Properly Program Your Assistance Lifts

When developing a proper strength program you need to have lifts that are classified as either main lifts or assistance lifts. Main lifts are what your program is focused around and what takes the most effort. For me and the majority of my clients these main lifts are; squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. Choosing main lifts is relatively straight forward but assistance lifts are usually where people go wrong.

The most common mistake people make with assistance work is simply doing too much. They do too many sets or too many exercises trying to train each muscle individually. Just like the main lifts, assistance lifts should be large multi-joint movements that can be progressed over a long period of time. People also tend to put way too much emphasis on their assistance work, or as strength guru Jim Wendler says it “majoring in the minors.” Simply put, you do not want to work so hard on your assistance lifts that your main lifts suffer.

Assistance lifts should serve to:
1. Increase the main lifts
2. Build muscle mass
3. Provide balance and body symmetry
4. Strengthen weak areas

All of this can be accomplished with a few large assistance lifts each day. The way I like to build a program is to pair the main lift of the day with a corresponding assistance lift. Here is an example:

Main Lift Corresponding Assistance Lift
Squat Hinge Movement (Snatch-Grip Deadlift)
Deadlift Squat Movement (Front Squat)
Bench Press Horizontal Pull (Barbell Row)
Overhead Press Vertical Pull (Pull-ups)

If you pair the main lifts with a corresponding assistance lift all you have to do is fill any gaps in the program or work on weak areas. Generally on lower body days I will program abdominal work and on upper body days I will program some extra upper back and shoulder work.

It may seem too simple but if you are doing the right things there is no reason to have more than 2-3 assistance lifts on a given day of the program.

Here is a list of my favorite assistance exercises in no particular order:
1. Pull-ups/Chin-ups
You can and should use a variety of grips and hand widths when performing pull-ups. You can switch them up every week or even every set. It really doesn’t matter; just pull yourself up to a bar.

2. Dumb Bell Rows
These can be done for straight sets or in “Kroc Row” fashion where you do a couple warm-up sets then perform an all out set of high reps (my favorite way to do rows). These are great for back development as well as grip strength.

3. Barbell Rows
There are many different ways to do these but my preferred method is to let the bar rest on the floor between each rep so you’re pulling from a dead stop each time. When doing these be sure to keep your back level and flat. Use a grip that is the same width as your bench press grip.

4. Front Squats
These are great for building up your squat strength as well as quad size. Whether you use a “clean grip” or cross your arms like a body builder, the bar must be resting on your shoulders just behind your anterior deltoid muscle (weight is not held by your hands). Take a stance slightly narrower than when you back squat and drop your hips straight down until they are below your knees. Keep your elbows high and chest up.

5. Snatch-Grip Deadlift
These are performed exactly like a conventional deadlift only you are using a very wide grip (as you would in a snatch). Your grip should be wide enough that when you finish the movement the bar is at the crease of your hips. These are great for developing the posterior chain and upper back.

6. Close-Grip Bench
Grip the bar with your pointer fingers just inside the smooth part of the bar. Focus on keeping your elbows tucked close to your torso while lowering and pressing the weight. This is one of the premier lifts to improve your triceps strength and bench press.

7. Dips
Great for developing pressing strength and muscle mass. Dips are very straight forward, just be sure you are using a full range of motion. These can be done with bodyweight for high reps or with weight added for strength work.


If you have any questions about programming your assistance lifts please contact:

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