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Accessories For Weightlifting: What, When, and Why

We often see a lot of big lifts posted by top lifters in the strength sports, or even in regular strength and conditioning. Big Cleans, heavy Snatches, PR Jerks, or that Back Squat Max that sets the weight room into a frenzy. We see these highlights posted on social media, but we often don't see an important facet of them posted often on the interwebs: accessory work.

When we look at training, especially for optimizing weightlifting performance, we need to understand that we have include things that are not mimicries of the Snatch or Clean & Jerk. We have to include accessory exercises to help develop the full body and isolate muscle tissue as a way to improve overall strength, and decrease the likelihood of an injury. If anything, just like a nice watch or fancy set of earrings makes the suit or dress look great, accessories make big lifts possible. Or if paired wrongly, they can make things look off or things just don't work correctly.

This leads us to three main questions:

  1. What accessories should I pick?

  2. When should I perform them?

  3. Why should I do them that way?

Let's start with "What"

When we look at what accessories to utilize in training, we need to look at the predominant movement of the day and what muscle groups carry out the bulk of the movement. For example, the Snatch and the Clean have a lot of the work done by the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as the spinal erectors, lats, and traps. The Jerk has a lot of emphasis on the quads and glutes, the traps, the triceps, and the obliques. So when we choose accessories, we can better understand what other muscles that haven't been worked will need some specific attention to bring up the capacities of those tissues. The other thing we then have to think about, is what types of muscle contractions the main muscles are utilizing. For example, the triceps perform isometric contractions almost exclusively overhead. You catch a Snatch or Jerk with locked elbows, and so the triceps never experience much load through concentric or eccentric contractions. So we have to first look at picking accessories that work muscles that don't get a lot of love during a main lift, or ones that only get a very specific stimulus and giving them a different one in order to keep them healthy.

Then we have to look at "When"

When putting accessory work into a program, we have to consider two main factors: how they compliment the main lift of the day, and how they fit with the accessory work the rest of the week. A great example is the Lats, which can be trained via horizontal rowing movements and vertical pulling movements, dependent on the length tension relationship you're trying to create. It would stand to reason that you need both, and since the Snatch and the Clean require some strength in the Lats, you may try to give them added volume on days that you Snatch or Clean. However, you wouldn't want to train the Lats in a horizontal fashion two days in a row, so one week you may pick a horizontal rowing variation on the day you Snatch, and a vertical pulling variation on the day you Clean. Then, you can reverse this process and pick a vertical pulling variation on your next Snatch Day, and horizontal rowing variation on the day you do Cleans. Essentially, we try to pair a movement that will give added work to the muscle tissues that help make the main lift stronger, while also not accumulating our volume in a single length-tension relationship.

Then we have to look at "How"

How you execute an accessory is just as important as the "What" and "When." We need to execute movements specifically to help create the right stimulus that will benefit the main lift and the adaptations we are after. This may mean adding or substracting external stability that will allow us to drive physiological outputs, or focusing on the tempo of the movement. For example, on days where you are focusing on faster, more powerful movements such as Power Cleans or Power Snatches, you may add more external stability such as supported variations of an exercise on a machine, or more closed kinetic chain movements that don't require as much neural demand, but still allow for high physiological output. On days where max strength is an option, you may incorporate more breath work into the movement and focus on specific tactile cues to help increase the demand for stability.

Once we start looking at these variables in programming exercises, we can start to optimize the training experience and how we plan accessories into a program. When we then dive deeper and start looking at how the accessories can build on each other across the week, and then across a training cycle or block, we can build stronger lifts and perform better on the platform!

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