10 Special Exercises To Increase Your Powerlifting Movements

10 special exercises to increase your powerlifting movements

When it comes to increasing your powerlifting movements, the amount of conflicting information on special exercises that you can find online can be confusing — so much so that it becomes too daunting to even attempt some of the suggestions.

Not only is specializing in the squat, bench press and deadlift mentally stale, incorporating unique variations can actually enhance your strength in as little as a few weeks. 

The 10 special exercises to increase your powerlifting movements are:

Choosing to not include these special exercises isn’t an outright sin, but chances are that at least a few of these variations can have a serious increase on your powerlifting movements. 

Let’s build that powerlifting total!

1.  Tempo Training

tempo training is a method of slowing down the eccentric or concentric phase of an exercise

What Is It?

Tempo training is a method of slowing down the eccentric (descending) or concentric (ascending) phase of an exercise. For the most part, eccentric tempos tend to be programmed more often than concentric variations.

A Closer Look

Typically, tempo training is listed as the requested tempo first and the exercise name following after. For instance, the “3-0-1 Tempo Back Squat” would be interpreted as a barbell back squat where the lifter takes 3 seconds to complete the eccentric phase, no pause at the bottom, and drives up explosively for 1 second to return to the top. 

In terms of tempo duration, there’s an unwritten rule to not slow down the tempo more than 7 seconds during any phase. That said, this number is arbitrary — pauses and tempos can be longer if they serve the intended purpose.

Lastly, there are countless tempo variations that can be performed. However, commonly programmed ones include: 6-0-1 (eccentric-focused), 5-3-0 (eccentric and pause emphasis), and 3-0-3 (eccentric and concentric focus).

How To Do It

  • Select the exercise that you’d like to improve
  • Take 2-6 seconds to complete the entire lowering phase
  • Perform the upward phase as quickly as possible under control

Benefits

Helps improve technique. Slowing down any exercise will inherently allow you to focus more on your technique, because the increased time under tension gives you more feedback. As a result, improvements in bar path and technique execution are often seen during tempo training, despite using significantly lighter weights than usual.

Drawbacks

It takes time. Regardless of the tempo you choose to use, your repetitions will undoubtedly take longer to complete. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find that your sets take twice as long (or even longer) as it would take when using your normal speed. Keep this in mind when choosing your rep range and number of sets to perform.

Mistakes To Avoid

Going beyond 6 reps/set. Considering the time it takes to perform each individual repetition and a full set, it’s more practical to stay on the lower end of the 1-12 rep range. While you can certainly do sets of 8-12 reps with a 5-3-0 tempo, you might find yourself getting rather bored or physically drained due to the sheer amount of time you’re actively lifting the barbell for. Instead, stay in the 2-6 rep zone — you’ll thank me later. 

Learn more about tempo training for squats in my article Eccentric vs Concentric Squat: What’s The Difference?

2. Stance Or Grip Modifications

stance or grip modifications are a strategy to shift the loading demands of an exercise to other muscle groups

What Is It?

Stance or grip modifications are a strategy to shift the loading demands of an exercise to other muscle groups. Often, the lifter’s stance or grip is adjusted to make it significantly different from their normal technique — making it a novel stimulus.

A Closer Look

Usually, stance modifications are presented in the lower body lifts. For instance, a lifter who performs the back squat using a hip-width stance might be prescribed to do wide stance squats at 1-1.5x their shoulder width. The wider stance in this case will target more of the glutes and abductors, and less of the quadriceps. 

In the deadlift, a lifter who pulls sumo will often have conventional deadlifts programmed. This manipulation of stance width by switching to the conventional deadlift will shift the exercise demands to hit more of the spinal erectors.

For lifters who bench press with their pinkies on the first set of smooth rings (hash marks), a wide or ultra-wide grip is often utilized. This would cause the lifter to widen their grip by several inches, placing more emphasis on the pectorals (chest muscles) as a result.

