Training

How Should I Progressively Overload My Accessory Exercises?

February 14th 2020

One training aspect every lifter should focus on is to do progressive overload on their accessory work.

It is taught for main compound movements, like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press to progressively overload.

However, not much love is given to accessory movements.

When you’re first starting out in the gym, it can take some time to see results. 

You may want to start looking into any workout strategy which could possibly accentuate your timeframe and get your results faster! 

However, like all good things, building your best body simply does just take some time. Implementing a healthy and safe habit of progressively overloading your weightlifting, though, is as good of a strategy as you’ll easily find!

Does the same progressive overload strategy apply to your main lifts as to your accessory work, though? 

Today, we’ll discuss a few different strategies for approaching progressive overload. But first, let’s define a few terms. 

What is Progressive Overload?

Chris Goulet over at Bodybuilding.com talks about the concept of progressive overload in glowing terms, stating baldly that “it’s the concept you must know to grow”. 

Decrying, as he does, those who do the same thing over and over again hoping to see growth occurs (which, it must be said, is also Einstein's popular definition of insanity)

He says simply that “if you don't progressively overload the muscles by forcing them to do more than they're accustomed to, they have no reason to make further adaptations.”

Progressive overload is simply the process of continually modifying your workouts so that you’re always challenging yourself. 

It doesn’t have to take too much energy or creative power—the ‘workout mods’ that Goulet recommends are often simply the addition of numbers of reps or reaching for slightly heavier weights. 

What is Accessory Work? 

Shane at Athletic Muscle describes accessory work as “movement that helps support and increase the lift or task at hand.” 

For example, for accessory work practice, you might decide to devote a small amount of time during each of your workouts to pull-ups, isometric exercises, single-leg squats, or any “Slightly altered movements that mimic or benefit the compound barbell exercises (variations of the squat, deadlift, press, Olympic lifts.” 

Performed, usually, just after the main workout, it can also be thought of as a ramp-down from the most intense loads and movements before stretching and cooling down. 

Taking time to do this, Shane notes, can lead to benefits such as “better performance, decreased risk of injury, and lower rates of muscle hypertrophy.” 

 

How Should a Beginner Progressively Overload for Accessory Work? 

After you do a certain amount of weight for the desired range of repetitions of a distinct exercise, you’ll simply increase the load in your next workout session. This increased load makes it the exercise harder to perform, which can be one of the following typically:

 

  • More weight
  • More sets
  • More reps
  • Less rest time
  • A combination of what was mentioned above

 

According to Bret Contreras, the Glute Guy, there are several basic rules for progressively overloading on accessory work. But first, a simple example: 

For example, one day, you’ll do bicep curls with a 20 pound dumbbell for three sets of ten. 

The next session to progressively overload further, you could do 25 pounds for three sets of ten—or, you could increase reps, doing the same 20 pounds, but for three sets of twelve. 

Contreras layers some helpful wisdom to this basic template: 

  • You should only start progressively overloading if, first, you know that you’re doing the movement with perfect form. 

Otherwise, you risk hurting yourself as a heavier and heavier load (or more and more reps) are done with your body in an awkward or risky position. 

Therefore, before you start to progressively overload, especially if you’re a beginner and especially for accessory work (as accessory work is specifically done to help your main loads)

You’ll want to work with a trainer or otherwise check yourself to make sure your form is perfect. 

  • If you’re a beginner, especially if you’re working with smaller weights, you might want to consider increasing the number of reps before you level up to the next weight (for example, if you’re starting at 10 lbs x 10 reps, work your way up to 12, 15, 17, and then 20 reps before you switch up to the 15 lb load). 

This just makes your linear progression of overload more manageable—and therefore, more safe—in the beginning.

  • Know that if you’re trying to lose weight, progressive overload will be a lot more difficult than if you’re trying to bulk up. 

The reason for this is simple: doing more work requires more energy and more muscle mass—which live on your body and all weigh quite a bit. 

Therefore, if you’re looking to cut for a bit, now might not be the best time to progressively overload (at least on your accessory work, which can be considered optional.) 

  • The last thing to keep in mind is that you can only expect to see progress with progressive overloading if you do the move in the exact same way each time — as that’s the only way you can compare one move to the other. 

Just remember this before you start a progressive overloading regimen! 

It might be a good idea to work with a trainer, a friend, or just take videos of yourself working out so you can easily monitor your performance. 

Are there different ways you can progressively overload? 

While training for strength, these are the most common ways you will manipulate your accessory work:

 

  • Heavier weight, same reps
  • Same weight, more reps
  • Same weight, same reps, more sets
  • Same weight, same reps, shorter rest times

 

Bret Contreras expands on this as well, saying that there are at least twelve different ways that you can progressively overload. To ‘level up’ your workout, consider aiming for the following: 

  • Same load, increased distance
  • Same load, better form, more control
  • Same load, more reps
  • Heavier loads, same reps
  • Same load, same reps, fewer or shorter reps
  • Same load, same reps, faster motion
  • Same load, same reps, more sets
  • same weight, same reps, shorter rest times
  • Same workout, more days of the week
  • Same workout through loss of body mass

As you can see, there are several different ways to progressively overload. Make sure to choose the way that’s right for you, your goals, and your current body. 

How Important is it to Progressively Overload Accessory Exercises for a Beginner 

The thing about working to progressively load your accessory exercises is that you’re doing them to supplement your main workouts. 

You should always be working to progressively overload your main workouts, as that’s definitely the only way you’ll see progress in that arena. 

If you work to progressively overload your accessory exercises, that’s a great bonus — but it definitely shouldn’t be considered your main aim, and more as of a great extra perk. 

Is Progressive Overload for Accessory Work Linear for Beginners? 

Just like main lifts, progressive overload for accessory work can be linear until you start to plateau. However, there is no set way to deload accessory work once you cannot improve linearly so not a lot of focus is really put into doing them.

Your progressive overload might be linear—for the first amount of time, says Matt Taylor from StrongerYouPT. 

Because you’re not accustomed to the stress of heavy loads when you’re a beginner, your rate of recovery and the rate at which you adapt to new loads will be heightened—for a time. 

This will give you a short time after you begin progressively overloading — say, three months or so—during which you’re making a lot of progress over a short amount of time. 

This can be exhilarating! 

However, after your body gets used to the stress, and especially when you’re looking at much heavier loads or large sets of reps, your progress will seem to slow down. 

Don’t worry when this happens—not only is it fine, it’s expected. 

Progressively overloading can be a fantastic tool to ensure that you’re always using your workouts strategically.

It’s also a good way to make sure your workouts never get boring! Just make sure that you’re working with your brain as well as your brawn, and remember to stretch and cool down while pursuing perfect form to protect your body at all times. 

Conclusion

Progressive overload is important for all strength programs.

However, it is not the highest priority to keep on consistently progressing your accessories.

Your main objective is to increase your main lifts - that should be where the bulk of your energy goes towards.

The extra accessory work should be what you want to do when you have very little energy left and need to work on a similar movement that does not drain you.

So, stay focused but also have fun.

Take your accessories seriously and watch your strength progress climb dramatically. 

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