Accessory Exercise or Competition Lift?


Given that we have a limited amount of time in our lives that we can devote to either the sports of weightlifting or powerlifting, we need to make some decisions about how best to spend that time.  And I hate to say it, but spending time on your phone at the gym is not helping your gainz.  It is taking up too much time and is distracting you from making lifts.  Put away the phone.  You are here to lift, and to interact with your fellow lifters and with your coach.  If your programming is on your phone, write it down on one of the personal whiteboards or in your notebook.  Filming your lifts are great (for the gram or for technical improvement), but otherwise get the phone out of your hands.

We need to focus on lifting (and maybe actual face-to-face talking with people) when we are at the gym.  And even then, when we are focused on lifting and our face is out of our phones (I've been guilty of this a lot too), we still don't have enough time.  We need to decide if we should do the competition lifts, or if we need to work on some accessory lifts.  Well, actually, our coach decides that...

BUT how do they decide that?  It is a question I get a lot from my lifters, "why the hell do I have to do pulls from a riser?  Why are you making me do my lifts from the blocks?", etc.  When do you get the full lifts and when do you do partial lifts?  When do you get land mine rows, and when do you just got straight deadlifts?  Why RDLs, and why good mornings?  Why am I doing curls now???!!!

The short answer is that an accessory exercise (for our purpose, any exercise that is not contested in the sport) is done to address a weakness in the competition lift. 

For example, if you are doing snatches from the blocks at the knee we are working on one or all of the following weaknesses in your competition lift:

  1. Bringing the bar to the hip before hitting our full extension.     
  2. Learning to keep the bar close as we hit extension and pull under the bar. 
  3. Improving speed in the lift. 

Now if this was a problem, why wouldn't we just do the accessory exercise and never do the competition lift until the weakness was gone?  Well, the competition lifts should always be done to keep the movement pattern fresh.  AND because the competition lift will address many more things that the accessory exercise will not.  If you don't pull from the floor you will lose strength and speed.  You may start having your hips rise too fast as the bar comes to your knee, and all the block work will not be able to save you. 

The accessory exercises should only be done to make improvements to the competition lifts.  AND those accessory exercises should be changed up or halted before the lifter becomes 'good at the accessory exercise.' 

The latter point may seem a little confusing.  You don't want to become 'good' at block work.  You want to become good at the competition lift, but if we do the same accessory exercise too much we are wasting our time and losing the benefit from it.  I know many lifters who are 'better' off the blocks than from the floor.  They don't need to work on the blocks anytime soon, they need to work off the floor.  The accessory exercise is no longer helping address the weaknesses of the competition lift, but are causing adaptations to the lifter that are specific to the accessory exercise.        

With that said, many of my weightlifters will ask, "what about the squat? We squat a lot, and we get pretty good at it."

The back squat is an accessory exercise for weightlifters.  It is a competition lift for powerlifters.  Now the back squat for a weightlifter is an accessory exercise that is primarily used to develop general leg strength.  This general leg strength can help with things like getting out of the bottom of the clean, driving the bar in the jerk, and even helping with the pull.  The front squat is also used for general strength of the legs, but is a more specific tool for developing leg strength for recovering the clean. 

  1. Number one reason for the squat at heavy weights is to develop or maintain general leg strength that can be used in the competition lift.  A weightlifter will need leg strength that is far superior to the weights they routinely recover from in the clean.  They will need enough leg strength to recover from the clean and hit a jerk, and they will also need reserve leg strength in case they have a technical error in the clean.  Squats help develop that general strength.   
  2. The squat at moderate loads can be used to make technical improvements in the recovery of the clean.  Tempo squats are a specific type of squat that I have found to be rather successful in that.  

Many weightlifters can be pointed at who squat enough where they "get good at squatting."  However, if you are looking at their program you will realize that they are squatting less than the other movements that they are weak at.  What determines how much a lifter spends squatting is the relative weakness of their legs in the competition lifts.  The squat is a general strength accessory exercise that is bar none.  A weightlifter needs to squat regularly, but the time they devote to it will depend on their leg strength.  If a lifter has other general problems that are glaring, they will squat less and work on those problems more.  The squat will be reduced to the bare minimum to maintain leg strength while bigger problems are addressed. 

The pull is another one of these 'special' accessory exercises like the squat.  The clean and snatch pull can be loaded up heavier than the actual clean and snatch.  More reputations can be performed than when the snatch or clean are performed because degradation of technique is less across multiple repetitions. 

  1. The pull at heavy loads helps develop or maintain general back and leg strength that can be used in the competition lifts. 
  2. The pull at moderate loads can be used to help improve bar path and bar speed for the competition lifts. 

Now, the amount of time you spend on these weaknesses instead of the competition lifts will depend on how close you are to competition.  The further away you are the more time you have to devote to accessory exercises.  As you get closer to competition you will need to spend more time with heavy singles in the lifts you are contesting. 

In any case, get off your phones and lift something heavy! 

Kurt Roderick, CSCS, USAW-ASPC L2, CF-L3, AOLC