Top 20 Powerlifting Exercises For Strength & Mass

Powerlifting is all about getting stronger in the big three lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

While these exercises are great for increasing your strength and muscle mass, they are not the only exercises employed by powerlifters looking to boost their total.

In this article, we’ll go over 20 of the best and most widely used powerlifting exercises.

These will be not only the big three themselves but also variations of them, as well as accessory exercises that can improve your performance.

Powerlifting Exercises: Three Groups

We’ll split the exercise list up into three groups, with variations and accessories for the squat, bench press, and deadlift, in that order.

These groups of exercises will generally train similar muscle groups, for you to pick and choose from when you’re planning your training sessions.

For most lifters, emphasizing the three big lifts will lead to the largest and most rapid strength gains, but that doesn’t mean that is all you should do. Sometimes, the right accessory exercise can be precisely what you need to improve, or perhaps make you more resilient and reduce your risk of injury.

This list is comprehensive, so let’s get to it!

Powerlifting Exercises Bench Press
To bench more, you generally need to bench more. But that is not your only option.

(Note that all the exercise demos and instructions below can be found in our workout log.)

1. Squat

The squat is not only one of the main three powerlifting exercises, but it’s also regarded as the king of all lifts.

The squat works almost your entire lower body, as well as your lower back and core. The strength you build in the squat will carry over to many other lifts and exercises, including the deadlift.

If you want to excel at powerlifting, the squat is likely going to have to be a staple in your training for many years to come.

Note that powerlifting rules dictate that you squat deep enough that your hip crease (where your upper thigh meets your abdomen) is below the top of your knee.

Muscles Worked in the Squat

Muscles worked by barbell squats exercise

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How to Squat with Proper Form

  1. Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  3. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  4. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
  5. Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
  6. Inhale and repeat for reps.

2. Pause Squat

The pause squat is a regular back squat that you’ve added a pause to. Normally, and the best way to do them in most cases, the pause is added in the bottom position of the squat for a count of two or three.

The pause squat is one of the best assistance exercises for improving your squat. It has three big benefits that will all greatly aid your regular back squatting:

  1. It gives you confidence in the hole. That is, the bottom position.
  2. It increases your strength in the bottom position.
  3. It engrains proper squat depth.

One of the scariest things about back squatting is the fear that you will get stuck in the hole. Well, the pause squat effectively remedies this, and turns fear into confidence.

If you are having trouble with technique, depth, or confidence in the squat, the pause squat is a must.

Use a weight that is 10–20% lighter than usual, and stick to a low rep range.

Muscles Worked in Pause Squats

Muscles worked in pause squat

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How to Pause Squat

  1. Place the bar on your upper back, inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  3. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  4. Stop in the bottom position, and make a distinct pause.
  5. Stand up again. Exhale on the way up, or exchange air in the top position.
  6. Inhale and repeat for reps.

3. Front Squat

Do you find that you “good morning” your back squats? Weak quadriceps are probably the culprits, and few exercises strengthen them better than the front squat.

Besides strengthening your quads, the front squat is another great way to develop your strength out of the hole.

Muscles Worked in Front Squats

Muscles worked in the front squat exercise

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How to Front Squat with Proper Form

  1. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width. Step forward and place the bar on the front of your shoulders: on top of your clavicles, and tight against your throat.
  2. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  3. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  4. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  5. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
  6. Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
  7. Breathe in and repeat for reps.

4. Leg Press

While you should prioritize squats in your leg training, you can still utilize other exercises to improve your performance.

The leg press is a classic exercise for building bigger and stronger legs and glutes, and many powerlifters feel that leg presses not only help their squat but also give them starting power in the deadlift.

Check your ego at the door when it comes to how much weight you pile on, and make sure to work your legs in a long range of motion for maximum muscle growth.

Don’t like the leg press? The hack squat is a great alternative.

Muscles Worked in Leg Press

Muscles worked in leg press

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How to Leg Press

  1. Adjust the machine so that you only need to extend your legs slightly to be able to release the weights. Adjust the safety pins so that they catch the weight if you are unable to lift it.
  2. Place your feet on the sled, about shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale and lower the weight by bending your legs.
  4. Lower the weight as deep as possible without rounding your back, and while keeping your glutes on the seat.
  5. Press the weight back up again as you exhale.

5. Good Morning

The good morning is another staple powerlifting exercise. This exercise will strengthen your hip, back, and core muscles and give you the strength to extend your hips in the squat and the deadlift.

Go light in this exercise and focus on form and muscle contact.

