Charging through a CrossFit workout is one of the best ways to build a high level of cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, work capacity, and burn fat. But, as undeniably effective as CrossFit is for developing fitness, it might not be the best way to build strength.
While there are CrossFit strength workouts, such as the CrossFit Total, where athletes work up to their 1RM in the back squat, shoulder press, and deadlift, these workouts tend to test strength rather than develop it.
Other CrossFit strength workouts are based on a percentage of your 1RM. Linda, also known as the three bars of death, is one such workout.
For Linda, you do a descending rep pyramid of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 rep of the following exercises using these prescribed loads:
- Deadlift at 1.5 x bodyweight
- Bench press x bodyweight
- Clean at 0.75 x bodyweight
There is no denying these workouts are hard, but they are done too infrequently to do much for your strength. Strength is as much about your nervous system as it is muscle size. It’s a skill, and your body needs regular exposure to heavy weights to get stronger. Infrequent heavy load training is not an effective way to develop strength.
Strength IS part of CrossFit, but it’s just one of the aspects of CrossFit training. Because it’s only one part of the CrossFit conditioning model, it’s trained relatively infrequently. For some CrossFitters, this is a problem. Lack of strength can make some CrossFit workouts much harder to complete.
In this article, we’re going to explore why it may be beneficial to include more specific strength training in your CrossFit workouts and how to go about doing it without compromising your CrossFit performance.
Strength Benefits for CrossFit
As CrossFit already contains some strength training, you may be wondering why you should do more. The benefits of adding extra strength work to your CrossFit training include:
1 – Make muscular endurance exercises easier
Imagine how much easier a WOD (workout of the day) will be if the prescribed weights are much lighter than your max. For example, 135lbs power cleans will be a breeze if you have built up to doing 250lbs for reps in training.
Any WOD that prescribes a specific load won’t be as challenging or daunting if you go into it knowing that you can lift that weight with ease.
You’ll also find that increasing your strength in one movement will positively affect your performance in others. If your front squat 1RM increases, so too will your thruster performance. Similarly, an improvement in your deadlift should boost your power clean.
Being stronger should make many bodyweight and gymnastic exercises feel easier too. Air squats, which is what CrossFitters call bodyweight squats, and push-ups are just two exercises that feature in a lot of CrossFit workouts that will be easier if you have plenty of strength. Rope climbing is easier when you’ve got stronger biceps and lats.
2 – Faster recovery between movements
If ten reps of deadlifts with 225lbs leaves you exhausted, you’re going to have to rest before you can move onto the next exercise in your WOD.
But, if 225 is not much more than your usual warm-up weight, you’ll be ready for the next task almost as soon as the bar hits the floor. This will save you a lot of time, and that’s important in WODs where you are up against the clock.
3 – Higher 1RMs
Some CrossFit workouts involve working up to your one or three repetition maximum. Typically, this involves compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, snatches, overhead presses, and cleans and jerks.
Training for strength means you’ll be able to lift heavier weights. Hitting new maxes will increase your standing in the CrossFit community, and, in competition, could be the difference between winning or losing. If you don’t train for strength, you’ll be going into these workouts unprepared.
Read also everything you need to know about the snatch.
4 – Increased muscle size
CrossFit can get you fit and ripped but may not be ideal for building lots of muscle. There ARE some incredibly muscular CrossFitters, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that they supplement their conditioning workouts with specialist strength training.
If you want to build bigger muscles, CrossFit alone is not the best way you do it; you need some dedicated strength training.
5 – Injury prevention
One of the criticisms often leveled at CrossFit is that it can be a source of injury. Whether this is fair or not, increasing your basic strength can help injury-proof your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
The stronger you are, the less likely you are to hurt yourself during submaximal workouts. After all, your body will be used to handling much heavier loads. Strength training is also good for increasing bone mass and preventing muscle loss, which are issues that affect many exercisers as they age.
What Exercises Should You Include in A CrossFit Strength Program?
Because of the law of specificity, you should train for what you want to improve. So, while there is nothing inherently wrong with exercises like calf raises, biceps curls, and leg extensions, they aren’t the sorts of movement you usually see in CrossFit workouts.
Instead, a CrossFit strength program should be built around variations of the exercises you commonly see in CrossFit workouts. This includes:
- Bench presses
- Overhead Presses
- Clean and jerk
You may also benefit from including some specific prehab exercises in your CrossFit strength program, such as band pull aparts, face pulls, and any other injury prevention exercises you need to keep your muscles and joints healthy and pain-free.
How To Create A CrossFit Strength Program
Strength training program design takes practice and skill. That’s one of the appeals of CrossFit; you show up at your local box or log onto the website and just follow the prescribed WOD. You can leave the exercise planning to someone else!
But, if you want to add EXTRA strength training to your CrossFit workouts, you’re going to need to take a more hands-on approach. In this section, we’re going to provide you with a few workable solutions.
