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My Favorite Ways to Progress Accessory Lifts

I am a complete nerd when it comes to programming. By programming, I don’t mean writing some stuff down to do for your workout each day, I mean actual programming. I mean prescribing an individual workout that fits within a given week, that builds upon the previous week, which builds upon the previous month, that is part of the year as a whole. Smart programming will put you in the right position to make continual, incremental, progress over a long period of time in the safest way possible.

In looking back at the hundreds of programs that I have written, and a lot of the research of the content available about it, I have made an observation – the main lifts get all of the love when it comes to programming.

The squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press (or the Olympic lifts if that is your interest) will have these elaborate loading schemes and progressions from week to week. It could be a linear, undulating, or conjugate structure based on RPE or percentages for anywhere from 4 weeks to 4 months. Then, after these beautifully crafted masterpieces, you will see a handful of accessory exercises scattered around the bottom of the page telling you to do “X exercise” for 4×10 with no weight assigned and assuredly no progression scheme from week to week.

This isn’t a critique on all the content that is out there, this is a reflection of my own biases in programming.

Now, I’m not going to say that you should get as specific with your cable triceps extensions as you are with your bench press, but I think there could be a happy medium. If you understand the value in putting together a program and spending time manipulating the variables to best suit your goals for the big lifts, then spending a modicum amount of that time and energy in structuring your assistance lifts should have enough return on investment.

In my opinion, assigning percentages or having an elaborate loading scheme to your isolation exercises is not only a good use of time, but likely not even the best idea in the grand scheme of thing. For the overwhelming majority of people, having a structure and template in place will help to answer the questions of when should I add weight and how many reps should I do.

These are my 3 favorite ways to program accessory lifts that will provide some structure to progress, but also the flexibility and auto-regulation to not spend too much time and energy majoring in the minutia.

Establish a maximum rep amount across a defined weight for a defined number of sets for the exercise.

I first came across the idea of programming a total number of reps to perform instead of programming specific set/rep schemes from a Chad Waterbury article on T-Nation a while back. The idea is super simple, you decide on a total number of reps to do at a given weight for an exercise and then do however many sets or reps needed, in any format, to hit that number. The nomenclature in the program would look something like this:

DB Incline Bench Press – 35 total reps at 75# DBs

Then, you could do however many reps you are able on each set until you hit a total of 35. For instance, you could do 8/8/7/5/4/3 reps on each set to make the total of 35.

This is a great strategy to employ that will generally allow you to use a little bit heavier of weight than you would be able to for straight sets. With the above example, if you had 5×7 programmed, you likely would have to drop the weight as fatigue would ensue by the 4th and 5th set. But, allowing for more sets to hit those reps would allow you to go a bit heavier while still hitting your volume goals.

As a sidenote, this is probably my favorite way to program pull-ups, especially for those that can’t necessarily just rep them out or if you are looking to add some extra weight. It seems that the fatigue that accumulates with pull-ups is highly variable each day, so this allows you to be a bit more flexible.

From a progression standpoint, you can put a threshold marker on the number of sets needed to hit those reps. For example:

DB Incline Bench Press – 35 total reps at 75# DBs

*When able to do in 4 total sets, increase the weight to 80# DBs*

With this, if you were to do sets of 10/9/8/8, you would then increase the weight the next workout. Now, it will take an experienced lifter quite a while to be able to go from needing 6 sets to hit the total number of reps to 4 sets. This is good as it prevents you from trying to add more weight too quickly, but also allows you to push yourself and gives you a goal to beat each time you do the exercise.

Establish a rep range and aim for more reps until you hit the upper threshold, then add weight and drop reps to the lower threshold.

Most exercise physiology textbooks that you would open would give you optimal rep ranges for whatever goal you would have. While these ranges are not so black and white and the latest research is showing that hypertrophy and/or strength are increased through a variety of rep ranges and amount of loading, there is still some merit behind them.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that after some heavy bench pressing, you want to lower the weight a bit and add some volume in the hopes of packing on some muscle mass. You know that you want to do 4 sets in the classic hypertrophy rep range of 8-12, but don’t know what weight you want to use.

Following these guidelines will give you a template on not only selecting your weight, but give you a good indication on when you should add more:

  • Pick your set and rep range (in this example – 4 x 8-12)
  • Choose a weight that would be challenging to perform 4 sets of 10
  • Perform each set
    • On the first 3 sets – stop at 12 reps if you are able to
    • If you are not able to hit 12 reps on the first 3 sets, go to near failure (keeping 1 rep in the tank)
    • On the 4th set – go to complete failure
  • Record the number of reps you hit each set
    • If you are able to hit the upper limit (12 reps) on each set, increase the weight for the next workout
    • If you are not able to hit the upper limit on each set, aim to increase the number of reps at the same weight for the next workout

Basically, you are trying to either increase the number of reps you do each workout or increase the weight. You will add more repetitions to the mix much more often than more weight, but adding volume is adding volume. And, for the most part, increasing volume over the course of time is one of the most sure-fired ways of getting strong and jacked.

The old-fashion 2×2 rule.

One of the most tried and true methods of increasing your workload is the 2×2 rule. This guideline will help you to not jump the gun and increase the intensity after one of those days in the gym where you feel great and everything feels light.

The 2×2 rule is defined as the following:

If you are able to do 2 more reps than what is prescribed, on the last set, on 2 consecutive workouts, you should increase the weight used.

Following this principle, training from week to week would look like this:

Neutral Grip Lat Pulldowns – 4×8

Week 1 – 120# x 8/8/8/8

Week 2 – 120# x 8/8/8/10

Week 3 – 120# x 8/8/8/10

Week 4 – 130# x 8/8/8/8

I know, the likelihood of progressing this fast or this linearly is not likely at all – I get that. This is meant to illustrate how you would go about progressing things from week to week.

We all have those great days in the gym every once in a while, but are often met with the humbling days when everything feels heavier than hell. Giving yourself an extra day to have to prove your strength can go a long way in normalizing the variability from day to day and keep you progressing slow and steady.

There is no one way to go about progressing your accessory work. The important part is that you are actually progressing from week to week or month to month. Getting stuck in the rut of doing the same exact weight for the same amount of reps for a prolonged period of time without feeling like you are getting any stronger is annoying to say the least.

While I don’t think you need to be super strict in programming every last exercise that you do in the gym, setting some guidelines for them will go a long way in standardizing things for continued progress.

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