How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

The Week of how-to’s continues:

Monday: How to Shop for and Buy Good Barbells, Bumper Plates, etc…
Tuesday: How to Program Strength Into CrossFit
Wednesday: How to Properly Work Up to a 1 Rep Max 
Thursday: How to Make Paleo Pumpkin Muffins 
Friday: How to Become a Member of “The Garage

**This article was originally written in January 2012 and updated in March 2013, updates are marked accordingly. 

Let’s Look at the Community Evolutioncrossfit strength evolution 1024x617 How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

Don’t make the biggest and most common CrossFit mistake…and forget about strength.

CrossFit is a form of training that takes a great deal of anaerobic capacity to make movements more efficient and effective. The programming from crossfit.com does not take into account those who…

  • Are very weak, or to be politically correct, those who need strength work.

Yes, workout scaling is a viable option, but it is my belief, and experience, that training strength separately will make CrossFit workouts easier more quickly and is easily done with some options listed below.

The evolution of CrossFit has brought us programming sites like CrossFit Football and CrossFit Endurance. These sites have recognized the need to train strength separately and not always as part of a WOD. I believe that crossfit.com would like to stick to its roots, and they are well aware that separate strength training is where the community is, and has been, heading.

I traveled a little bit last year and had the opportunity to train at 3 different CrossFit boxes. Considering I primarily train in my garage, it was an interesting change of pace to see members of the community in action.

What I would like to draw attention to is that at each location

  • Strength was becoming a priority, not an option.

Two of the boxes were following programming created by the owner and head trainer that consisted of a heavy core lift at the beginning of every workout, followed by ten minutes rest, and then the metabolic conditioning or WOD was completed.

The other box had, what they called, underground strength sessions every week. These sessions were a more intensity based strength training session that involved functional movements and core lifts. It was very fun and effective. I found it intriguing that strength training was becoming more prominent at all three locations.

A Closer Look at CrossFit Football and CrossFit Endurance 

If you are not familiar with these programming sites it would be good for you to take a look and perhaps try a week or two. I will give you a quick summary.

CrossFit FootballCrossFit Football Logo 300x145 How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

  • Perform a Strength WOD (SWOD) based off of your performance level (Amateur, Collegiate, or Professional).
  • Perform a Daily WOD (DWOD) normally shorter based metcons with much heavier weights, as compared to CrossFit main site.

CrossFit EnduranceCrossFit Endurance Logo 300x91 How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

  • Perform a Strength session normally incorporating a max effort (ME) or dynamic effort (DE) lift.
  • Perform a Strength & Conditioning WOD, normally shorter metcons with heavy weight.
  • Perform an endurance WOD 3+ hours after the previous two sessions.

Right now, it is my belief that the programming from CrossFit Endurance is far superior to the programming of CrossFit Football or CrossFit Main site [UPDATE: CFFB and CFE tend to be very specialized, and if strength+CrossFit is your goal one of the options below will be more effective.] CFE programming can be used for strength gains. Simply do fewer endurance WODs or just cut them out for awhile and follow that programming.

Jeremy Thiel in his video “selling out” recommends selling out to CrossFit, or to be fully committed and do the Paleo diet and use CrossFit Main site for at least three months before moving on. While I understand where he is coming from, I think even the suggestion of only following main site for 3 months is kind of funny…

  • Why only 3 months?
  • Does this mean that crossfit.com is lacking good programming?
  • Do a lot of people choose not to follow main site?

I have done CrossFit main site solely for over 3 months before and was not impressed with he results compared to my own programming or following CFE. [UPDATE: CFE has changed its programming to be more specialized for Endurance athletes.] 

What is the best way to program strength into CrossFit?

Unfortunately the answer is, it depends.

  • Do you need a lot of strength work?
  • Do you just need to maintain some strength?
  • Could you lose some strength if it were to help your metcons?

Depending on where you stand…is where you get your answer.

  • Question 1: You may need to hold off on CrossFit WODs and do strength training only, or program strength heavily with short metcons a few times a week.
  • Question 2: You could follow any of the three CrossFit programming [UPDATE: I now only recommend training strength on its own or using CFFB for maintaining strength.]
  • Question 3: A rare case, but I would recommend main site only.

3 Ways I have programmed strength into CrossFit successfully

The only way any program will work for you is to set goals and baselines. I have done a lot of experimentation with CrossFit programming and these were my results.

1.) UPDATE: One Man One Barbell is Created

Screen Shot 2013 03 03 at 12.35.08 PM 1024x467 How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

I started to see diminishing returns with Wendler + CrossFit, as I started to incorporate more and more CrossFit into my training. I could not strike a good balance of strength and CrossFit, so I created my own program. I tested this program for over a year on myself, friends and the athletes I train at Eo3Fit.

