The Role of Accessory Work
A quick public service announcement: I’m considering “Accessory” as any movement that is not frequently tested in the Sport of Fitness.
(e.g. sumo deadlifts: they are infrequently – if ever – tested in CrossFit).
As you read and watch the videos, you will notice there are several themes to these accessory exercises:
One, they bring up a weak link that your training does not effectively address to prevent you from getting injured.
Two, they bridge the core with the prime movers so you can move more effectively.
Three, they add targeted strength to fundamental positions where a CrossFit athlete needs to be strong.
The best accessory exercises meet all three of these qualifications.
In the time you aren’t doing sport-specific strength work (e.g. squats, snatch and clean & jerks) or hammering out Met-Con’s, Intervals and Engine Work (e.g. For Time, AMRAP, EMOM), I would recommend you spending your training time and energy with the accessory exercises in this article.
“Off-season” and recovery days are great times to increase the volume, intensity and frequency of these accessory movements. But there’s really no wrong way of to sprinkle in some variety into your movement practice.
Now -without further ado- the countdown.
#25 – Hollow + Arch Holds & Rocks
Hollow and arch are two of the most fundamental positions in all of Functional Fitness, especially when speaking about gymnastics. Without crisp, clean positions and lines the body is simply less efficient than it could be. The ability to hit a beautiful “C” and reverse “C” position lies at the heart of every advanced gymnast.
In the words of legendary coach Kenny Kane, “At the far reaches of anything, it comes down to fundamental basics.” Hollow and arch are the first things taught in gymnastics, much like the air squat is the first thing taught in weightlifting. However, only the most expert gymnasts in CrossFit® have beautiful hollow and arch positions, just like the great weightlifters are the only ones with a truly beautiful air squat.
#24 – Max Effort Box Jumps
Box Jumps are frequently tested in CrossFit®, but there is a very big difference between max effort box jumps and doing 100 or 150 in a workout.
Let’s use an analogy of “Grace” which is 30 clean and jerks for time at 135lbs for men and 95lbs for women. This is a completely different workout then a one rep max clean and jerk. However, the athletes who perform best at “Grace” have very strong one rep maxes.
It’s simple really. If you want to lift a lighter weight many times quickly, you need to first get better at lifting at max effort (as heavy as possible).
Applied to box jumps, this idea means that if you can drive up your max height for box jumps while maintaining your fitness, doing reps and reps of that standard height (24″ for males, 20″ for females) will only get easier.
Another personal favorite for addressing asymmetries is the single leg box jump.
#23 – Handstand Holds
Handstand holds can be done a number of ways, whether against a wall or freestanding without supports. Regardless of how there are executed the biggest lesson to be learned is body awareness. It’s an important skill to know exactly where you body is in space and how it is oriented. Most people spend very little time inverted so they are unable to get comfort and relax in that position. As a result, their heart rate spikes and they fatigue quickly.
Handstand holds make you find and hold your midline. If you hinge at the waist or bow at your lower back, you midline is ‘broken.’ Working to stay tight through your butt and gut is crucial for stability and longevity, not to mention performance.
#22 – Med-Ball Slams
Functional Fitness has lots of explosive movements that involves hip extension (opening of the hip). In fact, that’s pretty much every single movement. Everything from rowing and weightlifting to jumping and running involves a powerful hip extension.
However, powerful hip flexion (closing of the hip) happens much less often. Toes-to-bar, GHD sit-ups and ski erg are three most common examples. Rope climbs, box jumps and burpees to a lesser degree. However, none of these typically are max effort when compared to thing on the extension side of things (e.g. max deadlift). Therefore, incorporating med-ball slams at max effort can be very helpful.
No med-ball, no problem? Sub out a sledge hammer and a tire. (No tire? You can even use a stone slammed into the dirt.)
#21 – Banded Cross Body Chop
Just like powerful hip flexion is uncommonly tested in the Sport of Fitness, powerful rotation is very infrequent as well. In addition, rotational and anti-rotational strength is often a weaknesses for Functional Fitness athletes and weightlifters because they do so much bilateral work (e.g. squat vs. pistol).
