One of the biggest mistakes I see in the gym: powerlifters focusing way, way, way too much on their assistance work. If you are a powerlifter, then the vast majority of your training needs to involve the squat, bench press, deadlift, or slight variations of those lifts. A “slight variation” on a squat is a high bar squat, or maybe a front squat. Not a leg press! Leg presses, pull downs, and tricep work all fall solidly in the accessory category.
Does that mean accessories are useless? Of course not. They’re great for developing a balanced musculature and preventing injury. But they’re unlikely to make you much stronger.
For that reason, when you’re performing accessories, you should always follow these two rules:
- Use as few accessories as necessary. This will vary between individuals, but if you’re spending more than 20% of your time in the gym training accessories, you’re probably overdoing it.
- Perform accessories in the most efficient way possible.
This article addresses the second point: how do you perform accessory work for maximum gains? Well, it depends on your goals.
If your goal is to fill out a new weight class, you’ll need to build some quality muscle, and accessories can be helpful in that regard. While I’ve built my physique almost entirely on the big lifts, it’s true that some muscles (the arms and shoulders particularly) tend not to get enough work just from the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In this case, your accessory work is all about the pump.
I know, I know: the science says the pump doesn’t matter all that much. I’m sorry, but I can’t put all my stock in research when literally generations of successful bodybuilders say otherwise. In my opinion, the absolute best way to put on muscle means training for a huge pump.
Now, partly, that’s going to require excellent peri-workout nutrition. But it also requires proper performance of your assistance work. In this case, proper performance refers to a few things:
- Focus on the muscle, not the movement. If you’re swinging dumbbells or grinding out full-body reps on the lat pulldown, you’re doing it wrong. You need to make each contraction deliberate, and each stretch on the negative slow and controlled.
- Take short rests between sets. Rest is the enemy of the pump.
- Keep the reps high, high, high. While sets of 10-20 work, I honestly prefer sets of 25, 50, or even 100 reps for building muscle. Not only do these super-high reps facilitate a great pump, but because they limit the amount of weight you’ll be able to use, they generally require less recovery time than heavier work.
If you’re not worried about gaining muscle, I think the best way to perform accessories is to crank out 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps as quickly as possible. That not only means moving quickly between sets, but also performing each rep as quickly as possible.
While I have no proof of this, in my experience, moving reps quickly makes it easier to engage all the muscles involved in a movement, not just the ones you’re targeting. In many ways, this is the opposite of how you’d train to build muscle, but don’t get it twisted: you still need to control the weights throughout the entire range of motion and use a moderate (not all-out) weight.
With this type of training, you should really only be using isolation exercises, preferably with bands or machines.
Choosing the Right Accessory Movements
I’ve written about choosing the right movements for your goals before, and I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing that here, but I think it’s important to at least touch on some key points:
- Use movements that fit your body type. I’m not going to want to (always) use the same assistance exercises as Larry Wheels, because his proportions are much different than mine. A (very) broad rule of thumb for evaluation here: if it’s hard, do it. If it’s uncomfortable, at least think twice.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative with it. You don’t have to stick with the same old lateral raise or bicep curl all the time — try some unconventional movements occasionally, to see if they work better for you.
- Try, and try again: if an assistance movement isn’t working for you — regardless of whether it’s simply not making you stronger or is actually causing you pain — drop it and find something new. If it’s not a competition squat, bench, or deadlift, it’s not mandatory.
Here’s a great video explanation as well:
My Upper-Body Assistance Movements
(Note: this isn’t a “routine,” per se. It’s all the assistance movements I perform over the course of the week for my upper body. Feel free to split them up however you choose.)
Upper Back Accessories
- Chest-Support Row: I really focus on engaging my lower lats, and not using too much momentum, so that I get more carryover to the bench press.
- Cable Rear Delt Row
- Weighted Chin: Like in the previous movement, I try to initiate this movement with my rear delts and keep my scapula tight throughout the entire range of motion.
- Lateral Raise Complex: While my rear delts get a lot of work indirectly from my upper back movements, I also train the front and side delts for general shoulder health and prehab.
- Banded Pushdown: Using super-high reps on these seems to really help my bench lockout.
- Static Bench Holds: While I’m not a fan of isometrics in general, these help to build shoulder and elbow stability and confidence in the bench press.
Do you have any tips for training assistance movements? Share them below!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.