Older, Fitter: Smart Accessory Work

📷:CrossFit – Robert Kacer of Colliery CrossFit Ostrava

The gist of this series so far has mostly been about slowing down and finding things you might remove from your training to make progress. It’s fair to say there’s been somewhat of a “less is more” approach. While that is generally true for most (and especially for older) athletes with the goal of a broad, inclusive fitness, there are places where you can be adding real value to your fitness with smart accessory work. Below I’ll discuss a few areas that are commonly undertrained and thus could use a bit of shoring up.

Strength Work

Many gyms now program regular strength work. Depending on how the head programmer does things at your gym (or how you do things if you program for yourself), this can be part of a comprehensive group class that includes a warm up, strength/skill work, and a conditioning piece. It could also be done as a stand alone day, more like classic CrossFit, where some days you just warm up properly and then do some heavy lifting before calling it a day. While both of these approaches can work and do the job of including regular heavy lifting, they aren’t ideal for the older athlete. The general physical skill you will benefit from the most is strength. Being stronger allows you to express and further develop other areas of fitness like stamina, power, and balance. Being strong makes you more resilient and reduces your risk of injury, either from an accident, a fall, or your 150th kettlebell swing during Morrison. Being stronger also helps you to recover faster when injuries to strike.

And lastly, being stronger is more useful in instances that are likely to come up outside of the gym. Whether it’s carrying cords of firewood to the cabin, grandkids to the bedroom, or groceries to the kitchen, being stronger is better. The internet is full of opinions on what the “perfect” strength training template looks like, so I’ll simply make a few suggestions that no sensible person can argue with. You should be regularly doing some moderate volume, not for time, strength work in a few basic areas: Upper Body Pressing, Upper Body Pulling, Squatting, and Lower Body Pulling/Hinging. Barbells work really well for this stuff but dumbbells are also great (more on dumbbells later). By “regularly” I mean once or twice a week. By “moderate” I mean 2-5 sets for a total of about 20-30 reps. By “not for time” I mean you should be able to focus ENTIRELY on how well you can perform the reps without the pressure of a clock. If your program doesn’t include these elements, either ask for them to be included or do them on your own.

Unilateral Work

While the barbell lifts are the marquee players of strength training, single limb training will help you become a more balanced (and better) athlete, and so I suggest including it regularly. We’ve all got areas of weakness that show up staggering like your drunk cousin Bob when dumbbells are introduced to the workout. It’s why no one likes Dumbbell Fran (even at lighter total loads), and everyone freaked out during the announcements of the 2017 CrossFit Open events (*If you freaked out in 2018 also, I have no sympathy as you must not have been paying attention. CrossFit even rolled out a special workshop JUST FOR DUMBBELLS!) If you aren’t good at something, avoiding it won’t make you any better at it.

Suck it up, use weights you can move well with, and do some single leg/single arm accessory work. A few sets of single dumbbell presses or bench presses, some walking lunges, and some dumbbell rows can help bring up asymmetrical weaknesses that a barbell could otherwise cover up. Similar rules as above: do this regularly, using moderate volume, not necessarily for time.

Odd Objects: Carries, Drags, Pushes, Pulls, and Crawls

These are an overlooked area in many programs. Farmer’s, overhead, sandbag bear hug, yoke…carries come in various forms. Sleds allow you to push, pull, crawl, and drag ‘em. Sandbags and stones can be simple objects of torture. Done heavy and short, they generally allow you to load more weight on your system than you could otherwise with squats, deadlifts, and presses, which can make your joints stronger for those movements. Heavy and short is also a great way to fully tap into your ATP/PC energy system due to the relatively low skill nature of these movements.

Done with medium loads for medium distances, they can produce a novel conditioning effect. Done lighter and longer, let’s just say they can build your mental game. Odd objects also look a lot more like the stuff you’ll encounter in daily life than say…a barbell, They’re cumbersome, like stuff you may have to carry, drag, or push in the real world. And anytime you walk with a load it’s a loaded unilateral exercise, which if you have been paying attention you now appreciate as extremely valuable! These generally don’t need a lot of fuss to set up or to become part of your training. You could do a separate “odd object day”, but throwing something in as a cash out once a week when you’re done with your regular training is a great way to get the value. One hard effort on one or two movements is plenty.

Sometimes, More Is More

While you probably won’t benefit from doing a regular Murph, you have lots to gain by regularly working on getting stronger in a variety of ways with a variety of implements. It doesn’t need to be overkill, but some of these overlooked areas are well worth adding to your training. Keep it simple, heavy enough to develop strength, regular enough to make gains, and turn off the clock.

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