By Brandon Hall
You’ve already conquered the Deadlift, the Bench Press and the Hang Clean, putting out maximum effort and focus into every rep. So your day is done, right? All you have to do now is sleepwalk through a couple of easy sets of accessory exercises and you’ll be home free.
Hold on a second—if that’s your thought process, you’re making a serious workout mistake.
Unfortunately, many athletes take their foot off the pedal mentally and physically once they finish the “big lift” portion of their workouts. Once they knock out their Deadlifts, Hang Cleans, Squats, Bench Press, etc., they feel like the most challenging part of their workout is over and they can just coast through what remains. The fact that many popular accessory exercises are performed on a regular basis and are not especially challenging doesn’t help. There also seems to be less intrinsic motivation to challenge yourself with accessory exercises than with big lifts—after all, no one goes around bragging about how many plates they can lift on the Leg Extension machine!
But accessory exercises don’t have to be a snoozefest. Many are fun, engaging and highly effective. Here are six alternatives to boring accessory exercises that’ll help you get the most out of the second half of your workout.
1. Replace Leg Extensions with Reverse Lunges
Leg Extensions are lame. They work a limited range of motion, and they force you to move the weight through just a single plane with no instability. Leg Extensions don’t help you work on controlling your body in space—a key component of athletic performance. Finally, they focus heavily on the quadriceps, an area of the body where isolation training probably isn’t necessary.
Training your posterior chain (which includes your hamstrings) is a better use of time. Replacing Leg Extensions with Reverse Lunges engages your hamstrings and forces you to control your body as you move. Reverse Lunges also closely mimic the movement you make when sprinting or performing athletic moves off one leg.
How to Perform Reverse Lunges
- Assume an athletic stance with a barbell on your back or dumbbells at your side.
- Step back with one leg to lower into a lunge position.
- Push your front foot into the ground to drive forward out of the Lunge and return to the starting position.
- You can either alternate legs between reps or perform a full set with one leg before switching.
- Sets/Reps: 3×6-8 each leg
2. Replace Lat Pull-Downs with Wide-Grip Pull-Ups
Lat Pull-Downs are a solid exercise, but if you’re looking for a more challenging alternative, Wide-Grip Pull-Ups are a good fit. With Lat Pull-Downs, it can be easy to “cheat” on form by rocking back. That’s much more difficult to do with Wide-Grip Pull-Ups. If you can’t pull yourself up to the bar, there’s not much you can do form-wise to change that—except for aggressive kipping. Wide-Grip Pull-Ups also require more upper-body power, body control and core strength than Lat Pull-Downs, making them a more well-rounded exercise.
How to Perform Wide-Grip Pull-Ups
- Grab the bar with both hands 3-4 inches outside shoulder-width and your palms facing away from you.
- Start from a dead hang with your arms fully extended and your shoulders back.
- Begin pulling yourself up by pulling your elbows down to your sides as your entire body travels toward the bar. Imagine pulling the top of your chest right through the bar.
- Your core should be activated and your body should be fairly still.
- Pull yourself up until your chin clears the top of the bar.
- Descend slowly to the starting position, continuing to prevent any swinging of the body.
- Sets/Reps: 3×6-8
3. Replace Machine Leg Curls with Physioball Leg Curls
Machine Leg Curls have issues similar to those with Leg Extensions—they work a limited range of motion and there’s little or no instability, because you move a load through a single plane. It’s not an exercise that makes sense for athletes who are looking to improve their performance on the field.
Physioball Leg Curls are superior for several reasons: they allow for a larger range of motion; they’re better for building overall lower-body strength, since they more heavily recruit the stabilizing muscles; and they target the glutes more effectively. You can even raise the difficulty by performing a single-leg variation
How to Perform Physioball Leg Curls
- Lie with your back on the ground and your heels on a physioball.
- Raise your body off the ground so that only your upper back touches the floor.
- Keeping your body straight, core tight and hips extended, roll the ball toward you by pulling your heels to your butt.
- Slowly straighten your legs and repeat.
- Sets/Reps: 3×8
4. Replace Tricep Kick-Backs with Skullcrushers
Tricep Kick-Backs just are not a great exercise. For the most of the movement, the triceps aren’t under much tension. This is because the first 70 percent of the exercise is moving the dumbbell horizontally—which isn’t much of a challenge. Then during the last part of the movement, the motion shifts from horiztonal to vertical and your triceps are suddenly placed under a lot of tension. The rapid change makes it difficult to find the correct weight to use, and the relatively short period of tricep tension is a big negative. Both factors often lead to poor form in the exercise.
Replacing Tricep Kick-Backs with Skullcrushers is a smart move. Skullcrushers allow you to use heavier loads and place consistent tension on more of your triceps for a longer period of time. Skullcrushers are also more difficult to “cheat” on than Tricep Kick-Backs.
How to Perform Skullcrushers
- Lie with your back flat on a bench, holding dumbbells or anEZ bar with your arms extended straight up.
- Use an overhand grip on the EZ Bar, a neutral grip for dumbbells.
- Keeping your upper arm stationary and flexing only at the elbow, slowly bring the weight toward your forehead.
- Maintaining your elbows in a stationary position, explosively move the weight back to start position. You should feel it in your triceps when you push.
- Sets/Reps: 3×6-10
5. Replace Calf Raises with Single-Leg Mini-Hurdle Hops
If you’re doing lower-body exercises like Squats and Lunges, you’re probably developing your calves already—so you don’t need to perform Calf Raises. Calf Raises are a rather slow movement and don’t train your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The more fast-twitch muscle fiber you have in your calves, the better you’ll be able to perform athletic movements like sprinting and jumping. Replace Calf Raises with Single-Leg Mini-Hurdle Hops, an exercise that trains your calves explosively and more accurately reflects how you use them when you play your sport.
How to Perform Single-Leg Mini-Hurdle Hops
- Set up 6-8 hurdles in a straight line, about 2 feet apart.
- Hop through the hurdles on one leg, spending as little time on the ground as possible.
- Sets/Reps: 2-3×6-8 each leg
6. Replace Bicep Curls with Bent-Over Rows
Here’s the deal—your biceps are not all that important for athletic performance, and you don’t need to waste time performing an isolation exercise that focuses on them. You’re better off performing an exercise that hit your biceps along with at least one other major muscle group. Barbell Bent-Over Rows fill the bill. They strengthen your back, your grip strength and your biceps simultaneously, giving you much more bang for your buck. If you’ve never performed them, start with just the bar until you’ve mastered proper form.
How to Perform Barbell Bent-Over Rows
- Bend at the hips, holding the bar with a shoulder-width grip.
- Pull the bar toward your chest, keeping your back flat and your abs tight.
- Lower with control until your arms are straight.
- Sets/Reps: 2/3×6-8