In other words, cleans, snatches, deadlifts, squats, double unders, box jumps, burpees and countless other movements all involve moving up & down and forward & back (sagittal and frontal planes) without a rotational component (transverse plane).
This is unique and fairly uncommon in the sports world. Think about any ‘conventional’ sport, like track and field, football, soccer, basketball and baseball. Every single one involves rotation and anti-rotation as a fundamental skill.
Therefore, in order to stay athletic, strong and injury free a Functional Fitness athlete needs to incorporate some basic rotational work.
What about anti-rotation? Check out this Palov Press.
#20 – Half-Kneeling Arnold Press
Almost all the pressing that occurs in Functional Fitness involves the legs: push presses and push jerks with a barbell or dumbbell, thrusters and kipping handstand push-ups. In addition to this lack of ‘strict’ movement, they usually occur from a position of high stability (i.e. the ‘rack’).
The Half-Kneeling Arnold Press (shown to the article image on the left with a kettlebell) is an excellent movement to engage the core, shoulder and tricep in absence or the legs. It also is unilateral (one arm at a time) so there is the added benefit of correcting asymmetries.
#19 – Concentration Curls
Suns out, guns out. Who doesn’t like curls. The concentration curl is a favorite of mine not only because of the insane pump you get, but it also provides a very …well, um… ‘concentrated,’ focus on the bicep alone.
By keeping your hand supinated (palm up) it helps offset the many reps of pronated pulling (e.g. pull-ups, muscle-ups, weightlifting) that is common to functional fitness. The only commonly tested supinated movement is the rope climb. In addition, this allows the biceps to be trained in absence of momentum or help from the shoulder or back.
#18 – Animal Crawls
Animal crawls is a very broad category of movement. There are athletes who exclusively train animal movement as their movement practice and they can do pretty amazing things with their body. The basic concept is that movement is a more natural way of locomotion (moving around) and provides all the strength, stability and conditioning a person needs.
As for myself and my athletes, I have them do various animal movements during general warm-ups, blocks of time designated for un-programmed movement play, off-season ‘fun’ workouts.
#17 – Glute Bridge
The glute bridge is another killer accessory piece that should be a staple for any athlete working to develop posterior chain strength.
Squats and lunges are fantastic for building powerful glutes, but they mainly require strength when the hip is closed (the bottom of a squat or lunge). The glute bridge is valuable for training the the glutes to fire strongly fully to the end range of the hip, even it is largely open.
As a result, actions that require a terminal hip extension, like sprinting, sled pushes and broad jumps, become much more powerful and enduring.
#16 – Lat Rows
One of the biggest reasons why people who can do strict pull-ups but not bar muscle-ups is a lack of straight arm pulling strength. This is also true for the chest-to-bar pull-up where you must have enough elevation and height before you bend you arms.
Remember, “When the arms bend, the power ends.”
This is true in gymnastics as it is for weightlifting.
Lat rows are a great way to develop this straight arm pulling strength. For a bar muscle-up, you need to have enough height be able to see the bar in front of your vision before you bend your arms. Otherwise, you will pull yourself into the bar instead of around it.
However, lat strength is not a limiter in gymnastics. The ability to keep the bar close in weightlifting and deadlifts largely depends on this same type of strength.
#15 – Cossack Squats
Cossack squats are an incredible tool for building strong, mobile hips. I have seen many strong athletes with poor mobility or mobile athletes with poor strength struggle to execute this movement. In Functional Fitness, strength and mobility must work hand-in-hand. The presence in one with the absence of the other is unacceptable. Cossack squats develop both.
In my experience, strong mobile hips that powerfully move through a full range are one of the sole requirements for what the CrossFit® journal calls ‘athletic prowess.’
#14 – Good Mornings
Good Mornings are another great exercise for developing those strong, mobile hips. The action of the hip in a good morning is similar to a deadlift or RDL but the loading is much different.
