Accessory Lifts: A Guide

I had a couple of articles on accessory lifts and how to use them correctly but they were all jumbled into several different articles and it was not a complete guide. So today I will pool all of my knowledge and teach you everything I know about accessory lifts and how best to use them.

So, to begin, what actually are accessory lifts? Accessory lifts are exercises that do not fall into your main exercises- these being your squat, bench, deadlift and shoulder press. In the world of bodybuilding they normally follow one or two main exercises and will target the muscles that are not hit by the main movement. While in powerlifting they are used to strengthen weak areas of a lift. And in a functional training scheme they would be used to become better at a sport or activity.

“But which ones are the best ?” I hear you ask. Well, let me explain.

To answer that question we need to begin with this- what is the goal of your training?

If you are a bodybuilder looking to build muscle then aim to use accessory lifts that will hit muscles not hit by the main compound movement at the start of the workout. Take a squat or leg day for example- you might want to use a hamstring accessory exercise like an RDL or a lying leg curl, or you could use some calf raises to provide some much needed hypertrophy to your lower legs. For a powerlifter, if you were struggling on the off the chest push of your bench press then maybe use a paused bench to build confidence and strength in the hole. And if you are a basketball player looking to use functional training, then maybe some box jumps might be most appropriate.

Selecting and using the correct accessory lift for the job is an important part of training and one that should not be ignored. But once you have selected them, how many should you use and how should you do them?

Well once again we need to take a look at your training goals. If you are by all means a bodybuilder then accessory lifts should take up 75% of your day’s training- this is due to the fact that targeting specific muscles is most important and accessory movements do this better than compound movements. For all you powerlifters out there then I wold recommend around 60%, as the goal is getting better at squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting not targeting muscle groups. For functional training I would use upwards of 70% as compounds and accessory do not matter as such- what matters is getting better at a sport.

Now… how do I use them most efficiently.

Depending on your discipline you should approach accessory’s differently. For a bodybuilder you should concentrate on extending the “time under tension” or eccentric portion of the lift, so you can induce the most hypertrophy. For a powerlifting it gets a little less obvious. If the accessory directly affects one of the three main lifts (bench press, deadlift or squat), like a box squat or deadlift off of blocks- then complete the exercise like you would a squat or deadlift. Anything else- like press ups or dips- complete them for hypertrophy. If you are a functional athlete then this judgement should be made on how closely it resembles the activity you are training to get better at. Taking the previous example of a basketball player; if you are performing box jumps then you want these to be as explosive as possible so an eccentric focus is not necessary. However, something like a split squat could well be done with an eccentric, hypertrophy focus.

Now to the gritty bits- what about sets and weights I hear you say. Well here are two graphs that will explain all.

When discussing sets it is best to do 3-5 TOTAL sets per body part. These can be split between as many exercises as you deem necessary. It’s as simple as that. When it comes to the correct weight the force-velocity graph on the left will help. Firstly we need to interpret the graph- what it says is this to find the perfect weight you need to have the same force and speed concentrically as well as eccentrically. However, this is harder than it looks as a 2015 study showed that a typical lifter is on average 30-50% stronger eccentrically than concentrically. So to counter this try slowing down the eccentric or stretch phase of the rep as this will provide more stimulus for the working muscle.

I hope I have covered pretty much everything in this post and that you learnt something. This is really a collation of several articles I wrote last year combined for your convenience. Any questions, put them down below and thank you for reading.

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