| | Accessory Work That Works

Author / John

One question we inevitably hear time and time again is “What about accessory work?”.  My response is as predictable as the question itself:  What about it?  Since the dawn of strength training people have geeked out on any and every fad, training program, or hot new movement that has implied better results.  As we often say with regard to novice lifters – everything works but what works optimally?

The topic of accessory work can be likened to that of religion.  It’s taboo, varying in ideology, and laced with emotional ties we can’t quite comprehend.  Just try and tell someone that 2 weighted dips are a poor way to improve their 115lb bench press and watch their expression twist into disbelief and then anger.  I remember doing prowler pushes with a guy who was implementing it as a power developer but was walking the weight for 200ft.  I casually mentioned that we should cut the distance and maybe the weight for the desired training effect and his response was: “Don’t ever tell me what to do, Cali.”  Calm down asshole, I won’t.

Emotion aside, these aren’t the reasons we shy from explicitly listing them on CrossFit Football’s SWOD.  What you see on our site is a skeleton of a program- effective in it’s own right as a strength template for anyone who has never followed a linear progression.  These are some 20,000+ subscribers whom we’ve never met or had the ability to assess their specific limiting factors.  Moreover, if indeed these athletes are relatively new to an aggressive linear progression, they simply need more time pulling and pushing a barbell.  It’s as simple as that.  Instead, many athletes get caught up in the sexiness of accessory work far before it becomes pertinent and necessary for their training.


The body goes through several phases of adaptation in the early training days.  Intermuscular coordination occurs when muscles begin to “talk” to each other.  This phase is allows the bod to coordinate efforts to create movement patters.  The second phase is intramuscular coordination wherein the muscle itself becomes more efficient in it’s ability to fire and create contractions.  Myelination is a key component in the process of maximizing contractile potential among a specific group of muscles and muscle fibers.  Lastly, the bod will undergo hypertrophy- both sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar.  This enables the muscle density and size to increase thusly creating a stronger, more powerful individual. It is our contention that athletes don’t necessarily need accessory work during this approximate 12-20 week period.  Only after the novice effect has been sufficiently tapped should we progress to accessory and single joint movements.

How do we know which ones?  Well, what are your pitfalls?  There are innumerable tools for shoring up a specific weakness or sticking point.  The question is- which ones work best and how do you implement them? With the overarching goal of accelerated adaptation, we continue to progress athletes by varied and deliberate stimulus.  It works well – addressing the most commonly found strength inhibitors – but it’s not perfect as it still designed for a demographic we have not met.

For more on accessory work advantages, disadvantages, and effectiveness, I talk with John Welbourn – self proclaimed lover of the tricep extension and longtime victim of the prone hamstring curl.

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What is the risk/disadvantage of implementing accessory work too early in a program?

Much of the adaptation associated with lifting weights comes from actually lifting the weights.  While many of you are nodding your heading and saying “of course”, think about that.  Inter & Intra muscular coordination happen in part due to learning the movement pattern while myelination is directly related to patterning.  In short, for many beginning lifters all they need to do is the main lifts as we are banking on the unadapted CNS becoming more adapted.  In other words, accommodation is not much of a factor with a beginner as the patterns are so new that this helps drive the adaption we are expecting.  The result is increased strength.  In our research, adding too many new and diverse movement patterns to a beginner could potentially have a negative effect in the short 12-16 week window known as the amateur window.

Louie is well known as a proponent of accessory work.  Can you provide context as to why it’s effective for his athletes but maybe not for a 135 lb 15 year old with a bodyweight back squat?

WSB trains some of the strongest men on the planet.  These are highly trained specialized athletes that are using a combination of training gear to maximize their ability to generate big numbers in the bench, squat and deadlift.  Due to the fact these individuals are moving super-human weights in training they must have a very specific about of volume and tonnage each training session to keep driving adaption.  Because the weights are high and these highly trained/advanced individuals are at great risk of accommodation, they must find a way to get keep their volume of training at a level conducive to their sport.  Assistance work allows them to up their training volume and address any weakness or limiting factors that might hindering progress or a lead to a potential short coming.  For most beginning lifters, the limiting factor is time under the bar.  Therefore, a simple novice program with a steady diet of basic lifts will produce the biggest gains for the amateur athlete.

Are there commonly used accessory exercises that are a waste of time– or that have much better alternatives?

Yes, face pulls. Complete waste of time.

