the joy of strength training


October 3rd, 2009 at 1:50 am

Assistance exercises

If you are doing squats, deadlifts, cleans and so on you are already way ahead of the game. But perhaps your progress has stalled or you are not satisfied just doing the basics. Maybe you have become aware of some of your weak areas but don’t know how to starting improving them.

If so, you should consider adding assistance exercises into your training programme.

Good morning - a superior assistance exercise

What are assistance exercises?

Assistance exercises develop movements and parts of the body associated with the events in your sport or the main exercises in your programme if you are not training for a particular sport.

For example, in Mark Rippetoe’s popular Starting Strength programme, the main exercises are squat, bench press, deadlift, press and power clean. If you are a powerlifter, your events are squat, bench press and deadlift. If your sport is Olympic weightlifting, the events are snatch and clean and jerk, and the squat would be an assistance exercise. If you play rugby or badminton or do triathlon then any strength training is going to be assistance.

Why do assistance exercises?


If you are completely new to training, the main exercises such as those mentioned above are plenty to begin with.

They are the main exercises for a reason: full body movements working every aspect of your physical capability and quite a lot of your mental capability too. They are the foundation for all strength training, indeed for daily life itself.

However there will come a point in training when your initial progress slows down and perhaps even plateaus, since your body has adapted to the demands of these exercises. You’ve learned the technique and developed the necessary mobility to perform the exercises well and efficiently; you’ve developed enough strength and energy to perform a number of reps at a decent weight. The point at which this happens is different for everyone. It might take months, it might take years.

Something else that happens is that your body learns to perform the exercise using the path of least resistance. You might be using good technique, but if there is any weakness in the system the body will automatically compensate. For example, if you happen to have much stronger legs than back, your body will work this out pretty quickly and will perhaps use more leg strength in, say, the deadlift than back strength. Your technique might be perfectly acceptable from the outside, but your body is still compensating for a weakness, therefore this area might lag behind in development.

This happens to everyone, it is because the body is highly efficient and adaptable. Mostly this efficiency is to be celebrated but sometimes we need to get in there and override this tendency in order to progress even further.

To use the deadlift example, if you’ve reached a point where the relative paucity of back strength is preventing you from making progress, this is a good time to consider introducing assistance work. Consider it Continuing Professional Development for the back. Send it on a training course and get it a certificate so that it can contribute more to the team and feel better about itself.

You can do assistance work right from the start of your training career but most trainers will try to give their clients a good grounding in the basic exercises first, otherwise you’re just overloading the programme with stuff you don’t really need. There’s no point taking advanced calculus if you haven’t mastered long division yet.

Types of assistance

Assistance exercises can assist in various ways.

  • They can focus on a particular area involved in the main exercise, for example focussing on the hamstrings, which are a vital component of squatting and deadlifting.
  • They can focus on a particular part of the event exercise where you are weak. For example, if you are finding it hard to lock out your deadlifts, you might start doing partial deadlifts (like rack pulls) to strengthen this part of the lift.
  • Assistance exercises can also be those that complement the main exercise by working the same muscles or body parts in a slightly different way – for example, an overhead press or a dip to assist the bench press.

What type of assistance exercise you choose depends on the problems you are trying to fix and the aspects you want to develop.

If you are training for general strength and fitness, you could even argue that for you there is no such thing as assistance exercises and main exercises – all good exercises have equal standing. That’s cool, I’m happy with that too.

But if you have any kind of specialisation or bias, you’ll probably end up with a programme that has key exercises or events that you particularly want to improve and other exercises that have a more supporting role.

Favourite assistance exercises

We are a la carte rather than prix fixe where assistance exercises are concerned and it is an extensive menu. When I was putting together my current, powerlifting-specific programme I came up with 32 assistance exercises (see end of this post) – and these were just my favourites!

I can’t tell you which assistance exercises to choose as it depends on your goals and your own assessment of what you need. Don’t let this faze you, enjoy it as a learning opportunity.