How To Do It

  • Pick the exercise that you’d like to modify
  • Select a significantly-different stance or grip based on the suggestions below:

Benefits

Helps reduce fatigue. Having to use an alternate stance or grip will naturally reduce the weights you’ll be able to lift, since you’re unfamiliar with the new technique. As a result, the decreased weight on the bar provides less of a training stressor to you — making alternate stances and grips a great modification during deload weeks.

Drawbacks

Possible aches and pains. Having to adjust to a new technique style for a deload week or even an entire training cycle can occasionally be too taxing on muscles and joints. This isn’t to say that the exercise itself is dangerous, just that the novel training stress might temporarily be too much for certain muscles or joints.

Mistakes To Avoid

Going too hard. Performing unfamiliar exercises for high intensities (beyond 90% of your 1RM) or going very close to failure can be a costly mistake. Play it safe when changing your stance or grip, so you can avoid a powerlifting injury. 

If modifying your stance or grip piques your interest, definitely check out my articles Are Wide Squats Better For Powerlifting? and Wide Grip Bench Press: Is It Better? (Definitive Guide)

3. Drop Sets

drop sets are a method of performing sets to muscular failure in quick succession as you lighten the load

What Is It?

Drop sets (also referred to as “descending sets”) are a method of performing sets to muscular failure in quick succession as you lighten the load on the barbell between sets. This is often completed by doing an initial heavy set, then reducing the weight by 20-30% to perform additional sets and reps. 

A Closer Look

When using the strategy of drop sets, there’s a large variance in the number of sets and reps performed. For instance, lifters sometimes do as little as 5 reps per set up to 20 or more.

That said, drop sets are most commonly incorporated into a training program with the intention of serving as a hypertrophy stimulus or to just burn out a specific muscle group. If this is what you’re after, I recommend sticking in the 6-15 rep range to maximize the weight lifted while putting total volume as a higher priority.

Further, the actual number of drop sets you perform depends on your level of experience and preferences. Lifters with a longer training history might find themselves doing 3-5 drop sets, while more novice-level lifters will probably get the desired effect they’re after using only 1-3 drop sets.

How To Do It

  • Select a weight where you can do 10-20 reps in your first set
  • After your first set, remove 20-30% from the bar and do another set immediately
  • Repeat the 20-30% drop, and lifting to near failure for as many sets as you’d like

Benefits

Incredibly time-effective. Without a doubt, drop sets take less overall time to complete when compared to normal resistance training (performing a set, resting adequately, and repeating this process). If you’re pressed for time and just need to get your workout done as soon as possible, drop sets might be your best friend.

Drawbacks

No better than traditional training. When Angleri and colleagues (2017) compared drop sets with traditional resistance training, they found that drop sets did not lead to greater improvements in strength, muscle hypertrophy or changes in muscle architecture. It appears that as long as the total volume is equated, drop sets do not outperform traditional resistance training in the domains mentioned.

Mistakes To Avoid

Not failing safely. Since you’ll need to train to failure during your drop sets — or very close to it — you should have a method of being able to fail your set safely (squats and bench press will be your main concerns). Whether you choose to set up the facesavers/safety arms or use a spotter is up to your choice. At the very least, ensure you have a back-up plan for when you reach muscular failure.

Looking for exercises to specifically target the squat?  Take a look at my list of Best Squat Accessories.  

4. Cluster Sets

a cluster set uses a consistent weight, but splits a traditional set into smaller clusters

What Is It?

A cluster set uses a consistent weight, but splits a traditional set into smaller “clusters” that are separated by shorter rest intervals.

A Closer Look

With a traditional rep and set scheme, you’d likely agree that performing 5 reps at 85% would be extremely difficult. 

Instead of attempting this as a full set of 5 reps, the same number of reps (5) can be achieved using cluster sets. 

In this case, the lifter will load 85% of their 1RM, and perform 3 reps. After racking the bar and resting for 20-60 seconds, another 2 reps are completed — followed by multiple minutes of rest before doing another cluster set.

