Accessory Exercises – When Should I Use Them?

Both compound and accessory exercises can be useful in training. Let’s first define a compound exercise vs. an accessory exercise.

  • A compound exercise uses larger or multiple muscle groups.
  • An accessory exercise targets smaller muscles or muscle groups.

We will focus on accessory exercises below!

Accessory exercises help prevent or address imbalances, can be more specific, can get certain muscles going before a workout, or can fatigue certain muscles more after a workout.

Depending on the goal, you can place accessory exercises at different parts of the session or include more/less of them in your training. But, overall, I think it is important to include both compound and accessory work into your training.

Using accessory exercises before a workout

Accessory exercises before a workout can be used to help activate certain muscles to help the mind-muscle connection, improve awareness, and improve form. This is especially helpful if there’s any instability or prior injury. The main consideration here is being careful to not fatigue them prior to your main lift. I would say this is best when you’re either at the tail end of coming back from an injury, or if there is something slightly nagging that you want to help address. You’re noticing some change in your movement quality, but not enough to significantly alter workouts.

Accessory exercises used before a workout can activate specific muscles to help the mind-muscle connection, improve awareness, and improve form.

Using accessory exercises after your workout

Using accessory exercises after a workout can fatigue a certain muscle group you’re trying to strengthen or address any imbalances while not fatiguing them prior to your lift. This strategy is great for improving performance in your main lift, while then addressing smaller muscles after. I would argue that most of the time, this is best practice if there is no injury/movement pattern abnormality.

Accessory exercises used after a workout can fatigue a muscle group you’re trying to strengthen or address any imbalances without fatiguing the muscle prior to a lift.

Using accessory exercises throughout your workout

I have also sprinkled accessory exercises throughout my workouts to provide active rest, get a little bit more volume while minimizing time in the gym, and still be able to work on areas of weakness/imbalances. This strategy can also be used if you’re short on time and want to focus more on your compound exercises. This will allow you to get the accessory work in during your rest periods for other exercises. This may take a bit more planning, as you want to make sure you’re not working a muscle group involved in the main lift so as not to fatigue it. Or, if the goal is to fatigue it more, you want to plan the exercise specifically around the compound exercise and the muscle you want to fatigue.

Accessory exercises used throughout workouts can provide active rest and increase volume while minimizing time in the gym.

Using accessory exercises as your workout

This strategy can be used when an injury is preventing you from being able to do compound exercises. So for example, if you’re not able to do a front squat due to an upper or lower body injury, maybe a knee extension may be better tolerated to strengthen the quads. These can be used to help build targeted strength around the area of an injury in a supervised manner, or it can be used to maintain strength in other parts of the body that aren’t injured.

Accessory exercises used as your workout can build targeted strength around an area of an injury or maintain strength in other parts of the body that aren’t injured.

I personally use a combination of these depending on my goals, how I am moving, and the rationale behind it. With many things, most strategies are correct if you have a good reason behind why you’re doing it!

Feel free to drop any questions below, and let me know if/how you use accessory exercises in your workouts!

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Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here. 

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