I have learned many concepts since embarking upon the strength training path a decade ago, and one on which I devoted entirely too much energy is something commonly called assistance work or accessory work. The idea being to use a wide range of exercises designed to build strength in the muscles that do the lifting in the primary power lifts: the Squat, the Bench Press, and the Deadlift. The lifters who train at Westside Barbell under the guidance of guru Louis Simmons are perhaps the most devoted practitioners of this concept, with the bulk of their training dedicated to exercises other than the primary lifts.
Knowing nothing as I did when I began, I followed the “standard template” inspired by Westside and spent lots of time doing Good Mornings, Dumbbell Presses, Dumbbell Cleans, Pull-Throughs, Face Pulls, Band Pull-aparts, Sled Dragging, Hammer Curls, Banded Leg Curls, Back Raises, Reverse Hypers, JM Presses and others I can’t even recall now. When I switched to 5/3/1 a few years later after setting aside my powerlifting gear in pursuit of non-equipped strength, the emphasis shifted away from these obscure and questionably productive uses of my lifting time, but there was still plenty of focus on assistance work.
I eventually rebelled against the entire concept and jettisoned anything I felt was ineffective at getting me stronger. Even if powerlifting isn’t one’s goal, getting stronger generally involves squatting more, deadlifting more, bench pressing more and overhead pressing more. With everything we do in life, there’s a risk/reward tradeoff to consider, and every time one chooses to pick up something heavy and move it around, the risk of injury exists, to be balanced and weighed against the potential reward. My rebellion peaked not long ago when I relabeled assistance work as Pointless Shit that Increases my Risk of Injury. As you might imagine, after doing heavy squats or deadlifts, it’s difficult to get excited about doing something with that for a name.
This is not to suggest that I only did the primary lifts. That would be an incorrect conclusion to draw from this tale thus far. What I did was use variances of the primary lifts and train them just as I would the actual primary lifts. Close Grip Bench Press, Weighted Dips, BTN Presses, Front Squats and the like filled the space once occupied by the Pointless Shit that Increases my Risk of Injury. I find this significantly more satisfying, as well as significantly more effective. I don’t care how many Leg Extensions or Lateral Raises you do, you will neither Squat or Press more as a result, nor will you grow any appreciable muscle mass.
I recently arrived at a fork in the road, and as Yogi Berra suggested, I took it. Reading the Reactive Training Systems manual for the umpteenth time the other day, I picked up on something which I must have glossed over the first few times I read it. Mike Tuchscherer does something no other strength coach has been able to do for me: Provide an explanation for, and a reason to do assistance work. I will paraphrase thusly:
- Assistance lifts are designed to train the weak ROM. The weak ROM is wherever the bar speed slows down the most. If in doubt, train the bottom of the movement.
Nowhere in this definition will we find the exercises commonly called assistance work in strength training circles. In fact, Mike calls them “lifts,” which is similar to the approach I came to on my own; i.e. pick a big lift like the primary lift and train it hard. But Mike’s definition allows me to make my selections more effective. All I have to do is pick a variation of the primary lift that specifically targets a weakness in that primary lift. Let’s take the Deadlift and try to come up with some assistance lifts for it. A Deficit Deadlift would place more emphasis on the bottom of the lift. Rack Pulls from different heights would accentuate those portions of the range of motion of a Deadlift. Paused Deadlifts, Sumo Deadlifts from Blocks… these are the lifts I will use to assist me in improving my Deadlift.
Mike adds another category of lift which he calls Supplemental Lifts.
- These are lifts that are designed to train the muscles that do the lifting, without doing the competition movement.
Sticking with the Deadlift, I would suggest Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Barbell Rows (I prefer Pendlay Rows), and Barbell Shrugs would be effective lifts that train the important muscles for Deadlifting, without actually Deadlifting. For the Bench Press, Inclined Bench, Weighted Dips, Close Grip Bench, Overhead Press, BTN Press, Snatch-grip BTN Press would all be excellent choices for Supplemental Lifts. Front Squats, Paused Front Squats, Front Squats off Pins would be awesome Supplemental Lifts for squatting.
Somewhere buried in the Q&A or Forum posts at Reactive Training Systems, a lifter asked Mike where the assistance work was in a sample training week Mike had suggested. Paraphrasing again, Mike’s response was that anything that wasn’t the main lift was assistance work. If he was looking for bicep curls and tricep kickbacks, he had come to the wrong place. This was strength training.
My current training is powerlifting centric, regardless of whether I can get my strength levels to a point where I’d be willing to put on a singlet and lift in front of judges. I have come to fully embrace the Reactive Training Systems concepts and have structured my training accordingly. I think like a powerlifter, and I step into the gym to train, not exercise. I practice the primary lifts, I try to improve them by tweaking them to get at my weak areas, and I try to build muscle with big lifts where I can easily add more weight as I get stronger.
So the fork I took led back to assistance work, but defined in such a way as to bear no resemblance to its original form. I supplement as well as assist, all in the pursuit of moving more damn weight.