Strength in the Sport of Fitness by kyle ruth

A couple of weeks ago Max wrote an article on Squat Development for the sport of CrossFit™ which highlighted some common deficits in strength training relative to squatting. In this article we are going to look at strength training on a more global level in the sport and create a potential alternative framework to train these systems in a way to optimize athletic development in the sport.

How many times have you heard a coach or an athlete say “You (I) just need to get stronger to get better.” While this may be true for a large portion of the general population, our athletes are becoming more well trained and and therefore the training protocols must become more complex. Just continuing to drive up Back Squats and Snatch 1RM’s might be good for 1 out of every 50 tests in the sport, however it also neglects other important strength qualities required for the other 49 tests. As a coach it is your job to identify the type of strength, degree of improvement, and the means that will develop the specific athlete’s limitations relative to the sport. The information covered in this article is just a snapshot of what is presented in our TTT Strength Course which will be launching in the next couple of weeks. In that course we will be providing in-depth definitions of the strength training categories, discuss movement and loading selection, as well as provide example templates for developing each strength category.

What is ‘Strength’

Before we dig into an analysis for the strength requirements of CrossFit™, the first thing we need to do is define ‘strength’ and the subsets of strength that are commonly tested in CrossFit™ competition. The average person’s definition of ‘strength’ conflates different qualities of strength that are only loosely related. For example if you polled your average gym-rat and asked for an example of ‘strength’ they would likely provide examples that ranged from absolute strength (1RM bench press) to speed-strength endurance (AMRAP UB Deadhang Pull-ups). The reality is that these two ends of the strength spectrum (absolute strength & speed-strength endurance) have little transfer between one another from a performance standpoint. An athlete with a 400# bench press will have a dramatically different strength profile than an athlete who can do 45 unbroken Deadhang Pull-ups.

The strength categories presented below were defined by Max in the Squat Development article, however I’ve copied them into this article as I think coaches and athletes need to understand this framework in order to properly create higher-level training protocols for athletes in a mixed-strength sport like CrossFit™

Strength/Speed Categories:

  • Absolute strength – Slow strength development. Movements would include the back squat, front squat, overhead squat (OHS would have a bit more of a positional element than the other two)
  • Strength speed – The ability to move heavy, but not maximal, weights at high speeds. Movements would include clean and snatch. * note, many CF’ers spend almost all their squat training time here
  • Speed strength – The ability to move light weights at really high velocities. Examples would include light thrusters, wall balls, and kipping gymnastics movements This focus in training here is on speed per rep.
  • Absolute speed – The ability to move no external weight at maximal speeds. Examples would include air squats

Strength/Speed-Endurance Categories

  • Absolute Strength Endurance – Example would include 50 front squats for time @70% of your 1rm (or for less strong athletes, 225/165# front squats in a met-con
  • Strength speed endurance – Example would include repeated heavy weightlifting movements (20 cleans for time @90% 1rm)
  • Speed strength endurance – Example would include light thrusters, wallballs in high volumes, and high-volume kipping gymnastics. ex: 200 wallballs for time. The difference between this and the normal speed strength category would be that the volume is higher and you are looking for average speed per rep over the course of a lot of contractions versus just a maximal-velocity training stimulus.
  • Absolute speed endurance – Example would include high volumes or air squats or unloaded lunges.

CrossFit™ Needs Analysis: Strength

the simplest way to assess the strength needs of a CrossFit™ athlete is to look at historical data and develop a picture of a ‘typical’ athlete. For this blog we’re going to take a simplistic look at a typical Regional-level athlete in 2015. CrossFit HQ has provided this information for us through the Leaderboard as well as compiling some of the data as graphical representations of the the ‘Average Regional Qualifier’ making it relatively simple to determine what an adequate level of strength might look like. Keep in mind that this is self-reported data pulled from athlete profiles so there is probably a large margin for error here.

