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Primary, Assistance & Auxiliary Exercises Explained

Posted on January 9, 2013 at 9:53 PM
Generally, there are three categories  that all movements fit into: primary, assistance, and auxiliary. Where certain exercises fit in these categories depends on the type of activity you're training for ;however, the principles behind them are fairly universal.

Primary exercises are always multi-joint compound lifts. These are the lifts many people use as a measure of strength. These movements are essential to any resistance training program because they recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers allowing you to lift the most weight possible. These compound lifts, which are the bench press, military press, the squat, rows, and the deadlift  will target virtually every muscle in your body.

The bench press targets the chest, the front head of the shoulders, and the triceps. The military press works the front head of the shoulders and the triceps. Rows target your traps and your lats.  The squat works your quadriceps, your hamstrings, your glutes, and your lower back, and the deallift targets your lower back, hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.

Assistance exercises are usually still compound movements, often involving dumbbells, bodyweight, or other variations on the classic lifts. Assistance exercises help build muscle and have functional importance in sports, but they're titled "assistance" because they also contribute gains in strength on the primary lifts. You can go heavy on these exercises, but, chances are ,you won't use more weight than you use for the primary counterpart. Some examples of these assistance lifts--for the chest--are the dumbbell bench press, push ups, dips, as well as close grip bench press for the triceps. Assistance exercises that help increase your military press, would be dumbbell shoulder presses, hand stand presses, and bent over lateral raises--which help build stabilizing strength. Assistance exercises for your lats, and traps, would be single arm dumbbell rows, cable rows, chin ups, and lat pull-downs.

Auxiliary exercises are isolation movements that are best for getting a pump and bringing weaker body parts up to speed. Some examples would be front raises, lateral raises, and rear delt flyes for the shoulders. Pec deck and pullovers for the chest, and Kickbacks and Skull-Crushers for the triceps

Know the difference between the movement categories. Exercises you choose to do, when you do them, and what kind of rep/set scheme you use are critical factors in your success or failure. For auxiliary exercises, the optimal rep range is around 12 to 15 reps. Since you're isolating a single muscle with this type of lift, you're also isolating a single joint. The lower the rep range, the heavier weight. The heavier the weight is, the more pressure is put on the joints, and since only one joint involved, putting a lot of pressure on the joint increases your chance for injury. It's less risky to go heavy on compound movements when more than one joint is moving under the load. Also, the heavier the weight, the more surrounding muscle groups will get involved, so it defeats the purpose to use heavy weight, with low reps, when you're trying to isolate a muscle. 

For beginners, the rep range should be 12 to 15 reps regardless of the type of lift that is being done.


Here is the order in which you should do these lifts:

  • 1st Exercise - Primary
  • 2nd Exercise - Assistance
  • 3rd Exercise - Assistance
  • 4th Exercise - Auxiliary

Primary movements are the most important, and require the most energy, so you should do them first. Your assistance exercises should be done next, and your Auxiliary exercises--since they require the least energy--should put the finishing touches on your workout.


Categories: Routine Advice

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