Coach’s Corner: Why Accessory Work Matters

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Coach Rick Scarpulla of Ultimate Advantage has established why it’s important to build a strong foundation in absolute strength. This week he gives us insight into what accessory work is and why it matters if you really want to improve your numbers and your WOD times alike. If you have your eye on achieving elite fitness, accessory work is a must.

Dear Coach: What, exactly, is “accessory work”? Should I be doing it, and how can it can benefit my training?

Accessory work should be done by all athletes, not just CrossFitters.

We approach CrossFit training the same way: we break everything down into a start, a middle, and a finishing section of an event or exercise.
By definition, accessory work is what helps support and increase the main lift or task at hand. For instance, let’s say you run track. You don’t just run your event over and over again. It is broken down into parts: you work the starts or blocks and you work your turns; you work on the acceleration phase and angles and the finish. The whole time you are focusing on proper run bio-mechanics. You would also spend a great deal of time in the weight room, in order to develop more horsepower to put into your runs. If all you did was run your event over and over, you would only get minimally faster at best. It is all the accessory work that supports the run as a whole.

We approach CrossFit training the same way: we break everything down into a start, a middle, and a finishing section of an event or exercise. We take the start and strengthen its primary working muscles, focus on the middle and strengthen that, then work the finish. When we put them all together, the sum of the parts becomes greater than the sum of the whole; thus the lift or task becomes greater. All sports and all top athletes approach training using this same approach. Some sports and athletes call it situational play, some call it element training, but all sports utilize it. CrossFit is no different.

All sports and all top athletes approach training using this same approach. Some sports and athletes call it situational play, some call it element training, but all sports utilize it. CrossFit is no different.
Let’s look at it from another angle. Many times in strength sports, the reason for failure is an imbalance of muscle, which creates technique imbalance. Let’s use the bench as an example; if you are failing at the bottom of the lift, it indicates that your lats and upper back area are a weakness. This could be due to several reasons, but let’s say you are stronger in the triceps than the upper back, which is causing you to place a greater emphasis on your triceps and shoulders — this would be considered an imbalance. If you continue to neglect addressing that area — the lats and upper back, in this case — you will create a further imbalance. That in turn will result in your bench having an imbalance and usually will end in an injury as you begin using heavier weight, as it will create technique issues as well.

The answer to the problem? Accessory work. You do extra work on the upper back and lat areas to repair the imbalance, and you will have increased driving power as well as increased technique balance. Both of these will result in a bigger, safer bench press.

This holds true for 100% of exercises: you must have a proper balanced training accessory program to go along with your CrossFit training.

I have not come across a single CrossFit athlete who has not benefited from this approach. The nature of CrossFit — as in many sports — will lead to imbalance unless addressed properly. This type of work should be added directly into your programming on a daily basis.

Accessory work should be mixed in as part of your WOD’s.

Always start with a main barbell compound movement, followed by your priority accessory work. Many times it can be used in a metcon style template. Other times worked on by themselves. You should be using high and low rep schemes. Heavy and light weight and a fast pace. Mix up the volume but do lots of work for the supporting areas of the lift or exercises.

Learn to create training balance. Remember that WODs will not repair your weaknesses — these weaknesses must be worked on daily and must be a part of your training.
Learn to create training balance. Remember that WODs will not repair your weaknesses — these weaknesses must be worked on daily and must be a part of your training. Of course you must work technique and endurance, but you also have to address strength and any other weakness, or your game is going nowhere fast. So if you do a deadlift set for your main movement or WOD, then your hamstrings, low back, glutes, core and lats need to be addressed through accessory work. If your primary work is on a military or bench press, then you need to do accessory work on your upper girdle. Make sense? Don’t think for one second that the top athletes are not doing extra strength and individual weakness work — you’d only be fooling yourself, and your opponents will be laughing all the way to the top of the podium.

One concept that I will be touching on in the near future is what we call your power output rating and minimum standard power output levels. That will also teach you how to understand your performance better and how to repair it correctly. I teach my athletes this: “There is no such thing as failure without reason.” If you look like Tarzan but play like Jane, there is a reason! Learn to understand how to repair your training, and let’s get you to the next level faster!

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