Assistance exercises are often debated and debaters tend to have a wide range of opinions. I have encountered and discussed with coaches and athletes that defend how useless they think assistance exercises are just like I have encountered coaches and athletes that are so much into assistance exercises that the main lifts just does not get the required attention to make it better. In my discussions, I have noticed that people have different thoughts about different assistance exercises when, actually, I don’t think we really need to single out an assistance exercise more than the other one. The most common argument for the use of certain exercises over others, is specificity. I don’t think assistance exercises need to be that specific to be useful and here are my thoughts on this matter.
No assistance exercise is specific enough, and that’s okay.
Specificity arguments do not make senses in the context of assistance exercises because they are missing the point of assistance exercises. The rationale behind specificity arguments is that an assistance exercise has to be specific to have any kind of carry over to the main lift. People expect linear improvement, governed by the cause and effect principle, in the main lift which is probably not the right way to think of assistance exercises. Here is a good example : ”If I press X, I should be able to jerk Y” or ”if I squat X, I should be able to clean Y”. This looks about right, but is far from how it works most of the time. Furthermore, people tend to favor certain assistance exercises over others based on this principle and some exercises just get thrown out because of it.
For example, many people advise against the use of presses or push presses because they say that they are not specific enough to help the jerk. A jerk involves a throwing motion, through the use of the legs and hips muscles, and some kind of a press down or locking of the bar. In a jerk, the shoulders or pressing muscles are probably not considered prime movers whereas they would be prime movers in a press. So why press?
Is there a cause and effect relationship between presses and jerks? Probably not, and if there is some kind of correlation between the two, such correlation would depend on individual traits and biomechanics. Again, why press? How about shoulder or elbow health? How about overhead stability? How about muscle hypertrophy or upper body strength? While the press may or may not be specific to the jerk, it will surely help with what I just listed.
Here is the kicker : Every assistance exercise out there is not specific enough to the main lift and that’s fine. For instance, almost every body front squats and back squats without questioning its usefulness really, yet we could argue that these exercises are not specific to the main lifts too. Using the same rationale people use for presses, should we not throw the squatting exercises out? Or is the squat really more specific than the press?
Yes, the main lifts involves squatting motion so squatting exercises should help improve the main lifts, right? So, would going from a 315kg backsquat to a 350kg backsquat increase your 230kg more than any other exercises? May be if the problems really reside in leg strength and may be not if the problem is technical or muscular imbalance (what if you can squat 315kg but can only deadlift 290kg, which one should you work on?).
The squatting exercises are, to a certain extent, not specific to the main lifts. For one, the bar placement in the back squat is not specific to the clean or snatch. The back, the trunk and the shoulders and the hips are being recruited much differently in the back squat. As for front squats, the eccentric contraction in the front squat is not specific to the clean at all. Some people say pulls are not specific to weightlifting movements because of timing and muscle recruitment speed. We could argue the same about squats, although they probably would not like admitting it.
So why do we squat? The same reason we press, that is to improve a large, but general, array of parameters. A weightlifter needs to squat, there is no question about it. It would, however, be false to assume it only increase leg strength rather than overall body strength. This makes all the difference and explains why it is such a good exercise.
The real use of assistance exercises
Assistance exercises are being used to balance the body at all joints, through an increase in strength and muscle mass so that injuries risks can be reduced and overall performance can be driven up. While the effect of assistance exercises may not directly and linearly improve the main lifts, it does improve them indirectly through an overall increase in stability, general body strength, mobility, and by keeping the joints healthy.
Many lose their max jerk, not because they don’t have strong enough shoulders, but because they just have a generally weak upper body and cannot stabilize weights above head. Many cannot stand up from cleans, not because they don’t have strong legs, but because they don’t have a strong enough upper back and glutes. The goal of assistance exercises is to fix those problems, rather than fix main lift itself.
You don’t need to be that specific to improve general body strength and mass, you just need to do it in a balanced way. This is why most assistance exercises should be done for reps rather than singles in my book. Thus, all of the classic assistance exercises are potentially good (as we saw above) or bad. For instance, the press is useless to the guy that can only jerk 20% more than his press just like the squat is useless to the guy that can clean 60% of his squat. As a coach, you should be aware of ratios and understand the reason these ratios exists and their importance in developing long term athletes that are also healthy. In the end, the goal has to be specific, but no exercise will ever be specific enough. If it was, we would not need to use many assistance exercises to get the job done.