How to Program Assistance Work

By: Barbell Logic Team

When you begin to venture beyond the main lifts, you need to be a little bit careful. You can still have some fun with assistance lifts, but there are ways to choose lifts that are useful to your training. It’s okay to listen to all the possibilities that new sexy lifts have for you, but make measured, MED changes, and you will save yourself time and money.

How to Program Assistance Work

“The thrilling song of the Sirens will steal his life away, as they sit singing in their plashet between high banks of moldering skeletons which flutter with the rags of skin rotting upon the bones. Wherefore sail right past them: and to achieve this successfully you must work bees-wax till it is plastic and therewith stop the ears of your companions so that they do not hear a sound. For your own part, perhaps you wish to hear their singing? Then have yourself lashed hand and foot into your ship against the housing of the mast, with other bights of rope secured to the mast itself. Ensure also that if you order or implore your men to cast you loose, their sole response shall be to bind you tighter with cord upon cord. That way you may safely enjoy the Sirens’ music.” -Circe warning Odysseus of the Siren’s song, “The Odyssey,” Book XII.

Change without reason—adding complexity for complexity’s sake—is the prurient attraction for program hoppers and trainers who are into things like muscle confusion and balance balls. Though not the exact opposite of progress, the mistimed over-complex program is often notable for progress’s absence. When making measured programming change, you should avoid complex solutions over simple ones, quick fixes over measured ones, and change with a rationale based on anything but your own training history.

Complexity is enticing, especially when training starts to feel like Groundhog Day, doing the same things day in and day out. Nowhere is it more enticing than in the realm of assistance work. There is a whole gym floor left unexplored to you. For those of us with home gyms, Rogue Fitness has some amazing gadgets; strongman implements look fun as hell, and those guys are really strong, too. Maybe a set of stones or some farmer handles to work on your grip, or a belt-squat attachment, or . . . The list could go on for a while. (Our wishlists look a lot like training ADD.)

When you begin to venture beyond the main lifts, you need to be a little bit careful. You can still have some fun with assistance lifts, but there are ways to choose lifts that are useful to your training. It’s okay to listen to all the possibilities that new sexy lifts have for you, but make measured, MED changes, and you will save yourself time and money.

Assistance Lift Rationale

“Basic barbell training will be the foundation of our progress for the entirety of our gym lives, and all the other work we do – the assistance work – must be kept in the proper perspective.” (Rippetoe, Lifts vs. Assistance Exercises). Assistance lifts assist the main lifts in some way. As Rip wrote, “The best assistance exercises are those that directly contribute to the performance of the basic movements that produce the most benefit.” PRs in squat, bench press, press, and deadlift are the benchmarks for measuring quantitative improvement. Just making these lifts a little bit heavier each time you train is enough to hit PRs and make improvements. . . for a while. After that, you need to train other lifts, but the focus remains the same. Assistance lifts are those that when improved help you improve your performance of the main lifts.

The main lifts give the assistance exercises value in three basic ways:

“These exercises 1) strengthen a part of a movement, as with a partial deadlift… .; 2) are variations on the basic exercise, as with a stiff-legged deadlift; or 3) are ancillary exercises, which strengthen a portion of the muscle mass involved in the movement in a way that the basic exercise does not, as with the chin-up.” (Starting Strength, 3d ed.)

We often call variations of the main lifts supplemental lifts. Supplemental lifts would include both partial range of motion versions of the lifts and variations (a paused squat, for example). We will often distinguish supplemental work from ancillary or accessory work, which are exercises that differ from the main lifts. Here we are referring to assistance work as an all-encompassing term and we use accessory and ancillary interchangeably. No matter what you call them, partial or exaggerated movements, variations, and new complementary exercises comprise hundreds of possible lifts, machines, isolation exercises, and calisthenics. But if we add an exercise because it’s popular or we saw someone else do it, then we’ve deviated from our programming rationale. As with everything else we do, the best training comes from reasoned changes based on your actual training. The concept of the Minimum Effective Dose applies to exercise selection as it does to all other training variables: Make small changes, designed for relatively big returns in your training, give the changes time to work, and measure progress.

The key to MED changes with assistance lifts is to establish a few principles for assistance lifts that help narrow the field from the hundreds of possible ways to move heavy things to one or two that will benefit you right now.

These principles come down to (1) timing, (2) stress, and (3) weaknesses.

