accessory exercises

8 Accessory Exercises for a Better Physique

Being jacked and strong is no easy task.

There are so many components and training variables involved in gaining maximum strength and size. It can be overwhelming on where to start.

We’re starting to grasp the fact that compound movements should make up the majority of our programming. These include squats, deadlifts, and presses. But what about the rest? The number of accessory exercises you could include are overwhelmingly in the thousands.

In this article, I’ll cover a few personal favorites. They may or may not be a good fit for you based on your personal goals and desired physique. It’s important to keep that in mind while reading through the following exercises. Not every exercise can or should be included in your program.

Reverse Band

This trick is for anyone toying with the Big 3 (squat, bench, and deadlift).

Chances are you have seen exercises like the rack pull, board or pin press, and pause or dead stop squats. These are all great exercises that put the emphasis on improved lockout strength, or your ability to finish a lift.

But if you have the necessary equipment, I’d suggest implementing reverse band lifts immediately for their physiological and psychological benefits.

A reverse band “enter lift here” is exactly what it sounds like. Bands are used to create more resistance during the concentric, or lifting of the weight, phase. A reverse band method reduces the resistance at the bottom of a lift which is usually the toughest point. Instead of attaching bands from the floor, they are attached from the top of a power rack or apparatus above.

This method is great for working around the weak points of a lift. Think about pressing the barbell off your chest or a deadlift breaking off the floor. These are usually the limiting factors in lifting more weight. This is the main reason lockout or finishing strength is trained separately.

This is where reverse band training differentiates itself. Unlike a rack pull or pin press, you are able to complete the full range of motion with an increased load. Reverse band training can improve nervous system function under heavy loads. It can also increase confidence, and improve lockout strength.

accessory exercises

Instead of attaching bands from the floor, they are attached from the top of a power rack or apparatus above. Image courtesy of

Why should you care about nervous system function? Well, because you actually have super human strength waiting to be unleashed (kind of). Your body has several mechanisms to prevent you from harming yourself by lifting extremely heavy objects in the gym or in life in general. The good news is that these mechanisms can be trained to allow you a little more leeway. Training above or near your maximum strength threshold is a proven way to improve neural receptor communication.  You can also improve other mechanisms like Golgi tendon organs that prevent you from lifting cars on a daily basis (1).

Another case for reverse band training is the psychological benefit. Here’s an example: A major limiting factor in a lift like the bench press is fear and lack of confidence. After all, you could drop the barbell on your neck and die from asphyxiation or the shame from fellow gym bros. After you have successfully lifted a weight, even with help from bands, the increased confidence can  eliminate those fears.  This can open the door for better performance.

Split Squat

I know this isn’t you, but for the sake of this article let’s say you dread squatting, deadlifting, or anything too closely related to either lift.

Sure, we all know they are “must have” exercises for any serious strength training program. But they are also difficult lifts to learn and can be pretty taxing on your muscles and nervous system.

If I’m barking up the right tree so far, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the Bulgarian split squat. I like to call it “looking like an athletic badass who knows some next level exercises.”

Split squats are an awesome tool for stimulating muscle growth in the lower body.  They can also  simultaneously train balance and athleticism. The split squat has even been shown in a recent study to better stimulate the glutes and hamstrings than a traditional barbell back squat (3). It’s unlikely that this exercise is a complete replacement for the back squat.  However, for certain populations it is a great alternative.

accessory exercises

The split squat is eerily similar to a lunge. But unlike the lunge, the split squat allows you to achieve greater time under tension. Image courtesy of Men’s Fitness.

To perform the split squat, elevate one leg behind you on a bench or box. It’s eerily similar to a lunge.  But unlike the lunge, the split squat allows you to achieve greater time under tension. This leads to greater muscle hypertrophy. You can shift the focus in the split squat to target more or less posterior chain by adjusting front foot position. The more ankle flexion (knee moving forward over toe), the more the quadriceps will be involved. Moving your front foot out to limit ankle flexion (vertical shin) will lead to greater activation in the glutes and hamstring. You can also load split squats by holding weights in each hand or a barbell on your back. You can also use a front loaded goblet squat hold.

