Boyce’s Choices: Top 10 Assistance Exercises

by on November 7, 2013

Boyce’s Choices: Top 10 Assistance Exercises

The glory belongs to the big lifts.

Whether you’re reading articles written by a powerlifting enthusiast, a bodybuilding specialist, or a guy who just wants to help people move better, it’s commonly accepted by the intelligent training world that you don’t know what you’re talking about if you don’t give the big, primal movement patterns their priority as the hub of your workout regimes.

In many ways, this is true. But time and again, those same articles also downplay the importance of assistance exercises. The ones that will actually act to improve the performance of the big lifts, when done in the right proportion and timing. In a community of bodybuilding and strength and size training enthusiasts like this one, I feel there’s no better place to share my thoughts on the topic. Having said that, these are my top 10 assistance exercises, in no particular order.

Quick Note —

Remember, assistance exercises are different movements that can translate to aiding the big lifts. Having said that, a direct variation like a goblet squat, dumbbell bench press, or rack pull won’t make the list – those movements are too direct and all mimic the same pattern. In essence, they can be used as the volume of each workout. I’m talking about the stuff that will hit the weak links. They’re slightly smaller exercises that serve their purpose. You’ll see what I mean below.

Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat

I know I said “no particular order”, but this one’s first on the list because it’s actually my number 1. This works unilateral leg training, and improves the active flexibility of the hip flexors group at the same time. The takeaways here are improved stability of the knee (due to the added involvement of the VMO and inner thigh muscles), improved hip mobility (due to the active stretching of the hip flexors on each rep), and greater ROM, especially for those who have squat depth issues. It usually doesn’t take too much weight to really have to grind to get your reps in, and adding range of motion is as simple as slightly elevating the front foot. As you’ll note in the video, changing the angle of the torso even by a few inches can completely shift the emphasis between quads and glutes.

Face pulls

There are many ways to do face pulls (palms in, palms out, pulling to neck, pulling overhead, active shoulder rotation, and so on), but the name of the game is generally the same. This is one of my go-to exercises to hit the mid traps, rhomboids and rear deltoids. I like to encourage a rotary component to the lift also. From a movement perspective, it’s a great exercise to use in conjunction with wall slides to determine my first-time clients’ proficiency in shoulder external rotation. Again, it’s another exercise that doesn’t take much weight to have its full effect. Pepper them into your workouts in between sets of pressing movements and you’ll notice an increase in shoulder stability through your work sets.

Side Lying Flies

You’re probably wondering what the difference is between this and a typical bentover fly, chest supported fly, or standing cable fly.

It all comes down to length-tension relationships and force angles. The side lying fly takes the rhomboids through the biggest range of motion they’ll ever have. Most exercises that hit the rhomboids start with the arm positioned in front of the body. This exercise starts with it physically across the body. That means a greater stretched position, which is often a weak point for the rhomboids. Having strength in the rhomboids through a region like this can translate into a better quality front squat, and better scapular stability as a whole. In a bentover or chest – supported fly, the tension often shifts to the rear deltoids at the end of each rep, thanks to gravity. The rhomboids have fully contracted, and holding the arms up from such a large lever arm is no longer their job, rather that of muscles like the rear deltoid, supraspinatus, and even the long head of the triceps. That becomes a non-issue in the side lying fly, since the force angle doesn’t match the body at the end of the lift due to the body’s positioning. Here’s Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition performing the exercise.

French Press

I can’t accolade this enough as my top triceps specific movement. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – the further away the upper arm moves from the torso, the more of a chance a lifter will have to tap into the long head of the triceps. It’s commonly the head that doesn’t get enough action in the weight room due to the plethora of dips, close grip bench, and pressdowns that run wild on chest and arms days. From a cosmetic perspective, the long head probably has the biggest role in beefing up the girth of the upper arm. From a performance perspective, strength gains and shoulder stability in incline and overhead pressing movements go through the roof when this muscle is nice and strong. I recommend using an EZ curl bar as it’s much better on the wrists, and to achieve optimal elbow position (turn those elbows in!).

One arm DB Row

The best isolateral back exercise that exists, period.

There’s not much that needs to be said about this movement. The integrity at the elbow joint due to the dumbbell load allows the lifter to pull in an arcing fashion that much better simulates the path of the lat fibers when compared to a barbell bentover row. The upper lats, teres, and scapular muscles also get to be put through a great range of motion thanks to the “reaching to the floor” emphasis that few other back exercises can simulate. Whenever I do these, I’m reminded of the anti-rotational stability role that my core plays in performing this exercise correctly, because my obliques are often also sore the day after.

Dumbbell Floor Press

The floor press helps a lifter work on their tightness for the bench, shoulder stability, and lockout strength. Using dumbbells even better exploits all three of these components that make a good press. I prefer using a narrow, elbows-in grip for myself and for my clients, to emphasize the triceps slightly more. Another bonus of this movement comes when performing it with legs out straight on the floor. You can’t use any floor drive or raise the hips – which (for heavy benchers) usually makes things much more difficult. Here’s my boy Ben Bruno getting it done:

Half-Kneeling Press

Anything done with a contralateral load will have huge carryover to proper core training. Too many times I notice poor energy transfer through the core and into the loaded bar when clients are lifting too heavy with poor foundation. It almost always results in plateaus or injury. Half kneeling movements help the core to stabilize the spine and avoid rotation or flexion. Maintaining a still midsection while performing a moderately weighted half-kneeling movement is quite humbling, and many times you’ll find yourself compensating. I like the half-kneeling press in particular because raising the arm that matches the trailing leg will have some crossover to improving hip region flexibility too. My boy Dean Somerset demo’s it with a kettlebell here:

Z press

Forget my favourite assistance exercises – this is one of my 3 favourite exercises, period!

To do them well, you’ll need a whole lot of trunk strength, hip flexor mobility, hamstring flexibility, and lumbar and thoracic spine health. And if you don’t have every last one of those things in check, the lift will suffer. It’s a “no cheating” movement since the legs have nothing to drive against, and the back has nothing to lean back against. Remember to stay tall, and to sit on your hammies, not your butt – to maintain a tall, tight spine.

Kettlebell Swing

The hamstrings are chalk full of fast twitch muscle fibers, and training them for some speed if you’re an intermediate lifter can only mean good when it comes to muscle and strength building potential. The swing really encourages proper firing mechanics of the posterior chain, and I encourage them in my own clients’ training. I can’t speak any more of this without going to a video of Neghar Fonooni – she has what I consider the best kettlebell swing technique I’ve ever seen. Like, ever. Really.

Trap 3 Raise

This simple exercise targets the Trap -3 Muscle, which is commonly the weakest. Its deficiency is made very clear during exercises like front squats, lat pulldowns, or pull ups, where a lack of thoracic extension and/or shoulder depression strength is evident. It won’t take much weight to hit the muscles we’re looking for here, and making the lower traps tighter will help improve posture.

That’s All, Folks

If all ten of these movements have their place in your program in some form, as supplements to your squat, bench, deads and standing press, chances are you’re a ripped freak who busts through plateaus on the regular. If they’re not in your program, chances are you’ve just found a way to break the nagging stymies you’ve been in a funk of experiencing for the last little while. Put these to practice and your body AND lifting results will benefit. You think I’m playin’ ?

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.