If you are an avid CrossFitter, you have heard this phrase before: “Constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensities.” CrossFit athletes pride themselves on being ready for any athletic event at any time, training across multiple training modalities that include running, biking swimming, weightlifting, jumping, and gymnastics.
While any well-developed CrossFit program does cover a lot of ground, there are a few exercises I feel that CF folks would benefit from that I very rarely see these in a CrossFit program.
Some may argue that since certain exercises will never be included in a CrossFit event, they are not worth taking the time to do. I beg to differ. Would you tell Kelly Starrett that his mobility WOD was worthless, just because you wouldn’t see his corrective exercise drills in a WOD at your local competition or during the CrossFit Games Open? I don’t think so.
You would try his new mobility drill in order to improve your movement in a certain area of the body, thus leading to a better kipping pull up or clean and jerk. Your goal as a CrossFitter is to try to improve across many areas of fitness, in any way, shape, or form. Whether it is some new shoes or wrist wraps, more soft tissue work or an extra weightlifting session, you will do whatever it takes to improve your Fran time, become a fire-breather, and lift heavy ass weight above your head.
I have found five strength-based exercises that have helped my competitors improve in all aspects of CrossFit. The main reason is that these strength-based exercises are unilateral, while many of the weightlifting exercises in CrossFit are bilateral. Let me go onto say that nothing can replace the barbell for true strength. But, some of these unilateral strength-training exercises can help improve the big lifts by reducing muscular imbalances, asymmetries, and the risk of injury.
You see, adding explosiveness to an asymmetry issue is a problem. You can’t just add a bunch of Kinesio tape to your shoulders and knees and expect to get better. You need to deal with this issue with a systemic approach that includes the weak side, addresses mobility and flexibility issues, and perhaps even has you do aggressive rehab work. Do all this and watch all of your CrossFit moves improve.
Now, you don’t have to become a total rehab, corrective, and mobility Nazi in order to correct your asymmetries and muscular imbalances. In fact, as long as you are doing some soft tissue work and warming-up before your workout, you can simply sneak in these five strength-based unilateral movements and see dramatic improvements in the way you move and feel.
I heard this quotation before, from Charlie Weingroff: “Training equals rehab; Rehab equals training.” The best training rehab I ever used was to include more symmetry work in my strength programs for my athletes. It was like magic. After four weeks of doing one-arm presses, Bulgarian split squats, and one-leg bench hip thrusters, they suddenly were squatting, deadlifting, and Olympic lifting much better, and with no pain. Goal accomplished!
Why These Exercises?
There are a few movement patterns that CrossFitters generally want to get better at:
- Pulling – pull ups, rope climbs, pull phase of Olympic lifts
- Squatting – pistol squats, front squats, back squats
- Hinge patterns – Olympic lifts, kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and any other posterior chain-dominant movements
- Overhead movements – handstand push ups, snatches, overhead squats, overhead presses, jerks
If you notice, one common thing with almost all of these exercises is that they are all bilateral movements. This means you are using both sides of your body at the same time. By doing this, you do run the risk of compensation patterns, since no one has a totally symmetrical body. Over time this can lead to more muscle imbalances and compensation patterns, possibly resulting in pain or injury.
I have found five strength-based exercises that help get the body back in balance and become symmetrical again to improve these movement patterns:
- One-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Front Rack One-Leg Bulgarian Split Squat
- One-Arm Overhead Press
- Barbell One-Leg Deadlift
- Barbell One-Leg Bench Hip Thrusters
Let’s take a look at the amazing benefits each one of these symmetry exercises have to offer.
1. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Horizontal pulling is the most underused movement pattern in CrossFit. Pull ups are a great back builder, but horizontal pulling balances out all the overhead movements that CrossFit usually entails. The one-arm dumbbell row helps build tons of upper back strength and helps reduce the risk of injury of the shoulders. Most CrossFit athletes spend the majority of their day sitting, which causes the rhomboids and the mid and low traps to get lengthened throughout the day. By adding the one-arm dumbbell row, you wake up these muscles that help stabilize the scapula.
2. Front Rack One-Leg Bulgarian Split Squat
This exercise has been around for ages, and for a good reason. You can build tons of strength and even flexibility in the hip flexors and quads without stressing the low back too much. Again, we sit a lot, causing the hip flexors and quads to shorten. By placing the back foot on a bench, we actively stretch the hip flexors and quads one leg at a time. You can also load up this exercises quite a bit to improve overall lower-body strength and muscle growth. I have added this exercise in many of my CrossFit athletes’ programs, in place of back squats, and watched them demolish their front squat and power clean records.
3. One-Arm Overhead Press and Push Press
Vertical pressing movements like push presses teach your chest and shoulders to work in unison with your hips and core. Now, do this with only one kettlebell and dumbbell and see how much your core and shoulders have to work even harder to press the weight above your head. By always pressing a heavy bar above your head, you can cause many compensation patterns to happen during this movement. By adding in some one-arm overhead presses, you challenge each side of your core, shoulders and chest to work harder to press the weight. Get both sides of your body equally strong and watch your overhead press personal records increase.
4. Barbell One-Leg Deadlifts
A strong posterior chain for a CrossFitter is as valuable as gold. To perform heavy Olympic lifts, you need to have some strong hamstrings, lower back, and glutes. By adding in one-leg deadlits you balance out your posterior chain muscles in order to help increase your Olympic lifting, conventional deadlifts, and even box jumps. By cycling in one-leg deadlifts, you also place less stress on the lower back and hips, which can help increase your training volume of the posterior chain, without overtraining.
5. Barbell One-Leg Bench Hip Thrusters
Having strong glutes is a must as a CrossFitter. You can do all of the squats and deadlifts you want, but sometimes that may not be enough to activate the glutes properly. One-leg hip thrusts have been a mainstay in my training for the past few months. I really like it because it’s a back-friendly, knee-friendly exercise to work the posterior chain. The “glute guy,” Brett Contreras, has done a ton of research on variations of the hip thrust. He has found that hip thrusts are one of the best ways to strengthen the glutes. If you have an athlete who is dealing with some injuries, add these in to keep their posterior chains strong and balanced. The one-leg bench hip thrust is the perfect exercise to strengthen the posterior chain, while giving your body a break from the heavy squat grind.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.