How to Get the Most Out of Your CrossFit Training
Programming: How (Strength Training)
In the previous installment of the “How to Get the Most Out of Your CrossFit Training”, the reasons why we perform strength training and metabolic conditioning workouts were discussed. In terms of strength training, it allows us to continually progress in CrossFit in a consistent manner. Metabolic conditioning, to put it simply, is exactly what CrossFit is. BUT, we do it because our body was designed to perform these functional movements (“FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENTS”), we perform them at a high intensity because it produces favorable stimuli to force adaptations (or changes) in our bodies (“HIGH INTENSITY”), and we constantly vary the training in order to increase the depth and breadth of our fitness (“CONSTANTLY VARIED”).
How we combine these two aspects of training and the challenges we face with programming for groups is the next part of this series. Before we start diving into some of the ideas behind this, it must be stated that not all the details of how to program for CrossFit will be discussed here. Educating one on how to program CrossFit training for a group is beyond the scope of this discussion – rather, this is simply an opportunity to illustrate many of the aspects considered when programming for a group and how it can be done.
We’ll begin the discussion by talking about developing a strength training program since that is the basis for progression and is performed at the beginning of our training sessions. It also helps dictate the metabolic conditioning workouts programmed later in class (which we’ll get to later). If you’re wondering why we begin our training sessions with strength in the first place, it is because we are in our freshest state. If the goal is to move more weight and do more work over time, we are going to train that when we have the most amount of energy to push the threshold of our capabilities. A fatigued state will still allow us to do work but to a lessened degree – we certainly would not be able to do more than we’ve ever done before when we are at much less than 100%.
Any type of training program should follow a progression (often leading up to the testing/re-testing of a maximum). A progression means that the program should lead us to an advanced state or achieve a new end result over time. Many strength training programs, especially for beginner to intermediate trainees, are linear. A linear progression is one in which a greater volume of work is done in each training session. Volume (sometimes referred to as tonnage) is described as the sum-product of sets*repetitions*weight. So, in a linear progression, you will see the total tonnage (the number of sets, repetitions, and/or weights) increase over the course of the training sessions. For instance in a classic 5×5 program, the number of sets (5) and repetitions (5) remain the same but at each training session the amount of weight being used increases in either straight sets or over the course of the five work sets. With that being said, those programs work best for beginner to intermediate trainees because, given proper nutrition, sleep, and recovery, they are most likely to do more work at each session.
BUT, training progressions need not be linear (and they don’t necessarily need to be for beginner trainees either). In fact, some of the best training programs are not (even more so, when you become advanced enough, your body and your ability to recover will dictate that you will not be able to advance linearly indefinitely). This is why we see high set, low repetition, and low weight squat days in our programming along side the more classic 3×8, 5×5, 5×3, etc. squat days (this also borrows from Westside Barbell method speed day principles – check that out if you’re interested). Additionally, over the course of any given training week, we will see heavier and lighter days for the same reasons. As determined by the human body and as evidenced in real life, we simply cannot continue to train at heavier and heavier weights every day (this is why you don’t see infinitely strong people or even really, really strong old people). Thus, non-linear progressions can be implemented to increase the strength of beginners, intermediate, and advanced athletes alike. (We won’t talk further about sets, repetitions, weights, or percentages but they are all set up such that, again, given proper nutrition, sleep, and recovery, the work is attainable. As an obvious example, you would not be asked to attempt sets of multiple repetitions at your 1 RM weight because, by definition, your 1 RM weight is the most you can do only once. If you are interested in learning about sets, repetitions, and percentages, start with “Prelipin’s Table” and then continue your research from there.)
At this point we know that we have to follow a progression in order to increase our workload. To maximize our progressions, we select the FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENTS (a-ha!) which are most efficient at increasing overall strength. These are the full-body, compound, multi-joint movements which utilize the universal motor recruitment patterns we read about in the previous discussion. Squats, deadlifts, presses, other pulls, and the Olympic lifts allow us to move the most amount of weight with the most amount of our body. Thus, we structure our strength training progressions around these movements! (In our case, we have back squat, front squat, deadlift, snatch, and clean & jerk cycles. Presses are also added when possible but not on a strict progression. And, because gymnastics comprise one third of the CrossFit modalities, they have their own cycle but are there more so to ensure that time is allotted to practice those skills in non-metcon situations.)
We must remind ourselves that in our CrossFit classes we are training for general physical preparedness (GPP, or overall fitness with no specificity), while improving the ten elements of fitness (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy) and the multiple metabolic pathways. Pairing that notion with the idea of heavy and light days in a given week, we can align our strength cycles such that they culminate or “peak” at various times. Now, if we were all training for the same CrossFit competitions, weightlifting, powerlifting, or gymnastic meets, team sport events, or endurance races then we would structure things differently; our CrossFit class programming would be set to peak at the time of our events. But we are not. Thus, the type of alignment of the individual strength cycles which we currently employ which re-tests at different times allows 1 RM attempts to come more frequently (thus PRs more consistently) and keeps our PR Board populated monthly instead of once every 3-4 months ;), again, keeping progress consistent and continual for athletes of all experience levels.
In addition to minding off-set progressions of functional movements with heavy and light days, we’ll try not to place similar strength movements on back-to-back days or in such a way that it would hinder the next day’s strength component. For instance, front squat and back squat days for strength will not be placed next to each other. Unfortunately, the other lifting cycles (deadlift, snatch, and clean & jerk) are variations of pulls but we can do our best to space those out with our gymnastic cycle as well as our metcon-only days. If you’re counting along at this point, that makes seven “cycles” for six days of programming (really, five days since most Saturdays are metcon-only as well). So, you are going to see AT LEAST one Olympic weightlifting strength day per week but may miss out on the other in addition to a deadlift and/or gymnastic day. Sorry. :/ (Squats are just THAT good at developing overall strength, Olympic lifts need to be practiced frequently and are fantastic for learning how to generate power, and gymnastics can often be practiced at any time since much of it requires only your body or a pull-up bar.)
Whew! So that’s our strength training. Got it?
- non-linear progressions culminating in a retesting of maximums
- functional movements utilizing the main barbell lifts (with some presses and also a gymnastics cycle)
- heavy and light days each week
- cycles peaking at various times
- day-to-day strength programming mindful of the next day’s work
That seems like more than enough for now. Next time we’ll get into the other half of how programming is put together (metcons!) and the challenges faced when developing it for group training. See you next time!