Over the years, I realize that the best strength training programs are a combination of main lifts and accessory exercises.
But what are the best accessory exercises that can maximize your workout? Certified personal trainers swear by a few accessory movements which, if performed correctly, can help you build a powerful and impressive physique.
If you want to get the most bang for your buck out of your strength training program, keep reading. I’m going to describe 10 accessory exercises that will help you achieve your training goal, whether it is to run faster, prepare for football season, lift heavier, correct muscle imbalances, or become the best powerlifter in your gym.
Here’s my in-depth guide on accessory exercises.
What Are Accessory Exercises?
As the name suggests, accessory exercises are “accessories” or complementary to your main lifts. They complete your strength training and help you gain muscle mass in the same muscles that are worked by the primary exercises.
Doing the movement patterns of these accessory exercises along with your main lifts will help you gain strength, shed fat, build muscle, improve range of motion, and gain core stability, shoulder stability, and hip mobility.
Main lifts, also known as core lifts, big lifts, or primary exercises, are compound movements.
They help you in building muscle and gaining strength.
Examples of main lifts include:
- Bench presses
- Overhead presses
Here’s the thing... Most people who are training to be powerlifters focus on 3 main lifts in the weight room — the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press.
There is no doubt that these compound movements are the primary focus for lifters.
But to do only these main lifts is not the right approach. To overcome your weak points and improve upon your strengths in primary exercises like deadlifts, you also need to do a range of accessory exercises or secondary movements.
This gives you a more rounded workout and helps you add weight to your main lifts.
To make true progress in your strength training program, you need to train the same muscle groups that are used in these primary exercises with accessory exercises.
Why Do You Need Accessory Exercises?
Accessory exercises are beneficial for several reasons.
Firstly, they bridge any gaps in muscle development left by a primary exercise.
Secondly, they add variety to your workouts, thereby strengthening any weak links.
Thirdly, they strengthen accessory muscles, thereby preventing injuries.
Fourthly, accessory exercises increase training volume and enhance your overall performance.
Here’s a scenario to demonstrate all these benefits.
For instance, let’s say you are doing squats as your main big exercise for the lower body. Now, while squats have many benefits, they are limited in that they work the quads more than the hamstrings.
So, if you do only squats to train your legs, you can end up with muscle imbalances (stronger quads with weaker hamstrings).
Over time, this can undermine your lockout strength and overall performance in the gym.
If you include an accessory exercise like Russian kettlebell swings in your workout, however, you can increase hamstring strength and muscle mass. Therefore, Russian kettlebell swing is considered an effective accessory exercise to squats.
Best Accessory Exercises
- Grip an overhead bar.
- Lift your body until your chin is above the bar.
Muscles Trained: The main muscle groups worked by pull-ups are:
- Latissimus dorsi (the large upper back muscle)
- thoracic spine muscles
This accessory exercise also strengthens the arm and shoulder muscles and improves grip strength.
How It Helps: Pull-ups are essential to increase the power of your bench presses. This is because pull-ups strengthen back muscles and back muscles help you control the weight when you’re lowering the barbell during wide or close grip bench presses.
2. Side Lunges
- Take a big step to the side.
- Turn the leading foot so that it is at a 90-degree angle to your standing foot.
- Twist around so that your chest is facing sideways from the original position.
- You then lower your body until the knee of your leading leg is bent at about 90 degrees, making sure to keep the trailing leg straight at all times.
Muscles Trained: Side lunges work your:
- Inner thigh muscles
How It Helps: Just like hip thrusts, side lunges or lateral lunges help you achieve hip stability and improve leg strength. This is helpful in exercises like leg presses and squats.
3. Reverse Lunges
- Step back with one leg.
- Bend the back leg so that the back knee is nearly touching the ground and the front knee and thigh are parallel to the ground.
This exercise works on the leg that is planted in front.
Muscles Trained: Reverse lunges work you:
How It Helps: Reverse lunges help you develop core stability and strengthen the legs without putting too much stress on the joints. This is useful when you do primary exercises like squats and deadlifts.
4. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- Lay down on the floor with your feet on a stability ball and knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
- You then lift up your hips off the floor and extend your legs out in front of you
- Curl your legs back in, pulling your heels towards your buttocks and moving the ball nearer to your body until the soles of your feet are touching the ball. Make sure your hips stay up throughout the entire movement and you squeeze your abs.
- You finish the exercise by extending your knees and lowering your hips.
