Reasons for selecting accessory exercises to develop strength

In power-lifting, accessory exercises are generally selected to improve strength on the 3 competition lifts. As there are many exercises to choose from, it can become overwhelming in deciding which to select. The good news is there are no ‘best’ accessory exercises, and this would be context-dependent. Instead providing a list of the best exercises to support the main lifts, as no one has evidence on which ones are best. This short article will cover some reasons/goal outcomes on why you might select particular accessory exercises to improve strength on the competition lifts.  

 

Increasing muscle size

 

Although increasing muscle size is not required to increase strength (strength can improve in the absence of increasing muscle size) (3), bigger muscles will likely provide the opportunity to increase strength. A theory is that increasing the size of the muscle will increase the number of components within the muscle which contribute to producing force. If we have more ‘muscle machinery’, we have more tissue that can contract and help move a barbell from point A to point B (7). 

Increased muscle mass for improving strength is indirectly supported by looking at the physical characteristics of powerlifters. Multiple studies have shown that a significant differentiator between stronger and weaker powerlifters is the amount of lean muscle tissue. Stronger athletes generally show having more muscle than weaker athletes  (2, 5, 6, 8).

Although the three competition lifts are compound movements and work multiple muscle groups at once, they do not provide uniform growth across all muscle groups. For example, Zabaleta-Korta et al. had one group of subjects complete five weeks of training performing 4 sets of 12 repetitions, three times a week using smith machine squats only, with another group performing leg extensions only. Results found the rectus femoris grew only in the leg extension group, whereas the central region of the vastus lateralis increased in the squat group. This study demonstrates that different exercises targeting the same muscle group (in this example legs) result in region-specific hypertrophy (9).

Some exercises will provide a higher stimulus for muscle growth with less fatigue. Some exercises are going to be less fatiguing than the main lifts and provide a better ‘stimulus to fatigue ratio’. For example, deadlifts can be highly fatiguing, and due to their limited range of motion, increasing quadricep hypertrophy will likely be less than that of a leg press. As such, for those who need to gain quadricep size, adding accessory exercises which provide high muscle stimulation with low fatigue (compared to the comp lifts) and take the working muscles through a large range of motion should be effective for promoting muscle hypertrophy without having to do an excessive number of sets on the competition lifts.

 

Improve technique

 

Accessory exercises can be utilised to improve technique of the main lifts. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence to support this as it is difficult to measure technique improvements. At SPC Performance lab, if someone is struggling to correct a technique error even after plenty of practice on the main lift, we may use a movement that places greater emphasis on the area of the movement the lifter is struggling with. For example, suppose a lifter is shifting their weight forward at the bottom of the squat and showing weight shift into the toes and knees. In that case, we can use a paused squat that emphasises maintaining a balanced position at the bottom of the movement.     

We believe that utilising accessory exercises that emphasise the technique error can work as a ‘reward and punishment’ system. Using the paused squat example, if the lifter maintains balance and does not shift forward, they will be rewarded with an efficient squat. If the lifter loses balance and shifts forward into the toes, the lifter will be ‘punished’ with an exaggerated forward lean. As such, the pause squat places greater focus the part of the movement where the error occurs and may help the lifter become better at correcting the technical fault. 

 

Adherence / motivation

 

It is usually stated that accessory exercises should serve a purpose, and they shouldn’t be used for no reason. For the most part, this statement is probably true, accessory exercises should probably be used to improve strength on the main lifts in some way. However, powerlifting can be boring and repetitive, and sometimes throwing in some new exercises for motivation help break up the monotony of training.

Baz-Valle et al. had subjects training for 8 weeks, 4 times a week using 3 sets of 6 exercises. One group used the same exercises for the entire 8 weeks which were;

Upper body exercises – bench-press, pendlay row, shoulder press, latpull down, dumbbell fly, dumbbell pull-over

Lower body exercises – back squat, deadlift, leg press, hip thrust, leg extension and leg curl

The other group followed the same training protocol but randomly selected exercises from a computerized database of 80 different exercises. The exercises for the upper body randomly selected 3 pulling and 3 pushing exercises. Lower body exercises were randomly selected from anterior focus and posterior focus. Training volume was equated between groups. At the end of the 8-week study, those in the random exercise group showed a moderate improvement in intrinsic motivation. In contrast, the group who did not rotate exercises showed a non-significant decrease in motivation (1).

It is not advised to rotate exercises every workout as this may not be an effective way to build strength and muscle mass. The previously mentioned study was just used as an example demonstrating that new exercises can help with increasing motivation. For the sake of keeping mental sanity from the sometimes-boring routine nature of powerlifting, a good enough reason to choose a particular accessory exercise might purely be from an enjoyment perspective. I don’t think every single exercise needs to serve a direct purpose regarding improving the main lift. Likewise, there is a lack of evidence to suggest there are magic accessory exercises guaranteed to improve your main lifts. Some accessory exercises may be selected purely from a motivation/lifting longevity standpoint. 

 

Improve ‘weak points’ of a lift?

 

It is commonly stated that ‘weak points’ or underdeveloped muscles should be trained to overcome particular parts of a lift. In most cases, this would be a lift’s sticking point. For starters, this statement is generally based on anecdotal evidence. From my understanding, there has not been research that directly measures working on weak points to improve strength on the competition lifts.