How To Do It

  • Select a high-intensity load (usually, >85% 1RM)
  • Perform your first cluster set, making sure to not go to failure
  • Rest for 20-60 seconds
  • Complete the remaining reps required in your second cluster set

Benefits

More reps with high intensities. With higher intensity loads (>85% of 1RM), it’s been found that cluster sets allow you to complete more reps compared to traditional sets (Krzysztofik et al 2019). If you’re short on time and need to accumulate a reasonably high amount of mechanical stress using heavy weights, cluster sets are the way to go. 

Drawbacks

Too much intensity. Although accumulating more reps above 85% than you normally could sounds like a great thing, it can be too much intensity for some lifters. If you find that heavy sets of 2-5 reps drain you or leave you feeling wrecked, this probably isn’t the appropriate special exercise for you.

Mistakes To Avoid

Avoid training to failure. Although you’re breaking your total reps into smaller clusters, you want to avoid going to failure with this strategy. While going to failure is acceptable for a drop set, the goal with cluster sets is to achieve a specific amount of total reps with high intensities. Because of this, you’ll want to avoid training to failure — especially in your first cluster set.

Looking for exercises to specifically target the bench press?  Take a look at my list of Best Bench Press Accessories.  

5. Weight Releasers

What Is It?

Weight releasers are special pieces of equipment that hang on either end of the barbell with extra weight and disengage after the eccentric phase of the first repetition.

A Closer Look

When properly implemented, weight releasers can apply a serious overload stimulus to a lifter. Not only are neurological improvements seen, but physiological changes are also observed.

These adaptations are seen because you can lift more weight eccentrically than concentrically. As a result, supra-maximal loads (weights beyond your 1RM) can be lifted using this method. Typically, lifters will aim to add an additional 30-40% to the bar on weight releasers.

Also, weight releasers tend to be used in conjunction with a slower speed on the lowering phase of the first rep. For instance, the lifter might descend in the squat using a 5 second tempo, let the weight releasers disengage, then drive up explosively.

How To Do It

  • Select the lift to be overloaded
  • Add 30-40% beyond your 1RM
  • Apply a 3-5 second tempo on the eccentric (recommended)
  • Let the weight releasers disengage at the bottom
  • Drive up forcefully, and perform additional reps if desired

Benefits

Improves your bar speed. Merrigan et al (2019) found that, “Including a single supramaximal eccentric phase of 120% 1-RM increased subsequent velocity and power with concentric loads of 65% of 1RM.” According to this study, just a single eccentric rep with weight releasers can make a serious difference for lighter intensity work.

Drawbacks

Swinging hazard. If you’ve never used weight releasers, be warned: they swing. While you’ll notice a minimal amount of movement from them during your first rep, this effect is very pronounced when you unrack the barbell and step backwards. For this reason, make your walk-out or lift-off smooth and short — you’ll experience less swinging as a result. 

Mistakes To Avoid

Not adding a slow eccentric tempo. Even though the extra load from the weight releasers is difficult to resist, you’re encouraged to incorporate a slow tempo on the descent as well. The added time under tension by lowering the bar with a 3-5 second  eccentric will enhance the overload effect — this is especially useful since you only get this with the first repetition.

If you want to purchase weight releasers you can do so from Rogue Fitness (click for today’s price).  These weight releasers are the most durable on the market, and can be sized for any barbell height or exercise.   

6. Bands or Chains

the use of bands and chains is a special technique to increase or decrease the resistance of the barbell

What Is It?

The use of bands and chains (commonly referred to as “accommodating resistance”) is a special technique to increase or decrease the resistance of the barbell during a specific range of motion.

A Closer Look

Usually, bands or chains are added to the barbell for the powerlifting movements to apply more resistance as the lifter nears the top of each rep. For example: when bands are anchored to the floor and stretched over the barbell, they’ll be tightest at the lockout position. As the lifter descends, the bands will slacken and less resistance will be felt at the bottom. The tension will build as the lifter ascends and returns to a standing position.