Timing

The optimal program would apply the minimal amount of stress for the maximum amount of change, avoiding the diminishing returns of too much stress. If you were to squat 3 x 5 every other day and add five pounds to get stronger as a result without getting stuck or failing a set, you would never change any variable but the weight on the bar. The weight on the bar would be the minimum amount of change necessary to continue to drive the desired adaptation.

But the processes of adaptation are not that simple, and change is unavoidable. If we know that, we can time changes for their maximum benefit. We are training the entire body with the least amount of exercises, time, and repetitions to produce meaningful change. The squat and deadlift dominate each workout in the novice phase because they provide the biggest dose of systemic stress for the least number of reps, sets, and exercises. The press and bench press train the upper body more effectively than the overabundance of isolation exercises or bilateral movements available to anyone with enough creativity.

Consider the spectrum of exercises used for the rank novice to an elite-level, advanced lifter. The novice uses four basic exercises to start. The advanced lifter might use four lifts on “Bench Day” all geared at improving different aspects of his bench press.

But don’t let artfulness or complexity take over when it is time to introduce a new lift. When you need it, measure it out in small doses. The smallest changes come first. If you have been gradually adjusting the intensity of your training, the next small changes are usually to your sets and reps, changing the organization of your training or changing the actual volume. The goals, however, remain the same.

Changing the exercises that make up your program is not as small of a change because it shifts your short-term focus. The presumption is that by introducing a new lift and training that lift for improvement, you will also be improving some aspect of your main lift. This sub-goal makes the addition of assistance lifts a significant change in your programming.

The change, however, is tempered by how the lift differs from the main lift and how it affects the overall stress of your program. To measure that change we need to consider our exercise selection criteria.   

Timing: When to Add Assistance Lifts

  • After you’ve manipulated volume/intensity/frequency on the main lifts
  • Take advantage of training shift from 3-days per week to a 4-day split

 

Exercise Selection Criteria (Systemic Stress)

Consider the difference between assistance work and the main barbell lifts in the context of our exercise selection criteria: Using more muscle mass over the longest effective range of motion to lift the most weight. “The primary lifts and the assistance exercises differ in one very important respect: the primary exercises can be trained and improved for years at a time[.] . . .The assistance exercises cannot. This is obviously due to the fact that the primary exercises are systemic in nature—they inherently affect the entire body because the entire body is involved in the exercise. Squats, presses, and deadlifts produce enough stress to induce hormonal changes and structural adaptations system-wide.” (Lifts vs. Assistance Exercises, supra.) No exercises satisfy these criteria better than our main lifts. Instead, when adding assistance lifts, these criteria help inform your choices by helping you evaluate the overall training effect they will have on your program.

The exercise selection criteria encompass the principle of specificity regarding systemic training stress. Specificity dictates that an adaptation to some training stress will follow the demands of the stress itself. Moving a heavy weight through a long range of motion using a bunch of muscle mass will make you better at doing exactly that. This adaptation (strength) involves a structural component, training the muscles themselves for force production. It also includes a systemic component, inducing a hormonal response to the stress of lifting weights that helps your whole body get stronger to withstand the demands of training. You can target each structural group with dozens of lifts if you have the time, training the whole body with a series of isolation exercises. But you cannot induce systemic stress without big multi-joint, system-stressing exercises. The exercise selection criteria describe this systemic stress.

Specificity still applies to assistance work, and systemic stress is still important. As a general rule, training stress trends upward over time. You should preserve the exercise selection criteria as much as possible to avoid a big change in systemic stress when you add in a new assistance exercise. Different assistance work affects your overall training stress in different ways: Squat variations are (generally) preferable to leg presses, front squats, and high bar squats; deadlift variations beat hip thrusts and glute activation exercises; and barbell curls are superior sleeve-rippers as compared to single arm preacher curls.

Advanced lifters will employ a wider variety of exercises. That is because they are shooting for small improvements over extended periods. They are also combining more lifts for huge doses of stress that accumulate over several weeks or months. The advanced lifter must manage systemic stress carefully, and he or she may get a significant benefit from targeted structural improvements. (For them, the concept of the Rate-Limiting Factor is key to continued progress.)   

Even if you adhere to the exercise selection criteria and narrow your choices of assistance work to big, multi-joint movements, you still have dozens of options for each lift. We’ve covered many assistance lifts on our YouTube channel:

These are some of our favorites. They all satisfy the exercise selection criteria, but they only scratch the surface of possible assistance exercises.  

Even among these useful lifts, you have to choose the lift that best fits your training right now. Part of that role is to train the weaknesses in your main lifts (we will discuss that below). The other part of choosing an assistance exercise is the consideration of the systemic stress that it has for you. For this, you can balance the exercise selection criteria for each lift.

