I work with a lot of CrossFitters and they are all looking for the same thing – they want to get stronger! They have hit a wall with their strength and they need a way to continue to progress while not giving up the conditioning they have built along the way. They don’t necessarily want to do a powerlifting competition, they just want to get stronger for their sport and they realize that the classic WOD’s are no longer specific enough to build strength at the rate of progress they are looking for.
The big challenge is that if you are already doing a ton of CrossFit workouts per week and then you just start adding in a bunch of additional stuff to help get you stronger you can easily overtrain – CrossFit is likely already pushing the limits of your recovery. In addition how strong you are is going to affect how often you should workout.
The bottom line is training only by performing a WOD (that tends to be reasonably random) isn’t likely to be optimal to improve one’s strength – and strength is almost always the limiting factor when I see an intermediate level CrossFitter who wants to be more competitive. They need to do additional, more specific work at this point. To that end I have created this chart. This is the suggested extra work you will do on top of your CrossFit workouts (how many CrossFit workouts you’ll do will be addressed shortly). This chart is focused on the lifts that affect your CrossFit Total which is the squat, the standing press (overhead), and the deadlift (conventional).
w/o 1. 30 @ 70%
w/o 2. 20 @ 80%
w/o 3. 15 @ 90%
w/o 4. 10 @ 95%
w/o = workout
w/o 1. 50 @ 70%
w/o 2. 30 @ 80%
w/o 3. 20 @ 90%
w/o 4. 10 @ 95%
w/o = workout
w/o 1. 8 @ 70%
w/o 2A: Deficit Deads
24 @ 60%
w/o 2B: RDL’s
60 @ 50%
|Total reps listed
Divide into sets/reps as desired
Warm-up as needed
Frequency Per Week to Perform Each Lift
|1 – 4 x per week
2 – 3 likely optimal
|1 – 4 x per week
2 – 3 likely optimal
|Every other week to 2 x per week
1 x week optimal
|Progression: add 2% load to each workout every time you repeat it
The squat and the press are the most similar. For each lift there are 4 workouts listed. You perform one workout at a time (don’t be that crazy person that tries to do all of them at once!). It is written as total reps at a percentage of your 1RM, for example in the squat workout one is 30 reps at 70% of your 1RM. If you can squat 400, you are going to do 30 total reps at 280 lbs. I want to be very clear here. The total reps are not to be lifted all in one set for the squat and the press. It is assumed that you will break up the total reps into a set and rep scheme that works for you. If you are feeling strong do more reps in less sets. If not do the opposite. 30 reps would often be broken up into 5 sets of 6 reps or 6 sets of 5, up to you, those are just guidelines. Outlined below are suggested set rep schemes for the total reps given. The sets per rep don’t always have to be even. You could do 8, 7, 5, 5, 5 if you want to get a set of 30 reps in.
50 reps = 5 sets of 10
30 reps = 5 sets of 6 or 6 sets of 5
20 reps = 5 sets of 4 or 4 sets of 5
15 reps = 5 sets of 3
10 reps = 5 sets of 2
Rest as long as necessary in between sets. Again break up the total reps into whatever set/rep scheme you desired. In general fewer reps targets max strength, multiple reps targets more endurance – both are useful in CrossFit.
When you complete workout one, the next time you train that area you will do workout 2. Then workout 3, workout 4, and then when you are finished you will cycle back to workout 1. This time you will add 2% to the load you used, round as needed. In our example the lifter squatted 280 for 30 reps in workout 1, on workout 5 they will do 285 for 30, maybe 290 if they smoked it. Again divide the reps and sets up as you want, you don’t have to repeat what you did in the previous workout. Hopefully it should be clear that completing the workout in fewer sets makes it harder.
The number of reps for the press is higher than the squat because the load is lower and because a lifter’s conversion on the press is much lower than the squat. You can press and squat as often as you want. Once a week is the minimum guideline for success, 2 times a week will work quite well and is probably the number one recommendation I would go with. 3 times a week is okay – just be mindful of recovery – and 4 times a week is pushing it long term, see how you respond. You don’t dominate anything when you are injured.
The deadlift is set up a bit differently for two reasons. First, the deadlift responds better to much lower frequency and volumes than the other 2 lifts (you may have noticed your deadlift keeps climbing even when you don’t do it all the time). Secondly there are 2 main sticking points in the deadlift: off the floor or above the knees.
The deadlift is set at 8 total reps starting at 70% 1RM. You can break that up as you wish, if you want to do that in one straight set of 8 I am fine with that. Then there is an A and a B workout. In general you pick one of them and you will alternate performing them with the regular deadlift from the floor. I am okay with you alternating between all 3 options if you wish, but in general pick the one that works on your weak point. If you struggle to get the weight off the floor and it doesn’t make it to your knees when you max, perform deficit deads (and get better at squats). To execute a deficit deadlift stand on something sturdy that is 2-4” high (no higher). 2 45 lb plates on top of each other – one for each foot – works pretty well. Don’t compensate for the extra ROM just by bending over more, try to squat a bit more (get in your normal deadlift position and just bend the knees a bit more to get to the bar). This will build up strength out of the hole. 24 reps is the goal number for this exercise, common ways of hitting that are 3 sets of 8, 4 sets of 6 or 6 sets of 4.
