Get stronger with assistance work

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Accessory work – the missing link to health & performance

If you’ve read any of my articles you know we’ve talked about accessory work, assistance work, special exercise work or whatever you’d like to call it numerous times over.

I felt it was time for a new article to include the obvious benefits as well as our experiences over the last 5 years – what we’ve learned and what we do different now.

First, let’s take a look at the obvious benefits:

  • Time under tension = increase in LBM

Just as a bodybuilder spends a significant amount of time isolating specific muscle groups we employ a high volume of hypertrophy work. In an effort to target where we may be lacking, we can add a high volume of work without the risk of exacerbating faulty motor patterns. This work actually allows athletes of all levels to perform work without being limited by their lack of skill and because it’s “low skill” just about everyone will derive the benefits.

  • Safer to add volume to single-joint movements vs. multi-joint movements

It’s much safer to push the volume of a unilateral movement like a split squat in comparison to a bilateral movement like a back squat. Additionally, pushing the volume on compound movements carries inherent risks of overuse injury and will not guarantee your chances of success just because you “worked hard” in a training session. With single-joint movements, we can add high-volumes of work that isn’t going to necessarily impair one’s ability for the CNS to recover between sessions.

  • Low neural demand

Building on our last benefit,  unilateral work requires less skill and neural demand so we can increase loading and volume commensurately, thereby increasing the time under tension. This leads to an increase in muscular hypertrophy and most trainees that object to performing assistance exercises are simply uninformed about its influence on body composition. Let’s be clear, if done correctly you’ll be able to add lean-body mass relatively fast and evenly.

  • Muscle hypertrophy = muscle greater potential to generate force

Read just about any exercise physiology book and can confirm this with numerous studies so while your athletes may not see the carryover of performing direct bicep work to their pull-ups right away, in as little as 8-weeks they’ll see substantial improvements.

  • Correlates to improvements in multi-joint movements

If you want your sexy movements like squats, pulls, and Olympic lifts to go up, then you have to prioritize where you are weakest. For most, it’s as simple as adding more direct posterior chain work to see noticeable gains in all of the aforementioned lifts. Getting stronger in the healthiest manner we cannot we need the ability to deliver programming that almost guarantees success and accessory work is a necessary means of building the foundation before you build the house. As a side note, WSBB average Deadlift is 860, yet they rarely pull off of the floor. I wonder why that is?

  • Prehab/Rehab

We can effectively reduce the risk of injury as well as rehabilitate current injuries with accessory work. As coaches, we need to be constantly accessing where our athletes may be limited. As a side note, we can certainly use current statistics to guide us and one thing we know is that lower-back disorder statistics are at an alarming rate making direct gluteal and hip work is a great place to start. Again, it’s really not rocket science – if you want to look better, feel better, and get better the large majority of your programming should lend itself to that overall result, otherwise, why are people paying you?

  • Recovery

Being in the trenches comes with an inherent level of soreness, some weeks worse than others. Some of your clients that are “addicted to training” may still want to “move” and not take a rest day. This is a great opportunity to include low-demand accessory work (great programming should have recovery built in.) Single joint exercises can help speed up your recovery all while improving their symmetry.

So what have we learned in the last 3 years of working with over 40,000 athletes?

You can’t do it all in one session and too many exercises will not increase adherence.

Over the last 9 months, even my own personal programming has changed a bit. I’ve gone from performing 6-8 exercises in a given session to a maximum of four or five exercises.

What does this have to do with Individual Programming? Much of what we learn as coaches come from our time in the trenches with ourselves going through the same pain our clients go through.

This has allowed me to be able to look at my programming objectively in terms of priorities with our accessory work and performing fewer movements per session.

In other words, making more out of fewer exercises rather than putting in a less overall effort with a higher number of movements has proven to be a valuable tactic.

Likewise, the same goes for our “strength only days” for our CrossFit competitors – in terms of delving deep into what a week of programming may be “missing” or “lacking” and zeroing in on what is most important on a given day.

Being able to fine-tune our programming and zero in on what we really need has made a world of difference – the small things go a long way.

Additionally, we’ve also narrowed down the number of variations we program. While this list is still pretty extensive, it’s been incredibly beneficial for my clients and myself to really get rid of the “fluff” and focus what we KNOW works – for more information on this check this article out here.

While many coaches preach “do extra” before and after in order to perform arguably the most valuable aspect of group programming – accessory work (and of course other things outside of the gym like sleep and diet.)

These coaches are simply forgetting the response of the bodies endocrine system to prolonged bouts of training. Hint: it does not help anyone look better. Either way, accessory work will allow you to look, feel, and perform better and most importantly prevent injury.

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