Assistance Work – Does it Matter?

Assistance work. Supplemental work. Accessory, etc.

I feel assistance work is essential and necessary to not only bring up your weak points but to keep your work capacity where it needs to be or to raise it, think GPP (General Physical Prep). John Byrd recently wrote an article about powerlifting kicking you in the balls, and it will. The competition that he mentioned was the 2017 XPC Finals, where so many people bombed that I had ONLY 5 other people in my flight by the time the deadlift came around; this sucked. I nearly gassed out myself but made it through. I dropped my last deadlift of 800lbs while trying to hold on at the very top, and it slipped, along with a PR 2655 total at 242. This still haunts me. The bottom line is I needed more work capacity and to be better prepared for whatever came my way. Lesson learned.

Back to Byrd, I won’t say John did or didn’t do enough assistance work, but he told me he gassed out with the pace of the bench flight as they were flying through attempts. We knew he was dialed in during this cycle and was poised to bench 800+ but may not have possessed the work capacity he knew he needed to make it through this fast-paced meet, especially when half the meet bombs on the squat and your bench flight is cut nearly in half. There was a second session starting at 3:30 pm, and there were no breaks, but that’s powerlifting. You have to be ready for a fast-paced meet, but also not so tuned to a fast-paced training style that a drawn-out, 12hr meet destroys you and puts you to sleep. Everything is about finding what works for you.

So this brings me back to the assistance work and why. Here are 4 reasons why I believe assistance work is so important to me and my 10/20/Life philosophy. Long gone are the meat-head days of walking in and loading the bar, doing some bench presses, then going home.

  1. Work capacity – Above, I mentioned that you need enough gas to complete nine attempts in one day. And this is very, very minimal – You don’t need to be able to run a half-marathon or even a half-mile, but enough GPP in your training assistance work to get you to where you need to go. This can be done by making sure you do your assistance work after your main sets, which can be exhausting. If it’s exhausting, you need it even more. I get it, after a long squat session over 1100lbs, you won’t feel like it but do it anyway. I like to do most of my assistance work on my two other days (squat and DL assistance), and I walk every day 2-4x for 10mins. I prefer to group my deadlifts after my squats on squat day, and not on a separate day. One reason is recovery, while the other is emulating the meet day demands. I don’t feel like pulling most training days, but I make myself. And on meet day, you don’t always feel your best after six heavy and stressful attempts on the platform, plus all of your warm-ups from squat and bench!
  2. Prevent injury. First, before I say anymore – when chasing ultimate strength, you cannot prevent all injuries. Some you can. Fatigue can frequently be the culprit of an injury, or at least part of the recipe many times. You get tired and fatigued, your form starts to slip, or you lose tightness, your groove, and ‘pop.’ We’ve all been there. Making sure to get in a proper warm-up is not only a necessary path to get ready for the work that’s to come (think warm-up mentally and physically) but also a way to get in more GPP overall under your belt. Adding a little bit of core work before (to prime, stiffen acutely) and after training like stir the pot, the McGill big 3 (I like to do these as a cool down), and maybe a few carries and sled drags will take you much further than you realize. Start slow, preferably not in the heat of summer, and build-up over time; just try to get a little bit better each session by 10 or 20%. But going off of point one concerning GPP: If you can’t walk for 10min at a brisk pace, attack that before trying to add weight or get fancy. Baby steps.
  3. Attack weak points. In my book 10/20/Life second edition, I have a weak point index, and I provide solid starting points on what to attack if you tend to miss a lift at the top, middle, or bottom. Yes, this is very broad, but since the release of 10/20/Life Ebook in 2014, and now six years in –  the results speak for themselves, and it’s provided a lot of programming direction for many. My opinion: If you don’t do assistance work, you’re not attacking your weak points effectively; and at the very least, you’re not doing everything you can to eliminate weak points. Most athletes that I work with have horrendous core control and stability, especially the back injured athletes I work with. They can’t summon much, if any core stiffness on cue and have no clue how to create an acceptable abdominal brace. It’s safe to say that doing more core work isn’t a bad idea for the strength athlete. Some of this stuff is painfully simple, but not easy. Core work is tedious when done correctly.
  4. Body composition. Here we are again with body composition and strength training. For powerlifting, you have two schools of thought typically concerning body composition: 1. it doesn’t matter, so I don’t worry about it. 2. It matters, so I sacrifice my strength to look svelte for pictures, videos, and on Instagram. I’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat it: Never in the history of powerlifting has body composition ever won a powerlifting meet for someone. Never has the judges ever walked over to someone after winning, following a big deadlift, and explained, “you had a good day today Johnny, but you didn’t look as good doing it as Matt, especially during the deadlift. So, we have to award the more aesthetic guy with your win, and he earned in on the deadlift with his most muscular when he put the bar down. Your belly is too fat.” Silly right? But I think we should look for a more middle ground: I’m not saying you should be a lard-a$$, but you need to be reasonable about the weight class you lift in and always evaluate your goals. I know people who look and seem like they don’t have ANY work capacity, but they will run circles around you. Don’t just go off of looks! But, by doing some bodybuilding work here and there for hypertrophy, lagging muscle groups, and if you’re out of shape, maybe even FAT, doing the extra work may help your body composition along with the other 3 points above.
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Brian Carroll

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Brian Carroll is committed to helping people overcome back pain and optimizing lifts and movement. After years of suffering, he met back specialist Prof. McGill in 2013, which led to a life-changing transformation. In 2017, they co-authored the best-selling book "Gift of Injury." On October 3, 2020, Carroll made history in powerlifting by squatting 1306 lbs, becoming the first person to break this record. He retired with a secure legacy and a life free from back pain.
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