When you train using Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme, you’ll be looking to add in assistance exercises. Assistance exercises (particularly for 531) have two main functions: To work on weak points such as grip or to fix muscle imbalances. Or for plain old muscle growth. But what are the best assistance exercises for 531 if you want that pump?
I wrote in some detail about assistance exercises in a recent post. If you haven’t read it, check it out before going further.
In that article, I wrote about my top three assistance exercises that provided the most taxing and stimulating workout in the shortest amount of time. This is pretty important for time-poor but motivation-rich Dads. These were:
Parallel bar dips
A workout comprised of these exercises plus your core 531 lifts is going to yield results.
Maintain Motivation for Training Consistency
Confession Time – although these are great exercises and are going to build strength and grip as well as quality muscle mass, they’re not very exciting. What I mean is this: Did you ever finish 5 sets of 10 front squats at the end of a workout and feel like a pumped-up-gorilla-freak? No? Me neither.
Why does that matter though? I mean you should be COMMITTED to the iron. You’re not going to make gains by doing what’s fun. Going to the gym shouldn’t be enjoyable. It should be work!
If you continually do something that’s not enjoyable with no perceived reward at the end, it’s going to be a difficult habit to keep (Read this for more on the Habit Loop). Your mind needs a reward for going to the gym. Something that it knows is coming so that you can endure the temporary pain and discomfort of a hard lifting session.
This is especially true for us older lifters. We’re in it for the long run. So we need stimulus to keep us interested. I don’t lift so I can pick up women. The motivation has to come from somewhere else.
Assistance Exercises for 5/3/1: Enter the Pump
In basic terms, the ‘Pump’ is when your muscles enlarge with blood and fluid during weight training. If you’ve experienced this, you’ll know it’s a good feeling. You look good and you feel even better. Some guys train exclusively for the pump – going for volume over weight. More power to them – when I did this, I got over trained.
The pump can be a big reward at the end of a session. I love the feeling of tight skin and swollen shoulders and arms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about: join a gym, lift some weights and come back to me.
If you know much about Jim Wendler, you’ll know he doesn’t really like the pump. Or at least he doesn’t think you should train for the pump. But that doesn’t mean you should never get one. If you choose your assistance exercises wisely, you can work weak points, grip and get a pump all in one go.
So here are my top three exercises for an end-of-workout pump. Do these last – either as a finisher single giant/drop set for Boring but Big or as the last of your three exercises in the Triumvirate. You’ll finish your workout with a t-shirt stretching pump and have built a bit of muscle in the process.
1. The Incline Dumbbell Press
If you’ve already trained the overhead or bench press you’ll have a decent pump in your chest already. If you’re going to capitalise on that, the incline press is the ideal exercise. I’d advise going quite light and aiming for a solid ten reps. Focus on contracting the muscles and getting a good squeeze of the pecs at the top of the movement.
A lot of guys go too heavy on this exercise and end up jerking the weight or arching their back. This achieves nothing – except an injury in the long term. Remember, you’re a Dad, not an 18 year-old college kid.
2. The T-Bar Row
This is probably one of my favourite assistance exercises (and for the purposes of this article, the best assistance exercise!). My gym doesn’t have a dedicated station, so I ram an Olympic bar in the corner and use the close-grip pull down attachment from the cable station.
Do it right and you’ll get a great pump in your middle back, traps, shoulders and biceps. Plus you’ll look like a badass. Again, go for technique over weight.
Pro-tip: this is a great finisher as it’s simple to do drop sets. Just strip the plates off as you reach failure. You’ll have a great pump and have killed an excellent 531 assistance move.
3. Bicep Curls (after quads)
No, I haven’t lost my mind. Bicep curls are a legitimate assistance exercise. You’ll get a great pump, plus the whole gym will be invited to the ‘older dude killing it’ Gun Show.
I do biceps curls on squat days. I’ll either superset with leg extensions or do them as a finisher. I like standing with a fixed bar or an EZ-bar as this gives me the best range of motion. I’m not a fan of the preacher bench – it feels uncomfortable and I can get just as good a contraction standing.
Again, good form is key here. Don’t turn it into a hip thrust to curl. Keep elbows down and low, body steady but relaxed. Cheating is only allowed for the last few reps of your last sets.
Best Assistance Exercises for a Pump: Sets and Reps
I’ll aim for 5 sets of 10 reps although this is often constrained by time. If I’m pushed, I’ll cut it down to 4 sets and go for intensity on the last set with either drop sets (T-Bar Row) or rest-pause. I’ll take short rests between sets, 45 seconds to 1 minute. This keeps the intensity high.
Closing Thoughts on Assistance Exercises for 5/3/1
One of the reasons I wrote this is because people search for information of assistance A LOT. Sometimes, they even make it to this site.
The key is not to overthink assistance movements. Use my recommendations as a guide but be prepared to mix it up. If you’re training for the long term, it doesn’t matter if you use a less effective exercise for a few weeks. And if it gets you out of a training rut, even better!
Don’t be ashamed of wanting a pump. It’s an important psychological reward for the hard work you put into the gym week-in, week-out.
P.S. Liked this? Then you’ll love my free fat loss e-book for Dads. Get it here.