One of the most frequently asked questions I get is about accessory work, specifically what exercises you should be doing and how to program it.
Let me hit a few main points, and then I will get into the movements that I think are most important.
First of all, accessory work is extremely important for both hypertrophy and strength. A common mistake I see is people blowing off the accessory work and not attacking it with the same vigor as their big main lifts. Don’t make this mistake.
Secondly, I see people going too damn heavy on their accessory work. There is absolutely no reason to max out on accessory movements. For the most part, you should be treating accessory work as a bodybuilding type movement, meaning low weight and mid-to-high reps. Depending on the movement, all of my accessory work is done with weights that I can hit 8-20 reps with. Three to four sets of each movement in this rep range is plenty.
Third, you should be gearing your accessory work towards your goals. Never do something in training without a reason. Always ask yourself, “Why?” We all have limited time in the gym, so don’t waste it by training movements that don’t help your overall goals. Most lifting goals are either size or strength related, so accessory work should be done with the intention of adding size to certain muscle groups, or strength to muscle groups that will aid you in putting up bigger lifting numbers.
So with all of that in mind, what are the most important accessory lifts?
Let me caveat again that accessory work is in fact goal dependent, but all of these that I will list transcend both bodybuilding and strength. In bodybuilding, you will obviously hit a lot more isolation, but the old adage that “to build more muscle, you need to recruit more muscle” still applies, so the below list is for everyone.
#1: Row Variations
This is a big category that includes a lot of exercises, but row variations are by far the most important accessory movement to building a stronger back and improving your numbers on the deadlift, overhead press, and bench.
Aside from dumbbell rows, heavy bent over rows (if you can properly load your hamstrings), and facepulls are my top three in this category. All of these will lead to monster back development and improve your pressing numbers.
#2: Glute Ham Raises
90% or more of people that I come across have weak hamstrings. This is a serious deficiency when it comes to deadlifts and squats, or from an athletic standpoint when we are talking about speed development. Most people overdevelop their quads and have a huge muscle imbalance from weak hamstrings.
If you can’t perform glute ham raises yet, you can start out with isometric holds and work your way into doing full sets of glute ham accessory work.
#3: Incline Bench
This is one of those lifts I see people maxing out on, but should really be treated as an accessory lift. The whole point of the movement is to build your upper chest and shoulders. You will never have to incline bench in any type of competition so crushing yourself under max weight makes no sense. Being a Strongman competitor, incline bench is a staple for me because it helps my overhead press variations.
#4: Tricep Isolation
When you start hitting sticking points on your pressing, tricep development (or lack thereof) is a common culprit. This is always a muscle group that I attack on upper body days, meaning I hit them at least twice a week.
I’m not picking a specific exercise here, mainly because I tend to use specialty items here that not everyone may have. Most people will have access to a dip stand, so dips are universally important. At Primal Strength Gym, I tend to do a lot of floor pressing with chains and a Swiss bar. I’m not a big fan of skullcrushers because they beat up my elbows, but they work great for others. Trciep pushdowns (rope or bands) are another common movement that I use on a weekly basis.
The key here is that you are isolating your triceps and hitting them with some type of resistance.
#5: Weighted Lunges
Single leg exercises are important and something everyone should be doing. Not only do they help diminish muscle imbalances, they engage a lot of muscles (like the abductors) that you don’t necessarily hit doing double leg training. I find them to also have a lot more carryover to sports and Strongman as they develop more explosiveness and strength.
#6: Farmers Carries
This is not really an accessory lift for me as it is one of the most common events in Strongman. But before I started competing, I treated farmer carries as an accessory lift.
I attribute them to a lot of my trap development and grip strength, and they also serve to build a lot of mental toughness.
Putting It All Together
I typically program 4-5 accessory lifts per training session after each main lift.
Sample Upper Workout:
- Overhead Press 3×8 (main lift)
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3×12 (accessory)
- Face Pulls 3×16 (accessory)
- Bent Over Rows 3×8 (accessory)
- Swiss Bar Floor Press 3×12 (accessory)
Sample Lower Workout:
- Barbell Back Squat 3×8 (main lift)
- Barbell Lunges 3×10 each leg (accessory)
- Glute Ham Raise 3×10 (accessory)
- Sled Drag 3×120 feet (accessory)
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All the best,