Best 3 Accessory Exercises

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Earlier in the week I received an email from my buddy Bret Contreras asking me (along with several other strength coaches) if I’d be willing to list my top three accessory movements for the main powerlifts – squat, bench, and deadlift, respectively – for an article that he’s currently working on. While I have no doubts that the end product will be fantastic, there’s no guarantee that what I sent him will make the final cut. That being said, I figured I’d make what I sent him a blog post today. Enjoy!

I’m going to blow people’s minds, ready? If you want to get better at chess, you play chess. If you want to get better at writing, you write. Likewise, if you want to get better at squatting, benching, or deadlifting – you need to squat, bench press, and deadlift. A lot.

Hate to break this to you, but you’re not going to improve squat by doing some super slow, hybrid, Eastern Bloc leg press specialization cycle vs. chains. Nor are you going to improve your bench press by doing reverse cable flies while standing on a BOSU ball. On one leg. Blindfolded.

More often than not, people just need to get good (and I mean REALLY good) at the lifts themselves before we start talking about accessory movements to help improve them. That being said, I tried to come up with a few less obvious exercises that I feel would bode well for most trainees.

Squat

1. Personally, my knees have the knees of an 80 year old man due to some overuse injuries I’ve accumulated throughout the years. As such, when I’m diligent with my soft tissue work, I’m able to manage the discomfort fairly well, and I’m still able to get after it on a weekly basis.

I’m a firm believer in what Dan John ALWAYS preaches: “if it’s important, do it every day.”

Keeping that in mind, I’m always trying to get some form of squat variation in with each and every training session. This doesn’t mean I LOAD my squats every time (big mistake many trainees make), rather I’m making a concerted effort to implement the movement pattern in every training session – sometimes everyday!

Goblet squats have really been a life saver for me, and I think there’s something to be said about teaching someone to know what it feels like to attain a nice, DEEP, squat position.

To no fault of their own, powerlifters squat to their box (to ensure proper depth) and call it a day. In the grand scheme of things, however, there really isn’t a while lot of amplitude involved, and I just feel that there’s a lot of benefit in everyday life (not just powerlifting) where having the ability to achieve a deep squat will speak volumes in terms of joint health, posture, as well as performance.

All in all, adding in some low-load, deep, squat patterns (whether it’s goblet squats, prying, high(er) rep front squats, box squats, whatever) several times throughout the week will undoubtedly help in the long run.

2. Just basic movement quality in general! There’s no denying the fact that powerlifters know how to squat – they’ve perfected it. Even still, as I noted above, there isn’t a whole lot of amplitude in your typical “powerlifting squat,” and I’d go so far as to say that a pregnant pig has better movement quality than most powerlifters.

For what it’s worth, I think including some basic movement training is of great benefit. Of course, incorporating some individualized mobility circuits will come into play here, but I also think things like skipping drills, lateral movement (slideboard, side shuffling, etc), and even the prowler (where they have to really drive that hip extension and “push” themselves away from the floor) are all great options.

3. Anderson Back Squats – there’s really no “cheating” on this one. No bouncing off the box, or “rocking” for that matter. You set the pins to a depth that allows you to get juuuuuust below parallel. Unrack the bar, lower yourself until the bar sets on the pins – PAUSE – and then explode up. As far as developing starting strength and explosiveness out of the “hole,” this is where it’s at.

Bench Press

1. TECHNIQUE WORK!!! To be perfectly blunt, most guys have bench technique that make me want to wash my eyes out with broken glass – flat back, no arch, no leg drive, elbows flared out, all around suckiness. A lot of times, in order to improve on their bench, guys have to learn to check their egos at the door and take one step back to take two steps forward.

Take some weight off the bar and learn to bench the right way for the love of god!!! This doesn’t mean putting your feet up in the air (retarded) or going down half way (even more retarded). Nope, the only way you’re going to improve is to take sub-maximal loads and DRILL technique till you’re blue in the face.

Taking it a step further, getting a solid training partner who you can trust will give you a proper hand-off, and not grab the bar as soon as it slows down (and then yells, all you, it’s all you dude) would be a step in the right direction as well.

2. Board Presses – LOVE board presses. For starters it gets guys used to “feeling” what it’s like to hold a heavier load. I mean lets be honest, half the battle is getting over the thought process of “holy shit this is heavy” as soon as you un-rack the weight. Needless to say, programming the central nervous system to get used to holding heavier loads has a lot of merit.

Secondly, when done correctly (not bouncing the weight off the board), it’s a great way to develop explosiveness off the chest, which is where I fail the most often, and coincidentally, where most trainees do as well. I’ve found that my 2-board press is pretty on-par with what my actual 1RM is with the bench. The key is to really “sink” the bar into the board, and come to a complete pause and not “bounce” the bar off the boards.

3. Last but not least, high volume DB work – I’ve found that when I really hammer HIGH volume on the DB work (like 5×8), I see my bench go up fairly quickly. And I get a little more gunny, which never hurts.

Deadlift:

1. Speaking purely from an anecdotal point of view, I respond VERY well to a lot of volume with the deadlift. It seems the more I deadlift (say twice per week), the more benefit I get from it. Which is to say, I’ll use one day and get a fair amount of volume – trap bar deadlift for 4×5-6 reps earlier in the week, followed by a heavier, me-against-the-****ing-bar session later on in the week, where I work up to some heavy triples or singles:

2. Goodmornings. Again, this is purely from a personal standpoint, but I’ve found that when I hammer goodmornings, my deadlift almost always improves. It makes sense, really. The bottom position of a goodmorning is the exact same position I would start a deadlift, so I feel there’s a ton of carryover. I LOVE me some Giant Cambered Bar Goodmornings, because they tend to be a little easier on my shoulders.

3. Kettlebelll Swings: done the right way!!!!! Watching most people do KB swings is like watching that scene in Swingers where Mike calls that Nikki chick and keeps getting cut off by her answering machine – it’s cringe worthy.

Suffice it to say, most people tend to do what’s called “squat swings,” and then wonder why their back hates them. Done the right way (with a hip THRUST), kettlebell swings are a fantastic way to teach explosiveness, which will translate very well to the lockout portion of the deadlift.

Of course the above could all be debated, and rightfully so. While this certainly wasn’t an exhaustive list, I think the above points cover a broad spectrum and will hopefully give people a few new ideas to try. Let me know what you think!

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