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February 27, 2024

243 | Accessory Movements: Enhancing Your Main Lifts with Strategic Supplementary Exercises

Generally speaking accessory work in traditional strength training is anything that comes AFTER your main lift.

Main lift = large compound movement, normally squat, dead, oh press, bench press – variations of these.

So today we discus choosing accessory work to SUPPORT the main lift specifically.

I want to go over four areas regarding the main lift that can influence the accessory work you choose: muscles worked, pattern, weak links, and sets and reps.

You won’t just pull accessory exercises out of a hat, or say “quad extension to support back squat because the quads are the main muscle worked.” That’s NOT the logic we’re looking for.

Ideally you consider ALL FOUR OF these areas when selecting accessory work for program design that supports the main lifts.

Muscles worked:

One focus or consideration needs to be the prime mover here.

We’ll go over stabilizers later.

This consideration is probably made with the consideration of the movement pattern. But not necessarily.

Yes, we get stronger by practicing PATTERNS. But also, muscle MASS is the potential for strength.

So it’s not likely going to hurt your squat if you strengthen your quads via extensions. Or your shoulder press if you build your shoulders through lateral raises.

The only reason I am apprehensive to take that approach with exercises selection here is because this episode is specifically about enhancing your main lift.

And I do think that comes BEST with the combination of working the same muscle groups as the main lift but with accessory exercises that ALSO mimic the pattern or pieces of the pattern.

consider the muscle worked in the main lift – ie Hammies and glutes in deadlift, AND THEN

think about the translation of the exercise to the main lift pattern. Which makes more sense? A hip thrust? or a lateral cable abduction? They both work the glutes right? YES, but one is much more closely correlated to strength in the deadlift (the hip thrust).

Patterns practiced:

This falls under your exercise selection.

I’ve talked before about viewing the squat and hinge and other movements as “patterns.” 

ie a squat pattern has triple flexion of the hip, knee and ankle, and moves in a vertical path – straight up, straight down.

A split squat, or step up can do the same.

These would be movements you’d choose to strengthen the PATTERN of a squat. But maybe in a deeper range than what is achieved in the bilateral main lift.

Doesn’t have to be, I am simply giving ideas.

I’ll mention a few others later that paint this picture as well. 

Weaknesses strengthened:

Whereas the prime movers focused on the large muscle groups responsible for propelling the body through the movement, we often see weaknesses manifest through stabilizing muscles or movement patterns.

Think glute med in squats or even core muscles in squats

Generally the rotator cuff in any overhead movement

You can add in accessory work that helps to mobilize and strengthen joints used in the main lifts.

T’s I’s and Y’s for shoulders, working internal rotation and any scapular segmentation from larger movements like the row or lat pull down.

In terms of the hips, doing RDL with internal rotation or isolating different areas of the hips to help strengthen the glutes and stabilize the hips.

Sets and reps:

  • depends on the goal of the main lifts.

Pushing strength? Then push strength or muscle growth in accessory work.

ie HEAVY, low rep (6-8) deep range Bulgarian split squats to help the back squat.

ie weighted push ups or deficit push ups or heavy dips to support bench press. These movements are chosen due to working the same muscle groups as bench but in a deeper range of motion. The exercise variation is chosen because it will likely be lower rep and high effort – mimicking strength. So we’re gaining strength across a deeper range, in a pattern that supports the main lift.

Make sense? Makes sense.

Pushing capacity or a different goal?

It’s not that your sets and reps for main lifts and accessory need to be the same. 

But they can certainly push the same stimulus. I don’t want you to stick program design into a box, thinking that if your main lift is strength focused, your accessory has to be too.

Plenty of great program design can actually have strength work in the main lift and higher rep, hypertrophy work in accessory. 

Just worth noting. A lot of gains made in your main lifts will also come from solid exercise selection – as I hope you can see in the examples I gave.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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