5 ideas for assistance exercises
Many modules in the Everlifting Module Repository lack any detailed way to program assistance exercises and sometimes even suggestions at all. The Modular System wasn’t designed to plan small exercises because they generally don’t need that much thought in comparison to the big lifts. But what if you’re out of ideas on small exercises or simply don’t know what to do? In this article I’ll outline five suggestions.
What’s an assistance lift?
What’s meant as an assistance lift in this article is something other than the main lift or any of its variations. While these methods certainly can improve your main lifts, or its variations, that’s not what this article for. For the big lifts go to the Everlifting Module Repository (EMR) and look for something instead.
Note that I write main lifts and variations. That suggests that a bench presser looking for ideas isn’t advised to use this article as inspiration for the close grip bench press, for instance. Again, while it certainly can work, variations are best planned in coherence with the main lift and should therefore be dictated by the modules in the EMR.
What are we talking about then? Typically small to medium lifts. So for the aforementioned bench press it might be behind the neck press, chest press, dumbbell press, dips, tricep extensions, french press, and so on. For someone needing more back muscle it might be pulldowns, rows, face pulls, etc.
What assistance lifts to pick?
Because I know the question will arise I’ve decided to include it. I’ve also decided to not answer it – oops!
Let me explain. It’s a huge topic, not even remotely possibly to be answered in a small section of a larger article. Keep in mind that not all philosophies in training even really use assistance lifts at all, while others rely on them heavily. The answer will thus be very different depending on the philosophy you follow.
Second, different people will strive to improve different lifts. Will a Olympic lifter use the same lifts as a powerlifter or a long jumper? Obviously not. And even if two different people are trying to achieve the same grander goal in the same lift, the way they actually perform the lift will make a difference in the assistance lift selection.
I will likely get to discussing this further at a later point but for now I will simply give you some idea on what methods to use for the assistance lifts you’ve picked.
Alrighty, let’s get on with the suggestions…
1-2 sets to failure
The most basic of all: pick a lift and perform 1-2 sets to failure. Failure in this case meaning when reps turn ugly (that is, swinging your curls, rounding or leaning back on pulldowns, etc.) and you can no longer lift with strict form. Doing this correctly means real struggle. It’s common to see someone doing 8 reps, start grimacing a bit and when attempting the 9th rep immediately give up. That’s the mind giving up, not the muscle. If it’s truly your muscle giving up you would at least struggle for a few seconds trying with all your might to lift it but being unable to. The reason is quite simple: you’re stronger holding a weight than lifting it.
Occasionally it might be worth doing one or two “cheating” reps when you can no longer lift with strict form but you’re advised not to overdo them. When “cheating” the reps you’re no longer targeting the correct muscle and/or movement and your recovery capabilities will be significantly impacted.
For this type of training I suggest doing 1-2 sets most of the time, with a third set only if you for some reason didn’t achieve true muscular failure in the previous sets (for instance because your mind gave up or you’re new to the lift) and doing 2-3 lifts for the selected muscle group. The rep range is not very important as long as you reach failure.
2-3 sets close to failure
This is essentially the same as 1-2 sets to failure with the difference being you don’t go to the point where you fight with all your might against the last rep. This might seem like a negligible modification but it’s not. Stopping short of that point, or perhaps even one rep less, will make a big difference in recovery and will allow you to do a third set with the possibility of reaching the same amount of reps or close to.
I suggest doing 2-3 sets with this method and again 2-3 lifts for the targeted muscle group. You can blend this method with the 1-2 sets to failure, for instance by relying on the 2-3 set close to failure most of the time and only occasionally go to the point of absolute failure as suggested in 1-2 sets to failure.
With this method you perform two sets of 10, two sets of 8, one set of 6, followed by one set with 6 or more reps. You will add a small amount of weight each set. The very last set you strive for at least 6 reps but keep going if you can and only stop if you can no longer do the reps with good form.
This method will really make you feel the targeted muscle and if you like the pump it’s for you. Because of its nature, you will have to do your first set of ten with a light weight in order to be able to increase weight each set. Start lighter than you think, you can always increase weight the following session. I like the idea to add weight to all sets when the lifter manages 8 or more reps on the 6+ set but you can of course pick a different goal such as simply adding weight if you manage 6 reps on the last set.
One lift for the selected muscle group is probably enough with this method for most people. If you still want to do more lifts you can use a more straight forward method.
You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure this one out. Simply perform 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps. This rep scheme goes with a significant strength increase since you’ll be able to use fairly heavy weights. It’s therefore useful for fairly large assistance lifts such as dips, pulldowns, french press, JM press, rows, and so on.
4-6×4-6 gives a large room for playing around considering that classic schemes such as 5×5 and 6×6 both fit into it. Most of the time when using this method I will suggest using the same weight for all sets and adding weight whenever possible the following session.
Since this is used as assistance and assumes you’re also doing a main lift you likely want to use this method for only one lift for the muscle group. You can always get some pump work with a lighter weight and smaller lift if you feel the need to add more volume for the muscle group.
Pyramids are done in the following fashion: start with any number of reps, rest, do a set with more reps, rest, do a set with even more reps, rest, and so on for as long as you like. When you can get no higher (or you simply reached your goal for the session) go down the same way you came up.
It can be used with low reps like this: 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1
Or high reps: 2,4,6,8,10,8,6,4,2
You can start with more reps if you don’t want to do so many sets: 6,8,10,8,6
You get the idea. There are no hard rules on the numbers, just pick what intrigues you. Doing this with more than one lift for the selected muscle group is likely overkill. If you feel the need to add more lifts for the muscle group you can use a more conventional straight set method.
Pyramids is one of those methods that’s both fairly popular and unpopular at the same time. Some say they’re not effective, yet they’ve been used by strong lifters and good coaches at least since the early days of modern lifting. Why don’t you try them and see what you think?
Words of caution
These ideas are simply food for thought. There are many ways you can add assistance exercises and the way to do it depends very much on your philosophy of lifting. A good general rule of thumb though is that it’s better to do too little rather than too much. The most important thing is to recover enough to lift your main weights according to plan.