What are your favorite accessory exercises for the below:


      • Lockout: 2-3 board Close Grip Bench
      • Off chest: Pin Presses with the pins set at chest height. Training starting strength by initiating in the concentric portion of the movement.
      • Stability: Slide Board Push Ups


      • Speed: 2 sec pause squat w/ chains
      • Turnover (stretch reflex): Squats w/ 3 count eccentric, followed by fast turn around.
      • Back: Belt Squats


      • Speed: 4″ deficit deadlifts
      • Thickness: Starr Shrugs
      • Hamstring development: Hamstring Curls followed by heavy RDLs in the 8-12 rep range

Power Clean

      • Speed: Muscle Clean
      • Power: Starr Shrugs


    • Arms: Hammer Curls
    • Biceps: Incline DB bicep curls
    • Triceps: KB Skull Crushers with a slight incline.
    • Back: 5 DB Kelso Shrugs followed by max rep One Arm DB Rows – AHAP
    • Grip: Plate Flips and Weighted T-Bar Chin Ups
    • Shoulders: 10 way banded shoulder complex w/ isometric holds. Seated DB Press – high rep/high volume
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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Ingo B on March 4, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Amazed that Prowler Guy would actually say that to you. You humans fascinate me.

  2. Caleb on March 5, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Don’t tell me how to live my life Cali!!! Just kidding, love your posts. I’m going to start implementing shake weights into the field strong programming now thanks to your picture. And your use of the word bod made me think of this…..

  3. Caleb Barger on March 5, 2014 at 7:51 am

    P.S. Curls all day…. #SunsOutGunsOut

  4. Justin on March 5, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Great article, but since I’m a cheap college student – again – I was only able to read part of it.

    Just wanted to throw my 2 cents in on this topic. I’m currently in a human physiology class and recently dove into muscle fibers and connective tissue physiology.

    For the power athlete, and those seeking to develop into a bigger, faster, stronger organism, its all about the Golgi Tendon Organ. Huh? Yeah dudes, got GTO? The GTO lies within your muscle fibers and essentially monitors tension in each fiber. When you increase tension the GTO fires a signal (action potential) which travels through the axon to the spinal cord and makes an inhibitory synapse with the somatic motor neuron for that specific muscle. All that said, at the end of the day, the job of the GTO is to LIMIT contractile force. NOOOO – please don’t limit my potential for contractile force!!! Well, actually yes, we want this power athletes and I will tell you why shortly.

    As we hit our linear progression strength training with the consistency and intensity of a Buddhist monk, our true strength and power is due to our muscles making more connective tissue (not so much from pure contractile mass). The muscle reacts to stress by protecting itself with more and more connective tissue. However, maintaining this connective tissue is very expensive (requires much much more ATP production) so the muscle makes more only to the level that you are demanding of it. Also, if we don’t demand anything from it, it goes by-by. Therefore, the more and more connective tissue we develop through training, the harder and harder it is to stimulate the GTO! So, here you go power athletes, this will permit you to generate more force. The added connective tissue is acting in a stimulatory manner by removing the inhibitor initially created by the GTO. Basically, your body will give you permission to generate more force if you simply follow your training consistently (CFFB SWOD and DWOD are designed for this training effect).

    I think this is a very important point especially for beginners and those just starting strength training or the amateur CFFB template. You have to be consistent in your training to develop true strength and power and reduce the potential for injury. It just takes time. Start with weights that you can maintain posture and position throughout the movements. Then, increase as suggested in the SWOD by CFFB. If you find yourself jumping around from one program to another you will likely not get the results you are seeking. Pick a program and stick to it.

    Since getting strong and powerful does take time, we might as well listen to the great coaches we have around us who know how the body works. Pushing or pulling a heavy sled slowly for a long distance isn’t going to stimulate the belly of the GTO. If anything, it will limit your force production because the tissue is not getting stressed enough. Basically, its just getting fatigued, not stressed/stimulated. However, going back to Cali’s initial response, by decreasing distance and lowering the weight she can get the desired training effect from her athlete. Why? Well, because her athlete will be fucking highly stressed physiologically. This happens as a result of pushing that sled hard as a motherfucker, which will cause his muscles and connective tissues to drive towards a physiological shit storm (really just transcription factors being released to signal the muscle fiber to produce massive amounts of connective tissue; also will get minor increase in contractile mass that is associated mainly with the sarcomere and all proteins associated with the sarcomere: actin, myosin, troponin, and desmin).

    Train hard power athlete nation!

  5. Kyle Kraft on March 5, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    @Justin – cool knowledge bomb bro! thats bad-ass, thanks!

  6. Taylor Smith on March 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    sweet article, accessory work has always been a question for me ever since I was introduced to crossfit.

  7. Caleb Barger on March 6, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Is there anything similar to a slide board that you know of that could be used as a substitute that would produce near the same effect if we don’t have one until I could find one?

  8. Chris on March 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Great article, Cali.

    Question about the membership options… Would the “Official Member” be able to view the entire article or would it require the “Essentials” option?


  9. Ryan Renner on March 13, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    It worked Cali, I bought in literally and figuratively. Good stuff.

    • CALI on March 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

      It’s just like luring people into a van with candy… or pretending to struggle with a couch. Only this van doesn’t strip you of your innocence and does promise to make you stronger.

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