Picking Accessories with a Purpose
Have you ever looked at your program and wondered why you’re doing the accessory work that you’re doing? Many cookie-cutter programs will give you tons and tons of accessories, resulting in thousands of gym-goers pumping out rep after rep with no real understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing. To be fair to the writers of these programs, it’s impossible to choose accessories that will benefit everyone as everyone has different issues. This leads back to the best advice I could give any lifter, GET A COACH! Even still, many lifters with a coach have told me stories about asking their coaches why certain exercises are programmed and getting back superficial answers such as “to build up size” or “to accumulate more volume.” Great, so we’ve established the purpose of accessory work as a whole, but why are you doing the specific exercises that you’re doing? Why do certain accessories work better for some people than others? Let’s get into it.
Below are the top 5 factors to consider when choosing accessory work:
- Lagging Muscle Groups: Perhaps the most overused phrase in powerlifting, there is still a good amount of truth to the idea that progress can be limited by a lagging muscle group. Diagnosing the muscle group that needs additional work to progress your main movement is another article in and of itself so we won’t get too deep into that here, but rather, we will discuss the overarching idea of addressing lagging muscle groups. The easiest to discuss is likely the bench as there are just 2 primary components contributing to one’s success (or failure) on the bench press, these being pec strength and tricep strength. A lifter struggling off the chest likely needs more chest work while a lifter struggling at lockout can likely benefit from an increase in tricep work. Conversely, a lifter will likely see very little progress if all of their accessory work focuses on the muscle group that is already a strength without addressing their weakness! This is why an exercise like close grip bench press can be majorly beneficial for some lifters, who lack tricep strength, and not very effective for others, who lack pec strength. Diagnosing where your weakness lies in the squat and deadlift can be much more complex, but once you do you can begin choosing accessories that will address this weakness and reap some huge gains from it.
- Technical Acquisition: A massive (but often overlooked) benefit of accessory work is to improve your technique! Instead of crushing yourself with weight over and over, hoping that one day your technique just clicks, choosing accessories and variations that address your specific technical issue can greatly speed up your progress. Mid-shin paused deadlifts are a fantastic and commonly used example of this as the pause doesn’t make the exercise all that much harder when performed correctly, but can be nearly impossible to perform if you allow your hips to shoot up early. This makes it a fantastic exercise to reinforce proper technique for those of you who struggle with your hips shooting up on the deadlift! Cueing will always be an essential part of coaching, but it can sometimes lead to a never ending rotation of overused phrases with no real progress being made. Proper exercise selection can reinforce these cues and, to some extent, eliminate the need for cueing altogether.
- Total Volume and Fatigue Considerations: Perhaps the most difficult of these concepts to master, this is also arguably the most important. The MRV (Maximal Recoverable Volume) and MEV (Minimal Effective Volume) of a lifter are highly individual and can be ever-changing depending on what’s going on in the lifter’s life outside of the gym. For more on this be sure to check out our article on Programming Based on Lifestyle Factors. Assigning accessory work is a difficult balance that must take into account both a lifter’s work capacity and the fatigue that will be induced by the rest of their program. As such, performing a highly fatiguing accessory like barbell tempo squats can be awesome for a lifter with a high work capacity, while this accessory could be detrimental to the recovery of a lifter with a lower capacity. Instead, something like a leg press may allow for more work to be done without breaching one’s Maximal Effective Volume. Other lifters may be missing out on tons of progress from always choosing “easier” exercises and avoiding the more difficult ones. It’s tough to force yourself to do exercises you don’t like. Again, get a coach. All of this is relative though, as it all also depends on the total amount of work assigned throughout a program in its entirety.
- Specificity Considerations: While our last point touched on specificity considerations a bit, I want to take this opportunity to discuss specificity as it applies to the goal of a training block and a lifter’s proximity to a meet. To give a very basic overview of the principle of Directed Adaptation as it relates to this article: a training block should have a goal and exercises/rep ranges/weights should reflect and build towards that goal (Think Hypertrophy→ Strength→ Peaking→ Meet Day). In regards to accessory selection, this means that a lifter has little to no business doing single arm cable lateral raises for sets of 20 a week out from a meet, but they might be a great exercise several weeks out from a meet during a hypertrophy block.
- Injury Considerations: As much as we all wish we lived in a perfect, injury-free world, any powerlifter worth their smelling salts (see what I did there?) will tell you that this isn’t the case. Injuries don’t have to sideline you, but they should be acknowledged and trained around. For example, as much as you may want to squat twice a week, and injury may limit you from handling this frequency. A safety squat bar can be a great replacement for those of you struggling with a shoulder injury, while a belt squat can make a great replacement for those struggling with a back injury. In this case, we are essentially using an accessory to replace a main movement, but they’re also a great way to simply manage the amount of volume placed on an injured tissue. For example, if doing low bar squats followed by low bar tempo squats is causing back pain, replacing low bar tempo squats with tempo belt squats may solve this problem without too large of a workload reduction. Some accessories are also awesome for rehabilitating an injury, such as the reverse hyper for the lower back, or for preventing an injury, such as external rotations for the rotator cuff.
Hopefully this helps give a better understanding of what must be considered when choosing accessory work and can lead to much more progress! Let us know if this info helped you or if you have any suggestions for future articles by shooting us a DM over on the SoCal Powerlifting IG. We’d love to hear from you!
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It's one thing to read it; it's another to do it. And when you're training without a coach, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.
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