You talk a lot about “accessories,” “picking accessories,” “accessory movements.” This sounds like one of the more fun parts to learning about lifting, but I have no idea what you are talking about and feel totally lost! Where can I find accessories to do? —Cary
Yes, in the wider fitness content world, I hate random lists of accessories the most. They are great for more advanced worker-outers who are bored at the gym and looking for more stuff to do. But to the untrained newb’s eye, they appear to be “things anyone and everyone can and should do at the gym,” and this is very confusing for everyone.
Therefore, big fat disclaimer: This is a list of accessory movements that are meant to fit into the “accessory movement” slots of a customizable program, OR, for you to seek out as already-programmed accessories in un-customizable programs (a little more on this below). They are not a workout, either alone or together.
You can do whatever you want in the gym, but I think trying to attack a whole list of convoluted movements, especially if you have no foundation in strength training, and considering that a workout: that’s one of the most annoying, painful, difficult ways to exercise. I believe people do this all the time and decide they hate exercising, but only because so many "workouts" that circulate are basically just lists of accessories with no progression scheme or synergy between each other.
However: If the truth in your heart is that you’d like to understand a little more about what accessory movements are, how to use them, and especially what “strong opinions loosely held on the matter of accessory movements” looks like: You are in the right place! If you already know about accessories, you can skip right down to the little flea market of treasures below.
What is an accessory movement?
A movement that is not one of your “main” movements. In a powerlifting or powerlifting-adjacent program, the foundation is the “main” movements of squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press (sometimes also rows or pull-ups) in which you are usually trying to steadily progress upward in weight, movement quality, etc. Pretty much everything else is accessory movements. In a non-powerlifting type program, pretty much everything may be an accessory movement. (You can argue there are main lifts, "secondary movements," and then "accessories." I don't think this is a distinction to lose sleep over.)
Accessories can do a number of things, including sort of cross-training your muscles to do what the main movements don’t; to drill or build work capacity in weak aspects of the main lifts; to build up existing strengths in main lifts; and to target individual muscles or groups of muscles or joints. They are usually more fun, less intense, higher-volume, and isolateral or isolation movements, as opposed to big multi-joint compound movements (but not always! A squat variation like pause squats, for instance, can easily be an accessory).
In accessories, you will almost always not progress as steadily or quickly as in your main movements. This is okay. The important thing to focus on is whether you are challenging yourself enough.
Read: What is RPE???>>>
What is the right way to use a list of accessories?
It depends a lot on the program. The first type of programs are programmed right down to the precise number of reps and weights to use based on a percentage of your one-rep max. This is the kind of program you will find on sites like bodybuilding.com, and they’re more for people who want to learn as little as possible about how programming works (a fine and normal way to be).
For the first type, they way to use a list of accessories is to figure out which ones you are interested in and would do you good, and then look for a program that involves them. If you know your hamstrings are lagging and want to integrate some Nordic curls, you find a program with Nordic curls.
The second type of programs use RPEs and rep ranges or even encourage a more “choose your own adventure” type of approach with a kind of program wireframe that you can customize. Examples of this are 5/3/1 and GZCL. These programs are for people who like to get their fingies dirty with programming and training theory, and maybe even push the boundaries of what the program says to do.
For the second type, you pick out the accessories that you want to do and program them in yourself. Where you put them and how depends on the program, but hopefully if you are this involved, you know how to size up an accessory as a single vs. multi-joint movement, isolated vs compound, etc and program it appropriately.
Read: The intermediate programming compendium (including an answer to “how do I work out only two days a week??”)>>>
How do I know which accessories are right for me?
It’s all educated guesses affected by two things: how experienced you are, and how well you know your own body and challenges. Early on, everyone is pretty bad at picking good accessories for themselves. But that’s normal, because you are still learning.
Many people never become good at picking accessories because they don’t care to understand programming; this is how many coaches do a phenomenal business. With a lot of quiet and careful study, you can actually become pretty good at programming for yourself. (Even very experienced people still have coaches, though. There are always smarter people than you, and maybe more importantly, people who will push you to do the stuff that you would otherwise always find a way to squirrel away from.)
But picking accessories is also not something you have to aggressively optimize if you are not a career athlete; you are entirely allowed to just do stuff because it’s fun. And if you are relatively inexperienced at lifting anyway, doing almost anything will probably benefit you.
I like the process of programming for myself and picking accessories, because I am an information goblin. But what I do love is learning about a new, good accessory that I don’t see out there much, that seems like it helps with common issues people have. A good accessory is a breath of fresh air in a program that is starting to feel stale.
Read on for some strong opinions about accessories you may not already know about, that are feel are good and largely underrated, and address what I feel are overlooked gaps in training, especially for people who are not already gifted strength athletes.
Other than this list, here are accessory lists I like and use: