Keep it Simple Stupid Part 2: Assistance Work

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By Chad Wesley Smith

In part 1 of this series, I discussed the need for athletes and lifters alike to be simple in their selection of their max effort exercises. It is critical as a competitive lifter, to be a master of the competitive lifts, and particularly as a raw lifter that means you need to be performing them on a very regular basis. For athletes, it is key to be simple in your exercise selection for two reasons, first you do not want to use your bioenergetic stores on the development of lifting technique because you need to reserve that for the technical development of your sport skills; second, the less frequently you change your main exercise, the less soreness you will incur which is key when having multiple sport practices per week. There are many benefits to performing the competition lifts exclusively as your main exercises, one risk you run though is the development of muscular imbalances which can lead to weakpoints developing.  Your body wants to allow it strongest movers to handle the weight and will transfer the stress there, so if you have strong quads and weak hamstrings, your body will force you into being a quad dominant squatter, which over time will limit your potential. To avoid this occurring you need to be smart about organizing your assistance work.

Assistance work should be divided into two groups: supplementary work, which are variations of the competitive lifts designed to address specific weakpoints or sticking points; and assistance work, which is training for specific muscle groups that will increase hypertrophy and maintain muscular suppleness, while helping avoid overuse injuries by bringing balance to the physique.

Supplementary Work

Supplementary work consists of using variations/varying intensities of the competition lifts to address different weak/sticking points and build special work capacity. Remember though, while supplementary work is important, it does not take precedent over your competition lifts and their loading strategies should reflect that. Similarly to your main lifts, it is critical to not rotate supplementary work too frequently as you will not have enough time to let them serve their desired purpose, nor will you be able to truly gauge their effectiveness on your strength. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite supplementary exercises and the functions they serve…


Speed Squats-For the raw lifter, speed/Dynamic Effort work should be done at a higher percentage than the 45-60% normally prescribed for geared lifters. Sixty to 75% is a good range to focus your speed work around. Focus on locking in your technique and pushing the bar with maximal force. Make sure to keep your rest periods short, 45-90 seconds, when performing speed work. Using speed sets after your main lift is also a great way to build special work capacity early in a training cycle. I have performed as many as 8 triples of speed work after my main work sets. Using chains and bands is acceptable here, but should be reserved for once straight weight is no longer yielding a positive training effect.

Dead Squats-Dead squats are the best way to build power out of the hole and a staple in my training program. Dead squats should be done for singles and depending on where you are in the training cycle, 2 to 12 sets can performed. When earlier in the training cycle, while lighter weights are being used, short rest periods (30-75 seconds) should be utilized. Once the weights increase, just take the necessary rest intervals to perform the work. Read more about Dead Squats in this article Josh Bryant, How to Win Meets and Influence Squats and Deadlifts.

Safety Bar Squats-A common problem among squatters is falling forward due to the head falling forward because of upper back weakeness/lack of tightness in the setup. The safety squat bar will remedy this problem quickly, due to its ability to accentuate any lack of tightness or weakness in the upper back due to the forward bar position. Make sure you are pushing your head back into the yoke as hard as possible to keep your head and chest up. Stay between 3 and 8 reps per set for 2 to 3 sets and your ability to keep a good posture through your squat should really improve.


Speed Bench-Good bar speed is the number one way to avoid sticking points. The faster the bar is moving, the less likely you are to stall at any point during the lift. Triples are the best option here, and varying your hand position is also advisable. Follow the same percentage guidelines as I outlined for the speed squats.

Paused Widegrip Bench-If your shoulders are healthy, paused widegrips are a great way to build power off of the chest. Just move your grip 1” out from your competition grip and perform the same way that you would a regular bench. Do not go below 4 reps in this exercise

Dead Bench-Another great exercise from Josh Bryant, which you can read about in detail in “Bring Your Bench Press Alive with the Dead Bench”.

Closegrip Board Presses-The closegrip bench has long been a staple in big benchers programs to build lockout power and using a 2 or 3 board is a great way to overload the triceps even more. A thumb from the smooth or pinkies on rings grip will be sufficient here. Reps here will should be from singles to sets of 8.

Seated Military Press to the Top of the Head-Strong shoulders are critical to a powerful raw bench. So are healthy ones though, which is why I prefer to perform mine to the top of the head, as opposed to in front or behind the head. The seated military press will build great shoulder strength/stability and tricep strength. Use sets of 1 to 10 reps, depending on where you are during your training cycle, for 2 or 3 work sets.


