This article will share a few simple tactics I use when approaching my assistance work to make sure I’m reaping all of the benefits without wasting energy or time. These small adjustments could change the game in your training approach and overall end-goal.
One common trend I find among beginner and intermediate powerlifters is strong focus while training the main lift, a little less focus on the secondary lift, and then breezing through assistance work. Typically, the assistance work is done quickly and carelessly. I’ve heard before that a program rarely fails due to assistance work, but I disagree. This is the work that carries over to our main and supplemental movements, builds muscle, creates balance, and promotes integrity throughout the entire body. Knocking out a set of dumbbell presses for three sets of ten with little intensity will have very little, if any, carryover to what our ultimate goal is: to get bigger and stronger. That’s the name of the game, isn’t it?

RELATED: Mistakes 101: Assistance Work

Before I get too far, I want it to be known that if you are not eating and sleeping in a way that promotes growth, nothing will work. I don’t care what supplements you take or how “hard” you train — without an efficient approach to eating and sleeping, your progress will be minimal at best. As far as programming assistance work goes, we generally see things along the lines of 5x5, 3x10, 4x8, and so on. These all work! The problem I find is inefficient intensity and lack of progressive overload week over week. Earlier sets are typically too light to stimulate a training effect. In my opinion, you’re wasting a set.

The following are two approaches I use to make sure I’m getting the most out of my assistance work. While I currently follow a conjugate approach to training, these have worked well for me in the past while utilizing other methods as well.

Target Rep Range

Instead of three sets of 10 reps, for example, I prefer to use something like three sets of eight to 12 reps. The way I’ll approach this is to work up to a very hard set of 12, which will be one to two reps shy of failure. That is set one. Everything prior to that was too light to stimulate a training effect. I’ll take a brief rest (60 to 90 seconds), then use the same weight again, aiming to “fail” within that range again. Then repeat with the third set. So, it looks something like this:

  • Warm-Up: 45x12
  • Warm-Up: 50x12
  • Working Set 1: 55x12 (1 rep shy of failure)
  • Working Set 2: 55x11
  • Working Set 3: 55x9

With this, I’ve now achieved three quality sets. The following week, I have two options:

  1. Add five pounds and hit that rep range again. I only do this if I hit the top end, or a rep away from the top end, on each set.
  2. Use the same weight and beat last week by one or more reps.

No matter what, after three weeks of using that exercise I swap it out for a new similar one.



My first several years under the barbell were influenced by Dante Trudel’s DC Training. I still apply some of the principles to my training today, because it has always yielded the best results for me. I’m fairly selective where I throw it in, but that’s for another article. I will say that I always use it for my back (except barbell rows and variations of barbell rows). I vary the rep ranges depending on the day, movement, how far out from a meet I am, and other similar factors. On average, max effort day is heavier and less accumulated reps and dynamic effort is moderately heavy with more accumulated reps. Here’s how this looks for chest supported rows with an eight-rep max rest-paused:

  • 3 plates x 8 reps
  • 3.5 plates x 8 reps
  • 4 plates x 8 reps (1 rep shy of failure, begin set)
  • Count to 30, take 15 deep breaths (or, like me, walk to the water fountain, grab a sip, then get after it)
  • 4 plates x 5 reps (1 rep shy of failure)
  • Another quick rest
  • 4 plates x 3 reps

The number of total accumulated reps for this setup is 16. For the next two weeks, my aim is to beat that by at least one rep. I never set my top end lower than eight reps, and have set it as high as 20 reps when I really want to flush the muscle — or as Dave says, “pump it 'til it’s purple." Also, I never apply this to lower body because it’s never had a large carryover for me. Dante also suggested not rest-pausing the lower body due to safety. Again, after three weeks, swap that exercise out.

Bonus: Rest-Pause Dropset

This is something I started doing last summer for horizontal row variations and absolutely loved it! I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain I saw either Meadows or Starnes do them a while back, so I gave them a shot. They’ve been a part of my training since then. So, using the example from above for chest supported rows with an eight-rep max:

  • 3 plates x 8 reps
  • 3.5 plates x 8 reps
  • 4 plates x 8 reps (1 rep shy of failure, begin set)
  • Count to 30, take 15 deep breaths (or, like me, walk to the water fountain, grab a sip, then get after it)
  • 4 plates x 5 reps (1 rep shy of failure)
  • Another quick rest
  • 4 plates x 3 reps
  • 2.5 plates x 13 reps
  • Another quick rest
  • 2.5 plates x 7 reps
  • Another quick rest
  • 2.5 plates x 4 reps

Your drop should be something a little above half of the load. It’s much easier to think of it as a little above half the load than it is to drop 65% and having to calculate it out. Identifying half isn’t hard, so don't overthink it. Just drop some weight and go. As you can imagine, my back is blown up after this.

Example Max Effort Upper Body Training Session

  • Main Movement
  • Secondary Movement
  • JM Press — 4x8 to 10 reps
  • Chest Supported Row (8RM Rest-Pause Dropset)
  • Dumbbell Rollback Extensions — 3x12 to 15 reps
  • Ultra Wide Lat Pull-Downs (12RM Rest-Pause)
  • Side Laterals — 3x12 to 15 reps
  • Hammer Curls — 3x15 to 20 reps

Like most of you, I don’t like spending all of my time in the gym, especially when Ohio goes into its three to four months of nice weather. I’d rather be hanging out with my wife or out fishing and hunting. Using these approaches in my assistance work allows me to get shit done quickly and efficiently. Give this a shot and let me know how it goes.

Brian Scott is a powerlifter out of East Palestine, Ohio.  Competitive for the past seven years in the 220-pound weight class, his best lifts are 660/465/645. When not lifting, he's hunting and fishing. He acknowledges trial and error (along with prior coaching from Josh Bryant and Brandon Lily) as his best teacher. 

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