When and How to Use Accessory Movements in Strength Development

Dave Van Skike

One of the most common mistakes made by self-guided strength trainees and inexperienced coaches is the inappropriate use of excessive variety and inappropriate accessory or secondary movements.  In most weight rooms, accessory movements get used by the inexperienced to combat boredom without much thought to using the movement to advance the overall goal: Grow Stronger.  This is in part because of a failure to recognize the demanding nature of strength work, and also because most trainees lack the focus and drive to do what is necessary to push their capabilities on the primary lift.  A work session that includes sufficient intensity and volume leaves no room for doubt as to whether additional accessory work needs to be done.

If your lifters are asking for extra accessory movements, they did not focus enough on the core work of the day.

For the general trainee, using the squat to improve overall strength for a sport like Judo or Shot Put, these weak points are not of grave importance. Consistent work with the squat over time will yield better results than spending energy on another movement that will in turn help the secondary movement (squat) which will in turn support the sport movement.  Don’t do in three moves something you can achieve in two moves with consistent practice.

The Best Assistance Movement is Volume.  Why?

For most people who have form breakdowns in the basic lifts, it is because they are uncoordinated and have not developed consistent movement patterns.  Consistent movement patterns ingrain the proper intra and inter-muscular coordination necessary to strengthen all the primary movers, antagonists, and stabilizers. Practice makes perfect and the development of good form can take weeks, months, or years. If a beginner has severe enough deficiencies to truly need corrective accessory work, he or she may not be ready for heavy strength training.

Sneaky Volume and the Use of Downsets.

The importance of volume in a strength training session for continued development of muscle size, tendon and ligament strength, and reinforcement of good form cannot be underestimated.  When working at higher training intensities which allow for very few reps, down sets or back-off sets at a lighter weight allow one to continue to work with relatively high volumes without applying excess training stress.

As a general rule, greater volume at attainable weights will drive progress. Grinding away on near maximal lifts will not.   Most people simply need more work at lower weights and the biggest hindrance to doing this is ego.  When lifting heavier is the goal, it is very hard to accept that lifting lighter weights better, will also drive progress.  When considering ways to sneak in extra volume, consider the following:

  1. Uses Prilepin’s chart as a guideline for total workload.
  2. Use back off sets after heavy work.
  3. Use smaller weight jumps during the warm up
  4. Lift with partners who know your form
  5. Lift beautifully and DOMINATE the WEIGHT.

These simple measures to add volume can work for as little as 3 weeks, or for some people, years.  The second challenge is knowing when volume is not enough. To determine this, use this three prong test:

  1. Has the lift stopped improving?
  2. Is the form fault not visibly improving?
  3. Is the lifter unable to recover properly?

A yes to any or all of these questions would indicate it is time to consider the following interventions:

Intervention 1:  Add or Substitute a Secondary Version.   Why?

Secondary or more difficult versions of a lift almost always target weaknesses or support the main move, e.g. front squats, pause squats or box squats after back squats.  If you are not optimizing a lift for competition, introducing a variation of the lift can help maintain progress or work around an injury.  For example rack pulls or trap bar deadlifts can be a useful substitute for the individual with back pain or injury.  Subbing an incline bench press for an overhead press or bench press can allow an individual to continue pressing through a shoulder or back injury.

Good secondary lifts have a clear purpose to accentuate some portion of the movement where the athlete is weak. You can spend a lot of time chasing “weak points” but in simple terms and for most people, the weak points are usually best addressed by two alternate strategies. Either focus on the bottom of the lift by decreasing mechanical advantage (a box squat or pause squat for example) or overloading a portions of the lift, for example, squatting against accommodating resistance, such as with bands and chains.  There are probably dozens of useful alternatives but the ones that will work best for your trainees are the lifts you become proficient at teaching. As a starting point, use this set of rules. The best secondary movements will use the same stance and bar placement but will change:

  1. Range of motion (Longer or Shorter)
  2. Timing (pause or speed)
  3. Loading of the lift. (accommodating resistance, bands chains)

Of the known useful variations, you will see some familiar secondary lifts that can work for almost every lifter. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Known useful PL lift variations

