Accessory Exercises – What Are They and Why Do We Need Them?
Without a doubt, primary exercises, your compound movements, and big lifts, are the most important moves for overall strength training. Deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and pull-ups are what provide major results when it comes to strength, hypertrophy, and changing body composition.
While these exercises form the basis of any good strength training routine, don’t overlook accessory exercises, also called auxiliary exercises. These are the additional movements, often smaller and more focused, that help you do primary exercises better, with improved form, efficiency, and results.
This is not a concept that all your clients will necessarily know about or understand. There are hundreds of options for accessory exercises. It’s up to trainers to figure out which are most important for each client, and to plan routines that are safe, effective, and well-rounded.
What Are Accessory Exercises?
Accessory exercises are the “extras.” We all know that big, compound movements are often the focus of strength training, especially in cross fit. There’s a reason for this. The big moves do a lot for you:
- Change body composition
- Shed fat
- Build muscle, both strength and hypertrophy
- Promote weight loss or maintenance
The accessory exercises to these compound movements, like bench presses, squats, and deadlifts, are used to improve them. The idea is that the right smaller, more focused isolation exercises will build some of the individual muscles, or smaller groups of muscles, used in the compound moves.
For example, doing a squat utilizes multiple muscles, large and small: glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, and abs. Accessory exercises for improving squats could include leg lifts to build the quads; box jumps to improve power and build up more fast-twitch muscle fibers; or lunges to work one side of the body at a time.
There is a lot of variety in accessory exercises. They can be focused on one muscle or a smaller muscle group, like biceps curls. They can be compound moves that isolate one part of the body, like a lunge for unilateral focus.
They can also take the form of variations on the primary exercise. With squats, for instance, you can do banded squats, tempo squats, or split squats as accessories to build strength and improve form.
And Why Are They Important?
Unless you have endless time to devote to working out, it’s easiest and most efficient to only do compound strength training. With limited time, these are the most important moves. It is worthwhile, though, to make time for accessory exercises, even just twice a week.
The main reason to include accessory exercises in a regular routine is to improve the primary exercises. But what does that mean exactly? The importance of accessory exercises to your main lift can be broken down a few ways:
Build Strength, Lift More
Accessory exercises complement primary exercises. They strengthen the supporting, smaller muscles, and those that are imbalanced or weaker than others. That means you get stronger overall. In terms of lifting, it will help you hit new PRs.
Reduce Wear and Tear on the Body
Strength training and lifting with only the same five or six moves over and over again can really take a toll on the body. By changing things up a little bit with accessory exercises, you protect joints, muscles, and connective tissues. You will be less fatigued, able to perform better, and reduce injury risk when you put some focus on accessory moves.
Progress Past Plateaus
Progression for someone who has just started lifting happens rapidly. They quickly move to heavier weights, see their muscles getting bigger and more defined, and feel stronger. But those with more experience know that as you get stronger, progression gets more difficult.
Anything you can do to push the body a little further, to change the routine, can lead to improvements. Incorporating accessory exercises can even get you past a frustrating plateau.
Improve Functional Movement
Lifters pride themselves on great form. A perfect deadlift is balanced with the right posture and stance. This is great for strength, but it doesn’t always translate in real life. Functional fitness improves the things you do outside the gym: lift and move that heavy dresser, pivot to catch a ball, or just sit in a chair.
Primary moves with perfect form are important, but you don’t use that kind of form in daily activities. By adding in accessory exercises, you strengthen other parts of the body, using different movements and varied form. This will improve functional movements in everything you do, meaning less pain and reduced injury risk.
Correct Muscle Imbalances with Accessory Exercises
This is where choosing accessory exercises can get a little technical for the average gym-goer. As a knowledgeable trainer, you can observe your clients doing compound moves and look for imbalances to correct.
Poor technique or form, injuries, limited flexibility, and other factors can lead to imbalances that only worsen over time if not addressed. During a deadlift, you may see that a client isn’t activating their glutes adequately on one side, for example. You can use an accessory exercise, like a single leg squat, to build up that weaker side.
Help your clients understand the importance of body balance in strength and in workouts. Without it, they risk pain, injury, and downtime.
The Best Accessory Exercises
You could spend hours and hours in the gym and never hit all the possible accessory exercises. This is why professional personal trainers are so helpful for clients. You have the knowledge and skillset to determine which moves will most benefit each individual. That being said, there are some accessory exercises that are among the best and will be useful for most people.
For Better Squats
Squats are among the best compound movements, hitting so many muscles from the core down to the calves. To complement your squat and to be able to progress and add weight, try squat variations, like safety squats, box squats, banded squats, or tempo squats, which includes more time under tension. Also try the split squat, box jumps, weighted carries, and back raises.
Getting Better at Pull-ups
Pull-ups are among the toughest of all strength training moves. You may have clients who can’t do a single one, but it’s a great overall upper body move that everyone should try. It strengthens many of the muscles in the back, as well as the abdominals, shoulders, arms, and chest.
For some people, just getting to one pull up is a real challenge, but accessory exercises can help get them there:
- Reverse plank. Facing up, instead of down, heels on the ground and arms straight, hold this upside-down plank to strengthen glutes, back, and shoulder muscles.
- Lat pull-downs. These are like assisted pull-ups, that strengthen many of the muscles used for the real deal.
- Scapular pull-ups. Do these simply by hanging from the pull-up bar and squeezing the shoulder blades together as you lift your chin toward the bar, even just a little bit.
Building the Bench Press
Bench press progression is a good way to measure overall upper body strength, but it’s easy to get stalled. Use accessory exercises to get past that plateau: push-ups, feet-elevated bench presses, close-grip bench presses, skull crushers, and overhead presses.
Many people, men especially, consider the bench press the ultimate in proving strength. There are a lot of ways to do it wrong, though. This quick guide will help your clients understand what they can do to press even more weight, safely.
Defeat the Deadlift
Like the squat, the deadlift hits a lot of lower body muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, quads, adductors, erectors, lats, abs, and more. Variations make great accessory exercises, like speed deadlifts with less weight or deficit deadlifts standing on plates to put the bar a little lower than the starting point.
Deadlifts can also be improved with separate exercises that target specific muscles. Do hip thrusts to isolate the glutes; bent over rows to strengthen the upper back; kettlebell swings for lower back strength, hip power, and grip strength; and front squats for hamstrings and quads.
The term accessory makes these exercises seem less important, but they are crucial for a well-rounded workout. Help your clients find the right balance between primary strength training and using these supportive moves to build strength, break plateaus, and enjoy overall better fitness.
Corrective exercise is an important area of fitness that requires special skills and training. With the Corrective Exercise Specialist certification course from the ISSA, you can learn how to help clients prevent or recover from injuries, correct muscle imbalances, and perfect form and technique.
Corrective Exercise Specialist
The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients, from the weekend warrior to the serious athlete. Both health care professionals and certified personal trainers can benefit from this distance education course, learning more about how people move incorrectly and how to guide them to correct those dysfunctions.
Please note: The information provided in this course is for general educational purposes only. The material is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider regarding particular medical conditions and needs.