Muscles Worked in Good Mornings

Muscles worked in the good morning exercise

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How to Do Good Mornings

  1. Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and place your feet slightly wider than hip-width.
  3. Inhale and hold your breath, and lean forward by hinging your hips. Imagine that you are trying to push your butt back as far as possible.
  4. Lean forward as far as you can with a straight back, and without the bar rolling forward.
  5. Your knees will bend slightly, but most of the movement takes place in the hips.
  6. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips again while exhaling.
  7. At the top, inhale and repeat for reps.

6. Bulgarian Split Squat

Most powerlifting exercises will have you using both legs simultaneously, also known as bilateral exercises. By incorporating a unilateral exercise performed on one leg at a time, such as the Bulgarian split squat, you can make sure that your strength and muscle mass develops equally on both sides.

In addition, the Bulgarian split squat is an excellent quad and glute exercise in its own right.

Muscles Worked in Bulgarian Split Squats

Muscles worked in bulgarian split squats

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How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats

  1. Stand with your back turned against a bench, which should be at about knee height. Stand about one long step in front of the bench.
  2. Place one foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Inhale, look forward, and squat down with control until right before the knee of the back leg touches the floor.
  4. Reverse the movement and extend your front leg again, while exhaling.
  5. Inhale at the top and repeat for reps.

7. Leg Extension

Not everything has to be a compound exercise. The leg extension is an isolation exercise that targets your quadriceps; one of the most important muscles in the squat. It does so without loading your hips and spine, which might make it easier to fit into your powerlifting program if you’re already doing a lot of compound exercises.

Because the leg extension is performed in a machine, you don’t have to worry about balance, leaving you free to focus on building up a massive muscle pump.

Muscles Worked in Leg Extensions

Muscles worked in leg extensions

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How to Do Leg Extensions

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Extend your knees with control, until they are completely straight.
  3. Slowly lower the weight again.

8. Bench Press

Let’s leave the legs and direct our attention to the upper body. The bench press is one of the three main lifts in powerlifting. And, unlike the other two lifts, the bench press primarily tests your upper body strength.

The bench press is a classic exercise for building muscle and strength in your chest, shoulders, and arms, and it is the most trained exercise in our workout app.

Muscles Worked in the Bench Press

Bench press muscles worked

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How to Bench Press with Proper Form

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
  5. Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath while in the top position, and repeat for reps.

9. Feet-Up Bench Press

The feet-up bench press is a popular variant of the bench press in which you keep your feet in the air. By raising your feet you have to create stability in your upper body instead, which you might then carry over to your regular bench press.

You also generally have less of an arch, which might contribute to a longer range of motion, and thereby greater gains in muscle and strength.

Muscles Worked in the Feet-Up Bench Press

Muscles worked in the bench press feet up exercise

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How to Feet-Up Bench Press

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Lift your feet up and hold them in the air.
  4. Take a breath and hold it, and unrack the bar.
  5. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to the sternum.
  6. Push the bar up while exhaling.
  7. Take another breath in the top position, and repeat for reps.

10. Close-Grip Bench Press

The close-grip bench press is another popular bench press variation, in which you emphasize your triceps.

In a wide-grip bench press, your chest and shoulders contribute 78% of the force necessary to lift the bar, while your triceps contribute 22%. In the close-grip bench press, the same numbers are 63% vs. 37%.1

Most people are about 5–6% stronger with a wide bench press grip than a narrow grip.

Muscles Worked in the Close-Grip Bench Press

Muscles worked in close grip bench press exercise

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How to Close-Grip Bench Press

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar narrower than in a regular bench press so that your hands are directly above your shoulders or even closer.
  3. Take a breath and hold it, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control until it touches your chest somewhere where the ribs end.
  5. Take another breath in the top position, and repeat for reps.

11. Dumbbell Chest Press

The dumbbell chest press differs from the previous pressing exercises in that it uses dumbbells instead of a barbell. This makes it easier for you to identify side-to-side differences in strength, and thus make sure both your sides are developing in tandem.

You will also have to work harder to stabilize the dumbbells, which might make the barbell bench press seem even more stable when you return to it.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Chest Press

Muscles worked in dumbbell chest press

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How to Dumbbell Chest Press

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  3. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
  4. Repeat for reps.

12. Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell chest fly is an isolation exercise for your chest and front delts. Compared with the heavy barbell bench press, the chest fly offers an easier way to add some extra work for your primary bench press muscles.

Use dumbbells, a machine, or cables if you want to. A benefit of the dumbbells (besides their accessibility) is that you will load your pecs maximally in the stretched bottom position. That is both effective for muscle growth and also close to the sticking point in the bench press.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Chest Flyes

Muscles worked in dumbbell chest flyes

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How to Do Dumbbell Chest Flyes

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. With almost completely straight arms, lower the dumbbells out to your sides.
  3. When you’ve lowered the dumbbells as deep as possible, reverse the motion and return the dumbbells to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for reps.

