Assistance Work – Why Every Exercise Needs A Reason

I got a really good question about properly programming assistance work into a training program.  Building the strength athlete means we are looking to: build strength on specific movement patterns (usually the squat, bench, deadlift and press). This means that each exercise in our program needs to have a purpose for helping us reach this goal.

For instance, if we are looking to increase our bench press press, every single exercise on that day needs to have a reason to be there. The goal needs to be simple: increase the strength of our bench press. However, there are a lot of things to consider here.

  1. What part of our movement are we having the most difficulty on?
  2. Which muscles are weak?
  3. Which muscles are small?
  4. Which muscles are imbalanced?
  5. Where are we getting injured or having more tweaks than usual?

So with that said, you may look at my program and see on one of my bench days that I have 5 sets of weighted chin-ups for max reps. How does a chin-up help with pushing a heavy barbell? Well let’s consult the list above, we don’t need to satisfy each of these points, only 1. The main reason I train my back with this exercise is to prevent muscle imbalances. In many lifters, they simply do too much pushing and not enough pulling. So in order to make sure we keep our front and back balanced, we add rows/chin to help keep us healthy.

Let’s look at each point above and dig a little deeper.

What part of our movement are we having the most difficulty on?

When we do a squat/bench/deadlift (will refer to this as SBD from now on) we have certain areas that cause issues for us. This is usually going to be

  • The bottom, off the chest for bench
  • The lockout of the deadlift
  • Midway up the squat

Yours could very well be different, but when he have a quick analysis of where our weak areas are, we can match up some assistance work to turn those weaknesses into strength and propel our lifts forward!

Are we having lockout problems when we deadlift? Then maybe we need some overload exercises like block deadlifts or rack deadlifts to overload the top of the movement to help carryover to when we handle a lighter load off the floor. Make sense?

Which muscles are weak?

This goes hand in hand with the analysis we do above. If for instance on the bench, we are constantly able to push the bar off of our chest, but just can’t seem to lock the bar out, then we are having issues with speed and/or tricep strength. So the solution here would be to add some dedicated tricep work that allows us to press, but places emphasis on the triceps. So close grip bench pressing, or utilizing a bar with a closer grip will help us destroy these weaknesses.

Which muscles are small?

If you see those “bros” in the gym who look like they’ve never squatted a rep in their life, yet have some decent development of their upper body, you will know what I’m talking about. You can have a decent bench press and upper body development while neglecting key lower body lifts like squats, deadlifts and single leg movements. So these people would need to work on the movements and work on building some muscle in those key areas.

If we note a muscle that needs work, we add volume (sets and reps) of an exercise that targets a particular muscle and do it until we get some size.

Which muscles are imbalanced?

This is a very important one, and one that is over looked by the vast majority of people. All guys are obsessed with the bench press. A lot of these guys will experience shoulder pain during their lifting career. One of the reasons for this is that they may do 5 pushing exercises in a session and do 1-2 pulling exercises. So the front of their body is getting a lot of work, but the back is severely undertrained.

You can and should be pre-emptive here. Meaning you should automatically be doing antagonistic muscles at all times. If you have to fix a problem that has already occurred you can do a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio of pulls:pushes. We can keep this ratio until we hopefully have good posture and are pain free. Then we can drop back a little bit. I still think everyone should be pulling more than they push just to make sure we limit the chances of creating large imbalances.

Where are we getting injured or having more tweaks than usual?

This is determined by experience. There are certain exercises you may not be able to do without experiencing a lot of pain. The trick here is to find out what these are. From here you have to determine if the exercise is generally a safe exercise. If it is, then your form is probably trash, or you have some sort of injury that needs to heal before you continue on with that particular exercise.

If the exercise is not safe. And I’ll list some for you now:

  • Dips
  • Bench Dips
  • Upright rowing where your hands are close and you row up to past the nipple line
  • Bench Pressing with a wide grip
  • Bench Pressing to the neck
  • Behind the neck presses
  • Squatting with your upper back rounding
  • Deadlifting with your back extending/flexing excessively

There are some exercises you may just have to give up on. For me, it was Dips. I loved dips for many years. Then I got shoulder pain on them. I waited a few weeks for it to heal and tried again. Pain. I think I even tried them once more. Pain. Then I removed them from my program and felt a lot better. I even tried them again 5+ years later… Pain. Ah well.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *