In the PR-BREAKER Training Principles article, I highlighted that strength is specific to the exercise performed while hypertrophy is not; hypertrophy can be stimulated by any exercise. I received quite a few emails on this topic, specifically emails asking if certain exercises have to be performed to maximize muscle growth. Because there has been a lot of interest on this topic, I decided to write an article discussing exercise selection based on one’s goals as a powerlifter (strength-focus) or a bodybuilder (hypertrophy-focus).
The primary goal of a powerlifter is to increase one-rep maximum strength on the three competition lifts, the squat, bench press, and deadlift. While body weight is a factor for weight classes, from an aesthetics standpoint one’s muscular development does not matter.
The primarily goal of a bodybuilder is to increase muscle size as much as possible, while maintaining balanced development, to create an aesthetic physique. When on stage, the amount one can squat, bench press, or deadlift is irrelevant.
So what exercises should powerlifters and bodybuilders include in their programs? Continue reading to find out.
Exercise Selection for Powerlifters
As a powerlifter your training program must include the competitions lifts, the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Your primary goal is increasing your strength on the competition lifts and therefore they should be the focal point of your program.
Assistance exercises, exercises that closely resemble the movement patterns of the competition lifts, should be the secondary focus. Auxiliary and accessory exercises, exercises that do not closely resemble the movement patterns of the competition lifts but strengthen the muscles that are involved in and support the competition lifts, should be added in based on each individual lifters needs.
It is my opinion that the full range of motion (ROM) competition lifts should be included in all programs (possible exceptions being during deload weeks or injury). If you want to perform partial ROM variations of the competition lifts, like half ROM pin presses, you certainly can, but you should still perform the lifts in their full ROM somewhere in your program. For example, you could do full ROM bench press on Monday and pin presses on Thursday. Remember strength is specific and therefore you need to perform and practice the competition lifts to improve your skill and strength on the movements. If for a month you only performed half ROM pin presses and did not perform the full ROM bench press it is quite possible that while your lockout strength may increase you may lose pressing strength at the bottom of the movement. The competition lifts are skilled movements and must be trained in their competition form.
The specific assistance exercises utilized should be based on weaknesses in the competition lifts. You have no doubt heard the saying a chain is only as strong as its weakest link; this saying holds true for powerlifting. For example, if you can rack deadlift 585 lbs but can barely deadlift 405 lbs off the ground then your weak point on the deadlift is off the ground. In this scenario, focusing on increasing your lockout strength with endless block/rack deadlifts while not increasing your off the floor strength would not increase your competition deadlift strength. Instead you could implement an exercise like deficit deadlifts to increase your strength at the bottom of the deadlift.
Using the bench press as an example, you may be weak off the chest or weak at the lockout. If you are weak off the chest then implementing a 3 second pause bench press or a low pin press (just above the chest) could help improve your weakness. If you have a weak lockout then adding in board presses or floor presses would help you increase your lockout strength. You need to add in assistance exercises that will train the weakness in your competition lifts.
After training the competition lifts and assistance movements to help strengthen the competitions lifts, one can add in auxiliary/accessory exercises to strengthen and stimulate hypertrophy in other muscle groups. Continuing the above bench press example, after performing the full ROM bench press (competition lift) and floor press (assistance exercise) one could then performance the military press to strengthen the shoulders and the lat-pulldown to strength the lats (which support the bench press). An example of what the entire workout could look like is:
Bench Press 3 X 1-5
Floor Press 3 X 3-5
Military Press 3 X 5-8
Lat-Pulldown 3 X 8-12
Summary of Exercise Selection for Powerlifters
- Primary focus = squat, bench, and deadlift
- One should always include the full ROM competition lifts in their program
- Secondary focus = assistance exercises to strengthen the squat, bench, and deadlift
- Assistance exercises should be chosen based on ones weakness on the competition lifts
- Add auxiliary/accessory exercises to strengthen and stimulate hypertrophy in specific muscle groups.
Exercise Selection for Bodybuilders
The question I received the most and what spurred this article was, do bodybuilders have to perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift. The answer is no. For bodybuilders, there are not any “must do” exercises. Unlike powerlifters who must perform specific exercises in competition, bodybuilders do not perform any exercises during competitions. Any and all exercises can be used to stimulate hypertrophy, so the key as a bodybuilder is finding the exercises that allow you to overload and stimulate each muscle group most efficiently. This is not to say that some exercises are not inherently more effective than others, but one does not “have to” perform specific exercises to stimulate hypertrophy.
