Why Some Accessory Movements Get Deemed As “Magic”
Let me first start off by saying there is no magic accessory exercise. Programming and accessory trends shift constantly and in reality most of what becomes popular is not new, more so things just cycle back into the limelight. 3 specific recent examples being belt squat, weighted dips, and 45 degree hyperextensions. Some might say these became popular just due to some influential people pushing them, but I think there is more to it than that. In my opinion, they become increasingly popular because there tends to be a large scope of successful application. A particular lifter or coach highlights a certain movement, people try it, a large scope of those lifters see success over what they’ve done prior, and then they highlight that success and it continues to spread. So in my typical fashion, I want to know the “why” behind the success of these 3 movements, because once we understand the “why” we get an even better sense of the application scenarios that they will work best in.
1.) Belt squat: Outside of the small portion of outliers that are just built to squat, a notable issue with squatting within powerlifting context is being able to get adequate quad volume. Especially as we shift towards the spectrum of people who are very disadvantaged leveraged wise to squat, we find increasingly that low back fatigue tends to outpace quad fatigue. And this is specific to powerlifting to an extent, because we need to add the totality of workload accumulated by the low back from squatting, deadlifting, and even benching. So to gain that additional workload on the quads we can perform movements such as leg press, bulgarian split squats, belt squat and more. But why has belt squat worked so well for so many people over movements such as leg press or bulgarian split squats?
-Leg press has 2 main limiting factors in comparison to belt squat. First, barring that you have access to a cybex variable leg press, your body type can drastically change the range of motion and execution that is possible, even with adjustments to foot placement. An example being your thighs hit your stomach prior to gaining an adequate range of motion. Second, based on the type of leg press and foot placement, sometimes the leg press doesn’t even do a great job of targeting the quads and ends up almost being a better glute and adductor exercise due to relative degrees of hip extension being a factor with the movement.
-A bulgarian split squat is highly technical. It takes a learning curve to do correctly, and a learning curve to be able to do correctly with high loads. While they can be a great exercise, many lifters tend to do better working with more “mindless” accessory movements after the intense focus of competition squatting prior. So if you want high levels of exertion, reduce the barriers to that by choosing movements that have little to no learning curve and are easy to execute.
-A belt squat has a very low learning curve and can fairly easily be pushed to high RPEs quickly by athletes. It also does a great job of selective muscular stress, in that most people after performing belt squats will find their quads were the limiting factor, with very little adductor, glute or hamstring soreness due to the fact that there is no real element of hip extension with the movement. And with coming back around to competition squatting, if we are trying to fill the volume gaps of quad specific work that has a high translation to actual squatting, belt squat seems to do that really well for a large scope of athletes.
2.) 45 Degree Hyperextension: With sumo deadlift, especially for more advantaged sumo pullers, there is a lack of hinge in comparison to the conventional deadlift. And with conventional deadlift, many times the low back can only tolerate so much workload. So for both, there may be gaps in gaining adequate hinge volume that targets the glutes and hamstrings appropriately. As mentioned with squat, the low back takes a beating in powerlifting, so finding accessory based movements that can mimic that hinge pattern while reducing lower back stress can be of great help. Some examples of common hinge based accessory movements would include barbell or dumbbell RDLs, conventional deadlift work for sumo pullers, good mornings, or 45 degree hyperextensions. But why has 45 degree hyperextensions become a go-to in comparison to these other options?
-Simply put, barbell RDLs have a high fatigue cost. Adding them into any program and loading them appropriately is going to be notably more fatiguing than performing even a close counterpart in dumbbell RDLs. But then with dumbbell RDLs, there is a differing strength curve versus 45 degree hyperextensions. Dumbbell RDLs are easier the closer you are to lockout, and if we are looking at what we lack within powerlifting, it is more so lockout based strength curve movements for the glutes and hamstrings. Both the squat and deadlift strength curves place the greatest stress on the lengthened position of the glutes and hamstrings, not the shortened position. So with dumbbell RDLs, we are double dipping into the same stress we see through most of the other powerlifting movements.
-Conventional work for sumo pullers comes back to the same issue as barbell RDLs, in that they have a high fatigue cost. Likely to perform heavy conventional deadlifts additional to what you already do, you are going to have to pull workload from elsewhere to account for the recovery demands.
-Good mornings are a very technical movement and for those who have done them, know that there is not only a high learning curve, but greater demands on the low back. If the goal is to find a movement with low fatigue costs for the low back, good mornings are not going to be a great option in this specific scenario.
-A 45 degree hyper is not only a low learning curve movement, it also does a fantastic job of helping to target the glutes and hamstrings within a hinge based movement towards the shortened range of motion. In comparison to all the other hinge based work we do within powerlifting, it has a different targeted strength curve while having a very low fatigue cost. For sumo pullers where they need added hinge work, 45 degree hyperextensions can help to add targeted volume to the glutes and hamstring while not placing much strain on the low back. And for conventional pullers who may be inducing too much low back fatigue and not enough glute and hamstring workload, they can be able to add 45 degree hyperextensions to be more targeted in gaining that needed volume without the additional low back fatigue.
3.) Weighted Dips: Bench press is arguably the movement within the big 3 that gains the biggest advantage from additional hypertrophy, especially for lifters who do not have a huge arch. Unlike with squat or deadlift, many times with upper body accessory work the movements are less targeted to fill some specific muscles workload gap, and more so just to get bigger overall. The common accessory options we see are incline or flat dumbbell press, machine based presses, pushups, or weighted dips. But why have weighted dips caught on and seen so much success?
-Incline or dumbbell bench press has 3 main limiting factors. First, barring you have access to specialized dumbbells, the ability to incremental load is difficult, especially for lifters who may not have the capabilities to work far past the 70-80lb. dumbbells. Second, the heavier you go the harder it is to get a full range of motion due to the size of the dumbbells. And third, there is a high demand on unilateral stability to hold the dumbbells, which is why we commonly cannot dumbbell press as much as we barbell press.
-I love machine chest press much for the same reason I love belt squats, they have a very low learning curve, can be “mindless” in their execution, and can be very easy to push quickly to higher RPEs for most lifters. There is 1 main issue with machine chest press variations though in comparison to weighted dips, and that is no one cares how much you can machine chest press. Now some might argue that is a silly reason for people to do weighted dips over a machine chest press. But when adherence and effort is a major issue with many lifters and their accessory work, finding movements that have high internal value based on loading and increased motivation to put forth effort are big factors in what is “optimal”.
-There are 2 main issues with push ups. First being that bodyweight push ups for the majority of powerlifters are going to be way too easy. Second, it is very difficult to do weighted push ups. If someone ever came out with a decent way to do weight pushups I would be all for them. I think they could possibly be my go-to accessory movement if that was the case, but for now that is not the case, so therefore I, and most coaches, rarely have people do weighted push ups.
-Simply put, lifters tend to have higher motivation to progress weighted dips due to 1.) they subjectively look cool (no one is posting machine pressing on their stories), 2.) you can do very incremental loading on them, and 3.) you can load them pretty heavy. Within that too, when done with a slight forward lean they have a decently close relation to the decline pressing motion most benchers have that are elevating the ribcage and creating some form of an arch. It is very difficult to perform a decline dumbbell bench press in a similar manner, so the ease of setup for weighted dips tends to be a good alternative in that regard. And lastly, weighted dips do a really good job of targeting all aspects of pressing musculature in the pecs, anterior deltoids, and triceps. If just general hypertrophy of the pressing musculature is the goal, weighted dips do a really good job of killing 3 birds with 1 stone.