Is Just 5×5 Enough? What About Accessories?

Image: ThoroughlyReviewed

Hi Swole Woman!

I recently got into weight lifting about the time that you started your column (I’ve been following it from the beginning and read it religiously). Admittedly Starting Strength was too much info for me to process but the 5×5 app was easy to follow and I am now squatting and deadlifting over my own body weight, which was my original goal, and continuing to add weight (yay!) I also follow a bunch of weightlifting ladies on instagram (including you) for inspiration. I’ve seen a lot of mention about “accessory lifts” and I was wondering; What are those? Which do you recommend? How do you incorporate them into a 5×5 routine? I am admittedly a crazy workout person and go to the gym 5 days a week (I take boxing lessons for cardio outside of weight lifting) and one of the hardest parts of weightlifting for me is resting and being limited to 3 days a week, so if you tell me I can do the accessory lifts on off days I will be so happy!


Another “Swole Woman”

From the top, there are many well-designed programs that don’t require you to figure out and tack on a ton of accessory work. Mixing it up with a lot of accessories is not recommended for beginners (Mark Rippetoe would yell at you about it), and even intermediate lifters don’t need to meddle a ton with them. If you’re still doing 5×5, you really, really don’t need to worry about accessories. Just give your program time to work for a few months and enjoy the simplicity of doing *only three individual movements* for a *modest amount of time*. It’s not going to last! If you can’t feel like you’re working out “enough” on a program like this, I program you the accessories of Calm Down and Have Some Patience for the next few months. All that said, I’m going to give a sort of theoretical/non-academic academic answer for learning purposes.

Technically, anything you do to help you do your main lifts, without it being your main lift at high intensity, is an accessory. You could, theoretically, do squats at max effort until you die, but you would probably get very bored, and, well, die. A well-chosen squat accessory movement will help your max-effort squat get better without actually being a max-effort or near-max-effort squat. Main lifts can be accessories for each other — squats are accessories for deadlifts and vice versa, overhead press is an accessory for bench. An accessory movement is basically a thing you do, usually for a high-ish volume number of reps (6–15) that helps you get stronger.

Some people like to be able to pick this stuff and some would rather have it spelled out; there are programs that do both. How many accessories you do depends on your program and goals and how trained you are. For example, in this one strain of the 5/3/1 intermediate program, the 5×10 deadlift on day 2 is an accessory to the deadlift (you can also do one of the deadlift variations listed on that page instead of actual deadlifts). When it says “abs,” that means you can do can just pick whatever thing works your abs — hanging leg raises, incline sit-ups, ab rollouts, planks, whatever you like. Ideally you’d mix it up every couple of months. Beginner programs like Starting Strength basically don’t involve accessories at all; the intermediate Texas Method involves very few accessories; something like PHUL is mostly accessories, and it’s all spelled out for you.

Accessories can also describe exercises you might tack on to the end of your workout mostly for cosmetic reasons; this is sometimes called “bro stuff.” Curls, for instance, are an accessory movement that most people do just to have huge biceps. However, doing them will also make you marginally better at pullups and bench, especially if your biceps are relatively weak to begin with.

I can’t tell anyone what accessories to do because I don’t know what anyone needs or wants, but even if I did, again, I’m not your personal trainer or anything and don’t listen to me. This can get kind of complex, but for me, I like picking my own accessories, because it just involves paying attention to myself and what I struggle with and then googling things or consulting resources to see what it is that I should be doing to not be so bad at stuff. To me this is fun because it involves better understanding how I work, and it infuriatingly teaches me patience with myself while I do things I am bad at. It also just keeps things interesting to learn to do new stuff and overall makes you stronger, which is of course the one and true goal.

So for instance, if I notice that I squat with more force from my back than my legs and my legs could stand to be stronger and more activated, I need squat accessories that will take my back out of the equation, like front squats, belt squats, leg press, split squats, step-ups — these are all things that load my legs, but not my back. Or let’s say I’m failing at bench right off my chest, so I Google “failing bench off chest.” The wisdom of the internet tells me I can strengthen that “zone” by increasing time under tension and pausing the bar for longer on my chest, or an inch above my chest.

If you feel like you have no idea what your weak spots are, you can film yourself and post a form check to ask for help. You can also just pick based on what you want to get better at — if you want to get your pullup, do assisted or banded or negative pullups. If you want to get good at handstands, do handstand variations. If you want a huge round butt, do glute things. If you want shoulders, do delt stuff. If you want to be able to do a pistol squat, do pistol squat variations. Lifting should ultimately serve your interests, and if you want to do stuff other than generally get stronger, accessories are what give you that opportunity.

My system is admittedly not perfect because I’m not an expert, and there are people who are experts in this who you can employ to really effectively zero in on your problems. A good coach or personal trainer will pick accessories that all balance each other out and take advantage of your strengths and target your weak points. However, many people without ambitious goals do okay just kind of winging it using resources like this compendium of ways to overcome weak points to figure out how to get better. Again, though, at your stage, it’s just too early for you to be trying to diagnose yourself because you are so new to this, and you should focus on putting your energy into the main stuff you’re doing rather than trying to scatter it around.

My only note here would be, assistance exercises go at the end of your workouts when you already all activated and warm and relatively tired out by the main components of your workout. They are not for your rest days. You need to rest or “actively recover” on your rest days, not lift some more.

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