Let’s look at a real world example of the free weight barbell squat. During the peak of his competitive career, 6-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates did not do free weight barbell squats and instead utilized the hack squat machine (along with the leg press and leg extension machines). On the flipside, Tom Platz, who had some of the most developed legs in bodybuilding history, used the free weight barbell squat as his primary leg exercise. Both men were able to develop massive legs, so whose training approach was the best? The answer is Platz’s program was the best for Platz and Yates’ program was the best for Yates. Platz was quoted saying “I was built to squat” while Yates did not feel the barbell squat was the most effective exercise for him to stimulate the quads. Each man decided whether or not to utilize the barbell squat based on his body structure (i.e. limb lengths) and personal experience. If one chooses not to use the free weight barbell squat in their program there are many other exercises they could use (i.e. DB goblet squat, hack squat machine, leg press machine, lunges, leg extensions).
Next up, let’s look at the deadlift. The deadlift is performed in three main variations, the conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, and stiff leg deadlift. Which variation of the deadlift is most beneficial to you will depend on your body structure. The deadlift targets the entire posterior chain of the body (back, glutes, hamstrings, calves), making it a very beneficial exercise to perform. Due to the large number of muscle groups the deadlift hits, it would be very hard to replace it with a single exercise and receive the same muscular stimulation. Despite its benefits, the deadlift is not a must do for bodybuilders. The deadlift can be very taxing, especially on the lower back. Performing the deadlift for high reps increases the likelihood of injury due to fatigue hindering ones form. This is not to say the deadlift cannot be performed for high reps, but special attention to form should be paid if doing so. If one chooses not to do deadlifts they could perform the glute-ham raise, various leg curls (lying, seated, standing single), back extensions, and hip thrusts.
And finally let’s talk about everyone’s favorite exercise, the bench press. As a bodybuilder, performing the flat barbell bench press is not a necessity and other pressing variations can be used in its place. It is not uncommon for someone to claim they don’t feel the flat barbell bench press in their pecs and feel more stimulation using dumbbells or on the incline/decline bench press. In this scenario it may be more effective to stimulate hypertrophy in the pecs using these pressing variations in place of the bench press.
Now with all that said, I personally am a big fan of the squat, bench press, and deadlift for bodybuilders and recommend them to my clients. They stimulate multiple muscle groups and have a large potential for strength gains and progressive overload. Some people avoid squats and deadlifts because they think they create a “blocky” waist. There is no data to support this and it is not a viable reason for avoiding these exercises. I recommend you read the following article for a discussion on that topic: https://bretcontreras.com/squats-and-deadlifts-wont-make-your-waist-blocky/. Also, there is a big difference between not doing an exercise, like free weight barbell squats, due to a structural, biomechanical issue and simply not doing an exercise because it is hard. If you are choosing not to do an exercise you should have a better reason simply than its hard.
Whatever exercises you choose to use in your program, I recommend building your program around compound exercises. Compound exercises that stimulate multiple muscle groups are going to be more effective and efficient for stimulating hypertrophy than isolation exercises that only stimulate a single muscle group. This is not to say that isolation exercises shouldn’t be used, they absolutely can, but that priority should be giving to compound exercises. When structuring a workout it makes the most sense to put the compound exercises first when you are not fatigued and performance will be highest. An example of a chest workout for a bodybuilder could be:
Bench Press 3 X 3-5
Incline DB Press 3 X 8-12
Dips 3 X 8-12
Cable Crossover 3 X 12-15
Summary of Exercise Selection for Bodybuilders
- There are not any “must do” exercises.
- The squat, bench press, and deadlift are very effective and efficient exercises to use but do not have to be done.
- Compound exercises should be given priority over isolation exercises.
- Isolation exercises you should be chosen to target weak points, specifically lagging muscle groups.
To concisely summarize the above, while powerlifters must perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift, there are not any must-do exercises for bodybuilders. While these compounds lifts stimulate multiple muscle groups and have a large potential for strength gains and progressive overload, a bodybuilder does not “have to” do them and can choose alternative exercises.