There is somewhat of an accessory work renaissance these days in weightlifting. It was cool a while back, then it wasn’t, and now the pendulum seems to have swung back to cool. Personally I think there have always been too many people at the extremes: those that think accessory work is a total waste of time and never do it, and those who think accessory work is some kind of magical secret that will turn the average weightlifter into a world record holder.
Accessory work certainly has a place, but it won’t make a racehorse out of a jackass
Accessory work certainly has a place, but it won’t make a racehorse out of a jackass, and how much of it and what exercises are best will vary based on the needs of each athlete and the time in the training cycle. The following exercises I’ve chosen because I think they’re pretty universally valuable. Also keep in mind that I’m distinguishing accessory work like the below from bodybuilding exercises
(e.g. curls), supplemental exercises (e.g. pulling variations), and trunk work
The Turkish Get-up is the product of imagining the least convenient, most complicated way to stand up from a supine position. But that complication is what makes it so useful—it covers a lot of important bases in a single movement. I prefer the high-bridge variation of the exercise in which you lift the hips as high as possible prior to bringing the leg back under you into the lunge position—it’s just a nice way to get some additional glute work and hip flexor mobility in there. Use a deliberate pace and focus on constant tension and stability—the exercise is going to take a while even if you rush it, so you might as well do it right and benefit as much as possible.
The pull-up is an exercise that belongs in every person’s life in some form or another unless there’s an extremely compelling reason to avoid it. It’s not only a great strength builder for the upper body, but also an effective way to improve and preserve shoulder mobility. For weightlifters in particular, you’re asking for trouble if you do nothing but pressing and jerking motions without balancing it with pulling.
This can be done a few ways, such as with a barbell, two dumbbells or kettlebells, or with a single dumbbell or kettlebell. My go-to is a single dumbbell held in the arm opposite of the working leg, i.e. if you’re standing on your left leg, hold the weight in your right arm. Use a controlled tempo and don’t bounce the weight off the floor—the goal is to maintain control over your position and movement the entire time, not just fall down and bounce back up before you have time to fall over. You can even do them hippie style without shoes to get some foot work in.
There are pretty much endless possibilities with this one, so get creative but make your choices sensibly, i.e. ensure the variation is being used to address a specific need, not just for a more exciting Instagram video. Two-handed barbell in jerk or snatch grip with or without weights hanging on bands or chains to increase instability, single arm dumbbell or kettlebell (standard or bottom-up), single arm barbell; walking forward, backward, uphill, downhill, lunging, side-stepping, etc. In any case, the focus should be establishing and maintaining a strong fixed scapular position and a strong hand and wrist position.
I like unilateral leg work, and I really like lunges, but if I have to pick just one today, I’m going to go with step-ups. Lunges are kind of a hybrid unilateral movement—you get a significant amount of assistance from the back leg, which isn’t a bad thing, and is actually pretty useful, but if you want to truly work on stability at the hip and unilateral strength, the step up is the way to go. In my opinion, the key is forgetting your ego—start relatively low and light and work your way up and heavier gradually. The goal is to step up… not push up off the back leg to get you through the hard part. You can change your position a bit to make it work differently—start with the shin vertical for more posterior chain emphasis, or start with the down leg more to the side of the box than behind and a forward shin angle on the top leg for more of a quad emphasis. You can also use tempos, especially slow eccentrics, although paced concentrics are a good way to cure a cheating back leg.
Most accessory work isn’t going to cut too much into your recovery capacity, so you can kick up your heels and just throw some in there. It’s usually easier to give a time cap rather than a volume prescription, e.g. you’ve got 15 minutes to get this stuff done so you don’t extend your workout another 45 minutes to just barely squeeze in 3 sets of step-ups and pull-ups in between social media forays.
As you get close to a competition, cool it on the accessories. You don’t necessarily have to cut them out completely, but at least go into maintenance phase and keep weights and reps the same for the last couple weeks, and then go lighter and less or none at all the final week. The effects of these exercises aren’t going to vanish in a single week.