How much accessory work should you be doing? Something I’ve learned over the years is the role and value of performing accessory work at different levels/stages of your lifting “career”, I use the word career tentatively, as not many people are fortunate enough to be able to make a career out of lifting weights. But, back to the matter at hand, Accessory work, how important is it, how much should you do, and is it really necessary?
Let’s divide up lifters into three main categories to make things slightly simpler. Then we can discuss each category separately and not get the variables confused.
1 – Beginner (0-3 years of lifting)
2 – Intermediate (3-6 years of lifting)
3 – Advanced (>6 years of lifting)
Now, you do get some caveats to the above categories, like the phenom young athlete that takes to the iron like a fat kid on cake, proficient technique and muscle in all the right places from the get go. Or the gym rat who has been doing his own thing in the gym, never learned anything, with PPT ( Piss Poor Technique) big biceps and pecs, but would get folded in half under two plates in the squat rack. For all general purposes and the majority of populations we will be well served sticking to the categories mentioned.
Beginner ( 0-3years)
For the majority of beginners accessory work is going to be your bread and butter, Not in the way that you should be spread with salted butter on a cold Sunday morning fresh out of the oven, But in terms of it being what is going to actually make you big and strong in the right places to be able to perform the main lifts correctly. Accessory work is going to make you stronger and give you the muscle you need to be able to perform the competition lifts with proper technique.
It is for this reason that I like to program most of my beginners on a “WESTSIDE” conjugate style plan, just without maxing out every week, and without the traditional “SPEED WORK”
An example of how this would look would be:
1) Heavy squat – this would be a few (3-5) sets in whatever rep range we are working in towards a specific goal. Say 3 sets of 3-5 reps. But none of those sets would be a maximum effort.
This would be followed by 3-4 assistance movements aimed at building muscle in the necessary places. Most commonly the GLUTES, QUADS, MID/UPPER BACK (For upper body usually the PECS and SHOULDERS)
2) 45 degree hyper extensions/Goodmorning variations/ Sumo squats/ Hip thrusts (usually in the 6-15 rep range)
3) GHR/Leg curl (6-10 rep range)
4) Leg extensions/Legpress/Hack squat. (8-15 rep range)
5) Abs- Dead bugs/Hollow holds/Ab wheel rollouts. (Something that focuses on breathing and bracing)
Then for the second lower body day of the week, it could look like:
1) Squat 6-8 sets x 3 reps. (But at a lower weight than day 1, approximately 65-75% of max)
2) Deadlift 4-6 sets x 3 reps (also starting at approximately 70% and increasing as the weeks go on)
The above two movements will be performed similarly to the “westside” method, being as explosive as possible, while maintaining good technique, while only having 90-120 seconds rest between sets.
The accessory movements after would then be similar to day one, possibly a different movement, or even the same movements for a different number of reps. So, you could choose to have a heavy and light day, where day 1 would use the lower end of the rep ranges and heavier weights, and day 2, the higher end of the ranges and a slightly lighter weight. With the aim of slightly increasing the weight week to week, while staying within the specified rep range.
Intermediate (3-6 years)
For Intermediate lifters, I like to think of accessory lifts as “WEAK POINT BUILDERS”. Meaning, after having lifted for a few years you should have built up quite a bit of the muscle necessary to be competent in the main lifts. At this point, the majority of your training and strength building can and should be done through properly planned overloading of the actual competition lifts and variations thereof.
A good split for this level would be approximately 80% main lifts to 20% accessory lifts.
With a lot of work being put into the main lifts themselves the accessories can be minimized to bringing up the weak/lagging muscle groups or giving extra volume to a certain muscle group that may respond better to more volume.
A good example could be doing GHR’s to build up your hamstrings if they are a limiting factor in your deadlift strength, or leg extensions for extra direct quad volume if you are looking to add some size to your legs, which in turn can be translated later into extra quad strength to boost your squat, or even Dumbell flyes to add some size to your chest without taxing your shoulders too much at the same time.
Advanced (>6 years)
At this point in your lifting career, you should be very proficient in the main lifts and have the majority of the muscle you will need to perform optimally, assuming of course that you aren’t trying to go up a weight division. This is where I am currently, having been competing for the better part of a decade, so like me, almost all of your #GAINZ (BroScience unleashed!!!) will come from practicing the competitive movements and variations thereof.
Now, not everyone is perfect, and weaknesses do develop due to a lack of variation, or just the fact that certain muscles do not receive enough stimulation from performing certain lifts. Bringing up those kinds of weaknesses is best done through the use of variations of the main lifts themselves as they will have the greatest carryover, eg. performing stiff legged Deadlifts targets more of the hamstring and lower back.
Accessory work at this level is more about balance and rehab/prehab. The accessory movements you would be best served doing, would be movements such as pull-ups to help stabilize and brace the scapula and upper back whilst performing the main lifts, or heavy TKE’S (Terminal knee extensions) to keep your VMO’s (teardrop muscle) firing and keeping your knees healthy. This accessory work will make up a very small percentage of your actual training and will be directed at keeping you healthy and injury free.
So there you have it, a basic outline on how to plan your accessory work to ensure that it is actually going to be helpful for you and not just add to fatigue. Basically, if you’re a beginner, accessories will be a good way to build your base, and copying Chad Wesley Smith’s latest program will probably not serve you very well.
As an intermedite, your accessories should be aimed at pushing up your strong points and the drivers of your main lifts, as well as bringing up any blatant weaknesses.
Advanced lifters, accessory work is all about staying healthy and injury free, and following the latest Chad Wesley Smith training plan might actually work quite well, But that doesn’t make it a good idea!
Matthew has competed in powerlifting for the past 10 years, prior to which he was a nationally ranked motocross rider. He currently holds multiple South African national powerlifting records across 3 weight divisions. Last year he was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis and has fought to regain the majority of his strength and return to competitive lifting. Matthew is the owner of The Block Barbell, a private strength training facility, as well as running his online coaching service, Legend Athletic Strength Development (www.legendathletic.co.za), through which he plans the training of athletes from a variety of sports, specialising in powerlifting coaching.
You can contact Matthew through his website: www.legendathletic.co.za or email: firstname.lastname@example.org