The Need for Strength in CrossFit

CrossFit identifies 10 characteristics of fitness.

  • Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Coordination
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Accuracy

While we agree that all of these physical skills are necessary and determinant of overall fitness, biasing your training to increase strength will pay large dividends to your fitness account.

The two primary reasons driving this position is strength's permeability in developing the other physical traits and the general training populations lack of strength. Let’s explore these two ideas in more detail.

Strength is the Foundation

Strength is the foundation from which the other characteristics of fitness blossom. Having a baseline of strength is necessary to developing proficiency in the other physical skills. For example, power is a measure of work over time. You cannot move a weight faster if you can’t begin by picking up the weight. Strength also serves as a buffer against injury. Take for example endurance athletes. Having a dedicated strength training program is important to developing muscles that can withstand the pounding of repetitive movements for sustained period of time.

Finally, training strength movements simultaneously builds competency in other skills. By way of example, let’s take a look at the back squat. A full range of motion back squat will develop flexibility in the hips, groin, knees and ankles. It will require balance and coordination while controlling the weight throughout the lift and depending on the rep scheme can help increase stamina as well. It will also increase hip extension strength which translates to increased power production. So, by training one strength movement, you build proficiency in five other physical skills - that’s a good deal.

Strength’s Absence

One of our major goals in building overall fit athletes is finding balance. The general training population has been shielded from strength work as many mainstream programs don’t incorporate it. During our initial consultation with new athletes we ask them about their training background. Many are coming from running, yoga, pilates, kickboxing and cycling (spin) backgrounds. While it’s great these athletes have a movement practice, strength training is noticeable absent from their program. Therefore, the biggest area for improvement to begin to round out their athletic skill set is building strength.

Our Strength Program

For our athletes, we train twenty minute strength blocks three times per week. During that time we focus on three primary compound lifts - the back squat, the deadlift, and the shoulder press. These three lifts build foundational strength. Like any legitimate strength program, we focus on progressive overload. However, we incorporate two different loading schemes which depend on the athlete’s experience level. For new athletes, their biggest gains will come in the first six months of training. These athletes need longer tension under the bar as well as aggressive weight increases. As a result, all new athletes start on a 5x5 linear progression scheme where they add five pounds per week.

We start by finding their one rep max. By knowing their one rep max, we’re able to determine an appropriate starting weight. We find forty five percent of their one rep max and that is their starting weight for 5x5. Each week, the athlete will add five pounds. Under this scheme, the average athlete should be able to increase their weight without fail for about three months.

Now, in practice this is a bit challenging. Athletes often forget to record their previous lifts and so don’t know what weight they should be using. Being diligent about record keeping will go far in fixing this problem. More often the issue is in educating the athlete on the need to start with a weight that for the first month will feel almost comically easy. Athlete’s don’t realize you’re building an actual training program, not an exercise program. You’re looking three months into the future where they are focused solely on the day’s workout. It’s your job to educate. To let them know the why and reassure them that in order to lift heavier, they must first lift lighter.

Once a new athlete stalls out on being able to add five pounds, they’ll first deload the weight by fifteen pounds and then try to work up again. Once they stall again, we switch them over to a less aggressive loading scheme called Wendler. Wendler aka 5/3/1 is a strength program developed by power lifter Jim Wendler. The Wendler program is a four week lift cycle where athletes base their lifts off of their current one rep max. I won’t dive into the particulars of the Wendler program here, however, the salient point is that athletes increase their weight by five pounds every month versus five pounds every week. This is necessary as more experienced lifters are already cresting towards their max potential and need a longer timeframe to hit new personal records.

The graph below shows the rate of strength gain for new athletes. Notice how the increase is steepest in the first twelve months and then starts to tail off.


rate of strength gains for training athletes


It’s important to note that as CrossFit athletes, our strength gains will start to stall earlier because of our focus on metabolic conditioning. The above graph is focused on those only following a strength centric program.

If you’ve been training CrossFit for over a year and have failed to make progress in the benchmark workouts, more than likely, you’ll want to ease off your level of metabolic conditioning and focus more on building your strength. If you’re skeptical that this type of system builds results, don’t be - the proof is in our results.

By way of example, Danny S. has been training with us since day one. He started on the 5x5 linear progression scheme. His back squat started at 260 pounds. In five months he’s increased his back squat to 300 pounds. He’s also improved his Cindy, Fran and Grace times. He recently entered the TNL CrossFit competition and took first in the beginners division. Danny is just an example and we have many more Danny’s that are making huge increases in their overall fitness because of our focus on building a strength foundation.

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