Let’s Talk About Accessories

Let’s Talk About Accessories

-Matthew Cavalier

Anyone who does any form of strength training knows, or should know, what accessory exercises. These are the exercises that are done in conjunction with the main movement of the training session. Anyone who has had a conversation regarding their training program has probably asked about or been asked about their accessory lifts. Interestingly enough, as much as people like to talk about their accessories, they either put too much thought or not enough in regards to the design of their accessory lifts. Accessory exercises are designed to help develop lifters to be more well rounded and supplement the main lifts. For most people, the main lifts are going to be the bench press, the overhead press, the squat, the deadlift or some variant of those exercises. A well designed strength program should incorporate accessory exercises that reflect those lifts. There is no one way to program accessory exercise. As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Every coach or lifter out there will have their own preferences and twists in regards to accessories. There does exist, however, a basic guideline to how accessories should be programmed.

Accessories Should Compliment

When looking at a strength program, accessories should be incorporated with the main lift in mind. The main lift is a movement that is going to train something very specific. To have the accessories do anything other than enhance that lift is less than optimal. An easy way to think about programming accessories is to think about which muscles are actively being used during a movement. For example, if someone is going to be training the bench press, the program should incorporate exercises like close grip bench and rows. Those are exercises that train parts of the whole movement. If someone needs to develop their triceps, incorporate a close grip bench. If someone needs to develop their lats to help stabilize during the concentric motion, rows of all sorts can be programmed in. It would not make any sense to program leg curls as an accessory to the bench press. To make things even easier, think about programming exercises with symmetry in mind. If you are going to press, pull. If you are to press overhead, pull down. If you are going to squat, think of pulling from the floor. If you are going to deadlift, think pushing off the floor. When programming accessories, always have the main movement in mind. Ask yourself these questions: does this exercise have anything to do with what I’m trying to train and will it make me better? If the answer is no to either of those questions, rethink the exercise. When selecting accessory exercises, stay within the confines of compound movements or multi joint movements. Isolation exercises, like tricep extensions and bicep curls, are great for strengthening individual muscles, but they do not necessarily help develop the primary exercise. For example, when training the squat the hamstrings and glutes are absolutely an important muscle group. Performing glute bridges and hamstring curls in isolation may in fact make them stronger, but they do not help train them in the context of the squat movement. Instead, think about selecting an exercise like the Romanian deadlift that trains the glutes and hamstrings together in the same hinge pattern that might be seen in a squat. The carry over of compound movements to the primary exercise will be greater than isolation exercises most of the time.

Don’t Waste Your Time

Accessory exercises need to be given the same respect as the primary exercises. Just about every lifter will spend time meticulously writing out the volume and intensity of the bench, overhead press, squat and deadlift to be as efficient as possible. Why should accessory exercises be treated any differently? If you are going to program an accessory that you have found to be beneficial, train with intensity. LIke the main lifts, training economy must be considered. Some days are going to be low volume with high intensity; other days are going to high volume with lower intensity. Some lifters like to perform them one at a time; other lifters like to perform their accessories in supersets where two are performed during the same set. I personally like to have all of my accessories done in giant sets. I will perform a set of each of my accessories to create one set. Some people do not like to do this because they believe it does not promote maximal strength. For someone like myself training for a strongman competition, giant sets work quite well. Maximal strength is important for strongman shows, but not always to the extent that you would see in powerlifting. Strongman shows incorporate a lot of endurance tests. Training with giant sets allows me to move heavy weight while training my endurance at the same time. However, don’t overthink accessories. Select two, maybe three exercises and move forward. If too many exercises are programmed in, you will likely suffer from overtraining. Select your exercises with care, and train them intently. I’ve seen lifters who have six or seven accessories and wonder why they never get anywhere. It’s because they’re stretched too thin. Stick to the two or three that directly improve the main exercises, and stick with it. Technique and form in the accessory exercises are just as imperative as the technique and form as the primary lifts. It is possible to sustain an injury performing the barbell row just like when performing the deadlift. Bracing and stability should always be at the forefront of your mind when performing loaded compound exercises. Take the time to do the exercises correctly, and the main movements will get stronger.

Supplemental Lifts

Supplemental lifts are the small isolation exercises that focus on specific muscles. These exercises are great to develop and strengthen specific weaknesses and promote hypertrophy. These are basic exercises like tricep extensions, bicep curls, leg curls and leg extensions. These types of exercises are great for beginners of strength training. If you are someone who is new to barbell training, it may be a good idea to use them as accessory lifts to help develop the individual muscles while you are learning the movements of the primary lifts. For those of you that are more experienced, isolation exercises are great to help you, but they are only supplemental. I would suggest performing these at the end of your session, but they should not be terribly physically taxing. Unless you are a bodybuilder, don’t focus too much on supplemental and isolation exercises. They could have an impact on your recovery and take away from the main objective of the program.

Writing your own program can be a little tricky. If you need help figuring out what accessories you need to incorporate into your training, send an email to cameron@atlasstrength.com for programming and to schedule your next visit to the Atlas Strength Shop. Be sure to like our Facebook page here, and follow us on Instagram here. If you need some high quality energy supplements to fuel your next training session or get through your work day, visit veteran owned and operated strikeforceenergy.com and use promo code ATLASSTRENGTH at checkout to get 20% off of your order.

On October 30, 2021, the Atlas Strength Shop will be hosting its second annual strongman competition, the Rougarou Classic. If you are interested in competing, checkout the event page on Facebook here, or visit ironpodium.com for registration information. If you are a business owner looking to expand your market, send an email to cameron@atlasstrength.com for sponsorship opportunities.

“I do what is mind to do; the rest doesn’t disturb me.” -Marcus Aurelius