A few weeks back we received a question from a reader:
Are assistance exercises necessary to get stronger in the squat and deadlift, or is it enough to train just those two exercises?
I recorded an answer to that question which you can watch in the video below or listen to on our podcast, but if you prefer reading, then just skip below.
“Necessary” Is Not the Same Thing As “Helpful”
Well, the short answer is no.
Of course there are special circumstances where that might not be the case, but I’d wager most people aren’t in a special circumstance – not even if you’re already competing and performing on an elite level.
The principle of specificity is extremely important in sports training, and nothing is more important than training at the specific task in which you want to improve.
But, the more interesting question is of course: would it help?
More exactly: would you increase your strength more and faster by adding in assistance exercises?
Maybe. Let’s look at the evidence.
How Does Elite Powerlifters Train?
While the amount of research on the sport of powerlifting keeps adding up at an increasing rate, I am not aware of any study that has investigated and reported on the use of assistance exercises among elite-level powerlifters.
Just racking my brain for how the powerlifters I know at a national or international level, I don’t see any clear distinction. There are the purists who pretty much only train the big three lifts, and then on the other hand there are the ones who train a ton of different variations or assistance exercises, but this does not tell us which is better.
What Does The Research Say?
To my knowledge, there are only two studies that have examined how assistance exercises affect strength in the squat (in one of them) and the bench press (in the other). No, the bench press isn’t the same exercise as deadlifts, but I believe it is fair to guess that if bench pressing benefits from assistance exercises, then it is likely that squatting and deadlifting does, too. Besides, with such a paucity of research, I’m happy with what we can get.
Study 1: Varied Leg Exercises Is Better Than Squats Only
In the first study, 70 previously untrained participants either trained squats only, or trained squats, leg presses, deadlifts, and lunges.1 They trained twice weekly for 12 weeks, and increased their training volume each month. Here’s their exercise choices and the number of sets per training session for each block of training:
|Weeks||Squats Only||Squats + Assistance|
|1–4||Squat: 4 sets||Squat: 2 sets|
Leg Press: 2 sets
|5–8||Squat: 6 sets||Squat: 3 sets|
Deadlift: 3 sets
|9–12||Squat: 9 sets||Squat: 3 sets|
Deadlift: 3 sets
Lunge: 3 sets
After 12 weeks, the participants that had varied their exercises not only saw greater leg muscle hypertrophy – they had increased their squat 1RM twice as much as the squats-only group had done, despite less specific practice (33–50% fewer sets of squats) and similar starting levels of strength.
Notch up a big one for assistance exercises!
Study 2: Tricep Training Does Not Aid Bench Press Strength
Previously untrained participants were split into four groups, which trained:
- Bench press
- Tricep extensions
- Bench press + Tricep extensions
- Tricep extensions + Bench press
The participants trained twice per week for ten weeks, with between 3–5 sets (varying over the weeks) per exercise, lifting about 80% of their 1RM until failure. That means that group 1 performed 3–5 sets of bench pressing only each session, while group 3 and 4 performed 3–5 sets of bench press plus 3–5 sets of tricep extensions.
After ten weeks, group 3 and 4 saw double the tricep growth that group 1 did, but still, the strength gains in bench press 1RM were very similar.
So the first study seems to be in favour of replacing some of your squatting sets with other compound exercises, while the second one says that it really doesn’t make any difference for your bench press strength if you add in tricep training before or after benching.
Hardly rock-solid evidence, but the results from the squat study is sure eye-catching.
But, another factor might be more important to take into consideration, and that is your total training load and your training “budget”, or recovery budget. Assistance exercises might provide a way to fit in more productive training for your muscles, without too much monotonous wear and tear.
For example, you might find that your knees are a bit achy and probably are pushed to their recovery limit from the squat and deadlift training that you are doing, but your back and glutes feel fresh and fine and could maybe benefit from more training. Then assistance exercises that load those two but not the knees, such as romanian deadlifts or good mornings, could be beneficial to your progress.
Another example might be variations of the squat and the deadlift, such as pause squats and paused deadlifts, which could help you with different technical aspects of the lifts.
What you should be wary of, however, is to swap out sets of your primary lifts (in this case squat and deadlift) and replace them with other exercises with no good reason or plan. If you add in 3 sets of leg extensions per week, and that forces you to remove 3 sets of squats – is that a good trade-off?
Some of the Time, It Works All the Time
So, what should you do? For most people, it is probably best to let the competition lifts make up the majority of your training. It will build precisely the muscles you will need to perform in that specific movement, and at the same time build your skill in the exercise.
If you believe that a certain muscle group is lagging behind and you believe that it can handle additional training, please go ahead and add in a few sets of that after your main work is done, but remember that the principle of specificity reigns supreme, and you get better at what you practice.
You can probably reach a very high level of performance in the squat and deadlift by utilizing only those two, but at the same time, you would do yourself a disservice if you would exclude all other exercises just on principle. You might not need assistance exercises always or maybe not even often, but every once in a while when you’ve identified a weakness or are trying to train around an injury, they might be really helpful to have in your toolbox.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2020 May;34(5):1254-1263. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550. Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- And Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations.