In this post, instead of writing about the most preposterous beliefs that have infiltrated the fitness industry (and there are plenty), I’m going to discuss the one belief that seems to have validity and is accepted as truth by even the most well-respected coaches and trainers out there—even though it’s dead wrong.
The belief that I’m talking about is the use of assistance exercises to improve the “bread and butter” exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses (although I greatly prefer the standing overhead press to the bench press—read my last post “The Barbell Bench Press: Friend or Foe?” to see why).
For those of you who are not sure what an assistance exercise is, let’s take a look at an example to clear up any potential confusion.
A Closer Look
Let’s say your goal is to increase your strength in the barbell squat. A coach who adheres to the “assistance exercise” belief would watch you perform a set of squats and determine which muscles are relatively weak. This is determined based on your sticking points, alignment, form, etc.
For the sake of this example, let us assume that the trainee’s hamstrings were determined to be weak.
The coach would then prescribe specific exercises to strengthen the hamstrings: GHR’s, pull throughs and reverse hypers, for example.
These exercises would then be emphasized even more than the actual squat in order to “balance out the strength deficit”.
The selling point of the assistance exercise protocol is, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” (if I had a buck every time I heard this saying, I would be writing this post from Tahiti right now!).
Based on the “weakest link” premise, strengthening the hamstrings would improve your strength in the squat. This certainly makes sense and sounds great in theory.
I know this approach quite well. In fact, I once spent an entire off-season prescribing routines based on this premise to my football players.
Unfortunately, my results were far from impressive. Sure, everyone got stronger during the summer, but by lesser percentages than I had become accustomed to before I experimented with this training style.
My mind was riddled with questions after that lackluster experience. How could this possibly not work? After all, some of the strongest lifters in the world train like this! Did I apply this technique incorrectly? I needed answers to these questions immediately. So off to the lab I went. And by “lab”, I mean my training center.
Well, my off-season experiment was conducted nearly ten years ago, so I’ve had plenty of time to find the elusive answers through massive trial and error and obsessive brainstorming with my close friend and training partner, Jason Ferruggia.
Here are my findings:
This theory can work for advanced lifters (although I’m not convinced that it’s necessary). Does it work because it brings up the weakest link?
Perhaps to some degree it does, but I believe it has more to do with the assistance exercises giving lifters’ bodies a break from the massive weights they lift on their “main exercises”.
In other words, let’s say you could deadlift 800 pounds. Lifting colossal weight like this with any significant volume or frequency would quickly lead to CNS burn out and/or injuries.
Therefore it would be wise to decrease exposure to these huge weights by reducing the volume of the deadlift itself and supplementing with less stressful “assistance exercises”.
As I just mentioned, this approach is worth considering for advanced lifters. What is an advanced lifter?
Here is a simple formula for some of the more commonly performed exercises:
Deadlift- 2.5 x bodyweight
Squats- 2.5 x bodyweight
Bench Press- 2 x bodyweight
Standing Press- 1 x bodyweight
This is far from an exhaustive list but should give you a clear idea about how strong you need to be before you attempt the “pull the rabbit out of the hat” assistance exercise trick.
What about everyone else? What if you are a beginner? What if you’ve been training for a while but can’t hit those numbers yet?
Think about it: what’s going to improve someone’s squat more, doing squats or doing a bunch of GHR’s? The answer is clear, and I have the results to back it up.
I know this assertion will ruffle some feathers, but I make it with supreme confidence. It is based on nearly two decades of experience.
Trust me: you are going to get better at those big lifts by performing them correctly on a regular basis in the context of a sound training program.
Please leave me you thoughts, opinions and feedback in the comment section below. I look forward to the discussion with you.
Dedicated to your success,