Push Ups

Sometimes the best approach is to keep it simple.

One of the most important factors in muscle growth is progressive overload.  This involves increasing your total volume, or weight lifted, over time.

Adding in a few sets of push ups when you wake up or at the end of a workout could be a great way to add volume to your chest and triceps. And before you start to worry, overtraining from adding in push ups is highly unlikely.

Push ups are great because of their endless variations and scalability. You can change the stimulus by switching grip width or tempo or elevating your feet. You can add in plyometric variations (clap push ups), or even go to one arm push ups if you’re more advanced. Recent research on push ups has shown that using resistance bands to achieve a six rep max has similar effects to that of a six rep max on bench press (2). So, no equipment is no longer an excuse!

Farmer’s Walk

You are only as strong as your weakest link, and one of the most common weak links I come across is grip strength.

A strong grip allows you to lift and hold onto heavier weights. You can increase forearm size and give the ever important intimidating handshake.

A weak grip sends signals to your nervous system that you could be putting yourself in danger by lifting a weight you struggle to grip. A good example would be hanging from two different bars with different diameters. Your body weight would be the same, but holding onto a smaller bar would likely be a lot easier than a thicker bar.

Before you run off to borrow your grandpa’s grip trainers, try throwing a few farmer’s walks into your next training session. They are surprisingly tough on more than your grip. Your legs, core, and upper back all get quite the workout when these are performed correctly. Be sure to use perfect posture – chest up and shoulders back.

accessory exercises

Your legs, core, and upper back all get quite the workout when these are performed correctly. Be sure to use perfect posture – chest up and shoulders back. Image courtesy of Raising the Bar.

Common excuses for omitting farmer’s walks include limited gym space or not wanting to look goofy carrying around heavy dumbbells with a grimace. The next best things would be dumbbell holds (farmer’s walk minus the walk) and timed bar hangs. Since you won’t have distance as a metric, time and weight would be your best indicators of progression on these.

Standing Single Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Unilateral exercises, or exercises that work one side at a time, are excellent ways to build slabs of muscle.

They allow most lifters to better concentrate on the muscles they’re targeting. They can control the tempo and focus on movement patterns.

Most unilateral exercises test core stability a great deal. The single arm shoulder press achieves all of these, and more. If you have never tried this exercise, there’s a good chance you’ll be shocked at first.  The strength difference between the single arm press and the military press is surprising.  This is largely due to your ability to recruit many non-shoulder muscles in the traditional military press.  These include leg and hip drive, chest, lats, and even more triceps. You will still be able to recruit some of these muscles in the single arm press, but at no where near the same level.

Instead of pressing from the front of your chest around the clavicle, the single arm press should be performed only in the frontal plane. In other words, if you put your nose on a wall you could still perform this movement. It’s important to maintain a strong base and tight core to avoid leaning side to side during the movement. Once again, master the movement pattern before throwing around any big boy weight.


This may be a weird question, but have you ever seen the arms on a male gymnast?

I think we can all agree that the guys are jacked. I think we can also agree that they spend a ton of time on exercises that parallel the movements of a dip.

With a more optimal range of motion than the traditional bench press or push up, a compelling argument could be made for the dip being the premier chest exercise. But I’m not here to argue, only to help you get jacked like our gymnast counterparts.

accessory exercises

With a more optimal range of motion than the traditional bench press or push up, a compelling argument could be made for the dip being the premier chest exercise. Image courtesy of Pinterest.

The dip is similar to the squat and deadlift in the sense that form is easy to butcher. Injury is one rep away if you’re not careful. Tempo, range of motion, and body position are all extremely important in the dip. For instance, leaning forward puts more emphasis on the chest. Remaining more upright targets the triceps. And going too far beyond 90 degrees at the elbow in the bottom portion of a dip may cause injury.