However, this does not necessarily mean it is untrue. Fonseca et al. conducted a study comparing constant exercises versus varying exercises on muscle size and 1RM strength over a 12-week training program. Subjects were split into one of four groups. Constant exercises with constant intensity (CICE), constant exercises with varied intensity (CIVE), varied exercises with constant intensity (VICE) and varied exercises with varied intensity. The constant exercise group performed the smith machine squat only, where the varied group performed squats, leg press, deadlifts and lunges over the 12 weeks. The table below provides specifics of the programs performed in each group.

Looking specifically at strength, increases in squat 1RM increased in all groups; however, it was significantly greater in the varied exercise groups. This study did not focus on training ‘weak points’ of the squat but provides evidence that using a range of exercises appears to increase squat strength versus only squatting. Using a variety of exercises may provide complete stimulation of muscle groups which may help with increasing strength (4). It is difficult to say if complete muscle stimulation from using a variety of exercises is the same as working on weak points to improve strength in the competition lifts. However, I don’t think working on perceived weak points could necessarily be a bad thing. So long as the volume allocated to accessory lifts are not significantly impacting strength progress on the competition lifts from fatigue.

As the competition lifts are multi joints movements, and multiple muscles are working simultaneously, I think it is too simplistic to say someone has a underdeveloped X muscle(s), which is causing weakness in a lift. How can one know that a particular lagging muscle group in a complex movement is the cause of weakness in a lift? Maybe it’s better to look at a lift’s weaknesses as movements instead of weak muscles. For example, if someone displays a chest fall in the squat, it is too simplistic to say they have a weak core. My first go-to would be training the position itself. If someone is displaying a chest fall, well, I will get a lifter to practice squatting without chest falling. If someone wanted to throw in an alternate exercise to help with the chest fall, potentially a front squat might help? Who knows, using exercises to improve ‘weak points’ is trial and error.

Finally, we must also accept that there will always be a sticking point in an exercise. There will be a part of a lift where someone is going to fail if they are lifting beyond their threshold. Why people experience a sticking point in a lift is unknown. Is it their anatomy? Muscle weakness? A technique fault? Or a combination of multiple variables? If someone is looking to improve a weakness within the lift, the first priority is probably that the person needs to get stronger and there’s likely not going to be a magical exercise that will ‘blow up’ someone’s weak point.

If you feel adding particular exercises to focus on weak points of a lift is beneficial, give it a try. However, I would avoid adding so much volume that it creates significant amount of fatigue to the main lifts for a prolonged period. The priority is to train the main lift itself and remember that accessory exercises are there to assist the main lifts, not overshadow them.

Although too much specificity may not be the best way to increase strength, too much volume spent on exercises that are not specific to the main lifts could also be detrimental to developing strength. Too much energy and fatigue could be spent on exercises that are not directly helping the competition lifts may affect progression on the competition lifts. To follow the theory of specificity, if you want to get good at something, you should specifically train that thing. As such, if your goal is to increase strength on the squat bench press and deadlift, a large portion of training volume should be allocated to training these lifts directly. However, adding some training volume to assistance exercises will probably help further increase strength instead of only doing the main lifts.

 

References

 

1.            Baz-Valle E, Schoenfeld BJ, Torres-Unda J, Santos-Concejero J, and Balsalobre-Fernández C. The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PLoS One 14: e0226989, 2019.

 

2.            Brechue WF and Abe T. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. Eur J Appl Physiol 86: 327-336, 2002.

 

3.            Buckner SL, Dankel SJ, Mattocks KT, Jessee MB, Mouser JG, Counts BR, and Loenneke JP. The problem Of muscle hypertrophy: Revisited. Muscle Nerve 54: 1012-1014, 2016.

 

4.            Fonseca RM, Roschel H, Tricoli V, de Souza EO, Wilson JM, Laurentino GC, Aihara AY, de Souza Leão AR, and Ugrinowitsch C. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. J Strength Cond Res 28: 3085-3092, 2014.

 

5.            Keogh JW, Hume PA, Pearson SN, and Mellow PJ. Can absolute and proportional anthropometric characteristics distinguish stronger and weaker powerlifters? J Strength Cond Res 23: 2256-2265, 2009.

 

6.            Lovera M and Keogh J. Anthropometric profile of powerlifters: differences as a function of bodyweight class and competitive success. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 55: 478-487, 2015.

 

7.            Taber C, Vigotsky A, Nuckols G, and Haun C. Exercise-Induced Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is a Contributory Cause of Gains in Muscle Strength. Sports Medicine 49, 2019.

 

8.            Ye X, Loenneke J, Fahs C, Rossow L, Thiebaud R, Kim D, Bemben M, and Abe T. Relationship between lifting performance and skeletal muscle mass in elite powerlifters. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 53: 409-414, 2013.

9.            Zabaleta-Korta A, Fernández-Peña E, Torres-Unda J, Garbisu-Hualde A, and Santos-Concejero J. The role of exercise selection in regional Muscle Hypertrophy: A randomized controlled trial. J Sports Sci 39: 2298-2304, 2021.