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Accessory Exercises: Definition, Examples, and Uses

What are Accessory Exercises?

Accessory exercises are complementary movements you do in addition to your core activities (for example, the bench press, squat, and deadlift) to accumulate additional training volume, build muscle, improve your performance, and enjoy more varied workouts. An example of an accessory exercise to the barbell squat could be a leg press or hack squat.

A Deeper Look at Accessory Exercises

Core exercises are part of every type of training, regardless of the athlete’s goals. These are the primary movements or activities to improve athletic characteristics and hone sport-specific skills.

Accessory exercises complement the primary activities and make workouts more balanced and complete.

Focusing only on core activities can be too physically demanding and unengaging, putting athletes at risk of overuse injuries due to the high amounts of very specific stress placed on the body. 

Imagine a powerlifter only doing competition-style bench press, low-bar squats, and their preferred deadlift (conventional or sumo) with no accessory work. 

These are the core lifts for the sport, but only doing them would make for quite a dull training plan. It would also be too demanding to recover from and more likely to result in nagging aches or injuries.

So, powerlifters preparing for competition do these three lifts but also include accessory movements like the close-grip bench press, front squat, hyperextensions, and bent-over row to get extra training volume and have more variety.

For example, rather than doing a competition-style bench three times weekly for 15+ total sets, a powerlifter using daily undulating periodization can do a comp-style bench one day, a pause bench another day, and a close-grip bench for the third session of the week.

How to Program Accessory Exercises

Programming accessory work is highly individual and depends on the athlete’s primary training, goals, and ability to recover. 

The primary thing to remember is that accessory exercises come after the main work. Core lifts come first because we should do them while we are still fresh and put in maximum effort.

This usually means doing one core lift, typically for 4 to 7 sets, and following up with accessory work. For example:

Low bar back squat – 6 sets

Split squats – 4 sets

Hack squat – 4 sets

It’s also important to pick accessory movements carefully, experiment with multiple options to see how trainees respond and stick to the activities your athletes can do safely to get a good stimulus. 

Also, accessory activities must directly contribute to the main work in some way and push the needle for athletes. We could argue that most exercises targeting the same muscles would be good, but exceptions exist.

To use powerlifting as an example again, leg extensions and pause squats target the quadriceps, the primary muscles that work during squats. But I’ll let you decide which is the better accessory lift for a powerlifter.

Finally, it’s essential to consider the overall training volume and the athlete’s ability to recover so they don’t become overtrained from accessory work.

If an athlete feels relatively challenged by the core exercises and barely has the energy to do accessory work, it means their main work is too much, or they lack the work capacity to handle more volume.

If the athlete can handle the main work, you can gradually introduce accessory exercises, monitor their performance, and ask for feedback. There’s no single best way to do this; it comes down to testing, assessing, and adjusting.


1. How are accessory exercises different from compound movements?

Accessory exercises are typically compound lifts that directly support the primary training someone does. However, not all compound lifts are accessory exercises; they can sometimes be core movements (e.g., barbell back squats for a powerlifter).

2. How heavy to go on accessory exercises?

There is no universal formula. It’s generally best to keep accessory work somewhat lighter––typically around 8 to 15 reps per set.

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