One flaw of the dip is a lifter’s limited bodyweight. If you are on the lighter side, there’s a good chance you could bang out 20-30+ dips with good form. Since the chest responds best to heavier weights and explosive reps, added weight is sometimes necessary. Just be sure to master the form before strapping a few 45 pound plates to your waist. You should be able to control the eccentric portion for a two or three count. Then, be explosive on the concentric portion.

Straight Arm Pulldown

Can you feel your lats when you lift?

How about right now while reading this? What the hell are lats anyway?

The lats, or latissimus dorsi, are large muscles in your back that run roughly from your shoulder to rib cage. You should feel your lats activate during pulling movements. You can also feel them while pulling your arms down from above your head. The lats are extremely important for many lifts and your strength levels. Being able to tighten your lats during the deadlift or squat is key in keeping a neutral spine during the lift.

accessory exercises

Having a wide set of lats can make you appear larger and more broad in t-shirts. Image courtesy of Bro Science.

Besides their performance benefits, the lats are quite the show muscle. Having a wide set of lats can make you appear larger and more broad in t-shirts. You’ll likely develop more upper back musculature like the traps from improved pulling power. There’s actually a “traps are the new abs” movement going on now, which I love.

With all that said, the lats are one of the hardest muscles to “feel” or learn how to activate properly. For many people, the straight arm pulldown is a cure-all since it forces you to use the right muscles. If you don’t use the lats, your triceps will burn out quicker than it takes you to finish this sentence.

Lying Cable Curl

A list of accessory exercises for getting swole wouldn’t be complete without some form of bicep curl.

Like we mentioned earlier, the eccentric portion of a lift is very beneficial for muscle growth. So, swinging or cheating weights up that are too heavy to control is minimally effective.

To avoid using poor form, try lying on your back on a bench or floor and position a cable just beyond arm’s length above your head.

Using cables instead of dumbbells is a great way to keep pride and form in check. This, in combination with removing momentum by lying down, will ensure that every rep is under control and focused. A supinated grip, or palms facing you, is the best grip for maximum bicep stimulation. So using a straight bar cable attachment would be a great option for a lying curl.

accessory exercises

There’s one thing to remember about all bicep exercises – they aren’t tricep exercises. If you are after bigger arms, you should also focus on triceps. Image courtesy of YouTube.

There’s one thing to remember about all bicep exercises – they aren’t tricep exercises. What do I mean by that? Your triceps make up a large part of your upper arm. If you are after bigger arms in general, developing the triceps should be your primary focus during arm training.

Take Away

After reading this, I hope you’re ready to add every one of these exercises to your programming.

But please don’t. You should choose your accessory exercises based on your personal goals.

If you are after a better powerlifting total, reverse band work could be great for you. On the other hand, if you just want bigger guns, dips, push ups, shoulder press, and lying curls would be the way to go.

You should perform periodic assessments of your weak points. This is important whether you are a powerlifter, bodybuilder, athlete, or regular joe wanting to get swole. Use them to ensure you are maximizing results, maintaining a well balanced physique, and avoiding injury. Accessory exercises should be swapped in and out as weaknesses become strengths and vice versa.

The exercises above are only a few of the seemingly infinite number of exercises out there. If you enjoy them, incorporate them in your strength training regimen and have fun. If you don’t, find exercises that you do enjoy and have fun. Accessory exercises at the tail end of a workout can easily be skipped on a busy day, but you are less likely to skip the exercises you most enjoy.


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About the Author

accessory exercisesMason Woodruff is a strength and health coach based out of Little Rock, Arkansas. He is also the owner of, his personal website for writing, online coaching and consulting. A firm believer in simplification and sustainability, Mason uses his knowledge of exercise science and nutrition to make fitness fun and enjoyable for as many people as possible.

1.      Bompa, T. (2015). Periodization Training for Sports. 3rd ed. Human Kinetics.
2.    Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J., Martin, F., Tella, V., & Andersen, L. (n.d.). Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 246-253.
3.    McCurdy, K., O’Kelley, E., Kutz, M., Langford, G., Ernest, J., & Torres, M. (2010). Comparison of lower extremity EMG between the 2-leg squat and modified single-leg squat in female athletes. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 19(1), 57-70.