Check out my other articles discussing band training:  Banded Bench Press and Banded Deadlift

Chains operate in a similar manner; they are loaded on the barbell and they hang down towards the floor.

As the lifter lowers the barbell, increasing amounts of chain links rest on the floor and no longer weigh down the bar. Because of this, the chains apply the most resistance at the lockout position and the least at the bottom portion of the lift.

That said, bands can also be anchored at the top of a power rack in a “reverse band” style with the barbell hanging from the bands.

When descending, the bands will increasingly relieve the weight of the barbell as they continue to stretch to their fullest extent in the bottom position. When employed in this fashion, they focus on making the most difficult part of the exercise (the bottom portion, generally) easier to complete.

Check out my other articles discussing reverse band training: Reverse Band Squat, Reverse Band Bench Press, and Reverse Band Deadlift.  

How To Do It

  • Choose which lift you will overload
  • Decide on whether you’ll use bands or chains
  • Place your accommodating resistance on the barbell
  • Lift for the desired amount of reps

Benefits

Better match the strength curve. As you stand up with a barbell (in the back squat or deadlift) or approach the lockout on the bench press, your joint angles get smaller. This effect is indicative of an ascending strength curve; where you’re weaker in the bottom position, and are stronger towards lockout. Bands and chains apply more load in the ranges of motion where you’re stronger — near the lockout position — and remove the majority of that tension in the weaker points of your lifts — at the bottom. 

Drawbacks

No upper hand for strength gain. A study by Rivière et al (2017) showed that for elite youth rugby players, performing the bench press with an 80/20 split of weight/band tension led to greater gains in upper body velocity and power. Unfortunately, there was no significant difference in strength gain between the group that used bands and the group that did not.

Mistakes To Avoid

Assuming both are interchangeable. Despite the fact that both of these overload techniques apply more resistance at the lockout (usually this is their main use), bands and chains apply their tension differently. Experienced lifters will be the first to say that chains are apt to swinging and feel more like “dead” weight that simply rests on the barbell. On the other hand, bands actively pull the barbell down towards their anchor point and are often considered less forgiving of a less-than-ideal bar path. In any case, treat each of these overload strategies as completely separate entities — because they are.

Click here to avoid making rookie mistakes when Training with Chains in Powerlifting.

7. Isometric Training

isometric training involves performing a lift against a fixed resistance while putting high effort into attempting to move it

What Is It?

Isometric training involves performing a lift against a fixed resistance while putting high effort into attempting to move it.

A Closer Look

As far as special exercises, isometric training might be the most underutilized. 

In terms of how to practically perform this style of training, a power rack is often used and the safety arms are set up 2-3 inches below the lifter’s sticking point. This part of each lift is targeted because it is the range of motion where the athlete begins to lose bar speed, which ultimately leads to the lift’s actual sticking point. 

If strength can be gained in this area for each exercise, the athlete will maintain a faster bar speed and be less likely to miss the lift.

How To Do It

  • Choose the exercise you will target
  • Identify your sticking point
  • Set up the safety arms or pins about 2-3 inches below your weak point
  • When ready place the barbell against the base of the safety arms
  • Push or pull against the fixed resistance as hard as you can

Benefits

Observable muscle gains. A systematic review by Oranchuk et al (2018) found that improvements in muscular hypertrophy and maximal force production were seen, with high-intensity (greater than 70%) contractions mandatory for enhancing tendon function and structure. Clearly, there’s a real advantage to isometrics despite performing very little of the exercise’s full range of motion.

Drawbacks

Consistent effort is difficult. Since you’re pushing against a fixed and immovable resistance, it can be challenging to maintain a consistent effort from one set to the next. For instance, the safety arms won’t move when you apply a small amount of resistance  or maximal resistance. A lack of feedback on this special exercise can lead some lifters to not apply maximal effort when training in this way. Remember to push against the pins or safety arms as hard as you can to maximize your results from this training method.

