Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Base Building Part 5 - Assistance work

In the last installment of base building, I wrote about not fucking around with your time in the pit.  To make sure that you are getting your work in, in a reasonable time.  No one is training "hard" for two hours.

One of the things I have moved towards in recent years, is doing as little support or assistance work as possible.  Basically, people look at assistance work wrong a lot of the time.  It's supposed to do 2 things, for the most part.

1.  help the primary lift
2.  keep you healthy

By "helping the primary lift", I mean it helps by making the musculature involved in it stronger, or it actually gives you direct carryover.

To be honest, I don't think that the latter exists THAT much.  Of all the shit I have done, I have found that incline helps my bench go up, and elevated stiff legs make my deadlift go up.  Squatting makes my squat go up.  I am finding that front squats are doing a nice job of giving me some punch out of the hole.

Outside of that, I LIKE to do other lifts to improve/increase the muscularity involved in the big lifts, however I haven't found that assistance work is a key in getting stronger DIRECTLY, on the big lifts.  You can literally just squat, bench, and pull your way to bigger numbers for the most part.  Of course, the caveat to that is that at some point, your size ceiling is going to limit your strength ceiling, and doing other movements to "grow", can be a lot more fun when you're only been squatting, benching, and pulling for months on end.

I absolutely do not believe in shit like doing board presses to "help the lockout".  If you can board press 10 pounds more than you can bench press, then that is NOT a weakness.   Think about it for a minute.  It might come to you.

This doesn't mean I don't think that support work isn't important.  It is.  However most guys throw together a not very well thought out programming scheme for their big lifts, then spend all of their time wondering what magical assistance movements they will add to make the main lifts go up.  It just doesn't work like that.

A very simple way to know if your assistance work is actually working is like so.....

1.  I am getting stronger on the assistance work
2.  My main lift is going up as well

Generally, this is a fairly decent indication that whatever you are doing for assistance work, is helping the main lift.  If the assistance work is going up, but the lift you are doing it for isn't, then it's not working.  I don't know how else to say that.  It's not really even an argument.  The whole point of assistance work is for it to make the main lift improve (or keep you injury free).

I see assistance/support work as falling into two categories.

1.  The primary support work, that you will focus on progression with
2.  The secondary support work, that will be done for a lot of reps, to keep you healthy, and add some mass

Since I like to pour my hour-of-power into mostly the big lifts, what I have started doing is throwing back in my small sessions early in the morning.  Afterwards, I do 30 minutes of steady state.

But let's start with what constitutes primary support work -

Primary support work is generally another big, compound movement that you will push some form of progression on.  It could be the 350 method, or it could be something you do 1-2 top sets for, trying to set rep PR's on it.

This should be a movement that you test for a while, to see how the main lift responds to it.  Again, if you are getting stronger on the primary support work, and getting stronger on the main lifts, it's working.  If you are getting stronger on the primary support work but NOT on the main lifts, it is not.

Your training time should be spent working on the main lift, then the primary support work.

That's it.

Base your time in the gym around doing those two things.  For example.....

Day 1
Bench - base work
Primary assistance work

Day 2
Squat - base work
Primary assistance work

Day 3
Deadlift - base work
Primary assistance work

Again, the primary work is to drive the main lift.  The other great thing this layout does is that you don't have to wonder what is actually working.  You are limiting your training to two movements for the most part.  You will know if it's working.  Confusion negated.

The other part of assistance, is the "staying healthy" part.

What I do now, is do this work fasted in the morning, then do 30 minutes of cardio.  Generally, I rotate in some of the following movements...

upright rows
cuff work
abductor/adductor machine
leg curls
ab machine
tricep rope pushdowns
calf work

I generally pick 3, and just go to work for 20-30 minutes.  Usually sets of 15-20 in a circuit style fashion or, not.  It all depends.  Really, use the bodybuilding approach.  Try to get the most wicked pump you can get in that 30 minutes or so.  I throw in 100 rep work here as well.

I do small workouts almost every morning too.  I have found that so long as you're staying light and really pushing the blood flow, you're not going to impact recovery.

The small sessions along with the steady state work are enough to increase work capacity for the big sessions.  You need to use this time to get in better shape.  So move fast through the circuit, and then push the steady state at a solid pace.  I go to 4.2 - 4.5 mph.  I do not take a leisurely walk.  Make it count.  You're not going to be able to get in all the work and volume you need to on your big sessions if you just aren't in good enough shape to do so.  Even with the intensities being lowered, if your conditioning sucks, the work capacity won't be there.

This is how I have been using all of my work to compliment each other.  The small sessions and steady state help with my work capacity for the big sessions.  During the big sessions, I keep it simple and work my volume and base intensities and generally one primary assistance movement (sometimes two if I missed a small session or am just feeling froggy).

Remember that every facet of your training should have a meaning and purpose and compliment the other parts.  Nothing should ever be done without a very specific reason.


  1. Paul

    Will you be posting links to all 5 parts under your series link above? I have found this to be very helpful in thinking through how to structure my own training. Thanks for all of your insights

  2. Paul,

    You hit the nail right on the head with Part 5. Nearly everything you said in this post mirrors what I do. People have come to believe that the assistance work should be their number one priority. I completely disagree, you're not here to major in the minors.

    As you said, you could literally squat, deadlift, benchpress your way to bigger numbers and I firmly agree. There have been many times when I would walk into my garage and just attacked that one BIG lift for the day, and never felt ashamed about it..never worrying about "Ok, I just benched...but I cannot leave without doing my standing tricep extensions. That's the most important part!" That drives me nuts. Too often, I see people hold back on the main lifts to preserve energy for their assistance lifts. Screw that.

    At one point, I went for months just hitting the big lifts, completely ignored my assistance work---my numbers continously rised. Until the point i started to stall/slow down...I would then add some assistance work to "build/strengthen the necessary muscles to help my big lifts". And its very true when you speak of choosing exercises that will HELP the big lift. For instance, I was real good at standing tricep extensions as I mentioned earlier---high numbers and high reps---but it did not seem to help my bench so I tossed it and switched to dips. Dips were getting good, bench was rising, something's working.

    As you said in a earlier post---its beneficial to have a separate mini-workout. For instance, on the evenings I squat---in the morning I would do calves and abs. On the days I bench, i would have a separate workout to strengthen my shoulders. Anyways, good post.