dumbbells for this exercise:
- Hold your weight at shoulder height with your palms facing front
- Brace your core as you push the weight above your head
- Pause once you get to the top then slowly bring the weight back down
- Don’t rest at the bottom of the movement – Instead, go immediately into your next repetition
Nothing says grip strength like the farmer’s walk. Many powerlifters find that their grips fail long before the working muscle. That’s a big problem if you’re trying for a new personal best. You don’t want to sacrifice bigger numbers because your hands give out. This is where the farmer’s walk can help. This exercise builds serious grip strength and endurance.
Here’s how to perform the farmer’s walk:
- Hold a pair of really heavy dumbbells
- Stand tall with a straight back and tight core
- Begin to walk forward until you’re not able to hold the weights
- Continue this with heavier weights or longer time goals
If you really want to take your farmer’s walk to another level, try the single arm version. Check out more tips of how to increase grip strength.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE POWERLIFTING EXERCISE FOR BEGINNERS?
Have you tried any of the powerlifting exercises we listed above? If so, which one is your favorite? Have a video of you crushing it during a powerlifting workout? Tag us on Instagram so we can share!