For example, the rack pull is different from the deadlift it uses a much shorter range of motion and a little bit less muscle mass. The tradeoff, however, is that you can lift more weight. Some people can lift a lot more weight with a rack pull than with a conventional deadlift. As a result, the rack pull tends to generate a lot of systemic stress. The added stress fit your goal perfectly, usually when you’ve modified other training variables to make room for the rack pull. But it can also be a bad thing: If you decide one day to start doing rack pulls because you saw them on YouTube, adding them on top of your other pulling work, this may be too much stress too soon; an overdose instead of a minimum effective dose. In comparison, stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL) reduces the amount of muscle mass used and the amount of weight. SLDLs are much less stressful lift than the full deadlift or the rack pull. If your goal is to add in a smaller amount of training stress the SLDL may be the right move.

You can’t always know how you will respond to any change before making it. The goal here is to make the best-reasoned modifications you can, keeping them small. Use the exercise selection criteria to evaluate the changes in training stress to your program with the addition of an assistance lift.

Exercise Selection:

  • Helps you evaluate changes to systemic stress
  • Stick to big, multi-joint movements at first
  • Training stress should increase gradually; don’t overdose the stress.

 

Training your Weaknesses

Along with varying your training stress, assistance lifts help you train your weaknesses in the main lifts. We’ve talked before about the concept of the Rate-Limiting Factor. In physiological systems, the ‘Rate-Limiting Factor’ is a concept that scientists use to understand complex processes. Each main lift involves a complex process: positioning, sequential motor activation patterns, and body control, each depending on your anthropometry, your built-in neuromuscular efficiency, coordination, and learning processes. Each aspect of the process affects your ability to complete the lift, and several links in your kinetic chain may limit your progress on the main lift. You can further build in some usefulness to your assistance work by identifying and training the weaknesses of your main lifts.

There are range-of-motion weaknesses, parts of the lift that are particularly difficult for you. Whereas a rack pull trains the top two-thirds of your deadlift, assisting your lockout; the deficit deadlift emphasizes the beginning of the pull, tending to improve your ability to break the weight off the floor. A pin press can be set at varying heights to best train your weaknesses in the press. A floor press tends to train the sticking point just a few inches of your chest. When you being to struggle to improve your lifts, you may start to identify what parts of the range of motion are your “rate limiting factors.”

Other weaknesses may come from the biases of our main lifts. In this case, ancillary exercises are appropriate additions to your training. For example, chin-ups and barbell rows train groups of muscles in a way that the main lifts do not. An exercise like the lying triceps extension or the rolling dumbbell extension trains a smaller amount of muscle mass but does so with a complete range of motion, training the shoulder extension function of the triceps as well as elbow extension, aiding in the triceps function for the press and the bench press. Training large amounts of muscle mass in ways that do not mimic the main lifts in some way are the domain of ancillary exercises. These will generally be less stressful but can be extremely useful for training weaknesses.

Finally, your weakness may involve the execution of the lift. We don’t recommend turning to assistance work to fix form errors. You can and should fix your basic form with good coaching, learning practices, and deliberate practice. There is a difference, however, if form breakdowns that occur at heavy weights and with fatigue. Some lifters struggle with aspects of technique at heavy weights that you execute perfectly most of the time. In that sense, certain parts of the technique may be a weakness you can train with assistance work. Paused squats, pin squats, and tempo squats are all excellent assistance lifts for this purpose. Each preserves the exercise selection criteria and emphasizes different parts of the squat. You might consider paused squats if you have trouble staying tight at the bottom of a heavy rep; or tempo squats, if your weight tends to get forward on the way down; pin squats tend to help emphasize good hip drive out of the bottom position. Differentiate between a general technique error and a technique weakness, and attack your weaknesses with assistance work.

Training your weaknesses:

  • Identify your rate limiting factors
  • Choose exercises that target a range of motion, muscular, or technique weakness

 

Keep Things Simple

The bottom line is that you should your changes should all be well-thought out, reasonable changes. These principles should help give some weight to your reasoning, but ultimately, the MED philosophy means you need to implement a change and try it out. MED is all about hypothesis, testing, observation, and analysis. Know that there are many different reasons why you or your coach might want to use a different assistance lift. Just make sure you have a reason for the change and don’t be afraid to test your hypothesis as to what the change will do for your programming. Importantly, however, when you make a well-planned change, give it time. Don’t expect immediate change without significant investments of training time, energy, and resources. No change bypasses hard work.


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