Average Regional Qualifier - 2015

It is important to understand that while these are indicators of the degree of absolute strength, strength-speed, and speed-strength endurance adaptations of a 2015 Regional qualifier, these are not necessarily the type of strength metrics most commonly tested in the sport. There are likely many athletes in the sport who meet or exceed these metrics but are nowhere near qualifying for Regionals each year. Part of this can be explained in the statement ‘correlation does not equal causation’. Just because there is a correlation between a male athlete possessing a 318# Clean & Jerk and qualifying for Regionals, doesn’t mean that possessing a 318# Clean & Jerk will qualify an athlete for Regionals. I think this mindset is part of what leads to the all too common notion that people just need to improve 1RM’s to improve in the sport. Another major factor here is that during the Open, CrossFit HQ doesn’t typically test strength-speed (exception: Clean & Jerk 1RM in 15.1a) but rather they frequently test strength-speed endurance under fatigue (for example: Snatch ladders in 12.2, 13.1).

Commonly tested Strength Parameters in CF

CrossFit™ is a very unique sport in that it tests strength across a really broad spectrum, assuming that you’re looking at ALL the tests over the course of a CrossFit Games Season. Most of the tests at the far ends of the strength spectrum are tested at the CrossFit Games not during the qualifier. With that being said, MOST athletes will only ever be exposed to a small (Open + Regionals) or even smaller (Open) subset of the strength categories in competition. If you go back and perform an analysis of the last five years of Open and Regional workouts you will find that there are four strength parameters that are most commonly tested: (in no particular order and with occasional exceptions)

  • Absolute Strength Endurance
  • Strict HSPU (depending on athlete’s upper-body strength profile)
  • Heavy deadlift
  • Front Squat
  • Overhead Squat
  • Speed-Strength Endurance
  • Kipping HSPU
  • Kipping Pull-ups
  • Light Thrusters
  • Light Snatches
  • Wallball
  • Strength-Speed Endurance
  • Moderate-heavy repeat Thrusters
  • Kipping Muscle-ups (depending on athlete’s upper-body strength profile)
  • Moderate-heavy repeat Weightlifting
  • Strength Speed
  • Heavy single/double/triple Weightlifting / Thrusters

Identifying Athlete's Individual Needs

As a coach, assessing your athlete’s specific strength needs comes down to creating an effective testing battery that encompasses all of the strength categories tested in the athlete’s sport. Essentially we want to create a comprehensive ‘needs analysis’ of the sport and then test our athletes against those needs. Below you will find a sample strength assessment that can be used to assess common movements and tests required of a Regional-level CrossFit™ athlete. Obviously this testing battery is not exhaustive and leaves out all of the skill and energy-system testing that needs to be performed in order to have a complete picture of an athlete’s development in the sport. This testing battery is probably not appropriate for someone who is a either a Games-level athlete (not extensive enough) or a typical group-class CrossFitter (too extensive).

Strength assessment protocol for Regional-level athletes:

Developing Strength

There are literally thousands of combinations of movements, repetition ranges, loading patterns, and training frequencies that can be created to achieve some level of athletic development. Over time, coaches have created training templates that they have found to work well with their subset of the athletic population (best practices). For example: Louie Simmons created the Westside system for Powerlifters, Mark Cannella created the Columbus Weightlifting systems for Weightlifters, but neither of these systems would work well to develop athletes in the opposite discipline (note: I’m not saying that these coaches couldn’t develop athletes in the opposite discipline, just that the systems they’ve created for their respective sport would not work well in the other). This is because Powerlifting and Weightlifting require different levels of development of each of the different strength qualities. For example: a Powerlifter needs extremely high levels of absolute strength while a Weightlifter needs high levels of absolutes strength with extremely high levels of strength-speed. It follows then that systems for developing the strength needs of a CrossFit™ athlete who primarily needs strength-speed, strength speed-endurance, speed-strength endurance, and absolute strength-endurance will differ dramatically from the systems created to develop strength qualities for sports that require vastly different strength profiles.

Success in the sport of CrossFit™ requires a diverse range of strength qualities from speed-strength endurance (light & fast) to strength-speed (Weightlifting 1RM’s). Couple this with the degree of skill and energy-system development required for high-level competition in the sport and you’ll see that coordinating the physiological systems for optimal performance can be very complicated. For example, dedicating the time that is required to develop a 600# Deadlift for a male CrossFitter means that you’re likely losing valuable time that may need to be dedicated to skill or energy-system development (which is why valid and through athlete testing needs to be a big part of program-design for high-level athletes!). Programming for CrossFit™ requires more balancing than programming for single-modality or single-strength requirement sports.