13. Tricep Pushdown

The triceps pushdown is a popular isolation exercise for your triceps, that hits all three tricep heads.

Even though it works your long triceps head at a shorter muscle length than, for example, overhead tricep extensions, it has still been proven to work your long triceps head effectively.2

Experiment to see if you prefer to use a bar or a rope for the handle.

Muscles Worked in Tricep Pushdowns With Bar

Muscles worked in triceps pushdown with bar

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How to Do Tricep Pushdowns

  1. Stand one step away from the cable pulley, and grip a bar about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the handle down until your upper arms are perpendicular to the floor. This is the starting position.
  3. Push the handle down until your arms are fully extended.
  4. With control, let the handle up again.

14. Deadlift

The deadlift is the last of the three main powerlifting exercises and one of the best exercises you can do to increase your overall strength.

While the deadlift primarily works your back and hips, almost your entire body is involved in one way or another in this full-body exercise.

A common variation is the sumo deadlift, and if you are a competitive lifter, you might want to test both lifts to see which you are the strongest in.

Muscles Worked in the Deadlift

Muscles worked in the deadlift

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How to Deadlift with Proper Form

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

15. Pause Deadlift

Similar to the pause squat, the paused deadlift is a regular deadlift that you’ve added a pause to. Commonly, the pause is added just an inch or two off the ground, which is the biomechanically weakest part of the lift for most lifters.

By pausing here, you’ll strengthen this critical bottleneck of the deadlift. You’ll also develop the confidence to stick it out in this position, and maintain technique under strain. Lastly, the paused deadlift can improve your technique, because you will automatically seek out the strongest position while pausing.

Use about 10% lower weight than in your regular deadlifts, and pause to the count of two or three.

Muscles Worked in Pause Deadlifts

Muscles worked by pause deadlifts

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How to Do Pause Deadlifts

  1. Step up close to the bar, so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

16. Rack Pull

Powerlifting is about lifting heavy weights, and that is precisely what you’ll do in the rack pull. The rack pull is a deadlift variation in which you place the barbell on blocks, weight plates, or a rack in order to elevate it.

Typically, rack pulls are done with the bar elevated to knee-level or just below. Most powerlifters can pull about 20% more weight from this position than they can deadlift from the floor, meaning that you can train with heavier weights than usual from this position.3

Make sure to keep all your normal positions through the lift for the greatest carry-over, and consider using straps in order to avoid your grip strength becoming a limiting factor in the training.

Muscles Worked in Rack Pulls

Rack pull muscles worked

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How to Do Rack Pulls Properly

  1. Set the bar at desired height, using a rack or blocks.
  2. Step up close to the bar, so that it is over the middle of your foot.
  3. Inhale, lean forward and bend your knees slightly, and grip the bar.
  4. Hold your breath, brace your core, and lift the bar.
  5. Pull the bar close to your body with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  6. Lower the bar back to the rack or blocks with control.

17. Deficit Deadlift

Contrary to the rack pull, the deficit deadlift entails that you are standing on an elevation instead of the barbell.

This means that you will have to pull through a greater range of motion, specifically in the beginning of the movement. This increases the amount of knee flexion, meaning that this exercise works your quadriceps more than a regular deadlift.

The deficit deadlift is allegedly good for building strength in the start of your deadlift. Whether or not that is correct, it is still a great deadlift variation.

Muscles Worked in Deficit Deadlifts

Muscles worked by deficit deadlifts

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How to Do Deficit Deadlifts

  1. Stand on an elevation of optional height (i.e. a weight plate), and stand close to the bar, so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

18. Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that emphasizes your posterior chain, specifically your glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.

This exercise lends itself well to a medium number of reps and a focus on muscle contact rather than how much weight you’re lifting.

If you’re really flexible, you can stand on an elevation (such as a weight plate) if you want to extend the range of motion without hitting the floor.

Muscles Worked in Romanian Deadlifts

Muscles worked in romanian deadlift

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How to Do Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Get into the starting position by deadlifting a barbell off the floor, or by unracking it from a barbell rack.
  2. Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging in your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
  3. Lean forward as far as possible without rounding your back. You don’t have to touch the barbell to the floor, although it is OK if you do.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
  5. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

19. Barbell Row

Finally, the barbell row is an exercise that not only targets your upper body rowing muscles but also works your lower back and core isometrically. This will aid your deadlift strength, and the rowing will help balance your upper body after all the bench presses you’re doing.

