Sometimes the benefits of efficient group programming will not be obvious to your clients. This is okay as it’s our job to provide the education piece. Accessory work may be the single biggest difference maker for your clients and comes with a long list of benefits. Of course, if we don’t build value and explain the logic behind such training it can be much easier to skip this extra-credit work. In reality, accessory work will have a profound effect when combined with compound movements, and without question will be the vehicle to keep your clients healthy and looking better, feeling better. Luckily, the logic behind accessory work is straight-forward and you don’t need an exercise science degree to articulate this logic to your clients.
1) Imbalance: unilateral exercises or single limb exercises require one to focus solely on one side whereas, in bilateral movements like back squats, two limbs are being worked simultaneously which makes it impossible to isolate the side that may be weaker. Imbalances are normal and everyone has them, but the only way to improve upon them is to include movements that force you to use one leg or arm at a time. The list of variations with unilateral work is incredibly long and not all exercises are created equal, meaning what works well for one athlete may not work well for another. In this case, variety is key and have many variations in your back pocket will keep you progressing.
2) Health: Most of us know that when we get an injury it tends to be on one side. By working single limb exercises we can focus on balance, which lends itself in the process of keeping us injury free. When there is a discrepancy between one side, we tend to overcompensate and as a result, we usually injury the side that is stronger. In order to prevent future injury, we need to seek to improve symmetry. Although completely ironing out all of our asymmetries is nearly impossible, the effort needs to be made to focus on where we are weakest from an individual standpoint. In addition, it’s not hard to identify where needs work as most athletes know their bodies better than their coaches.
3) Rehab: I’m sure at one point or another some of us have had some form of physical therapy. Although some of the exercises you get to perform there are not as “sexy” as a clean and jerk, they have a specific purpose and that is to get you healthy again. By encouraging blood flow, single limb movements can help expedite the process of recovery when used correctly. You’d be hard-pressed to see your Physical Therapist recommend a bilateral movement to rehab an injury and reasoning is simple as we cannot effectively target deficiencies in this manner, plain and simple. Rehab work can be quite effective, but why not perform prehab work before there is an easy? Being proactive with the inclusion of a wide variety of single-joint movements on a weekly basis is crucial to preventing further issues.
4) Recovery: Being in the trenches comes with an inherent level of soreness, some weeks worse than others. Many times your body will tell you when it’s time to take a rest day. Some of us that are “addicted to training” may still want to “move”. This is a great opportunity to include low-demand accessory work. Single joint exercises can help speed up your recovery all while improving your symmetry. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy but 3-4 exercises from head to toe will do the trick. It should be a relaxing and restorative training session that shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. Feel free to mix in some light aerobic work too as this will further expedite the recovery process.
5) Body-composition: If you want to specifically target a lagging muscle-group or target the composition of your muscles than unilateral work is the answer. Of course, compound movements are important, but the inclusion of your accessory work after your core-lifts is paramount to increase strength and improve body composition. Put simply, time-under-tension is critical for muscular-hypertrophy. With single-joint movements, we can effectively place longer bouts of tension of your muscles without running the risk of breakdown and compensation patterns. Additionally, the demand for single-joint movements is low allowing us to crank up the volume when needed.
In short, accessory work is a must for athletes of all levels. You can’t build a house without a foundation and we are only as strong as our weakest links. Without accessory work, you’ll more than likely run into issues and begin to go back with your training. As much as we’d like to only perform movements like deadlifts, squats, and presses, we can have a profound effect on our progress from both a strength and aesthetics perspective if we include a healthy rotation and dose of accessory work in every training session.