Useful Assistance Exercises: The Forgotten Chapter

by Scott Acosta, SSC | April 06, 2022

assistance exercise lat pull

Starting Strength is often accused of lacking variety. This is an inaccurate surface level assessment that has bothered me for some time – it needs to be corrected. Starting Strength advocates simplicity and minimum-effective-dose-changes to programming. The method attempts to cut through the noise of trends, misinformation, and internet influencers. That being said, Starting Strength still recognizes the necessity of useful variation when required.

Chapter seven of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition is titled “Useful Assistance Exercises.” I like to refer to it as “The Forgotten Chapter,” because a lot of folks don't know it’s there. Perhaps they haven’t actually read the book, which wouldn’t be surprising. Even when I’m discussing this topic with lifters who I know have read the book, I still often get a response along the lines of “Oh yeah! I forgot about that.” At 59 pages, this is the second longest chapter and covers over two dozen assistance and ancillary exercises. For those with physical limitations, The Barbell Prescription makes a few further contributions to exercise selection. The intermediate and advanced programming chapters of Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition are filled with examples on how to incorporate assistance and ancillary exercises into your training.

As a trainee advances, well-selected assistance exercises serve as powerful tools for continued progress. There comes a point where they are more necessity than optional. We have to balance the stress and recovery, which becomes more difficult as we get closer to our physical potential. A perfect example is where halting deadlifts and rack pulls are alternated. Heavy full-ROM deadlifts have a way of taxing you right down to your soul. The stress must be broken up in a manner that allows for a suitable strength stimulus, while not causing so much fatigue that recovery becomes an issue.

Another important function of assistance work is to strengthen weak portions of the primary movements. Novices don’t really have weak points – they’re just weak. As they become stronger their individual weak points rise to the surface. A lifter who struggles with the last few inches of the bench press would benefit from incorporating the heavy close-grip bench press to improve lockout strength. When used appropriately, assistance exercises promote progress and prevent staleness in training.

The intermediate phase of a lifter’s journey is the opportune time to expand the exercise repertoire. From PPST3: “These movements are more valuable here than at any other period in a training career. An intermediate trainee is developing a feel for the direction he wants his training to take, and assistance exercises are a necessary part of learning the ropes.” This is also where you will learn which variations work best for you. Coaches, as well as lifters, would be remiss if they didn’t actively expose themselves to a variety of exercises. Just as we develop our coaching eye for the squat by squatting, we too develop our eye for the assistance and ancillary exercises by using them.

What if variation is more a want than a need? Let’s face it: we’re humans, and sometimes we want things. Technically, a lifter may not need an assistance exercise. But, what if they’re suffering from burnout even while making progress? I’ve seen this too many times to ignore it. When considering the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle, a program may be damn near perfect, but if a person isn’t motivated to use it, it’s worthless. To maintain compliance and reap the full benefits of their training, a trainee must remain motivated and engaged. This situation may be remedied with minor programming changes while remaining in general alignment with goals. This is not a license to program-hop – any adjustments must be tactical in nature. The way I see it, as coaches we can better serve our trainees by working with them for years, versus against them for months. If you’re a coach who only programs your lifters based on their physical needs, you’re messing up. I’ve made this mistake and it has cost me good clients.

The first six chapters of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training cover 6 movements in great detail. It takes 230 pages to dissect and present the anatomical and mechanical analysis of the squat, press, deadlift, bench press, power clean, and power snatch. These movements serve as the basis for a lifetime of productive training. It’s imperative to understand the critical role of these movements. This is the ideal entry point for all lifters.

Yes, the Novice Linear Progression is very bare-bones, and for good reasons. A trainee needs to be focused on building proficiency and strength in the basic barbell lifts. For the novice, the low-hanging fruit is all within these lifts. A well-run NLP lasts 5-6 months, and even in that time there are usually 2-4 new exercises introduced, the most common being chins or lat pulldowns, lying triceps extensions, barbell rows, and rack pulls.

We spend a lot of time hammering the importance of developing strength via the basic lifts because most of trainees are novices who need to get their squat up. This requires squatting, not front squatting, pause squatting, pin squatting, or Zercher squatting. (Zerchers aren’t in the book, but you knew this because you’ve read it – right?) When a lifter is strong and proficient in the main lifts, that makes it easier to learn the variants. Also, most of the questions from you, the lifter, are on 4 or 5 lifts – the same 4 or 5 lifts that make up the bulk of the lifting content.

Perhaps this has fed into the misconception that Starting Strength is only a handful of lifts. I think this has also played a role with some lifters attempting to run an NLP for 2 years. They keep trying to grind through the basic program past its useful lifespan. This is assuming the lifter has done their due diligence with regards to The First Three Questions.

So, it’s not that Starting Strength lacks variety. Rather, it may lack the variety you’re expecting. Remember, there are an infinite number of exercises you can choose from, but only a small number that are actually productive. Understand the purpose of these important assistance exercises as well as how to execute them. If you’re a coach, learn how to coach and program them. Choose the exercises wisely by assessing your circumstances. Work them just as deliberately as you would the main lifts. Increases in load and/or reps must be programmed. If you began a training cycle with stiff leg deadlift for 315x5 and 4 months later it’s still 315x5, you’ve wasted your time. Don’t be a fool and mistake “assistance” and “ancillary” for easy. We already know easy doesn’t work, and sandbagging an assistance exercise is a great way to get absolutely nowhere.

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