Common Accessory Program Design Mistakes

Common Accessory Program Design Mistakes

Common Accessory Program Design Mistakes: Why it’s important to uncover the source of the problem

Talk to any elite multi-modal or CrossFit athlete and they’ll likely tell you accessory work is more than just a popular buzzword: It’s where many of their gains are made.

By definition, accessory means to add to something to make it better or more useful.

In our case, accessory work is important for building strength and for improving motor control. And it’s not as simple as programming some glute bridges and back extensions for all your clients to do after their training session. In fact, the most important aspect of accessory work is that it must be individualized.

“For example, if we would like a client to get out of pain when walking up the stairs, their accessory work will look different than the client that needs a bump in their back squat 1RM by improving bracing with heavier loads,” explained OPEX Coach Carl Hardwick. 

He added: “Those are two examples on either side of the spectrum, but it’s asinine to say that a split squat is a good accessory movement for everyone’s back squat if that person presents as too quadricep dominant in the squat pattern.”

Two of the most common mistakes Hardwick said he sees when it comes to programming accessory work include:

1. Doing too much: 

“More volume and work does not mean better,” Hardwick said.

There is a time for more and a time for less, he explained. For example, during a program’s accumulation phase, “Volume is the play, so we have a great opportunity to add copious amounts of accessory movements and contractions to build motor control, strength endurance or elicit a hypertrophy response,” Hardwick said. But during a program’s intensification phase, you want to preserve the central nervous system for proper adaptation.

“Copious amounts of accessory work (during this phase) would possibly work against these adaptations that we are looking to gain,” he explained. 

2. Being too flashy: 

“Just because we see an interesting movement on social media does not mean that movement is right for our clients. We must have intent,” he said. 

OPEX’s Programming: Principles will give you the tools to understand why individualization is key to design programs with proper intent.

And in order to do just this, the most important step for the coach is being able to figure out what the source of the client’s deficiencies are. In other words, is it a motor control problem or a strength problem?

Based on this, we can break accessory work into two types:

  • Movements to strengthen essential motor patterns: These are prescribed to make sure our clients stay safe. 
  • Movements to strengthen muscles: These are prescribed to increase a client’s efficiency.

Hardwick explained, if motor control is the priority, for example, then you would “include exercise selection within the client’s capabilities, time under tension being high with longer tempos and ensuring we are building motor control in patterns before parts or specific muscles.”

Without the ability to see whether it’s a motor control or a strength problem, you’re basically playing a guessing game. Your clients may still have some success, but certainly not to the extent they will have if you’re able to determine the WHY. This is why an OPEX coach will always seek to discover what the weakness is—motor control or strength problem—before designing appropriate accessory work.

What does this look like in practice?

You might recognize that something is going on when your client is squatting or deadlifting, but you’re not sure what.

For example: Does this client have weak glutes (strength problem), or do they simply not know how to brace properly when they’re lifting (motor control)? The accessory work you would prescribe to them would be vastly different depending on the answer to the latter question.

If the problem stems from the inability (or lack of understanding of how) to brace effectively, you might program accessory movements, such as:

  • Static glute activation
  • Dynamic glute activation
  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Unbelted bracing sequence
  • Hip/ab differentiation

If the problem, however, stems from their glutes being weak, then you might program accessory movements, such as:

  • Rack pulls
  • Stiff-leg deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Good morning
  • Weighted hip extension
  • Banded pull-throughs
  • KB swing

Similarly, something’s up when your client is doing ring rows: Does your client struggle with scapula control, or are they simply just weak at horizontal pulling?

If scapula control is the problem, then you might program accessory movements, such as:

  • Shoulder taps on wall (and variations of these) to improve scapula retraction
  • Reach for pockets drill (and variations of these) to improve scapula depression

If strength is the problem, then you might program accessory movements, such as:

  • Barbell row
  • Chinese row
  • Dumbbell row
  • Banded face full
  • Banded pull apart
  • Lat pulldown
  • Hanging reverse shrugs

Develop your program design skills and access sample strength programs for specific client avatars when you sign up for Programming: Principles today.


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