What is an Accessory Exercise? Everything You Need to Know About These Training Staples

Accessory exercises likely play a key role in your workout, whether you know it or not. Here's what they are and how to make the most of them.

If you're new to strength training, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of vocabulary words being thrown your way.

Not only are you learning the names of exercises, but you're also learning the names of different training principles, training styles, pieces of equipment, etc.

One popular term you'll often hear in and around the weight room? Accessory exercises. While you may have some idea what this term entails, learning the definition and function of accessory exercises can make you a more knowledgeable gym-goer and help you get the most out of every workout.

What are Accessory Exercises?

To understand the importance of accessory exercises in your workout, you must first understand the importance of primary exercises.

Primary exercises go by a lot of names—the "big lifts," the "core lifts," the "main lifts"—all of these terms are often used interchangeably with primary exercises. To break it down, your primary exercises are the lift (or lifts) you perform immediately after your warm-up. These often include exercises like the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press and Clean, along with slight variations on these movements (such as the Power Clean or Trap Bar Deadlift). The reason these exercises are performed at the start of your workout is because they are the most important exercises in your routine.

You want to attack these lifts with a full tank of energy, because the benefits they offer when performed correctly and with maximum intensity are simply unmatched. If you want to build muscle mass, get stronger, run faster and become more resistant to injury, nothing will give you more bang for your buck quite than the primary lifts.

However, if you ended all your workouts upon the conclusion of your primary exercises, your training sessions would only last about 25 minutes. The exercises and movements you use to fill out the rest of your workout are known as accessory exercises.

What's the Purpose of Accessory Exercises?

Accessory exercises serve many purposes.

For one, they allow you to continue to train after you finish your primary exercise or exercises—albeit at a lower intensity. Just because you're slightly fatigued doesn't mean you shouldn't continue training, and accessory exercises offer you the chance to do that without the same risk of injury/overuse you'd be exposed to if you just performed primary exercises over and over.

Accessory exercises also allow you to focus on different muscle groups—or hit certain muscle groups in different ways—than the primary exercises. This ultimately reduces your weakness and imbalances and makes you a stronger and more resilient gym-goer. When used properly, not only will accessory exercises make you stronger and more adept in a variety of movement patterns, but they'll also help you get better and stronger at your primary exercises.

Accessory exercises are typically performed for more reps than primary exercises. Many effective workouts often follow this rough order:

  • Warm-up
  • One or two primary exercises
  • Two to three supersets of accessory exercises

What are Some of the Best Accessory Exercises?

While there are only a small handful of primary exercises, there are literally hundreds of accessory exercises at your disposal. Choosing the right ones for your routine comes down to your goals and ability level.

Truth be told, a lot of the accessory exercises out there—even some that are quite popular—aren't all that beneficial. They either don't offer much bang for your buck, or there are safer options available which are just as effective. Examples include Machine Leg Extensions, Tricep Kick-Backs, Dumbbell Side Bends, Upright Rows and Crunches.

Are these exercises better than nothing? Perhaps, but there's so many better options available. Some smarter accessory exercises include:

  • Reverse Lunges
  • Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
  • Pull-Ups
  • Skullcrushers
  • Bent-Over Rows
  • Dead Bugs
  • Ab Rollouts
  • Inverted/TRX Rows
  • Cable Lifts & Chops
  • Glute-Ham Raises

Among many, many others.

You'll notice that many of these exercises do not make use of traditional gym machines. That's no accident—generally speaking, free weights or machines which allow for significant ranges of motion (such as cable machines) offer greater overall benefits than machines that restrict you to just one range of motion (such as a leg extension machine). This isn't to say traditional gym machines are worthless, but they simply don't offer quite as many benefits—especially for people concerned with enhancing their athletic performance. You can read more on this topic here.

How Should I Use Accessory Exercises in My Routine?

As previously mentioned, your accessory exercises need to be performed after your primary exercises.

Beyond that, exactly how you'd like to use them is up to your preferences and your goals. In many programs, it's customary for two or three accessory exercises to be grouped together in a "superset." Then, after completing these supersets, your workout should be over or close to over. A superset is a training method that calls for performing a full set of an exercise to completion, then performing a set of one or more other exercises to completion without a break between them. After you complete one set of all included exercises, you enter a rest period. But you can tweak your rest to fit your needs and your goals—there's nothing that says you can't rest between every set if you need to.

Grouping accessory exercises that alternately target agonist and antagonist muscle groups is a good idea. One simple way to do this is to combine a "pressing" exercise with a "pulling" exercise—e.g., Cable Presses with Inverted Rows, Pull-Ups with Overhead Presses, and Leg Presses with Physioball Hamstring Curls.

Due in part to lifestyle and fitness choices, most people are anterior dominant—meaning they use the muscles on the front of their bodies more frequently than the ones on the back of their bodies—e.g., using the biceps and quads more than the triceps and hamstrings. Anterior dominance can lead to postural and performance issues and ultimately leave you susceptible to injury. By pairing pressing and pulling accessory exercises, you ensure that you're training symmetrically and reduce your risk of developing anterior dominance.

Here's a general list you can use to help you formulate some basic accessory exercise groupings or supersets:

1. Pair Upper-Body Vertical Presses like…
• Shoulder Press variations
• Military Press variations
• Landmine Press variations
with Upper-Body Vertical Pulls like…
• Pull-Ups
• Chin-Ups
• Lat Pull-Downs

2. Pair Upper-Body Horizontal Presses like…
• Push-Ups
• Cable Pushes
• Flys
with Upper-Body Horizontal Pulls like…
• Row variations (Bent-Over, Seated Cable, Inverted, Chest Supported, etc.)
• Reverse Flys

3. Pair Elbow Extension Presses like…
• Skull-Crushers
• Tricep Push-Downs
with Elbow Flexion Pulls like
• Bicep Curl variations

4. Pair Lower-Body Presses like…
• Leg Presses
• Lunges
• Leg Extensions
• Goblet Squats
with Lower-Body Pulls like…
• Pull-Throughs
• Glute-Ham Raises
• Physioball Leg Curls

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