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October 26, 2023

How to Choose the Best Accessory Exercises

Whether you’re in the weight room to build muscle, improve mobility, look better in your “meat suit”, or build strength…

Exercise selection is going to be very important to you. 

Today we’re focusing on how to choose the best accessory exercises. Not load, volume, tempo, rest, etc… Your coach is going to be the one that will determine that for you. 

We are just talking about the fun stuff today, which is what movements you choose to do in the gym. 

Prefer to learn on video? Watch here:

My name is Annie Miller, certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts. 

Again, today I’m doing that by helping you select the best exercises for your accessory work. 

We’re going to cover: 

  • Muscle fiber direction
  • Training day splits, or the day’s focus
  • Lengthened versus shortened exercises
  • How it feels and that not always being the best indication
  • Unilateral variations
  • Making sure you’re balancing both sides functionally
  • Aesthetically what you enjoy
  • Where you’re weak or might have gaps in your training

Let me start by saying that accessory does not inherently mean less important, but typically it does mean supporting. 

So accessory exercises generally help build muscles and the actual movement patterns that can be strengthened and add proficiency to our bigger compound complex movements. 

Traditionally, these are your squats, bench, deadlift, overhead press, or variations of these. You could certainly add other exercises as main lifts. These are just the most commonly used main lifts in the strength and hypertrophy world. 

I make the point about accessory work not being less important because it’s very important that we do push in these exercises just as you would in your larger lifts. 

In fact, I see this as an area where most people don’t work at high enough intensities in their training, but that’s another conversation. 

Pushing Your Accessory Work

That’s how you’re going to get the most out of your entire program no matter what program you’re following and everything in your program should have a purpose.

No fluff, no doing an exercise “just because”…

So how do you actually choose the best accessory exercises? 

There’s no black and white answer to this, and please don’t overthink it. You’ll need to have a good understanding of your goals and the purpose that your accessory exercises are serving for you and your training. 

Here are a few things to consider and pull from in making that decision: 

Take whatever makes sense for your current season of training and leave the rest.

Let’s start broad with the training split or the focus of that day’s training. 

Your accessory work should align with the focus of the day. 

For example, if you’re doing squats, choose squad dominant or squatting pattern dominant exercises. 

We can get more specific and more isolated here… Think for a squat day you would do squat, back, foot elevated, split squat, lateral step up, and quad extensions.

You then might have a glute or hamstringing focused day on a deadlift day compared to if you’re doing legs two days per week and you want to hit posterior and anterior both days. Then you’re mixing bigger bang for your buck exercises likely and maybe having a little less of that isolation work. 

Think for day one you would do squat day: squat, hip thrust, back foot elevated, split squat, RDL or back extension for glutes and something similar for accessory, a mix of hip and quad dominant on your deadlift day as well. 

Both of these approaches can be very effective for choosing accessory work on a lower body day. 

It comes down to preference. 

I prefer two mixed days with slightly less isolated work. 

I have found for over a decade that this just gives me my best results. Both from a strength standpoint and putting on muscle size.

You can think of those two examples as choosing more isolated work or larger compound multi-joint multi-muscle group exercises for your accessory work. 

The latter may save you more time as well, so know what your training focus is for the day because that creates your bumpers for choosing accessory work.

  • What area are you working? 
  • What patterns are you working? 
  • Do you want more isolated work or more compound work? 

Answer those questions. 

Then by rule of thumb, be sure that you have some unilateral work in there: single arm, single leg, pressing and pulling, anterior and posterior work. 

Just keep that in mind, whether more isolated or compound, that still applies. 

Now we’re going to shift into choosing accessory work based on gaps or weaknesses that you might have either from a musculature standpoint or a performance standpoint.

Warmups are a place I often see people focus on weaknesses, but accessory work is prime real estate for this as well. You’ll hone in on specific areas, patterns or muscle groups based on weaknesses or gaps that you have in performance or aesthetics. 

