Whether you are a strength athlete or a casual gym-goer, there is one goal that we all have in mind: to get better. Whether you want to hit that big bench press number, or you just want to look better, the importance of someone's ability to keep training is key. This can be hampered by inadequacies in the body and especially by a nagging injury that won’t go away. In this short series, we will go over the importance of accessory work and how it can prevent injury and allow you to hit the gym every day. In Part Two, we will discuss some different recovery techniques that can keep your body operating smoothly.
Now, if you think that you can’t make yourself feel better at the gym, you are wrong. People will spend a lot of money and time at a physical therapist’s office, when you can do the same stuff at the gym at the end of your workout. It’s called accessory work and here is how you can incorporate it into your program…
Whether you are a powerlifter, weightlifter, or strongman competitor, you are always pushing a big lift or few lifts as staples in your program. In order to see progress in these lifts, the body needs balance. You may not notice it right away, but only training a few certain lifts can cause imbalances in the body and lead to injury. Accessory work is a great addition to any training program that will create balance and stability in the body and allow you to continue to push your big lifts and make continuous gains. Below are some reasons why accessory work needs to be included in your training.
First and most importantly is balance in the body. Our body is a wonderful machine full of checks and balances. This means that for every function our muscles can produce, there is an opposite function another muscle can do. For example, in the elbow, you have the biceps brachii that can contract or shorten the space between the lower and upper arm. But the body has the triceps, which are opposite and can extend and create space between the lower and upper arm. These types of muscles are known as antagonists and protagonist muscles, and the body is full of them. Their abilities are limitless. Balance is good between individual muscles, but balance is even more important between big muscle groups. If you are working on getting a big bench press (and train it constantly without any accessory work), when you walk your shoulders will be pulled forward because of an imbalance between your chest and back. In order to balance out the upper body, you need to train your shoulder and back muscles along with your chest in order to maintain balance in the upper body. This will prevent overtaxing of some muscles in favor of others and result in feeling better all around.
Another important reason why accessory work in important is injury. Now, as mentioned above, an inexperienced lifter who trains his chest and tri’s without balancing out the rest of the upper body will start to experience shoulder problems. This will be caused because of an imbalance on the shoulder joint--stronger muscles pulling on the joint, and weaker muscles not being able to pull in the opposite direction and balance out the tension. Injury can also occur simply from untrained muscles not being able to take the same load that trained muscles do. As hard as it is to imagine straining a back muscle while doing a bench press, it is more frequent than you would imagine.
Lastly, a big reason to add this type of work into your training is because training the big, main lifts uses compound movements. Compound movements are exercises that use multiple joints to perform an exercise. Accessory work gives you the opportunity to work in some single joint movements and focus on a single area. This may help bring other areas up to par with your bigger muscles and help with functionality.
When looking into what accessory work to add, some people will read this and start going crazy and adding all types of movements in. There are a few easy ways to determine what you need to work on. The first way is to look at what pains you -- if it hurts to move a joint in a certain way, look at your training regimen and see if there is a direction your joint doesn’t move during training. Most likely you can add in training the joint in that direction a few times a week, and you will notice relief of the pain in that area relatively quickly. The second way to determine what accessory work is needed is to take a look at your training log. You will need to look at what lifts you train the most, and add some exercises that work opposite muscles. Evaluating your weaknesses is not as hard as it seems and your weaknesses are usually the lifts you can add as accessory movements. When I train, it is easy for me to determine what I should do as my accessory work because it’s usually the stuff I hate doing the most.
If you are still having a hard time figuring out what to add, here are a few suggestions: Shoulders and upper back are a big one that most people neglect. You need a strong joint in order to have stability in your movement. A few rehab/prehab exercises with a band or light weights will increase fluidity and relieve stress on this joint. Another area to check out is your knee. There are numerous muscles that go into your knee joint, and one major one that is usually overlooked is the vastus medialis oblique, or your “tear drop” – the muscle on the inside part of your leg, right above the knee. A few single leg extensions or shallow steps will get this muscle up to snuff in no time. The last major areas that are often neglected are the hips and lower back. Reverse hypers, back extensions, hip thrusts, and bridge work can keep this area strong, healthy, and injury-free.
With all the research and insight out there, you can find a lot more in depth detail about accessory work but this hopefully gives you an idea of its importance and will allow for you to take you training to higher levels.
Check back soon for Part Two, where we will discuss recovery work and what you should be doing after your workouts to keep everything running smoothly.
Tom Sroka - Tom is personal trainer, coach, and nationally ranked weightlifter in the USA. He graduated from Aurora University with a degree in Physical Education with minors in Fitness & Health Promotion and Health Education. He is a three-time All-American shot putter and hammer thrower, and a two-time recipient of the NSCA Strength and Conditioning All-American Award. He has also coached nationally-ranked collegiate athletes and helped secure a National title for the North Central Men’s Track & Field team.