Got some thoughts clunking around in my head. Want to get them down on paper.
I don't have a meet coming up. Not as in "not in a while", but simply not at all. I will be moving soon, and don't know when I will compete next as a result. I have entered a prolonged "off season", and it's allowed me to become inventive.
Here are my thoughts on training assistance work.
1: Jim Wendler said it best. Don't major in the minors. If you don't have your shit together on the primary lifts, figure that out first before you even worry about assistance work. That said, what I am writing here is going to be very intensive on the assistance work, mainly because the primary stuff tends to take care of itself.
2: There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Thank you Donald Rumsfeld/Samuel L. Jackson
What's a known known? We KNOW that you become a better bencher by benching, a better squatter by squatting, and a better deadlifter by deadlifting. When everything else in your world has fallen apart and you are clinging to a tub of protein powder and listening to AM radio to hear if it's safe to come outside, you can take solace in these facts.
Like this, if the book was "Supertraining"
What is a known unknown? This is going to depend on your own personal level of knowledge and investment in training. There are many people much smarter than me when it comes to training. These people can calculate band tension, understand WTF a circa-max cycle is, understand all the little biological nuances that are involved in muscle and strength building, etc. I don't know these things, but I KNOW that I don't know them. I know the information is out there, and if I really wanted to, I could learn it.
What is an unknown unknown? It's something that we don't know that we don't know. We are unaware of something even being relevant that we don't even realize that we don't know it.
How do these all come into play? It depends on where you are in your training.
When I am closing in on a meet, I default to known knowns. My assistance work is very specific and deliberate. I bench to become a better bencher, and I pause the bench on my chest and lock out each rep, because I know that is what is expected of me in competition. It's the same for the squat as well. I use what I know works.
In my current off season? I am in the realm of unknown unknowns. I am intentionally avoiding specificity as much as possible, and doing things I have never done before. I don't lockout my reps, I don't pause on the chest, I use bands, chains, fat gripz, dumbbells, etc. Variety is the name of the game here.
Why would I do this? Because it's possible that there is something that could make me stronger that I simply don't know about. It's possible that I could "accidentally" get stronger by doing this. I will be bringing up muscle groups that I didn't even realize were lagging, hitting angles that I didn't know were relevant to a movement, and developing a skillset that was apparently vital to a lift that I completely lacked. Is it a total shot in the dark? Hell yeah it is, but I've got no meet in sight, what do I care? And really, if my bench doesn't increase, but my incline swiss bar fat gripz bench went from 135lbs to 200lbs, who am I to say that I didn't still get stronger?
Once I DO find something that works, it's now become a known unknown. I have identified a potential valuable asset, and it becomes my responsibility to research, dissect and understand it. I do myself a disservice by not exploiting this newfound tool, and the more I understand and am able to manipulate it, the more I am able to progress with it, to the point that it may soon become a known known in terms of what exists in my toolbox.
As I stated, close to a meet is a poor time to experiment, but without experimentation and change one will eventually reach stagnation, thus it becomes imperative that, in these times of offseason, you don't give in to fear and simply stick with "what works", but use that time to find out if there is something you are missing. In a program like 5/3/1, you still have basic heavy work to keep your strength in check, and this in turn allows you to really let off the breaks and see what you are capable of.
Ignore the naysayers who speak of how the smith machine is garbage or how barbells are the only way to get stronger. If something makes you bigger or stronger, who cares what it is? There are no points granted to how you got to the destination, simply that you reached it. I would rather reach paradise in a Pinto than be broken down on the side of the road in a Corvette.