I hear it all the time as a coach, “I would be so much better at CrossFit, if I could just get stronger!” My response is always the same – What’s your training look like?
That first answer tells me everything I need to know. “Well, I come in and build up to a tough set of squats about 3 times a week. Then, I’ll do a short, hard metcon to help with building strength faster.” Another example might be, “I follow a weightlifting specific program! I snatch, clean & jerk every day, then I hit whatever WOD is on the whiteboard.”
I hate to burst your bubble, but if this is what your training looks like, you’ll never perform as well as you could. To reach your full strength potential there are 3 specific programming issues we need to fix now:
1. Too much strength work is devoted to highly technical lifts.
2. There is not enough prescribed tempo and pause work.
3. The “metcon” training is typically too intense, which makes it impossible to fully recover from heavy barbell work.
1. Strength and the technical lifts.
Let’s say we have someone that can squat 300-pounds, but they can only snatch 100-pounds or so due to some basic technique and mobility limitations. That’s not at all uncommon for new Crossfitters.
If the prescribed strength work consists mostly of snatch, clean and jerk, then none of the reps will actually be heavy enough to cause a strength adaptation. Their poor weightlifting skills won’t allow them to lift a challenging and progressive load, so the only training outcome is wasted time and effort.
It’s essential to work your snatch technique, but that alone is not enough. You have to include some assistance movements in the mix to help encourage strength adaptations. And no, these shouldn’t be automatically lumped into your metcon rounds.
As an example, heavy overhead squats are a great way to increase loading and strengthen the snatch early on. Also, if I were you, I would spend a lot more time performing lunges and single-leg squats of all kinds. Together with your heavy squats, that balanced approach to building strength and skill is sure to boost your performance quickly.
2. Increase the tempo and pause work.
You could be lifting too light, even though your technique is great. But the total time spent under tension is another important consideration.
If you want to get really strong in all key body positions, then you MUST practice being strong at every joint angle. You need plenty of static holds and slow eccentric efforts built into your programming.
Think about the typical set of squats. You probably work up to a heavy set of 1, 3 or 5 reps, right? That’s great, but the total time spent under tension during that set might only be 10 seconds, max. That’s just not enough stimulus for new strength athletes. You need to accumulate more time under load to stoke the adaptations.
The next time you squat, take about 3-5 seconds to lower each one of your reps. Sit in the very bottom for 1-3 seconds, motionless and upright, then explode up! Work the load up weekly, just as you would with a regular squat.
Even though you won’t be able to lift nearly as much weight, you will no doubt feel the difference. An additional 30-60 seconds of tension is all the difference in the world.
3. Condition hard, but skip the damage.
There’s a common misconception out there – If you want to maintain strength, then you need to do short, heavy and max effort metcons. This is flat out wrong for a couple of reasons.
First, you have to think about recovery. A brutal metcon is going to drain the energy that you could otherwise put into your next strength training session. That’s fine if you’re after general fitness, but it’s disastrous if strength is actually the real goal. Whatever you do, don’t sabotage yourself. There’s no time for that.
Second, you need to consider the types of movements that you include in your metcon. You need to be careful with exercises that include a heavy eccentric component. I mentioned spending more time lowering loads because that’s a great way to increase muscular tension and your rate of adaptation. But too much of this can be a bad thing. Condition hard, just include movements that minimize muscle damage and recovery demand.
Instead of crushing 5 rounds of thrusters and muscle-ups for time, why not perform handstand holds against a wall, coupled with alternating step-ups and side bridges, all at a moderate pace? You can get as smoked as you like doing that kind of metcon, but you’ll also build skills that will transfer over to your lifts and make you much stronger.
Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?
Ask us anything!
If you have a training question, just leave it in the comments below. We’d love to help you get stronger.
Also, if you’re in need of a better strength program you’re in luck. We’ve got an all-new program designed to add 50 pounds to your squat while reducing your “Helen” time by three minutes.
Train hard, train smart,
What would you suggest for someone who can squat upper 300s but has trouble OH Squatting much more than 135? I feel as if the problem is in the stability of my shoulders and not so much mobility. It’s obviously not leg strength. Anything specific you can recommend to work on?
(Also, I’ve been doing 5/3/1 for the last couple months specifically for strength. I’m a former baseball player and NEVER went overhead until recently, so I’m very undeveloped there in comparison to squats or deadlift, for example)
Forgot to add: Been following you guys for a while now and love the info y’all put out. Awesome stuff and thanks very much!
All the guys that say they have shoulder issues when doing OHS actually have ankle and/or hip flexibility issues. An OH squat has to look like the one that Froning or Oly lifters do.. hands almost in the same line with your back when viewed from the side… but with poor flexibility your butt is too far back and you compensate from your shoulders at weird angles that are just impossible for holding heavy loads.
Check your ankle position first, Ben.
What exactly should I be looking for? Could my issue also be thoracic and shoulder mobility related?
What I’m saying is…most people have poor ankle mobility. If you cannot get full motion there, you will see and feel the effect in the upper body. In order to stay erect, you have to wrench your shoulders. That’s why more shoulder work wouldn’t solve the problem. Work from the ground up to solve problems.