  • Paused squats
  • 25 squats
  • Low box squats
  • Squatting in supportive gear
  • Lockouts
  • Benching to boards
  • Paused bench
  • Bench against bands
  • Deficit deadlift, standing on a block
  • Block deadlift, shortened ROM
  • De-loaded deadlift with bands
  • Overloaded deadlift with chains
  • Supportive gear
    • Knee wraps
    • Support briefs
    • Marks Bell’s Slingshot(™)
    • Lifting straps for hands

“Same but Different” versions of a particular lift can work as well, but require intimate knowledge of the athlete’s mechanics and style of lifting. When we think, same but different, we’re talking of alternative forms for squatting, pressing or deadlifting using alternative implements, stance or grip and significantly different forms

  • Front squats
  • Safety bar, camber bar, spider bar squats
  • Wider or narrower stance squats
  • Zercher squats
  • Good mornings/squat mornings
  • Wider or closer grip Bench
  • Floor press
  • Swiss bar bench
  • Overhead pressing/push pressing/ Push jerks
  • Sumo pulls
  • RDL’s
  • Trap bar deadlifts

With all secondary versions the critical point is the lifter can replicate the *feel* of the main lift in the secondary version.

This requires a fair amount of thinking and visualization. Take away points:

  1. Pay careful attention to stance/grip in order to get carryover improvement from one lift to the other.
  2. Variety can be good. Variety for its own sake is wasteful use of training resources.
  3. Secondary movements are not for testing strength, they are for building it.

When looking at where a lifter fails on a lift, there is a tendency to look for “sticking points”, or portions of the movement where the lifter breaks form.  Don’t overthink this and spend excessive time trying to isolate a single weak point in a dynamic movement.  Strengthen the area of the lift with the most obvious mechanical disadvantage and you will tend to correct the overall lift itself.

Intervention 2:  Bodybuilding and Yoga-(change the leverages with mass or ROM.)

What most people tend to think of as accessory work is really just old school body building. Training muscles not movements. There are a whole host of possible movements that will strengthen individual muscle groups that can in turn help a portion of the lift.

By the same token, just as important as building particular muscle groups is to look for obvious areas of immobility or tightness.  Tightness is weakness. If you have tightness in a critical muscle group like the glutes or upper back, no amount of bodybuilding will fix this issue on its own.

So, the test to apply in these cases is to look for the obvious: obvious areas of immobility and obvious areas of muscular asymmetry. Think like a bodybuilder.  If a lifter has, for instance, a pronounced quad development and small hamstrings, you can bet this lifter has a weaker posterior chain and will have a hard time utilizing a wide stance and or sit back style of squatting that might be appropriate for them for any number of reasons.

Again, with immobility look to obvious signs of rounded back or sway back to tell you where additional flexibility might help that person hit the positions they need to perform.

The options for bodybuilding movements to improve leverages and flexibility routines are endless and confusing.  This is an area that will require experimentation.   THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER.  In terms of general accessory movements to start with, think of the muscle groups that play a supportive role in the respective target movement.

These are good starting places.

 

  • Bench: Build the triceps, upper back and lats. Mobility in shoulders, upper back and hips.
  • Squats: Build the hamstrings, glutes, upper back, calves. Mobility in upper back, lower leg and hips.
  • Deadlift: Build the upper back, lower back, hamstrings, biceps, and forearms.  Mobility in the hips and shoulders.

 

Known useful bodybuilding exercises:

 

  • Press downs
  • Skull crushers
  • Chins and pulls ups
  • Face pulls
  • Glute-ham raise
  • Back extension
  • Farmers walk
  • Pullovers
  • Core work that targets the upper and lower areas as well as rotation and extension of the spine.

 

You can’t really go wrong starting with these standby movements for adding size and peripheral body strength.  Think of areas where people typically get overuse injuries and target those muscle groups with modest bodybuilding work accentuating blood flow and high numbers of repetitions.  These exercises serve well in foundational strength programs for beginner trainees as well.

 

  • Curls for elbow health
  • Reverse flys and lateral raises for shoulders
  • Grip work and extensor strengthening
  • Dumbbell rows
  • Bodyweight movements like pushups, chins and dips
  • Calf raises

In summary, don’t automatically assume you need assistance work to improve your lifts.  The best way to improve your lifts is volume, ie practice.  When you do need to add accessory work, know why you are adding it and be conservative in the number of exercises you include.  If you can’t explain why you are using a particular accessory exercise, you shouldn’t be using it.

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