Assistance exercises may serve many purposes. For one, they can help a lifter understand movement patterns to fix technical errors. Assistance exercises exist for every part of the lift and should be employed if needs be.
For two, they can keep the lifter from getting bored. When a lifter has been lifting for so long, variety is crucial to keep the motivation. While the assistance exercise used in this context might or might not transfer to the lifts directly, the gain in motivation will translate in bigger results. Do not be afraid to do something different once in a while, especially far from competition.
Finally, assistance exercises are of extreme importance to build a strength foundation. I have written on this topic before and my opinion has not changed much. Strength training for weightlifting is done to increase a vast array of physiological parameters and the best methods and exercises tend to be very general ones.
I have often seen lifters focus only on snatch and clean and jerks (and squats) too early in their career. Typically (and this is especially true for lifters with 4-5 years of training or less), you would want to start your training cycle with a GPP phase (General physical preparedness). However, many coaches and lifters ditch assistance exercises and many strength exercises such as presses, muscle snatches, one legged movements, good mornings, and in some cases, even pulls.
Do not get me wrong, assistance exercises should not replace completely the lifts themselves even if far from competition (ie ; it should not be more than 40-50% of your training or so), but it should complement your training. It is an addition to what you are doing and should not replace what you are currently doing – especially if it works.
Generally speaking, variety should happen early in the training phase in order to balance the body, increase muscle mass and raw strength. Less injury risks, a balanced body, and more raw strength will transfer to bigger results if the following phases of training are planned correctly.
The king of strength assistance exercises for the weightlifters are no doubt the squats, the pulls, the presses or push presses, and good morning or RDLs (Snatch or Clean grip). These should be a staple of your training year round and they can’t really be replaced or ditched (unless they are too strong or you are injured). However, during a GPP phase, nothing is wrong with adding unconventional movements (movements that you don’t do often but can help with certain issues).
These exercises don’t carry over as directly to the lifts (like let’s say squats or pulls), but they can help with increasing stability (especially trunk and shoulder stability), work capacity, conditioning, muscle mass, flexibility, speed and balance the body.
Trunk and shoulder stability is so important. So many jerks and snatches are lost due to poor trunk stability or poor shoulder flexibility/stability. Many people think that conditioning does not really matter for weightlifting. Aerobic conditionning does not really transfer in terms of energy use but having a good conditioning base helps with recovery.
Light conditioning training flushes metabolic wastes and it is a technique that is employed usually once a week in training camps (they go out for a short run or a few sprints on Thursdays – videos can be found online). You can also find videos of many eastern European lifters playing team sports once or twice a week during camps. The idea is to get the body to move differently and to take your mind off weightlifting.
An increase in muscle mass is indicative of a future increase in strength. Strength gains are always higher when muscles have been hypertrophied first. More mass also helps with reducing injury risk, usually. Flexibility, body balance and speed are all important for the weightlifter and, for many people, it needs to be trained.
Kettlebells are great because they load the body in a much different way. Many kettlebell exercises involve trunk rotation and/or a lateral bending of the trunk. This is very good for weightlifters who do everything up and down – that means we tend to be weak in rotation and laterally.
If you tend to have back pains or shoulder pains, then kettlebell exercises are very good at helping with that. Exercises like windmill, Turkish get up, 1 KB overhead squat, bent press and renegade rows will help making your core much stronger, your shoulders more stable and more flexible. They can’t replace weightlifting training, but they are fun to add at the end of a training session for a few sets to help with those issues.
Snatch grip RDLs
Now RDLs – romanian deadlifts – are a staple of many lifters’ training routine. Most people tend to do them with clean grip. It is a very good idea to do them with snatch grips for 4-5 sets of 5-8 reps.
The snatch grip RDL will target the back in a different way and help strengthen the upper back like nothing else. Beware if you have never done it, it tends to make you quite sore the first few times. Very good exercise for people who have troubles staying over or have very weak backs.
Presses in the split jerk stance
I have written about them before. The idea is to press in your ideal jerk stance without moving the feet, the torso, moving the front knee forward and straightening the back leg. This exercise is very hard on the lower body due to the long isometric contractions necessary to hold stable while the bar is moving up. Light weight should be used and I usually like 4 sets of 4+4 reps (yes, you have to do it on the other side too 😉 ).
Pause hyper extensions / back extensions
The hyperextension is a staple. However, it is easy to outgrow them and they start requiring a lot more weight to be effective. Truth be told, at that moment in time, it is probably wiser to do good mornings or RDLs.
I have found however that adding a 3 second pause at the top and removing all swinging motion to be very effective. People with weak trunks, weak hamstrings and weak glutes will get a lot out of this exercise. Start without any weight for 3-4 sets of 10 reps.
Clean sotts press
Most people do snatch sotts press, but clean sotts press are pretty good too. They help a lot with building a vertical torso for clean / front squat (prevents you from collapsing in the hole), build the upper back and it is a life saver for shoulders. It helps opening your shoulders a lot. Stay in the hole as you press. 4 sets of 5 – start light (ie : with a barbell).
How dare I speak of the box squat to an audience of weightlifters? Truth be told, so many weightlifters, in my opinion, have weak posterior chains and very strong anterior chains (Ie : the quads are a lot stronger than the back, glutes and hamstring).
The box squat, done slowly with a significant forward lean will get your back and hamstring very strong. Not everybody needs this, but if you have some weaknesses there – it is a good idea to pay with them once a week for 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Stance should not be overly wide, shins should be a little bit past vertical but less than a traditional squat.
I used to think bad of this exercise until I tried it. It has enormous carry over to the lifts, especially the snatch. By the way, I thought only powerlifters did that exercise but turns out I saw that Coach Zygmunt Smalcerz of Poland (current US head coach at the OTC) programmed them from Jenny Arthur.
These pulls are not often prescribed from what I saw in many athlete’s routines. I really like them and I think they are by far superior to block pulls. Block pulls require more load which is good if you are in a cycle where heavier loads than normal are used. I think hang pulls are better because they require less weight, puts the back in tension for a lot longer (helps a lot people with ”soft backs”) and it is one of the few pull variations where the eccentric motion can be trained (= more strength and more mass if done correctly).
None of those are really novel exercises. They are well known to the strength and conditioning world. However, many people don’t do them because they don’t look or feel weightlifting-y enough. I believe these exercises can make a huge difference in stability, flexibility, general strength and injury prevention. Do not replace your traditional work with these exercises – This should be added here and there to supplement your current training and to work on certain issues.
Here is the kicker, almost every lifters need to work on their back, core and shoulder strength and stability. You will be amazed at how easier squats are when youre back and core are much stronger. You’ll also be amazed at how easier overheads (snatch and jerks) are when your back, shoulder and core are stronger.