Absolute strength development in well-trained athletes, requires frequent exposure to near maximal effort resistance training. However the frequency of exposure is not nearly as high as is required for the development of aerobic endurance or aerobic power in the same athlete. Thus a program that concentrates similar strength-training stress (read: synergistic strength categories) into one or two training sessions each week may be optimal for an athlete who has already developed adequate levels of absolute strength for the sport. In essence, instead of trying to figure out what strength movements you can fit into each training day (typical programming at CF affiliates right now: strength + metcon) consider concentrating the athlete’s strength priorities into 1-2 sessions each week. Concentrating synergistic strength priorities into one session will create a greater biological stimulus (increased cellular strength signalling, greater anabolic hormone release, etc) as well as allow for ample recovery periods between high-training load strength and energy-system training days. Many coaches are familiar with the idea that attempting to develop endurance and strength simultaneously generally leads to slower adaptations in both training domains. One way to reduce the negative impact of endurance training on strength development (and vice versa) is to separate the training sessions with the highest physiological impact with lighter sessions or active recovery sessions. This could mean scheduling maximal effort strength training at the beginning of the week and high-intensity energy-system training toward the end of the week, with lighter sessions in the middle of the week. By allowing for an amplification of the biological stimulus as well as eliminating conflicting training adaptations (concurrent high-demand strength + energy-system training) you should see athletes progressing rapidly in both domains.

Additionally this leads to the concept of defining the goals of a particular session as either developmental or maintenance. Coaches of high-level athletes need to be balancing sessions that are designed to ‘develop’ a particular parameter with sessions that are intended to ‘maintain’ a particular parameter. This is especially true when multiple systems (strength/endurance/skill) all need to be developed in parallel and peaked at a particular time (i.e. the Open or Regionals).

Developmental Sessions - training sessions designed to create a functional change in a system. These sessions must exceed the threshold stimulus for improving the system. Put simply, for strength training: the loading or volume must exceed prior exposure to the same training stress.

Maintenance Session - training sessions designed to maintain the current level of development of a system. These sessions consist of reduced volume or loading and allow the body to absorb training from prior developmental training sessions.

Developmental and maintenance sessions should be balanced throughout the training week and throughout the training cycle to allow athletes to be making continual progress week-to-week and cycle-to-cycle.

Example Template

Below I’ve created a hypothetical early-season training template for a Regional-level athlete (top 40 in their respective region) who needs absolute strength and upper-body speed-strength endurance development as well as maintenance of their aerobic endurance and aerobic power. Throughout the week I’ve tried to create separation between the highest training demand sessions with conflicting training adaptations. In this template that means separating the Absolute Strength Development (Mon-PM) and Mixed-Modal VO2 Development (Sat-PM) to allow ample recovery of the biological and nervous system adaptive reserves. As the training season progresses this type of training template should shift away from polarized training adaptations toward mixed training adaptations as that is the nature of our sport.

Early-Season Regional-level Athlete Sample Template

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As you can clearly see, there is a lot more that goes into the program design for high-level athletes than “just getting stronger”. While this was probably a good protocol 2-3 years ago, athlete’s training age as well as the improvement in the competitive level of the sport dictate that specific strength parameters need to be addressed based on individual assessments. As well, the development of absolute-strength and strength-speed in program designs are much easier than the creating balance between all of the other strength qualities. If you have an athlete that actually has a primary limitation in their pure contraction power, then you can use typical strength protocols (Westside) or seek out experts in Weightlifting and Powerlifting to give you excellent frameworks for absolute-strength or strength-speed development. For athletes that will never be able to compete at the Regional level or those who are already at the elite-level and have more complex strength needs, I would suggest collecting data on your demographics and finding out where your athlete’s greatest limitations are so that you can progress their specific needs.

~ Kyle

Created By
Kyle Ruth

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