Squats are great. Deadlifts are a must. Bench pressing is king. But you'll still need to fill in the gaps if you want to see real progress in your fitness. That's where accessory exercises come in. While compound movements are the meat and potatoes, accessory exercises are all the extra... side dishes? You get the point. Let's list a few that you can try on your own.
8 Accessory Exercises to Improve Your Strength
1. Barbell Hip Bridges
These guys are deceiving because you can go way heavier than you think you can.
Our glutes are incredibly strong — far stronger than we give them credit for. And yet, we don't use them as we should. For instance, when we should be engaging our glutes during a heavy squat, many of us will solely rely on our quads or back instead.
Your glutes mean business — use them!
Barbell hip bridges are excellent because you have no choice but to flex those buns. Start with a lighter weight so that you can get familiar with the movement; but then, don't be afraid to load the plates up.
Think of moving quickly on the way up, squeeze your bum at the top, and then lower slowly. Fair warning: You're going to feel these the next day. And the day after that.
2. Bulgarian Split Squats
Squat variations are all the rage. Your traditional front and back squats are training staples, but there are countless other spin-offs that deserve your attention. Bulgarian split squats are one of them.
Typically, squatting is symmetrical and bilateral: Both sides of the body are doing the same thing at the same time. Sometimes, this can mean that weaknesses that occur on just one side of the body are ignored. Enter unilateral exercises!
Bulgarian split squats isolate each side of the body so that you're only working one at a time. This will point out any weaknesses or imbalances that you might not have noticed otherwise.
It also adds an element of difficulty because you have to work harder to stabilize yourself.
3. One-Arm Dumbbell Strict Presses
This is a similar conversation to Bulgarian split squats. If you're doing barbell strict presses — a top-notch compound movement — then you're already halfway there. But you don't want to neglect one-arm presses.
Once again, these will point out any weaknesses in strength or challenges in mobility that are happening on just one side.
Plus, it's harder to move a dumbbell. Whereas with a barbell, you mainly have to focus on simply getting it overhead, with a dumbbell you have to get it overhead and work to keep your arm next to your ear. In a way, you get more bang for your buck.
Whenever we talk about wanting chiseled abs, so many people go straight for crunches. Stop! These aren't even an effective core exercise, but we'll save that for another blog.
There are a few things we love about planks. For starters, while they are an insane core exercise, they target so much more beyond that.
Second, there are infinite variations. You can do traditional planks, but you can also do side planks, planks on the rings, planks on an incline, back planks, and the list goes on and on.
And third, because there are so many ways to do it, this means that there are just as many ways to scale planks. Whether you need to make them easier or more challenging, it's simply not an issue with this exercise.
Many of us underestimate the importance of a strong, sturdy, stable core. Your core is the foundation for nearly everything you do. Without it, you can squat, bench — heck, you can't sit up straight.
Dedicate extra time to strengthening that foundation with the right accessory exercises, and you'll reap the rewards.
Some athletes and coaches will tell you that dips are squats for the upper body. In other words, you should be doing them.
These guys pack a lot of punch and hit your pecs, lats, triceps, and holy cow are your shoulders going to burn like hell. Your gym very likely has a dip stand. Parallel bars also work. Ring dips are much more difficult and are better suited once you're a little more advanced with this movement.
Dips aren't the kind of exercise you can just push your way through if you're new to them. If you can't do them... you can't do them. Period. But that's okay! Like all of the other accessory exercises on this list, you can scale them.
If your own weight is too much, use a band to take some of the load off. Or, you could just practice the negative (the down-phase of the exercise) to start. This will still challenge you and build strength.
Once your own weight is no longer enough, aside from doing more reps, you can add weight by holding a dumbbell between your legs or hanging weight from a chain belt around your hips.
Don't cheat these by barely bending your arms and then calling it a rep. That defeats the purpose. You want to get low in your dips — that's where you're weakest, and that's what you want to target.
6. Hip Extensions
You ever heard one of those stories where a friend threw their back out tying their shoe or picking up a piece of paper or something equally silly? If you want to avoid that, you need to be doing hip extensions.
We've already talked about how crucial your core is to literally everything. At the same time you're doing your planks, don't forget to target the back of your body. That's what hip extensions do — they target the entire backside of your body. Not just your back!
Plus, these are awesome not just for building strength but also for working on speed and explosiveness. Because you want to extend your back quickly, it mimics what you do during an Olympic lifting pull. So, if you want to improve your snatch or clean pull — in terms of either strength or speed (or both!) — hip extensions are going to be your new best friend.
Whenever you're working from a deficit, you can expect major strength gains. And in terms of accessory exercises that put you at a deficit, none are quite like step-ups.
We say "deficit" because you're starting on a lower surface (the floor) and need to get yourself out of it by stepping onto a higher surface (typically a box). That's the deficit. You might find that doing these at bodyweight is already challenging enough, and that's just fine!
If you need more weight, there are so many ways you can do this. Hold a barbell in the front or back. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand or at your shoulders. Keep a plate overhead.
No matter how you do it, you're going to get one heck of a workout.
Be mindful of your technique. Step-ups are simple, sure, but technique still matters. As you step up, think of keeping your torso upright — not leaning forward. If you're leaning forward, then you're likely using momentum to get you up on the box instead of your strength.
Rows are another one of those accessory exercises that are actually quite functional because they mimic something we do early every day: leaning over to pick something up.
You can use a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, and you can do both arms or one at a time if you want something unilateral (which you now know is very good for you!).
You're probably going to notice a pattern here across all of these accessory exercises. We've talked about speed a lot. Very often with these movements, you move slowly in one direction and fast in the other.
With hip extensions, it's slow on the way down and fast on the way up. Dips are a similar story, as are barbell hip bridges. And same with — you guessed it — rows.
As you lower the weight down, take your time. And whatever you do, don't bounce the barbell off the ground so that it slingshots back up to you. That's cheating.
We slow down our accessory exercises because it increases the time under tension. And time under tension is ultimately what makes your muscles grow. Win!
Ready to get started? Try incorporating some of these accessory exercises into your programming. As always, be mindful of your weights, watch your technique, and always prioritize safety. Good luck!