Because the load sits on your shoulders, it is a further distance from the axis of rotation. This basically means that the demands for the midline, core and bracing are much greater.
As a result, it is common to see athletes making the movement fault of rounding through the low back or t-spine while doing good mornings.
#13 – Sumo Deadlifts
Almost all hip hinges in the Sport of Fitness involve the hands being outside the legs: cleans, snatches, and conventional deadlifts.
Purely from a variety standpoint, sumo deadlifts provide an opportunity for structural balance and positional integrity. However, they are also fantastic because the harness the low back, glutes, quads and hamstrings in a different way and in varying degrees.
The conventional pull (hands outside knees) typically requires a more bent over bottom position and as a result harness the low back and hamstrings to a greater degree. The sumo deadlift allows the knees to get out of the way shifting the torso more upright in the bottom position. This shift allows more engagement of the gluteus medialis and quads, while slightly reducing low back and hamstring recruitment.
#12 – L-Sit Variations
In Functional Fitness the core (specifically abs in this case) is often challenged but typically it is in the same two ways.
One, a dynamic closing of the hip. (e.g. toes-to-bar, GHD sit-up or ski erg)
Two, an isometric hold with an open hip (e.g. top of an overhead squat, a handstand walk or overhead lunge)
The L-Sit provides an opportunity to merge these two categories. It provides a closed hip with an isometric hold. As a result, the hip flexors, abs and quads are worked in a way that is completely unique.
They are also hard as f***
#11 – Bench Press
The bench press seems to be a stable in every athlete’s regimen except the CrossFit athlete.
Let’s be honest, its probably because CrossFit athletes are known for sucking at bench.
Bench pressing is a great accessory movement because it provides another opportunity for strict upper body pressing (a rarity in Functional Fitness as we previously discussed) as well as developing the pecs.
Per the multitude of pec injuries at the 2018 regionals, we know Functional Fitness doesn’t commonly work the pecs. Push-ups and ring dips are often the only pec involvement a CrossFit athlete gets.
Not only will benching help keep you injury free, it’s also a ton of fun and transfers well to strict pressing overhead if your mobility is good.
#10 – Dead Hangs
Ever since I completed Ido Portal’s (7-min per day for 30 days) hang challenge, I’ve utilized dead hangs often in my training and that of my athletes. The weight of your body pulls your structures and tissues into alignment.
Typically the first time I jump up on the bar in the warm-up my T-Spine will pop and my shoulders and will get a wonderful stretch. You can feel the weight of your legs traction out your spine and decompress the whole system. Mobility in combination with shoulder and spinal healthy is the first reason why dead hangs made the countdown.
The second reason is grip strength. Many people don’t challenge their grip endurance because their upper body pulling is weak. As a result they only hang onto the bar for a few seconds at a time before dropping down to catch their breath and recover. Dead hangs force you grip to work without the frequent breaks.
#9 – Russian Kettlebell Swings
Simply put, Russian Swings are one of the greatest posterior chain exercises. Although the American Swing (overhead) is almost always the one tested (yet even that is infrequent) the Russian Swing offers a host of benefits to the Functional Fitness athlete.
The Russian Swing develops the hamstrings, glutes and low back is a very dynamic setting, which makes it very transferable to the sport of Functional Fitness. It also requires a high amount of eccentric strength and coordination. Without eccentric strength, the kettlebell will pull you forward onto your toes and you will losing the timing of the movement.
#8 – Sandbag Squats
The sandbag is an increase tool because the weight of it sits further from your body than a barbell. As a result, the core and posterior must work much hard to maintain posture.
In addition, the sandbag sits on your stomach making breathing much more challenging.
The combination is brutally effective.
#7 – Heavy Carries
In Functional Fitness, it is most common to pick something up and then put it down (i.e. lifting). However, carrying is another, equally important, movement category that often plays second fiddle.
If you are hitting a plateau in strength or you are getting bored in your training, I recommend adding in heavy carries as a staple to your program. There is no right or wrong way to do it. A yoke is a great option, if you have one available.