Mistakes To Avoid

Targeting the wrong ROM. Let’s say that an athlete routinely misses their deadlifts just below their knees. In this scenario, the barbell comes to a complete stop just below the knee joint, but it actually started slowing down before that point (maybe the bar speed slowed at mid-shin level). Instead of performing isometric deadlifts at a height just below the knees, focus on improving the ROM where your bar speed starts to slow down considerably — you’ll achieve much more success this way by being able to maintain a faster bar speed through your usual sticking point.

Looking for exercises to specifically target the Deadlift?  Take a look at my list of Best Deadlift Accessories.  

8. Partial Reps

partial reps are a way of reducing the range of motion of an exercise to specifically strengthen a weaker range of motion

What Is It?

Partial reps are a way of reducing the range of motion of an exercise to specifically strengthen a weaker range of motion or improve the technique of a specific component of the lift.

A Closer Look

Considering that the powerlifting movements are focused on the most for partial reps, here are some examples for the back squat, bench press, and deadlift.

The back squat is frequently targeted with partial reps via half squats (commonly known as partial squats, pin squats, and even Anderson squats. Generally, glute strength are emphasized the most with these partial rep exercises.

In the bench press, close variations like the board press are often programmed. Board presses make the barbell stop sooner (reducing the range of motion slightly) depending on the board thickness used, to target more of the upper-half range of motion.

Finally, the block pull (commonly performed as the rack pull in commercial gyms) is one of the most popular partial rep lifts to target the deadlift. It hits the last half of the deadlift by starting just below or just above the knees, hitting the gluteal muscles the most.

How To Do It

  • Select the lift you’ll emphasize 
  • Narrow down your sticking point
  • Pick a partial rep exercise that focuses on your weak range of motion

Benefits

Strength gains incoming. When your weaker range(s) of motion have been identified and properly targeted using partial rep exercises, strength improvements typically follow. This isn’t a guaranteed thing (you’re not a math equation, after all) but having some empirical evidence to guide you in choosing the right partial rep exercise will almost never do you wrong.

Drawbacks

Lighter weights required. A serious challenge with any partial rep exercise is trying to suppress one’s ego. Remember: a partial rep exercise specifically focuses on your weak range of motion. Because of this, you’ll almost certainly need to lighten the weight on the bar in order to perform the exercise correctly. Although this can be difficult, not letting your ego get the best of you is essential for this type of special exercise.

Mistakes To Avoid

Letting your strengths take over. The most common mistake with partial reps is when lifters allow their stronger muscles to pick up the slack of their weaker muscles. For example, a lifter who has weak quads might find themselves performing a good morning squat with heavy weights. Allowing this inefficiency to happen during the half squat or pin squat will only make this lifter’s weak point worse. Instead, this athlete should focus on keeping their knees forward on the way up and reduce the weight if their knees consistently shoot back on the way up.

9. Density Blocks

density blocks are a strategy to accumulate large amounts of volume on a given exercise by imposing a specific time limit

What Is It?

Density blocks are a strategy to accumulate large amounts of volume on a given exercise by imposing a specific time limit. 

A Closer Look

Often used in hypertrophy training cycles, density blocks are a great way to rack up a bunch of training volume in a short period of time.This training tool has two key components: a specific time limit (1), and a specific muscle group or exercise to be targeted (2).

For example, a density block for the deadlift might look like, “Deadlift x AMRAP in 25 minutes”. In this case, the lifter performs as many submaximal sets as possible in 25 minutes — with the primary goal of getting as many total reps as they can. Generally, sets of 5-12 are strived for in order to accumulate a reasonable amount of volume. In addition, shorter rest intervals (30-60 seconds) are recommended to facilitate doing more sets throughout the protocol.

