By: Ben Sweeney

Accessory work is one of the most underutilized parts of our training regimen, in my opinion. While we all love lifting heavy, PRing a metcon, or doing Olympic Lifts to our hearts’ content, when it comes to the accessory work that will help us improve, I find people saying, “I never have time” or,  “It’s boring” or my personal favorite, “I’m just going to do abs instead.” I understand the mentality behind this, but we need to change how we look at accessory work and remember why we need to do it.

Over the years, I have recognized the mentality behind not wanting to do accessory work: “If I want to improve a movement, then I should just work on those movements.” The truth is, however, that our bodies have developed imbalances from years of wear and tear. They might be a strength-based issue or specific muscle groups being overactive or underactive.

Accessory work is vital in helping our bodies learn how to fire those muscles to decrease those imbalances, thereby becoming more efficient and building strength.

The two lifts that come to mind when best explaining this are the strict press and the squat.

For the strict press:

We’ve all seen or done this ourselves: when we execute the lift, one arm on the barbell shoots up while the other drags behind. One side is stronger and the other weaker. How do we correct this?

  1. One approach is to use dumbbells to perform the same movement to allow the weaker side to develop the same strength.
  2. The other is to use exercises found in rehabilitative settings, such as working with resistance bands to build stabilization and strength through the entire shoulder girdle, thereby improving the entire range of motion.

Both exercises have their benefits and both are needed. The more balanced our bodies become, the less likely we are to injure ourselves on other more powerful lifts, such as the snatch and clean & jerks. Most importantly, by having both sides working equally, instead of having one side doing the majority of the work and the other just “coming along for the ride”, we have built the proper mechanics to improve overall strength and hit those sought-after PRs.

The same thing can be seen in the squat.

A lot of athletes I see are more likely to hop on a smolov cycle rather than working on smaller aspects of the lift. While it might seem like a simple movement, there is a lot of technique involved and all of us can make adjustments to improve and move more efficiently.

When we do, our squat numbers will go up and our joints will not suffer the same stress. Based on what you need to adjust, we can determine the best type of accessory work to help correct any technical faults.

The two most common faults I see when correcting squats are:

  1. Knees caving in (valgus knee). Most times when the knees are caving in, our glutes are not firing properly and, as a result, we put a lot of shear force on our knees, which leads to both sore knees or even the breakdown of cartilage over time. If you perform simple exercises, such as clam shells, our glutes will learn to fire off properly and will activate while squatting. This will keep our knees in alignment and will prevent the shear force of the weight from damaging them.
  2. Weight shifting into the toes on the way back up. The issue of sore knees and joint wear and tear will also happen when we shift our weight into the front of the foot while standing up on our squat. Here, the hamstrings are no longer engaged and the quads start to take over. This takes the stress away from the hips but now places it on the knee. This imbalance of the quads being overactive and hamstrings being underactive will cause knee pain and, in some extreme cases, can lead to an increase chance of ACL injury.

Doing simple hamstring development exercises such as glute bridges, good mornings, Hip Extension, and GHRs are all things that might not look impressive on your social media, but when performed correctly, they will help you build healthy, balanced muscles and increase your strength. And not just with your back squat, but all your other lifts as well.

A big part of any exercise regimen is results. In order to get those results, it’s important to focus on the little things, not just the big ones, that will keep you on the path to health, wellness, and, ultimately, better fitness. The next time class is over, instead of going for sit ups, curls, tricep extensions, or any other go-to movement, instead think, “What do I need to do in order to get better?”