Back rack, front rack, overhead and Zercher carries are all great options which can also be done just using a loaded barbell. Farmer’s Handles are a great tool as well.
In addition, the are even more options for with dumbbells or kettlebells. Variety is the spice of life and with carries there are many variations.
#6 – Bent-over Rows
While CrossFit has a significant amount of pulling, it is often made easier with a kip, or controlled swing. Furthermore, the only movement tested in the Open that has horizontal pulling is the Concept II Rower…if that even counts.
Unless you scale pull-ups to ring rows, there is often very little if any horizontal, strict pulling in CrossFit. This fact alone should make bent over rows (barbell or dumbbell) a staple in a CrossFit athlete’s program.
#5 – Staggered Stance RDLs
RDLs are basically a deadlift where you keep the legs a bit straighter than normal and focus on sending your hips back to get a big stretch through the hamstrings.
The split stance adds an element of instability, but especially adds a bigger stretch in the front foot. The back foot should have little weight on it and basically be there for balance.
Since many CrossFit athletes are quad dominant, this hamstring builder does the trick.
#4 – Box Squats
Box squats are another great tool for developing the posterior chain. The goal with the box squat is to sit back and down so the shins stay more vertical. This takes takes away the quad dominant nature of the squat and shifts it to your butt and hamstrings.
In addition, the box limits the depth of the squat so it is much easier to overload it for true strength work. Often squats are limited by technique and mobility so being able to ‘take the governor off’ and just focus on lifting heavy is a beautiful thing.
You can play with the height of the box, but a standard place to start is right above parallel in the squat.
(Check out the thumbnail from the video below to see a good box height.)
#3 – Reverse Hyper (or) Glute-Ham Raise
Well by now I just sound like a broken record, “posterior chain, posterior chain, posterior chain…”
But in a world where most people sit eight or more hours every single day, the importance of strengthening those constantly elongated muscles can’t be overstated.
Another constant battle for countless people in America is low back pain. With our sedentary lifestyles and constant sitting, it should be no surprise.
For those with back pain, a weak posterior chain or who experience a low back pump during workouts, this specialty exercise can be a lifesaver. After all, no one has ever complained about their lower back being too durable.
No Reverse Hyper? A Glute-Ham Raise (GHR) is a great substitute.
#2 – Crossover Symmetry
It’s an ongoing joke at CrossFit New England that coach Ben Bergeron believes that Crossover Symmetry can cure cancer. Maybe this is a thick spread of hyperbole, but there’s a reason why the widely respected coach speaks of the mythical fixes of crossover symmetry.
The reverse hyper is to the lower back what Crossover Symmetry is to the shoulders.
That is, I can’t find anything that beats it. Crossover Symmetry is simply a collection of exercises with bands. In my opinion, the bulk of the benefits come from exercises that face the anchor point. This is because this grouping of exercises primarily works the musculature on the back side of the shoulder and around the shoulder blades. A strong rotator cuff (comprises of 4 muscles) in combination with strong, mobile muscles around the scapulae (shoulder blades) is a recipe for bulletproof shoulders.
Considering shoulders are the most commonly injured body part in CrossFit, your time here is well spent.
#1 – Strict Gymnastics Movements
Strict gymnastic movements are king. Period.
Frankly, it was really excited to me when strict Handstand Push-Ups finally emerged in an Open workout in 19.3.
If you want to get good at kipping movements so you can smash gymnastic-dense Met-Cons, you must be able to build a base of technically sound strict movements.
Any gymnastic movement that can be kipped can also be done strict (e.g. pull-ups, dips, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, etc.) Having the prerequisite strength to do strict variations of gymnastics movements proves that you will be able to move effectively and safely in a kipping variation.
The athletes who spend the time developing the strict strength will progress to higher levels in kipping versions quicker than those who do not.
I have found strict variations of movement especially valuable for athletes with longer limb lengths relative to their torso. These athlete will find strict movements more challenging and therefore they will have an even bigger bang for their buck. When the athlete return to the kipping variations the ease with which they complete reps is often astonishing.
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