Here is a look into one of my deadlift training sessions. Notice the wide variety of supplementary work I use to address different portions of the lift.

Speed Pulls-As with the squat and bench, speed, is the best way to avoid sticking points and missing lifts. Utilitizng sets of 2 to 4, speed pulls with short rest periods are a great way to build your special work capacity, dial in your technique and increase low back strength. I have performed as many as 10 sets of 4 reps of speed pulls with 500 pounds (about 70%) after my heavy sets in the deadlift.

Defecit Pulls-Defecit pulls are a great way to build power off of the floor in the deadlift and accommodate your body to the longer time under tension that max singles often require. They will also force you to improve your hip mobility, which will allow you to get into better positions to start your pull. Sets of 3 to 8 in the defecit pull will work great to build your strength from the floor.

Pulls against Bands-For athletes who struggle at the top of the lift, adding accommodating resistance is a great way to both overload the top portion of the movement and to teach the athlete to impart maximal velocity to the bar through the entire movement. Bands can be set up in a number of ways, quaded around the base of a power rack or jumpstretch platform, stretched between dumbbells, or simply wrapped around the bar and then place your feet in the ends. Reverse band pulls are also a good option here.


Isometrics are a powerful tool in your training that must be used with great discretion as they are very taxing to the CNS. To set up an isometric, just set the pins in a power rack at wherever your sticking point is, and then pull the bar loaded with 50-60% of your max against the pins for 4 to 10 seconds. I perform these during my last 3 weeks before a meet, and then deload all pulling for 2 weeks before competing.

My lifts are a testament to the effectiveness of a simple program

That covers my favorite supplementary exercises for each lift. Assess your weak points and pick an exercise from this list to attack them. I will use 2-4 variations of a given lift within a single session, which far out from a meet can add up to 20 work sets between my main lift and supplementary variations of it. Here is a look at my bench training template from May 29th

1)   Bench-Work up to 425×3, paused

2)   Speed Bench-325 for 8 sets of 4 with 1 minute rest

3)   Widegrip Bench, paused-320 for 2 sets of 8

4)   Dead Bench-335 for 8 sets of 1 with 45 seconds rest

5)   Assistance Work

Now that we’ve covered supplementary work for the Big 3, let’s take a look at assistance work. As I mentioned above, assistance work is to bring up lagging muscle groups and retain muscular suppleness. Assistance work should promote blood flow into the muscles and be relatively easy work. Don’t worry about setting PRs in assistance work each week, because it will detract from your ultimate goal, improving the Big 3. Performing 1-5 sets of 8-20 reps for a few of the  exercises from each of the following lists should suffice for assistance work. I often like to set my watch for 15-20 minutes and perform all the assistance work I can during that time period to avoid dedicating too much time to this relatively insignificant aspect of training.

Squat Assitance

Single Leg Squats, GHRs, Single Leg RDLs, Walking Lunges, Barbell/Dumbbell Step Ups.

Bench Assitance

Dips (I go heavy here and below 8 reps), Front Raises, Lateral Raises, Flies, Curls (yes these matter, look at the training and guns of any old time powerlifting stud).

You’ll notice that I didn’t list any back work here, back work is tremendously important to a big bench, but I like to perform my back work after my deadlift sessions or dedicate a separate day to it.  Chest supported rows, lat pulldowns, pullups, chinups, reverse flies and band pullaparts are my preferred back exercises to improve the bench.

Deadlift Assistance

Bentover Rows (I go heavy here and below 8 reps), Pullups/Chinups, GHRs, Shrugs, Back Extensions, Glute Bridges, Band X Walks.

Abdominal Assistance

Obviously ab strength plays a huge role in excelling in powerlifting. My favorite ab exercises are…

Ab wheel, Hanging Leg Raises, Side Bends, Decline Situps, Situps on GHR and Spread Eagle Situps.

There is my simple guide to supplementary and assistance work. Stick with an exercise for a few months and really start pushing some weight with it on your supplementary lifts. Don’t let your accessory work take on such a priority that it detracts from your max effort work. Getting crazy strong is about dedication, consistency and patience, not magic exercises. To learn more about how Chad built his #1 US Powerlifting total check out The Juggernaut Method and the soon to be released “9 Day Work Week”.

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