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9 Best Accessory Exercises (Improve Your Overall Fitness)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Last updated: April 18, 2023

While your traditional workout machines and fitness programs will bring you a very long way to strengthening your body with maximum weight loads, accessory exercises allow you to take a more targeted approach for certain areas.

What I love about them is that they include slight variations that don’t mean more weight loaded on but a change in the movement.

So, I teamed up with five other personal strength coaches to come up with the best options and show you exactly what the benefits will be.

Quick Summary

  • Typical accessory exercises would include conventional deadlifts, push-ups, and bench press, but there are many more.
  • What these exercises will allow you to do is correct muscle imbalances where you might have bulked up in certain areas more than others. 
  • You can also achieve overall bigger muscle proportions along with great core stability by starting to add some of our recommended accessory exercises.

Our Best Accessory Exercise Recommendations 

a close up shot of best accessory exercise

Here are the top accessory exercises that we researched and tested out as a team to see how effective they were over several weeks.

1. Conventional Deadlift

While I generally advise people to do a conventional deadlift with a loaded barbell, you can also do these with heavy dumbbells or resistance bands.

Those options are good for home workouts where you might not have a lot of accessories.

What I would suggest is that rather than constantly looking to add more weight plates in order to bulk up your upper body and develop more grip strength, you should consider an alternative.

Slow down the movement and even introduce a pause at the mid-way point.

And if you add a pause at the top, you’ll train your forearms more to prepare them for a stronger grip when you get to heavier loads.

2. Weighted Hip Thrusts

Here’s one of the accessory movements that I personally liked the most and have started making part of my core lifts.

What you need to do is lay down on a quality workout mat and place a barbell just over your hip.

Don’t go for extremely heavy weights to start with, as you’ll need to balance the bar and stop it from rolling down your body.

Slowly push your hips up while keeping the bar at hip height. Hold the top position and then lower it down again.

This kind of hip extension will help you build up core strength and much more defined glutes with better hip mobility [1].

3. Bench Press

A person doing bench presses in the gym

The typical bench press involves a heavy barbell and a wide grip to help you keep better control and balance.

For an accessory routine, I would suggest doing close-grip bench presses, where your hands are much closer together.

This will make keeping the balance more difficult, and you’ll definitely need a spotter.

But this kind of strength training can reduce the pressure on shoulder joints and help you build more muscle mass in your arms, which will take more of the load [2].

4. Rear Delt Fly

When you work on cable machines for your shoulders and back, you’re often forced into a certain body position that doesn’t offer much flexibility.

For rear delt fly, you grab hold of two dumbbells and lean your upper body forward.

Lift the weight up in a lateral movement while keeping your arms straight.

Hold the weights at the top of the movement once they are shoulder height, and then slowly lower them down again.

It’s one of those bilateral exercises that will provide significant shoulder stability and also strengthen your upper back.

Also check our article on how to do cable rear delt fly.

5. Bent-Over Rows

woman in a bent over row position

While we’re at your upper back and shoulders, here is another one of the accessory exercises that you should make part of your main lifts to avoid a weak link.

Rather than use a cable machine to do seated rows, I prefer grabbing a few dumbbells and doing a single-arm bent-over row.

Essentially, you lean forward and place the left elbow on the left knee.

Then reach down and grab hold of the dumbbell with your right hand.

Pull it up to your chest, hold the strain for a second, and then slowly lower it down again.

It’s also a great way to build up lat strength as part of your training goals.

Don’t forget to do the same on the other side.

6. Behind The Neck Overhead Presses

Here is a great way to train your shoulders and upper back in a way that will take some time to get used to.

Set yourself up with a barbell across your shoulders as if you’re getting ready for squats.

Slowly push the bar up over your head, hold it for a second, and then lower it down again.

You can also alternate between behind-the-head and in-front-of-the-head movements to slightly adjust the front and back delts being targeted.

It’s an excellent way to eliminate weak links in your shoulders.

7. Back Extensions

A woman doing back extensions in the gym

Set up the back extension platform or GHD machine to your height so that you can comfortably lean against it.

Slowly lower your body down until you reach a right angle between your upper and lower body.

Then fully engage your core and raise your body back up again.

And to turn this into proper accessory training, I would suggest holding a weight plate close to your chest to increase the strain and feel the burn after fewer reps.

It’s a great way to target the erector spinae muscles, which are important for maintaining good posture and providing support for a wide range of other lifting and accessory work [3].

See also our article for the other back extension alternatives.

8. Squats

You simply can’t overestimate the importance of improving your squat performance as part of your training program.

And if you have weak hamstrings and quads, then these should be something you regularly do.

Aim to do your bodyweight squats with the best possible form and get as low down as possible.

Don’t increase the weight load until you’re able to get all the way down, as an increased range of motion will help improve your athletic performance [4].

“If you have a limited range of motion, that means you cannot move a specific body part or a joint through its normal range.”

- Erin Pereira, PT, DPT

I also rate squats a lot higher than leg presses and would suggest you prioritize them.

9. Weighted Pull-Ups

A woman doing weighted pull ups

Here is a great option as an alternative to big lifts designed to overcome weak links in your back and shoulders.

I love adding pull-ups to a training session, but some bodybuilders get to a stage where they can do dozens of regular pull-ups.

That can eat into a lot of time at the gym, and it’s why I suggest that you try out weighted pull-ups.

This either involves strapping on a weighted vest or finding a crude way to attach a weight plate to your body.

The added strain of just a few extra pounds will add up, and if you can get tired and burned out after ten reps, then you know you’re onto something good.

Benefits Of Accessory Exercises

Close up shot of a person doing a deadlift

Here are three main benefits of adding accessory exercises to your training program:

1. Improved Strength

When you do accessory exercises, you’ll find that you’ll achieve significant strength improvements in multiple muscle groups.

You’ll quickly find yourself tempted to add heavier weights, but I would always suggest slowing down your movements and increasing the range of motion before you pile on more weight.

With the increased strength, you might also notice more endurance and less fatigue, which should ultimately get you to your strength and fitness goals faster.

2. Better Muscle Proportions

A man with good muscle proportion doing a deadlift

With targeted accessory training, you’ll find that you have much greater control over your muscle proportions.

This is a key part for bodybuilders who achieve a certain level of bulking and want to now reshape their physique in certain areas.

It’s when making good use of your training time is vital to separate you from the typical amateur.

3. More Muscle Mass

The other thing you’ll find is that doing these types of exercises will help you pile on more mass in pretty much every muscle group.

Building muscle with exercises that you don’t do every day can add enough variation to the body movements to trigger more hypertrophy and, ultimately, more successful bulking phases [5]. 

And when you can achieve that without hitting a sticking point or plateau, then it will also mean a lot less frustration.


How Many Accessory Workouts Should You Do?

You should aim to do three or four accessory workouts in each training session. For most people, that should be enough to add some variation and target muscles in a different way. Adding more is not always going to be a good idea, but you can experiment as you start seeing improvements.

Should You Go To Failure On Accessories?

Yes, you should go to failure on accessories. The more strain you add and the more of a burning sensation you create, the more your muscles will react with faster growth. You can often achieve this with a slower movement and less weight.

Make Your Workouts More Interesting And Effective

I’ve been adding accessory exercises to my own workouts for years, and our testing has shown that most athletes react very positively.

Not only is it effective for your muscles, but it also makes your workouts more interesting.

The other thing I’d recommend is one of the high-quality pre-workouts we tested:

These supplements can add enough endurance and strength to your exercises to make a significant difference over the months ahead.


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