Hey Ben, I’ve dealt with a lot of baseball player’s in the past and I believe you when you think stability is the issue. i would do a lot of slow tempo OHS’s, Overhead Carries, HS Holds, Single Arm Overhead Carries, etc. Things like that will build the stability. Also, if mobility truly isn’t an issue, adding strength movements like bench press, HSPU’s, things like that to just get shoulders stronger overall will help.
This is pure gold for body builders and people that live cross fit.
Heyyo! Mega female fan here ! I’m really trying to put on just 5 lbs of muscle however is this possible without doing barbell heavy lifts? I have lower back issues and can’t have weight stacked on me or pick it up. Anything more than 20lbs at least. I’m a petite frame person and am just wondering: can I still get stronger and put on muscle mass just doing body weight movements ? Or will I probably just be limited in the amount of muscle I could put on? So far I’ve been losing muscle mass at about 1lb of muscle to every 2lbs of fat I’ve lost, over the past 5 months.
I would say, absolutely. It’s not optimal, of course, but that said, there are thousands of other exercises you can do to load your body. Bench press, rows, back raises (I’m assuming), lunges, etc. will all add muscle. From there, you still need to eat to support muscle gain. Ie, eat a little more great food and add a shake during training.
Hi Jennie, sorry to jump in but I found a way when I was having SI issues and any kind of end range hip flexion and extension with load was painful. I did all calisthenics like you say, pull ups, push ups, dips, T2B, lunges, box steps ups and then I would progressively load those movements with a weight vest. One that you can incrementally add load by just a few pounds at a time might allow you to provide increasing stimulus. Hope that helps!
Oh yeah I just started that actually. The weighted vest. It did irritate my back a little though :(. I think I had 8-10lbs on. I may need more time before I start using it or something. This back thing succccks.
For only learning Olympic movements 2 years ago when I started Crossfit I have come along way – from 160lb snatch to 255lbs just a couple of weeks ago. I have made a decision to step away from metcon’s/Crossfit and mainly focus on my o lifts with aspirations of being competitive. I am following a Catalyst program for 9 weeks – I know, based on your weight gain challenge article, this isn’t the way to go since 9 weeks will only peak my performance instead of build strength that will last. I don’t necessarily have anyone that can design programming for my strength’s/weaknesses so my main question is do you think Catalyst’s Kara’s Nine Week’s of Heaven will do me any good? After this 9 weeks is over I won’t know where to go programming wise so would picking another one of their 3 or 4 month cycle’s do any good or should I consider moving to an Olympic specific gym where a coach can program long term cycle’s for me? Would love to hear back from you guys – thanks.
You could just repeat that program in 9 weeks…or tweak and adjust to your needs, then continue. The point is that sticking with a plan for a longer time is better. You won’t learn it all in 9 weeks, of course. You learn it more and more the deeper you build a rhythm and make it part of your life. Jumping around from plan to plan usually keeps people from ever getting there. That’s all. Keep it up!
Hey there! I’m impressed by your work. Found out about your website and youtube channel recently and i’m trying to absorb as much info as i can. Thank you for making it available.
I’m a soccer player. I’ve been doing lots of bodyweight movements and basic gymnastics training for many years now. Unfortunately, i was not much aware of the potential of weightlifting until recently. But now i’m trying to incorporate it into my training. The problem is: my sport (like any other sport) requires hours of consistent daily work for mastering the technical nuances.
So can i put the puzzles together? Can i put my technical work in and still get strong ( obviosly recovery is the biggest issue) ?
Hi, I have been crossfitting for a little over 7 mons. competed 3 times. Love crossfit!! I have another competition coming in less than 2 weeks. WODS were just announced. And lord and behold it’s like a bro sesh. All pull ups and push ups. I was never able to do a pull up. Just started doing Kipping pull ups. Im able to single them out. But Im not able to do more than 2 in a row. What strength programming / plan can I do that can help me realistically within such short notice?!
Need some advise, I only have 3days a week to train. Should I split it up like Day1 snatch, Day2 Jerk, Day 3 Clean or pick one varation of each movement a day to perform?
There’s all sorts of stuff you could do. This is fine.
Maybe week one focus on 1. Snatch, 2. C&J, 3. Snatch. The next week, you could try 1. C&J, 2. Snatch, 3. Clean variation, maybe with press work.
If you’re only going to train 3 days a week, that’s fine. But practicing the lifts just once a week won’t be enough to gain skill. That’s why I would suggest at least having two days in a week to focus on a lift. Just an idea. You can probably find more great 3-day templates over at Catalyst Athletics. Greg has a lot of greg sample programs.
What would you suggest for a powerlifter who also happens to enjoy crossfit for conditioning? My #1 goal must be strength, but I also want to maintain my conditioning. I’m new to powerlifting this year, and would complain only about how much my workouts have slowed down due to moving so much weight. Rest between sets is crucial – but it’s killing my cardiovascular fitness! I’ve recently added CrossFit back into my routine a couple times a week, along with other cardio (I like running stairs!) to help with that….but sometimes I probably go into my lifting sessions more tired than I should be and it affects my ability to lift as heavy as I need to.
