Your home workout doesn’t have to be lame. Try out these smart accessory exercises that don’t require a gym full of expensive machines.
Nothing beats the big lifts for building size and strength. But even if you train all your muscles equally, they won’t all grow equally. The right accessory lifts help you bring up lagging muscles to build a symmetrical physique. But they can be hard to do during a home workout.
You can use machines and cables to complement your basic lifts at a fully equipped gym. But if you train at a minimalist gym, out in the garage, or down in the basement, you’ll need options.
With some creativity, you can expand your training options and bring up those lagging muscles. Try these minimalist accessory exercises.
If your chest is lagging, follow heavy bench pressing with machine or cable flyes. A great minimalist alternative is suspension flyes.
You can do these with rings, two TRX units, or chains. The traditional way of doing these is minimally effective because there’s not much tension as you bring your hands together. However, if you use the safety rods on a power rack as a second anchor point (see video), you force your pecs to work like crazy to get your hands together.
Regression: Raise the height of the handles or the safety rods.
Progression: Lower the handles closer to the floor, then gradually lower the safety rods.
If you’re doing bent-over rows as your main exercise, give your lower back a break on any additional back work. At a big gym, you have seated cable rows and various chest-supported rows. A great minimalist alternative is an inverted row.
Strong lifters can quickly outgrow this exercise and stop using it. Don’t do that. Just load it up to hammer your upper back while sparing your lower back.
Regression: Place your feet on the floor and (if needed) raise the height of the handles.
Progression: Place your feet up on a bench, then hang chains and plates over your waist.
Your quads might lag behind your glutes and hamstrings if you have long legs. You’ll need quad-focused accessory work to maximize development. This might mean leg presses, hack squats, and leg extensions at a big gym.
If you only have minimal equipment, just grab a dumbbell and blast your quads with the cyclist split squat. This variation uses a very short stance, vertical torso, and lots of forward movement of the knees. It feels like a hack squat on the front leg and leg extension on the back leg.
Regression: Use only bodyweight.
Progression: Increase the weight until it gets awkward to hold the dumbbell. Then switch to holding a barbell like you would for a front squat or Zercher squat.
The glute-ham machine is one of the best exercises for hamstring size and strength. You can also do the “natural” version kneeling on a mat with your feet anchored down. The challenge with this version is that the leverage is much harder.
Many strong lifters can’t even do one Nordic leg curl. Many have to do eccentric (lowering-only) reps. This can work, but doing eccentric reps with more than your one-rep max will get you very sore and can delay recovery.
By adding band assistance, you can start at your current strength level. Bands are perfect because they provide the most help at the bottom (where you need it the most) and the least help at the top (where you don’t need it).
Regression: Use more bands, thicker bands, or a higher anchor point.
Progression: Use fewer bands, thinner bands, or move the anchor point lower.
After heavy overhead pressing, lateral raises can help fully develop your medial delts and add shoulder width. Machines and cables allow you to keep constant tension on your medial deltoids.
A side-lying dumbbell raise on an incline bench is an excellent option. Take this a step further by leaning against a wall and supporting yourself with your opposite arm. This makes it even more of a minimalist exercise. It also makes the deltoid of the supporting arm perform an intense isometric contraction while the opposite arm does dynamic work.
Experiment to find the right angle for your supporting arm and the right distance for your feet from the wall.
Bodyweight curls allow you to curl with your elbows in front of you. This creates an intense peak contraction and puts constant tension on your biceps, like a biceps curl machine. Also, being able to watch your biceps contract is both cool and helpful for maximizing muscle recruitment.
Regression: Increase the height of the handles, or bend your knees to shorten the lever arm.
Progression: Decrease the height of the handles. Make sure you have a way to track the height of your handles so you can progressively overload the exercise.
Nothing replaces heavy close-grip bench presses or dips for building muscle. However, triceps exercises that create an intense contraction are a great accessory, both for size and increased muscle recruitment.
The kickback is a great option if you use something bigger than a pink dumbbell and set it up so you’re just moving a weight sideways. By using a decline, the dumbbell moves up against gravity and places less stress on your elbows at the top.
You can build strong calves without a fancy machine. All you need is a barbell, a calf block, a chain, and two carabineers.
This setup shown in the video allows you to hammer your calves while keeping both hands free for balance. You avoid the spinal compression you get with heavy standing calf raises by loading at your hips. Alternatively, if you have a belt for hip-belt squats, use it!
Progression: As you get stronger, you might run out of room on the barbell for plates. If you have this wonderful problem, do one leg at a time.
The wrist roller is a fast, effective way to build forearm size and strength. You can make them with a small pipe, a larger pipe (which you can buy or find discarded at a construction site), and a rope.
To work your forearm extensors, rest your arms up on a padded bar. For your flexors, try rolling behind your back.
If you don’t find it comfortable having your arms up on the bar pad, just hang them down in front of your body for the extensor portion and behind your legs for the flexor portion.
These aren’t fast, sloppy mountain climbers for conditioning. This is a slow, controlled, high-tension core exercise that’s harder than it looks. Set up as if you’re doing push-ups from suspension straps one to two feet off the ground. Go slow, keep your hips level, and own the movement.
Regression: Move your feet closer to the straps. Let your arms press up against the straps for added stability.
Progression: Move your feet back from the straps. This will move your arms off the straps so you can’t use them for stability. As you move even further back, you’ll also have to fight to keep your arms vertical, further increasing core recruitment.