It’s up to you if you want to perform this exercise with a very strict and still torso, or use a bit more momentum to get the bar up.

Muscles Worked in Barbell Rows

Muscles worked in barbell row exercise

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How to Do Barbell Rows

  1. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, and lean forward with the bar hanging from straight arms.
  2. Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
  3. Pull the bar as high as you can, so that it touches your abs or chest if possible.
  4. With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

20. Ab Wheel Roll-Out

Powerlifting involves a lot of training for your spinal extensors. The squat and the deadlift both challenges your back extensors hard, as the barbell tries to flex your spine forward. In order to maintain muscular balance across your core and torso, adding some spinal flexion training is probably a good idea.

The ab wheel roll-out is a great exercise for this. While the standing ab wheel might require some more training before you can do it, most lifters should be able to perform the kneeling ab wheel pretty soon. If you find it too difficult, sit on the floor facing a wall that stops the wheel from rolling out too far, and gradually increase your range of motion as you get stronger.

Muscles Worked in Kneeling Ab Wheel Roll-Outs

Muscles worked in kneeling ab wheel

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How to Do Kneeling Ab Wheel Roll-Outs

  1. Sit on your knees, or stand up on your feet for increased resistance.
  2. Roll out as far as you can, and maintain a straight back throughout the movement.
  3. Reverse the movement with control, and return to the starting position. 

Powerlifting Exercises: How to Choose

That’s a whole lot of exercises! How do you know which ones to use?

Firstly, if you are not sure about how to program your powerlifting training, you should check out our ever-growing list of powerlifting programs.

If you’d rather set up your training yourself, here’s a template you could use.

  1. Pick one or two of the main powerlifting exercises. The squat, bench press, deadlift, or variations of them. Do an appropriate number of sets in one or two of these exercises, using fairly heavy weight for specificity.
  2. Finish with one to three assistance exercises. After the main course, you pick one to three additional exercises from the list above to strengthen your primary movers or bring up your weak links. Generally, you can lower the weight a bit in these follow-up exercises and go a bit higher in reps for a greater muscle-building effect.

Here’s an example of a powerlifting workout focused on the squat and bench press.

Sample Powerlifting Workout

  1. Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 4 sets x 6 reps
  3. Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Dumbbell Chest Fly: 3 sets x 12 reps
  5. Good Morning: 3 sets x 8 reps

This workout will both give you specific practice on the two power lifts, as well as provide some extra accessory work for the prime movers.

Do You Have to Use Other Powerlifting Exercises than the Big Three?

You don’t have to do anything, buddy.

But, solely relying on the big three might develop some muscle imbalances down the line, and might also limit the total training volume you can do.

I recommend that you try letting the big three lifts form the foundation of your powerlifting training, but that you reserve a portion of your training for different variations and accessory exercises.

These will help you develop a more well-rounded physique and expose your muscles and joints to a wider range of stimulus.

Also, you might just strike gold. That is when you find an exercise that for some weird reason just clicks and makes one of the big three lifts take off. For me, regular push-ups did that to my bench press. If that happens, even if you can’t really explain it, just roll with it and milk it for as long as it works.

And as always: make sure to progressively overload by lifting more weight over time. Our workout tracker is the perfect tool for that, and is also chock-full of training programs and workouts.

How Close to A Powerlifting Meet Should You Use These Exercises?

Generally, the closer you get to a powerlifting meet, the more specialized should your training become. That means gradually switching from accessory lifts to doing the three main exercises in which you will be competing.

As a rule of thumb, you want to practice the competition lifts for at least four to six weeks before a powerlifting competition. That does not have to mean that you must cut out all other exercises during that time, but you might need to keep the volume low in the accessory work in order to focus on the competition lifts.

More About Powerlifting

Looking for additional training programs and guides for powerlifting or strength training in general?

Check out the resources below.

Training programs:

Guides:

Thank you for reading!

References

  1. Front Sports Act Living. 2020; 2: 637066. A Biomechanical Analysis of Wide, Medium, and Narrow Grip Width Effects on Kinematics, Horizontal Kinetics, and Muscle Activity on the Sticking Region in Recreationally Trained Males During 1-RM Bench Pressing.
  2. J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. 2018, 3(2), 28. Triceps Brachii Muscle Strength and Architectural Adaptations with Resistance Training Exercises at Short or Long Fascicle Length.
  3. Isometric Strength of Powerlifters in Key Positions of the Conventional Deadlift. Journal of Trainology 2012;1:32-35.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and lifters at the international level. Daniel lives in Lund, Sweden with his wife and three kids. On StrengthLog, Daniel geeks out about all things related to his lifelong passion of muscle and strength.