Supplemental training is, in my opinion, one of the most often misused and misunderstood aspects of powerlifting. When I say “supplemental,” I’m talking about any movement that’s not a competition lift or a variation of the squat, bench, or deadlift — from glute-ham raises to pinky-up dumbbell curls and everything in between.
When I talk to beginner and intermediate lifters about their training programs, they include a few sets of the big lifts, and then some long, repetitive laundry list of other supplemental stuff. For example, a typical “bench day” might look something like this:
- Bench Press, 5x5
- Incline Bench Press, 2x8
- Dumbbell Flye, 3x10
- Seated Dumbbell Press, 2x8
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise, 3x10
- Cable Pushdown, 3x10
Now, that’s not a terrible program for someone who’s just starting out. In fact, it’s a pretty good one! But it does suffer from one major problem: it does not address loading or progression. Loading and progression are the cornerstones of successful powerlifting, so if you’re not including them in your plan, then you’re planning to fail.
The Problem With Laundry Lists
Here’s what often happens when an intermediate lifter starts following the program above. They’ll start out with bench, and do 5 sets, probably breezing through the first one and really struggling or even missing reps on the last. Then they do the same thing on all the other exercises. By the end of the workout, they’ve got a massive pump, their upper bodies are shot, and they’re pretty darn pleased with themselves.
Then, the next week, they come back… and do exactly the same thing.They beat themselves up so much the previous week (and on all their other training days, which probably look pretty identical to this one, except for different body parts) that they needed a full week to feel ready to do it again, and in the meantime, they forgot a nuance about setting up for the bench, or they detrained a bit, or any number of other setbacks occurred.
Three months later, they’re still spinning their wheels.Yeah, they probably had a great workout here or there, but for the most part, it’s just the same thing, day in and day out.
The Effort-Recovery Connection
All this wheel spinning happens because, once you get to the intermediate level, you’re strong enough to really beat yourself up on supplemental work. As a beginner, you’re not: even twenty sets with twenty pounds on any exercise probably isn’t going to hurt your overall recovery too much. But twenty sets with two hundred pounds will leave you sore for days. And, no matter how strong you get, your recovery isn’t going to change all that much.
In short, the harder you push your body, the more time you need to recover. (I say “time,” but recovery is more complicated than that, and involves sleep, nutrition, stress, and a whole host of other things. Since those are pretty static for most people, time is an okay substitute measure.) One way to give yourself more recovery is by using light workouts, like I explain in my UYP video series (you can find the first one above).
Another, much easier, way is to simply cut back on how hard and heavy you train your supplemental exercises. Here’s the thing: they’re supplemental. They’re not going to contribute to your squat, bench, or deadlift strength anywhere near as much as actually squatting, bench pressing, or deadlifting will. That’s not to say they’re not important — they are — but it’s okay to train them pretty conservatively. In fact, you’ll probably get more benefit from cutting back and easing up on your supplemental training.
A Sample Supplemental Routine
So, let’s go back to the original program and see how we can improve it by adding a loading scheme.
- Bench Press, 5x5 with 77% 1RM
- Incline Bench Press, 2x8 with 85% of flat bench weight
- Dumbbell Flye, 3x10 at RPE 7.5
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise, 3x10 at RPE 7.5
- Cable Pushdown, 3x10 at RPE 7.5
Other than the exclusion of seated press, it may not seem like we changed much, but here’s what’s likely to happen with this routine compared to the first:
This time, because our imaginary lifter is using only 77% of his 1RM on bench, and even less on incline, he’s able to crank out all the reps of all the sets. Then, he moves on to the supplemental movements, gets a great pump, but doesn’t beat himself up too much. Since he still feels pretty fresh after the session, he’s able to train pressing movements again in three days instead of seven, and maybe even can add a little weight to some of the lifts. Six months down the road, our imaginary lifter has added 40 pounds to his competition bench, along with a solid 5 pounds of muscle, and the first dude is sitting there wondering what he’s doing wrong.
So, how does this whole progression thing apply to supplemental lifts? Honestly, it doesn’t have to. You can absolutely benefit from supplemental lifts without training them progressively. These benefits might include injury prevention, improved mobility, calorie expenditure, and increased hypertrophy. However, unless you train them progressively, you probably won’t see much direct improvement in your competition lifts.
Fortunately, because we’re not concerned about improving supplemental lifts for their own sake, we have a lot more options for training them progressively:
The best way you do this will vary from individual to individual; it’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. I have a few very useful progression schemes for supplemental movements that I use in my programs and with my athletes, and I explain how to figure out your own best method in UYP — but you can do the same thing with repeated, patient trial and error. The big thing to remember: err on the side of caution. Oftentimes, you’ll have to lighten up on supplementals if you want to lift heavier.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to do anything, but I’m sure y’all are getting tired of hearing that. So, I’m going to go ahead and say that almost everyone who’s training for strength first and size second (or size not at all) will benefit from cutting back on everything that’s not a squat, bench, or deadlift. Yes, there are lots of nuances in there, and yes, if you’re training for size first, you’ll need to find a different rule of thumb — but those are topics for future blog posts.
Until then, remember that you can use the discount code RELAUNCH for 25% of ANY program in June, and always remember to think strong, train hard, and have fun!