What I can do, however, is tell you which exercises I think give you the most bang for your buck. The table below shows these exercises and what they can help with.

Front squat quad development, upright stance, better squat depth, correcting forward lean in the back squat
Overhead squat everything but particularly postural strength, shoulder stability, squat depth
Good morning back strength, hamstring strength, posterior chain stability and mobility
Pull up back strength, overall upper body strength, learning how to pull with the shoulders and lats, controlling the body in space, any pulling exercise, grip strength
Dip overall upper body strength, particularly triceps and shoulders, controlling the body in space, any pressing exercise
Push up general pressing strength, core stability, explosive power (plyometric variations)
Push press overhead pressing, coordination and timing, shoulders, supporting big weights overhead
Turkish get up everything!

There really are so many more but I don’t think you can go wrong with these eight unless you have very specific requirements.

Unusual assistance exercises

Is this all meat and potatoes to you? Well here are some exercises you may not have tried

  • Bent press
  • Windmill
  • Farmers walks/carries
  • Tire flipping/crash mat flipping
  • Box squats
  • Adding bands and chains to your main exercises for extra resistance

All of the above will challenge your body in many useful ways. You’ll notice that many of the exercises are taken from or inspired by strongman training (bent press, farmers walks) or use objects such as mats, boxes or chains to enhance the basic exercises.

Add kettlebells, clubs or gymnastic rings into the mix and you have even more options. There is a mind-boggling array of movements you can do to increase strength, fitness and prowess in your chosen sport or active past-time. There is no reason ever to be bored or jaded in the gym.

This post isn’t the place to go through every assistance exercise in detail. And if I did that it would spoil the fun for you. My second favourite thing in strength training is discovering a new exercise (you can guess what my first is, can’t you?) so let’s leave a bit of mystery and intrigue in place. There are some links at the bottom of this post to help you on your way.

How to use assistance exercises in training

You can either simply add in a variety of assistance work to improve everything or attempt to identify specific weaknesses and choose exercises to improve these. Both methods are sensible.

If you are not sure which exercises would be best, try some and see whether they help. Honestly, even experienced coaches need to do the trial-and-error approach sometimes. Choose some exercises, do them for a few weeks, then test your main event/outcome. Did it improve?

I find with powerlifting assistance work that you can generally tell whether something is working in about four weeks. It’s not always the case, but that’s a rule of thumb I would recommend.

There are a number of ways you can incorporate assistance exercises into your training sessions. Here are a few ideas

  • Add unweighted or light exercises into your warm up, such as one legged bodyweight squats
  • Do your main lift, then do one or two assistance exercises related to the main lift, for example squat and then front squat and romanian deadlift
  • Pick a handful of exercises and make a workout from them. Do them in a circuit or one after the other. The popular Crossfit workout Fran is basically front squat, push press and pull up done in sequence.
  • How about picking one new exercise to try per session? If you train three times a week, that’s three new exercises, three new challenges for the body.

If you are curious, these are the assistance exercises I identified for my current powerlifting programme.

Good mornings Rows Box squats
Rack pulls Renegade rows Snatch grip/low deads
Romanian deadlift Single leg deads Front squat
Overhead squat Bulgarian split squat Shoulder press
Push press Push jerk Clean
DB/KB snatch DB/KB Swing Bent press
Windmill Side press Turkish get up
Pull-throughs Tricep dips Close grip/tricep bench
Floor press Board press Pull up (weighted and bw)
Hanging leg raises Plank Buelers
Push ups Shrugs Glute ham raise
High pull Sumo deadlift high pull Incline bench

Resources from gubernatrix

Bodyweight or bust! – all of the exercises in this article can be used as assistance

Speed work – a useful way to enhance performance

Best exercises for core – I’ll give you a clue: not sit ups

Strength Rituals DVD – a cornucopia of new lifts, movements and combinations (especially the oldtime strongman stuff)

Elite Fitness Manual ebook – a smorgasbord of exercise instruction, including Crossfit skills

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