How To Do It

  • Choose a lift for your density block
  • Load 70-80% of your 1RM
  • Perform submaximal sets of 5-12 reps
  • Keep 2-4 reps in reserve after each set

Benefits

Easy to progress. As far as progressing in your density blocks, you have a number of options. First, you can simply choose to do more total reps than your last density block. Alternatively, you can add more weight to the bar and not worry about matching or outperforming the total rep count you did previously since the increase in load will provide a greater stimulus. Lastly, you can also add more time (1-2 minutes) to perform a slightly longer density block and allow you to complete a couple more sets.

Drawbacks

It can be nebulous. Unless you’re prescribed a specific percentage by your coach or program, it can be confusing as to how heavy or light you should go. As a general rule of thumb, sticking between 70-80% of your 1RM is probably a safe bet. This range will allow you to comfortably perform sets of 5-12 reps, especially as you fatigue throughout the density block.

Mistakes To Avoid

Going to failure. By far, the easiest error to make with density training is going to failure. Not only will you immediately reduce the performance of your next set, your ability for the remainder of your density block will decrease. Hitting failure will derail your success on a density block more than anything else. Ensure that you maximize your performance by performing sub-maximal sets at all times.

Density blocks are considered a version of the “repetition method”. Learn more about the Repetition Method in my other article.

10. High Frequency Training

high frequency training is the process of increasing sessions during a training week with a different target adaptation for each session

What Is It?

High frequency training is the process of increasing your squat, bench press, and deadlift sessions during a training week with a different target adaptation for each session (usually).

A Closer Look

While not an exclusive list, training strategies that tend to be used frequently are: technique emphasis, speed work, strength-focus, and weak range of motion development.

Generally, each training session will have a primary focus for your powerlifting exercises — strength, hypertrophy, and weak ROM tend to be the most popular. You’ll usually be looking to improve 2-3 qualities at a time during a high frequency training cycle. 

Read my articles on:

How To Do It

  • Select the lift you want to improve
  • Choose 2-3 areas of focus (technique, speed, strength, weak ROM)
  • Pick an exercise that will address each component you’ve chosen
  • Stagger your exercises throughout your training week

Benefits

Concurrent improvement. By selecting 2-3 different qualities that you’d like to improve, you make each one its own focus during your training sessions. Not only will you be able to progress in these qualities, it saves your other qualities from regressing. For example, a lifter who purely focuses on hypertrophy training by neglecting to do strength work (less than 6 reps) might see their strength take a dive — even though they’re gaining muscle.

Drawbacks

Fatigue, aches and pains. Oftentimes, a significant increase in training frequency can lead to new aches and pains. Whether it’s localized to a specific muscle group or a joint, aches and pains usually arise due to an acute spike in workload. Pain can typically be kept at bay with sound fatigue management but with high frequency training, your body can sometimes take a beating.

Mistakes To Avoid

Increasing frequency too soon. It might be tempting, but try to resist the urge to increase your weekly training sessions by more than 1 per week. If they’re on the lighter side of the intensity scale, you might get away with adding 2 additional workouts. That said, bumping up your training frequency by 3 sessions or more per week is a recipe for burnout and/or injury. If you want to train more often, that’s great! Add an extra training session next week, then maintain that frequency for 2-3 weeks in order for your body to adapt. Follow this same general rule when adding more training sessions in the future.

Find out whether you can squat every day in my article Squatting Every Day: Pros, Cons, Should You Do It?. I also wrote a similar article on Can You Deadlift Every Day?

Final Thoughts

In order to select the right tool for the job, here’s a short summary of when to use each special exercise detailed in this article:

If your focus is hypertrophy, make use of drop sets, density blocks, and high frequency training.

When aiming for pure strength gain, cluster sets, weight releasers, bands and chains, and isometrics all have their place.

Optimizing your technique will benefit most from utilizing tempo work, grip and stance modifications.

When properly implemented, special exercises can be used effectively to increase your powerlifting movements.


About The Author

Kent Nilson

Kent Nilson is an online strength coach, residing in Calgary (AB). When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict. Connect with him on Facebook or Instagram.