Search through many of the most popular fitness sites and social platforms for training advice and you seem to see largely similar advice floating around. If someone’s looking to start weight training, the advice is almost universally to focus on the big compound lifts (barbell squat, deadlift, bench press) with a few other movements thrown in for balance such as the overhead press and the barbell row.
For the vast majority of new lifters, this is all sensible advice. Popular programs such as Stronglifts 5×5 and Starting Strength have an established history of providing solid improvements in both the strength and muscle mass of those who stick to the program.
They are extremely efficient ways of building the baseline strength that people need to progress in the world of weight training, hitting the major muscle groups and allowing trainees to move a respectable amount weight in a fairly short period of time. Linear periodization has been proven effective time and again when it comes to developing strength quickly, particularly for those new to the gym.
But there seems to be a trend developing where anything outside of these big compound lifts is dismissed as unnecessary and pointless, with occasional mockery of those that would even contemplate the treasonous act of throwing in a few dumbbell curls or calf raises at the end of a strength session.
This strange new dogma seems to have arisen in the last few years, passed on by novice lifters who have seen results on these introductory routines to other new lifters looking for advice. Quite why accessory lifts are at best ignored or at worst openly mocked by certain elements out there is, quite frankly, baffling.
What are Accessory Lifts?
For the purpose of this article, the term accessory lifts will refer to any movement outside of the major compound lifts we mentioned earlier – barbell squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press and the barbell row – as well as the Olympic lifts. This can include any and all movements using the barbell, dumbbells, cables, machines and bodyweight movements.
They often comprise of isolation work, a movement which targets a specific muscle group rather than wider area. For example, bench press will hit the chest, shoulders and triceps, while dumbbell flys will almost exclusively work the chest.
The almost minimalist approach to lifting which ignores accessory lifts in favour of big compounds is leaving a lot of people way short of their potential. Even if all you’re interested in is improving the weight you can squat or bench, isolation work and accessory lifts can help fix the muscle imbalances and weaknesses that could be holding you back.
Improving Your Squat
The barbell squat is one of the most effective movements for building the legs and the core, and most people will see a significant improvement if they work through the initial linear progression patterns that are common in beginner strength programs.
After a while that will start to tail off, and outside of addressing form there comes a time when certain muscle groups will be holding you back. While typically the best way to keep improving is regular squatting and squat variations, there are a few useful accessory movements while can help drive progress.
Box Jumps – useful for improving the ability to produce force and explosive movement
Lunges/Split Squats – Helps with quad strength and stability of the knees and ankles
Goblet Squats – Useful for working on squat depth and hip flexibility
Improving Your Bench
By far the most important thing you can do to improve the amount you can bench is to take some weight off the bar and work on form. The bench press tends to be one of the first things people gravitate towards when they start lifting, so the bad habits are picked up and ingrained fairly early on.
When it comes to accessory work to help with strength, there are a few movements which can make a big difference.
Incline Dumbbell Press – Helps work the chest as delts from a slightly different angle and helps with overall stability
Dips – Ideal for building strength in the triceps, shoulders and chest. Go weighted if you find bodyweight dips too easy
Dumbbell/Cable Flies – Another movement for working the pecs and improving stability
Tricep Extensions – Useful for building up tricep strength, of course
Improving Your Deadlift
The deadlift is one of the most effective movements for building strength throughout the body, and with regular training will likely be the biggest of your three major lifts. While much of the movement will be dependent on the strength of your core, hamstrings and glutes, speed and explosive power also play a key role once you start adding weight.
Some example accessory lifts are:
Deficit Romanian Deadlifts – helps develop strength through the posterior chain
Barbell Hip Thrusts – helps add strength to the glutes
High Pulls – builds additional speed and power from the floor
Farmers Walk – added grip strength will make it easier to get the bar up
Mastering the Fundamentals
Although there are a huge number of movements which can be used to strengthen the various supporting muscles, there are a few elements which are almost universally used in the major lifts and should be worked on regularly.
Core strength is key in almost every big compound lift, so developing a powerful and stable core can help make things like the squat and deadlift a little easier. Some core isolation work, particularly the range of plank variations out there, will make a big difference to your core strength.
Flexibility and mobility will also help with most exercises, not always through the increased range of movement available but also in terms of injury prevention. Regular stretching after workouts will help keep the muscles and joints loose, and should help reduce injury rates.
While you’ll obviously get better at the big three lifts by working on them regularly, there’s a lot to be said for spending some time on other lifts which will help support and improve them.
If you’re really looking to make progress you’ll need to fall in love with training, and mixing in a few new movements after you’ve finished your main lifts can help keep the gym fresh and exciting. Mix things up, find the movements which are most effective for improving your strength levels and basically be your own scientist – experiment until you find the right workout for you.