The thing to always remember with CrossFit strength training is that it is ACCESSORY work that should improve your WOD performance. If it isn’t adding to your CrossFit workouts, you are doing something wrong.
Because of individualism, both in terms of needs and results, there is no one size fits all solution to getting stronger for CrossFit. Because of this, you may need to try several different CrossFit strength program methods to find the best one for you, and even modify them to suit your needs.
However you choose to implement strength training into CrossFit, try to follow the KISS motto – keep it simple, stupid! Strength training is just one part of CrossFit, and if you make it too complicated or time-consuming, you could actually undermine your WOD performance rather than improve it.
Option 1 – Two dedicated strength training sessions per week
If you are a casual CrossFitter and don’t mind replacing two WODs a week with some dedicated strength training, this could be the best method for you. With two training sessions, your strength should improve quite rapidly.
You can still do a WOD after completing your strength training workout, but it should be a short, cardio-based one and not something like the three bars of death! Do WODs as normal on the days in between.
Choose 3-5 exercises for each workout, focusing on the big compound lifts. For example:
|Workout 1 – e.g., Monday||Workout 2 – e.g., Thursday|
|2||Power cleans||2||Front squats|
|3||Overhead press||3||Bench press|
Option 2 – One lift per day
If you’d prefer not to dedicate entire training sessions to strength, the one lift a day (OLAD) method may be a better option. OLAD is exactly like it sounds; you choose one lift, train it, and then do a different exercise the next time you work out.
Once you have completed your lift for the day, you should still have plenty of time and energy to do your WOD. However, your strength workout may affect your WOD performance, depending on the lift you’ve just done and what the WOD entails.
|Squats||Power cleans||Bench press||Rest||Deadlift||Overhead press||Rest|
You could conceivably add a second, less important, and non-competing lift to this method. For example, between sets of squats, you could do pull-ups. After all, when training for strength, your reps are low, and your rests are long. You should still have more than enough time and energy to alternative between two dissimilar exercises before your WOD.
Option 3 – Use more weight in your WODs
This approach works well if you want to stick with the prescribed WODs, don’t want to change your workout routine, but still want to get stronger. Your workout performance will undoubtedly decrease, but those same workouts should feel considerably easier when you go back to using the prescribed loads.
Increase your weights by 10-15% at first and work up from there as necessary. Needless to say, this approach will only work for WODs where you are using dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. Although you could wear a weighted vest for some bodyweight exercises too.
Option 4 – Put CrossFit on the back burner for a few months
This final option is an all-in approach to gaining strength for CrossFit. For this method, you simply make a short-term commitment to strength training and just do 1-2 CrossFit workouts per week to maintain your WOD fitness.
|Lower body||Upper body||CrossFit WOD||Lower body||Upper body||CrossFit WOD||Rest|
Such an approach will undoubtedly increase your strength, but probably at the cost of your CrossFit performance. Also, expect to feel tired, so make sure you pay extra attention to rest and recovery.
But, when you switch back to making CrossFit your priority, your fitness should quickly return, and you should find your new levels of strength makes many of the WODs much easier. Plus, you can maintain your strength with one of the other lower volume methods outlined above, especially #1 & #2.
Reps, Sets, and Rest Periods for a CrossFit Strength Program
CrossFit WODs are often against the clock, so you have to try and blast through them as fast as you can. Training for strength requires a much slower, more deliberate approach that can come as a shock to many CrossFitters. To build serious strength, you’re going to spend more time resting than actually exercising.
Reps are generally low and, to ensure you can put maximal effort into each and every set, you’re going to rest 3-5 minutes between sets. Such long rests ensure that your nervous system is fully recovered.
You can read all about programming for strength in our article How to Increase Strength: Your Guide to Getting Strong but the main points you should consider are:
- Weight – 80%+ of your 1RM
- Reps – 1-5 reps per set
- Sets – 4-6 sets per exercise
- Rest – 3-5 minutes between sets
For many exercisers, the standard CrossFit WODs are enough to increase strength to an acceptable level. The occasional strength-based WOD is sufficient to satisfy their need for lifting heavy barbells.
However, if you want to really crush those weightier workouts, getting stronger will definitely help. Even if you make strength your focus for just a short period.
If you are already reasonably strong or aren’t too worried that your CrossFit total is not as high as it could be, there may be no need to add extra strength training to what is already a well-balanced workout system.
But, if you are a competitive CrossFitter who needs to ensure that strength is never your weakest link, it’s time to take a more proactive approach to your training. By using one of the options outlined in this article, you should be able to increase your strength while mostly maintaining your WOD performance.
Remember, though, you are a CrossFitter and not a powerlifter or weightlifter. Use strength training to boost your WOD performance. These additional workouts are supplemental to your WODs and should improve your long-term performance and not detract from it.