Every young powerlifter thinks they want to train at a bare bones garage gym with no machines or unnecessary equipment. They fall in love with the idea of training only with a barbell and heavy free weights— often they go to great lengths to seek out such heaven.
But there are downsides to such a place. Believe me, I own a gym like this. One very big downside is that it’s hard to do necessary bodybuilding work. Even the purest strength athlete needs periods of time devoted to hypertrophy. Heavy volume with the powerlifts themselves will build necessary muscle, but accessory movements often need to be added in to fill certain gaps. Whether you choose to believe it or not, machines and cables are great tools for this purpose. So if you don’t have access to them, sometimes you need to get creative to figure out the best methods in order to build muscle with the equipment you do have.
Below are the three best options I’ve found to build the muscle groups that often get neglected by powerlifters who train in garage gyms or at minimalistic CrossFit boxes with little equipment.
Chest Supported and Upright Row Compound Set
Every powerlifter knows they need a strong upper back. Without the right equipment, it can be hard to build muscle there. But for this compound set, all you’ll need is a bench, a barbell or dumbbells/kettlebells, and a way to elevate the legs of the bench.
For a long time, I thought I could build my upper and mid-back sufficiently with just barbell bent-over rows. I eventually realized that the fatigue from heavy squats or pulls kept me from keeping good position for the rows and because of this, I could never use a sufficient overload to build the necessary muscle. In reality, chest supported rows are much more friendly on the lower back and allow you to really focus on the muscle groups.
Be sure to elevate both legs of the bench as shown so there’s enough room underneath for the barbell or for you to reach full elbow extension with the dumbbells or kettlebells. If you don’t have blocks, just stack plates beneath the legs.
To make sure I build a solid upper back musculature, I add in the upright rows, making this a compound set. These can be done with either a barbell or dumbbell as well.
If you’re a typical powerlifter, you tend to go much too heavy in accessory exercises. I started doing Z presses to build my shoulders without aggravating my lower back.
Z presses are a great mass builder. They demand overall trunk stability, strength, and full range of motion in the hips. If any of these are lacking, it will be quite evident in your movement and the loads you can use will be limited because of it. But that’s ok—the point is to use them for hypertrophy, not just strength development.
I used to think of belt squats as a remedial exercise for lifters recovering from injuries or for those with movement or stability inadequacies, but I changed my tune when I saw how great belt squats are at building bigger and stronger quads.
All you need for belt squats is any old cheap weight/dip belt and either two benches or boxes to stand on.
Due to the nature of powerlifting and the low-bar squat, many very strong and capable lifters become a little too hip dominant and develop relatively weak quadriceps. In the case of raw powerlifting, this will definitely become a limiting factor to long term success. Lifters become too focused on hip drive and the torso falls a little too far forward.
Looking at many of the top raw powerlifters, it’s very evident that they have big, strong quads. Belt squats force you to stay upright and allow the knees to actually track forward, loading the quads in a safe and less demanding fashion.
There are specialty belts specifically for this exercise, but I like my cheaper one because it keeps me from loading too heavy. I’d rather be able to do these more frequently and keep the sets and reps best for hypertrophy.
You might also like 6 Ways You’re Stopping Yourself From Building Muscle.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.