Muscles Trained: Stability ball hamstring curls primarily target the hamstrings, but to a lesser extent also work on the glutes, abs, and lower back muscles.
How It Helps: If you have weak hamstrings, this is one of the accessory exercises that you must add to your workout. It can enhance your squat performance by strengthening the weakest link in your body.
5. Dead Bugs
- Lie face up on an exercise mat with your arms raised above your torso and your legs in the air with your knees bent at an angle of 90 degrees.
- You then slowly lower the opposite arm and leg towards the floor in a controlled manner.
- After you return to the starting position, you repeat the movement with the opposite arm and leg.
Muscles Trained: Dead bugs target the:
- Deeper core muscles
- Spinal muscles
- Pelvic floor muscles
How It Helps: By strengthening and stabilizing your core, dead bugs help to improve posture, balance, coordination, and range of motion, which will be beneficial in every main lift you do during strength training.
6. Bent Over Rows
- Lift the bar from the rack.
- While keeping your back straight, bend forward at the hips with a slight bend at the knees.
- You then lower the bar towards the floor until your elbows are straight, keeping your back flat as you pull the bar towards your torso.
- To finish the exercise, you lower the bar slowly to the starting position and repeat.
Start with less weight and build up as you get stronger.
Muscles Trained: The main muscle groups worked by bent over rows are the back muscles, including:
How It Helps: Bent over rows train many different muscles and improve strength in the upper and lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and shoulders, all of which can be sticking points in the big lifts.
These accessory exercises help to improve your performance during upper body primary exercises like bench presses.
7. Kettlebell Swings
- Pick up a kettlebell and move it like a pendulum between the knees, raising the bell to eye level or overhead.
This exercise can be done with either one hand or both hands.
Muscles Trained: This exercise targets the:
It can also benefit your grip strength (you can use the kettlebell to do farmer’s walks as well for this purpose).
How It Helps: Kettlebell swings provide a full-body workout that benefits many muscle groups. These accessory exercises are helpful in most of the big lifts, such as a bench press, split squat, and deadlift with heavy weights.
- Sit on the edge of a chair or weight bench.
- You grip the bench next to your hips with your fingers pointing towards your feet.
- With your legs extended, feet hip-width apart, and heels touching the ground, you slowly lift your body and slide forward so that your buttocks clear the edge of the bench.
- Then, you lower yourself until your elbows are bent at an angle of 45-90 degrees.
- To finish the exercise, you push yourself back up until your arms are straight.
Muscles Trained: This accessory exercise trains the triceps and strengthens the arm and shoulder muscles including the deltoids in the arm, the pecs in the chest, and the rhomboids in the upper back.
How It Helps: Dips can help you lift heavier weights during a bench press and improve athletic performance in sports.
9. Cable Lifts and Chops
There are many different ways to perform cable chop and lift accessory exercises.
A cable machine is the best piece of equipment with which to perform chop and lift accessory exercises. This equipment allows you to pull up a cable from a low pulley or pull down a cable from a high pulley.
You do not need heavier weights for this exercise because it involves many muscles. The diagonal movement patterns of the upper body are done in the half kneeling or tall kneeling postures.
Muscles Trained: The chop and lift moves recruit the muscle groups of the core as well as the lower and upper back.
How It Helps: Cable lifts and chops can help you develop power, build strength, improve stamina, improve stability, correct muscle imbalances, and at the same time strengthen the core and lower back.
Most lifters find these movements help to improve maximum weight during a deadlift.
They help you add more weight to upper body primary exercises like the bench press, shoulder press, board presses, and row variations.
10. Glute Bridges
- Lie facing up with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- You then slowly lift your hips off the floor until your knees, hips, and shoulders are in a straight line.
- You squeeze your glutes and draw in your abs to avoid overextending the back.
Muscles Trained: The main muscle worked by glute bridges is the gluteus maximus, the biggest muscle in your butt.
How It Helps: Glute bridges help to tone your glutes and build strength in these muscles, which is beneficial during lower body primary exercises like squats and split squats.
Only a small handful of people who are into powerlifting understand the immense importance of accessory exercises.
By including them in your own workouts, you can overcome any weakness you might have, build on your strong points, reach your fitness goals faster, and elevate your training program to a new level.
Doing accessory exercises will also help you avoid injuries while lifting by strengthening all the different muscle groups involved in your big lifts.
Plus, performing accessory exercises adds fun and variety to your workouts. Ultimately, accessory exercises will go a long way in making you the bodybuilder and athlete you aspire to become.