If you fail at deads above the knee it means your lockout sucks. I have found higher rep Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s) to be optimal for fixing this issue. Use a hook grip, start the RDL from the top, push the hips back and keep the back arched, chin up (visualize you are trying to get your tailbone and your chin as far away from each other as possible), lower to a level that is comfortable for your ROM – for most this is mid shin but not touching the floor), and then explode back up. Higher reps is good, I like sets of 12-20 for this. The weight never touches the floor. This also adds a ton of tension to your upper back which is key in helping you lockout a big deadlift, as well as teaching a powerful explosive hip thrust. 60 reps is the goal with this exercise, 5 sets of 12, 4 sets of 15 or 3 sets of 20 work well to hit that target. 3 sets of 20 at a reasonable weight will really give you a good conditioning effect as well.
Deadlift a maximum of 2 times a week, if you do this alternate with the normal deadlift from the floor and then the exercise for your sticking point. Performing deads only once a week is fine as well, again alternate between the two exercises. Each time you repeat the workout add 2% to the load which is 5-10 lbs for most of you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking more is better when it comes to deadlifting. Deadlifting every other week will work well particularly as you get stronger. When I hit my best deadlift of 700 lbs at 198 I was only deadlifting every third week.
How often should I do CrossFit?
With this added work you have to balance how often you are performing your CrossFit workouts. Here is my recommendation:
Beginner – my CrossFit friends may not like this answer but I don’t think CrossFit is ideal for true beginners, I’d like to see you workout for 2-3 months in a more standard fashion before starting CrossFit. I flesh out in extreme detail an ideal beginner workout in my book NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training (available on amazon). If this is not an option then start slow, you don’t have to push yourself like crazy in each class, and make sure the coaches take the time to teach you the proper form on the lifts.
Summary: Follow a Beginner Workout
Early Intermediate – The joy of this phase is that you are still responding well to most things, yet your strength are fitness are not so high that recovery is a huge issue for you. I would follow the chart above and also complete CrossFit workouts 3-5 times per week.
Summary: Train CrossFit 3-5 x week
Late Intermediate – Now you have to more delicately balance the total training you are doing. You are strong enough to really need a specific plan so definitely follow the chart. You want to get in some CrossFit workouts but too much will take away your recovery ability. I’d suggest 1-3 CrossFit workouts per week focusing mainly on the metcon workouts. The goal is essentially to maintain your conditioning and familiarity with CrossFit specific moves; at the same time to give yourself enough recovery to put in the time needed for strength work.
Summary: Train CrossFit 1-3 x week
Advanced – At this level you are probably strong enough to handle most CrossFit workouts so now the goal is to master all of the key moves, build conditioning and improve your WOD times. If you still want to work on strength follow the chart. In addition I would do CrossFit 4-6 times a week, however don’t feel like you must kill yourself on every workout. I would hit a majority of the WOD’s at a moderate intensity (RPE 7-8) and then complete occasional test WOD’s where you really push it. At this level you are fit enough so that continuously training as hard as you can will run you into the ground so you have to intentionally ease off the gas (not always easy if you are competitive and doing this in a group setting). You make up for that lack of intensity by doing more CrossFit workouts which gives you more time to practice the various elements. Also if you have any notable weaknesses (hand-stand push-ups, muscle ups, etc) spend time just practicing those elements – think of them like a sporting skill such as shooting baskets and work on them regularly. Inducing fatigue with those additional practices is not necessary.
Summary: Train CrossFit 4-6 x week, often at moderate intensity only
What level are you?
Note: Beginners are classified as not having lifted consistently in the last several months and are generally new to lifting weights.
If you decide that – at least for a while – you want to follow a fully fleshed out strength training program and you will put your CrossFit workouts on hold (or maybe do them 1-2 x week as a finisher) then I would suggest you follow this workout program:
In addition I am not the only person in the world to turn to advice too. I have spoken to several athletes that found that following CrossFit Football was a solid way of incorporating classic strength training and key conditioning elements into one successful program:
CrossFit is brutal and one can’t deny the fitness level achieved by high level CrossFit athletes. As CrossFit itself acknowledges, you can’t specialize and dominate in the sport. That means you can’t just do CrossFit which is actually a specialization in and of itself, you have to learn from a variety of disciplines. Strength is generally the missing link in most intermediate level CrossFit athletes. And who better to learn the strength side of the game from than those that practice it extensively?