Once again, the internet has forced my hand into pedantry. It’s time to explain the difference between assistance work and accessory work, and why you should be doing the former vs the latter. I’m honestly shocked that I need to do this because really; who wants to do something called “accessory work”? Accessories are what you wear to put together a smart outfit because you and your girlfriends hit the mall for Orange Julius while complaining about how you’re just too fat. Assistance, though not the most masculine of terms, at least implies that something is helping in some way, whereas an accessory is just kinda hanging on in the background as part of an entourage. But let’s get started here.
Christ, it's not the 90s anymore. Do people even go to malls? Is Orange Julius still a thing?
What we’re primarily getting at here is the value of mentality when it comes to selecting exercises in a program. Typically, you have your core lifts, which are the handful of lifts that you want to get stronger. For a powerlifter, these are the big 3. For a strongman, it’s a wider handful, but typically a small grouping of indicator lifts that let the athlete know that they are getting stronger at their sport. For the weightlifter, it’s the snatch and clean and jerk. You get where I’m going. After these core lifts, you have supplemental lifts; those lifts that build the core lifts. For some trainees, this is just the core lifts again with a different volume pattern. For others, these are variations of the core lifts built to address specific weak points. Once you have hit the supplemental lifts, NOW we get into the assistance work.
Assistance work are those lifts that assist the trainee in meeting their goals without directly contributing specifically to the core lifts. For example, a big and strong back contributes greatly to pressing and squatting, but those aren’t “back exercises”, thus, when we do chins and rows, we do them as assistance for pressing and squatting rather than as supplemental work. Strong arms help keep the bar stable when benching, but we don’t consider the bench an arm exercise, so when we do curls, we do them as assistance work. You get the point. These are the movements in the program that, though not directly building our core lifts, they are essential in assisting the development of the core lift.
You knew this was coming
So what the hell is an accessory? An accessory is just a movement that gets tacked onto the program “just because”. Lateral raises just because. Calf raises just because. Farmer’s walks just because. Etc. They have no intended effect, they have no purpose, and they are not planned for the sake of making anything else stronger. People just throw them into the program because they “want to”; because somehow, for some reason, they enjoy these lifts.
No, let’s be real; people do these things for hypertrophy. Almost 100% of the time, that’s the reason for accessory lifts. People still think this is something to be ashamed of, and tend to hide this goal with flowerly language, but people like their lateral raises and calf raises and whatever else because they believe it promotes muscular growth and they are of the opinion that their current programming is lacking in the ability to deliver this. So they just tack on movements to their programming with no consideration to the impact, positive or negative, it has towards achieving their goals.
I mean, when has meaninglessly tacking things on ever gone wrong before?
But here is the thing; assistance work CAN promote hypertrophy. In fact, it SHOULD promote hypertrophy. That’s pretty much the whole point of doing it in the first place. A bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle, and as such, when you do assistance work, you are trying to get bigger muscles for your core and supplemental lifts to make stronger. This is why you can do 200 dips for assistance works and blow up your chest, delts and triceps. It’s why you can backwards sled drag for assistance work and inflate your quads like balloons. And that means you CAN do lateral raises for assistance work too. It’s all viable; you just need to program it intelligently.
And I say that fully aware that I also say “it’s assistance work; it doesn’t matter”. You don’t need to be losing sleep over rep ranges, true, but you can still be intelligent in your selection of assistance work. If you have cannonball delts and spaghetti arms, lay off the raises and start hitting the curls and extensions. If your quads are the side of watermelons and your glutes are so small pants won’t stay on, lay off the leg extensions are start hitting the glute ham raise. But aside from that, simply focusing on working hard will carry you far with your selections here.
Clearly needs more hamstring work
Along with that, be real with yourself about your goals. It does you no good to pay lip service to powerlifting or strongman and then try to find some sort of mental gymnastics necessary to be able to include the shoulder shocker into your assistance work. Be honest with yourself; if you goal is to have big shoulders, make your core and supplemental work dedicated to big shoulder and do the assistance work to match. Once you meet that goal, THEN you can resume your powerlifting or strongman. Don’t be a closet bodybuilder; own it, achieve it, and move on. Or stay with it for life and do what it takes to keep hitting that goal. Just set yourself up for success.
Just…please stop calling them accessories. It hurts my soul.