Enhance those big lifts by strengthening your weaknesses with assistance exercises.
We all focus on big lifts and high volume exercises to see growth in our strength and overall performance. But too often do we neglect the weaker muscles that tend to play a huge part in that growth and development. Ironing out those small details can be time consuming and as much as we want to focus on big lifts and huge progress, we must recognize that supplemental work can enhance this as well as provide for overall support and stability for bigger muscle groups. These are called assistance exercises and you should know all about them.
Typically assistance exercises work well for those in competition where you can train for a specific event without having to grind away constantly with the same workout. In efforts to not totally overload your muscles, assistance exercises can help with overtraining and keep you feeling refreshed for every single workout. Assistance exercises work to develop movements and muscle groups associated with certain big lifts or competitive events without actually having to train for that specific event. These exercises assist with what you need to get done in terms of strength training and aerobic capacity.
So, Why Do We Need Them?
Assistance exercises play important roles for not just muscle-building but also support and stabilization (1). By improving on weaknesses of big lifts, certain exercises can really work to enhance your progress and keep you seeing progress with personal gains. That dreaded plateau always strikes and no matter how much weight you put on, it may not be enough to get through the plateau. While drops sets and other supplemental ways to train can break a plateau, assistance exercises can really work to strengthen small muscles around larger muscle groups to give you that extra boost to plow through any plateau.
By working on stabilization and support, assistance exercises can also prevent injury and fix any muscle imbalances that throw off your desired physique. With weak stabilizer muscles, your body relies on other muscle groups to compensate for the lack of strength causing unwanted stress and strain (2). That can lead to injury and keep you out of the gym, really hurting your overall progress. For muscle imbalances, assistance exercises will build those stabilizer muscles to really round out a solid physique to give you increased confidence and strength once competitions come around.
Supplemental and accessory exercises are often misunderstood and not used to their full advantage so understanding how they can benefit you can provide for great progress when the time comes. These will enhance the body’s capabilities to do much more and perform much better.
How To Choose The Right Assistance Exercises
When it comes to choosing the best assistance exercises to perform, find ones that complement each other as well as ones that work in tandem with the lift you are working on. If your main lift is the bench press, you may assist that workout with dumbbell flys and an incline dumbbell press. This will work all aspects of your chest in order to offer total coverage to build your pecs and ultimately support your bench press. You can also choose to work with what are called antagonistic exercises to work opposing muscle groups while also getting the same benefit (3). These will work to counter your main lift while also providing support and stabilization to assist it at the same time.
With that said, it is best to choose those that mimic the same movement pattern but that work to emphasize different motions and amount of load and tension provided. These will also work to improve range of motion but also partial range of motion. Instead of doing a full deadlift, you may consider doing a rack deadlift to strengthen that area of the full lift for maximum benefit.
Types Of Assistance Exercises
Barbell Glute Bridges
The barbell glute bridge is a great way to enhance strength, power and performance and works as a great correction exercise. It targets the gluteal muscles to increase glute activation and muscle hypertrophy. This will assist well with posture and alleviate pain in your knees and lower back. This is a great assistance exercise for the deadlift because it works the last phase of the full lift so you have full control of your pelvis through your glutes and hamstrings.
Box squats will work to enforce proper technique, improve mobility and range of motion and build power and strength as a safe and effective lower body exercise. The increased focus on power to propel yourself from the ground onto the box will increase lower body strength and reinforce the explosive drive needed at the bottom of a back squat. This will also work your core to stay engaged and serves as a good assistance exercise to the back squat.
While often associated with the triceps, dips serve as a great chest exercise and really work well to complement the bench press as an assistance exercise. It activates many muscle groups and provides for wider chest development and functional movement. For the bench press, dips are beneficial for working your range of motion.
For a solid assistance exercise for the overhead press, a push press will incorporate many muscle groups and work to build strong shoulders. It also provides for increased overhead stability to make overhead lifting more comfortable. It can increase hip drive to provide for greater power and allow more weight to be lifted overhead.
Assistance exercises are really great supplemental exercises to add into your training regimen to improve bigger lifts and offer support and stabilization. Working in tandem with a big lift can provide for much needed support to see more personal growth and increased performance with workouts or competition. Look into what you want to get out of big lifts and try assistance exercises to really elevate your overall performance.
*Images courtesy of Envato
- Morton, Robert W.; Colenso-Semple, Lauren; Phillips, Stuart M. (2019). “Training for strength and hypertrophy: an evidence-based approach”. (source)
- Han, Kap-Soo; Kang, Seung-Rok; Kwon, Tae-Kyu (2020). “Analysis of Muscle Strength Effects on Exercise Performance Using Dynamic Stabilization Exercise Device”. (source)
- Robbins, Daniel W.; Young, Warren B.; Behm, David G.; Payne, Warren R. (2010). “Agonist-antagonist paired set resistance training: a brief review”. (source)