Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Weightlifting: The Value of Assistance Work
In the past, I had always been dismissive of assistance work. In lifting terms, assistance work is composed of minor exercises that help the power lifts, that is, the squat, deadlift, and bench press. There are many programs and training philosophies out there that recommend focusing on just a few compound lifts, such as the aforementioned, while shunning "bodybuilding" lifts like biceps curls, shoulder laterals, lunges, etc. These programs are always focused on powerlifting or strength training, and the term "bodybuilding" is used disparagingly, for it conjures up images of over-muscular men the color of over-baked chicken, wearing tiny speedos while admiring their biceps peak. However, the silliness of the sport of bodybuilding is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk about how there is great value in performing so-called bodybuilding work, while letting the volume of your main lifts subside, at least for a while.
The powerlifts certainly have the most bang for their buck. Instead of messing around with a dozen different exercises, you can get a muscular and strong lower body by performing deadlifts and squats, while the bench press develops the pectorals, front deltoids, and triceps better than any other lift. Throw in some chin-ups for the biceps and lats, and maybe some direct shoulder work in the form of overhead pressing, and you have a solid routine guaranteed to make you stronger. However, at a certain point, if you decide to move beyond exercising and embrace training, you are going to need to get bigger. If you want to squat 600 lbs, you need bigger quads. The squat is not really a great quad exercise. The upper thighs and the gluts do most of the work, and although the quadriceps will certainly get bigger from squatting, you need assistance exercises if they are to reach their maximum development. Lunges and hack squats are great at targeting the quads. You can even do leg extensions if you want! By dialing back your squat volume, and incorporating a few sets of high rep assistance exercises, your legs will get bigger and stronger. The same philosophy can be applied to your other main lifts.
Below are the assistance lifts that I've found useful, along with the rep ranges I use. Maxing out on these exercises is not the purpose. You should be trying to make the muscle work rather than just moving weight through space.
For the upper body: Barbell curls-sets of 10, hammer curls-sets of 10, lying triceps extensions-sets of 10, inverted rows-sets of 15, dumbbell rows-sets of 12 to 15 reps, behind the neck press-pyramid up to a set of 4 or 5 (use a partial range of motion on this lift to avoid shoulder pain), front, side, rear laterals-sets of 12 reps.
For the lower body: Lunges-sets of 10 to 12, hack squats-sets of 10, calf raises-sets of 15, weighted hamstring stretches-sets of 10.
The main lifts are still performed every workout, yet I often just pyramid up to a top set. Try this approach for a while and see if you don't get bigger and stronger.