Since starting powerlifting in January, I’ve gained about 10 lbs. I also want to lean down a bit, hence the addition of cardio. I am either a 60kg or 63kg lifter, depending on the federation, so another goal of mine is to stay as lean as I can while still maintaining strength. Thanks for the feedback!
Sounds like you’re not committed to either thing. You start to get some progress, the you turn around.
It’s ok to gain weight when the goal is strength (One in the same…muscle is very heavy). Also, it’s ok to “lose cardio.” That’s because this is an easy adaptation to get back. All you have to do is program a Crossfit heavy block of work after your strength gains.
Spend at least 8-12 weeks driving up the PL’ing, while you do INTENTIONALLY EASY AND LIGHT WODs. The point of those WODS is motion, not an ass kicking or PR hunt. After getting stronger, flip the focus. Do your PL’ing work, but keep the loads and volume down. Work position and mobility, quality of reps. Mark progress in how well you lift, not how much you lift.
After those session, you can jump into heavy WODs, where the point is to drive up your Crossfit performance. With that approach you’ll make progress long-term in both pursuits. However, if you try to commit to both all the time, you won’t go much anywhere.
My best advice.
Chris can probably add to this but I would suggest low intensity cardio preferably low impact such as biking, rowing, swimming, etc. Hill sprints and running are very taxing both on CNS and eccentric loading on the legs so like you stated, it likely will leave you fatigued for your lifting session.
20-30 min easy cardio a couple times/week shouldn’t negatively effect your lifting and could help recovery.
Another example to keep it from getting boring and kind of crossfitty would be something like:
20 min @ 70%
50′ Single Arm Farmer’s Carry/arm heavy
5 Toes to Bar
25′ HS Walk
**again, key is low eccentric load which means little muscle damage and easy to recover from.
Chris and Mike,
Thanks for the feedback – sounds like I need to be a bit more selective with my cardio choices. And Chris – in response to the 8-12 week blocks and shifting focus…I’m about 18 weeks out from my next p-lifting meet, so now would be the time to focus more on the cardio/CF/quality workouts, and in 8-9 weeks shift my focus to meet preparation and heavier p-lifting focus?
Question, is it wise to do snatch 3 days in a row, day 1 being 3×3 at 70%, day 2 4×4 at 80%, day 3 5×3 90%, I feel this is too much on one lift. Maybe it’s me idk. Thanks guys. Follow y’all consistently.
If you’re focused on being a WL’er, maybe not. It’s a lot, but not necessarily bad. The bad thing would to ALSO push Crossfit, or other types of fitness/strength stuff WHILE you add in all that weightlifting. Focus and intent are what matters most in the gym. Give yourself fully to the things you want to improve. Don’t be a jack of all trades. That’s what most try at the start.
[…] How to fix your strength programming! […]
This is really interesting for me. I’ve done a fair amount of work w/ eccentric and concentric pauses and tempo work. I’ve actually got 2 athletes on squat cycles now that progress through that type of work and although I’m expecting them to get stronger off this cycle, I’m mostly doing it for positional awareness in their squat. I want them to know where they’re at in the bottom and at specific points on the way up w/ pauses. I’ve cleared up most of their mobility issues and now I want them to learn control before I add speed. The problem I’m having is figuring out how this relates to Westside’s speed strength work? The things they talk about w/ F=ma makes sense. Basically to get stronger, you use the most force. Either you increase the mass (go heavy) or you push the weight faster by increasing the acceleration. So basically they go heavy on their ME day and hit that 90%+ range and they do speed work on their dynamic day while trying to keep the force they apply to the bar similar on both days. What’s the pros/cons? I’ve been playing w/ a lot of Westside style training these days to try and gain some experience with it but I know you guys have talked to them and would probably know their style better than me since I’m just now getting into it.
So, I’ve recently started doing a PL program. However, I’m also a runner and working on upping mileage to finish a 35 mi trail run this fall. Is it possible to gain strength and build endurance for runs or should my focus be on one or the other? (strength or endurance)
It is possible to do both, they will both be less than optimal though. If you REALLY want to excel in one area, the other will suffer. That said, my biggest squat #’s have been while doing long easy aerobic work. Just not “running” per say.. I think keeping the strength training will definitely benefit you though if done properly.
I’ve been doing CrossFit for a year now and I really want to focus on getting my squat numbers up. Im pretty upper body dominant and very weak in the legs and hips. Any recommendations on getting my hips and legs stronger in terms of rep and set schemes? Thank you! Love your guy’s podcast!
Michael, basically finding a strength program and sticking to it would be best. Start with hypertrophy type training (high volume, slow tempo) and lead into higher intensity faster tempo.
We have a squat the house program in overtime that is built for 3 months of jacking your squat up as high as possible.
Hey guys! I really appreciate all the knowledge. My head is spinning with all the things to keep track of… I really enjoy training hard and intense but definitely don’t fully recover well. I am looking for lean, crazy strong but also looking to increase endurance on the track for roller derby. Think there’s a program for that?
Shrugged Strength challenge would likely be ideal. You can find it in the vault here: https://programvault.securechkout.com/