EXAMPLE: If you are a hinge squatter (meaning that your hips pop up before your chest does so you hinge out of your squat), then knee or quad dominant patterns are going to be a fabulous choice for you in choosing your accessory work. 

If your triceps are a limiting factor for you in bench press, then work triceps from many different angles. 

If you have a strength discrepancy either from side to side, or front to back, that can also help you choose the best accessory exercises for you. 

You can know this by assessment or just intuitively paying attention to your own performance numbers or how weak one side is compared to the other. 

Or in bilateral movements where you tend to have energy leaks. 

Think back to that hinge squat. 

If you’re a well-balanced machine, then the last two ways to choose accessory exercises are going to be for you. 

Now, let’s look at muscle fiber direction and training lengthened and shortened positions (how fun).

Muscle fiber directions ‌help us choose a variation of a given exercise. 

Before we get into this, know that you do not have to look at every muscle in the body to determine what exercise you do. Please don’t do that.

It can just be a fun way to learn more about the muscles that you’re working and provide further insight as to what you should focus on when doing a given movement. 

You can think about contracting the muscle along the fiber direction. I will say this is most applicable to potentially more isolated work, but that’s not always true. 

Let’s look at the lat pull down. 

Variations involve multi-joint and multi muscle engagement. You can absolutely think about fiber direction while doing different versions of lat pull downs when working the deltoids (which are your shoulders). 

You want to be sure that you’re hitting the anterior or the front deltoid, the medial or the side deltoid, and then your rear deltoid, which is your posterior or back deltoid.

We want to make sure we’re targeting ALL of these if we want nice round shoulders. Different exercises allow you to do that. 

Are you getting after the upper, lower mid fibers? 

Think about the glutes or the traps where you have fibers running in different directions in the same muscle. Hitting these muscles from different angles is going to be a safe bet for overall muscle growth. 

You can use this to choose an exercise or look at this after choosing an exercise in order to choose a partner exercise for that when setting up a superset. 

  • Is the muscle most tense at the bottom or the top of the position? 
  • Is it the lengthened or the shortened end? 

Try and have a balance of this throughout the week or within one workout. 

Mainly if aesthetics is your goal. 

Here are some kind of cliff notes examples: 

In the RDL: The hamstrings are lengthened, whereas the hamstring curl peaks at the shortened position. 

Hip thrust or kickbacks: the glutes have the highest amount of tension at the shortened position, but in a pull-up machine step down or a front foot elevated split squat, the lengthened position of the glute is where you have the most tension. 

In a tricep cable push down: The tension is at that shortened position, whereas in an overhead extension, the lengthened position is definitely where you’re going to have the most tension. 

You get the idea, but if you don’t…

Drop questions below or watch this video on muscle targeting here:

I’m happy to help either way!

On that note, also be sure to check out my blog on how to progress your accessory exercises.

There are three ways that I give in that blog that are going to apply to any type of programming.

Now, this is the part that you want to hear. 

Do what you enjoy or what you feel the most when you are choosing your accessory exercises. 

Yes, fill gaps and weaknesses and balance your movements by training muscles at different end ranges and shortened and lengthened positions. If you just get down with an exercise, then do it.

If you happen to feel every fiber when you’re doing a variation of an exercise, then it’s game. 

This doesn’t always promise or indicate the best growth or results, but it’s likely not a bad thing for your training or your muscle development. 

It’s my philosophy that high client or trainee efficiency and enjoying your training is vital for the long haul mentality and we want to train for life around here. 

With that, the best results won’t come from only ever doing your favorite exercises, but certainly consider this when choosing your accessory work. Just be sure to also consider the other pieces that we talked about.

Join The Discussion: 

Do you struggle to choose accessory work or maybe feel overwhelmed by the options that you have? Let me know in the comments below. 

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog and it gave you some insight in moving forward with your accessory work. Peace out. I’ll see you in the next one.

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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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