The results were awesome for everyone and it is now the only strength program I use. I incorporated all of the principles necessary for a good strength program i.e. dynamic efforts, max efforts and submaximal efforts. I found a new way to go about volume, which makes you lift around, if not more, volume than Wendler, in less time. It is more conducive to CrossFit training and can be sustained for much longer than Wendler.

2.) CrossFit Football-like Programming

I burned out on strength training and only wanted to do CrossFit at one point. However, I knew that I did not want to get weaker. Correction, I did not want to get below my set baseline. I did heavy metcons with very little strength specific training. My programming was similar to that of CrossFit Football, but I did not do a SWOD, I would only do a DWOD. I programmed my own workouts to make sure adequate rest between muscle groups was obtained and that I was getting enough variance.

Here is what I found:

  • I was able to crush shorter metcons like Fran and got my fastest time recorded, sub 3 min.
  • I became uncomfortable and unconditioned in the 20 min AMRAP environment.
  • I kept a relative strength base, but had a definite drop in my max lifts.
  • My overall conditioning and ability to move the weights increased.

RESULT: Overall I liked the program but it was not enough. I wanted to be more well-rounded and stronger.

3.) Wendler + CrossFit (my current programming)

UPDATE: I now only use One Man One Barbell

5 3 1 second edition How to Program Strength Into CrossFit

[**UPDATE**: Below is what I originally wrote, however, I found that the full Wendler program + CrossFit, while effective, is only good for a few cycles before you are overtaxing your central nervous system and start to feel very mentally drained. That is why I created One Man One Barbell, as it is more effective in combination with a conditioning program like CrossFit.]

FYI 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength (2nd Edition) How to Program Strength Into CrossFit is now available. My current programming is working out for me very well. I set PRs in strength and metcons frequently. Here is what it looks likes.

  • 6 days a week
  • Follow the Wendler strength program to the letter. I don’t pick and choose which part of the Wendler program I like; I do the entire strength program. The only difference is I don’t condition with hills and a prowler like he recommends. I condition with CrossFit.
  • 3 weeks on, 1 week off

Snapshot Week

  • Sunday – Press
  • Monday – Deadlift
  • Tuesday – CrossFit
  • Wednesday - Bench  + CrossFit
  • Thursday – OFF
  • Friday – Squat + CrossFit
  • Saturday – Active Recovery (Run, bike, something easy)

On the days that include CrossFit it is different every week. On the CrossFit only day I may do a 20 min AMRAP. The days that have a lift and CrossFit I may do 1-2 short metcons. Sometimes I do the “durability” portion of SEALFIT for my conditioning. It can change week to week. When it comes down to it I am only actually doing CrossFit style workouts 3 times a week. So am I still a CrossFitter? You bet your ass I am. If I can only do CrossFit 3x a week and still PR on benchmark WODs, I am still a CrossFitter. This program is mainly for strength gains and that is my main goal right now. But as the year progresses and I get closer to my strength goals I will start a transition back to maybe 50-50 CrossFit/strength.

RESULT: Great success in the short term, but overtaxing in the long term. 

Strength and CrossFit are not viewed as the same thing. The community is starting to point that out, quite obviously too. CrossFit is what you make it. Strength training separately is a necessity to perform at a high level. How do you fit strength into your routine? Or do you? Will you?

-Jerred

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Hey, I'm Jerred Moon and I write about: proven methods to get stronger, faster and harder to kill; tips, tricks and DIY projects for bringing fitness to the home front; and ways that food can help you recover, cure disease and better fuel your brain.

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  • Ian

    I have been implementing Wendler strength in similarly all though I have been doing it in the mornings of CF days with 3 or more hours rest in between doing 4 double days a week, one only CF day, and one rest day.

    My question is do you plan on doing any of the olympic lifts with Wendler strength, or how do you plan on getting the clean and snatch stronger?

    • Jerred

      The rest in between is probably a good idea.

      Good question. Jim recommends putting those lifts as “assistance” work on the deadlift or squat day I believe. However, I am doing the 4 core lifts for 12 weeks as a baseline. Then I will move into cycling out the presses with snatch and clean to see how that works.

  • B&L

    Ironic that you posted this! This is the current debate surrounding our garage gym right now. I had great strength gains following the program at my first box then changed boxes and it mostly went to pot. So now we’re looking at both Wendler and Rippetoe and seeing how the two mesh – or don’t. Any experience with Rippetoe’s method and how it compares to Wendler?

    • Jerred

      Glad I could chime in during your debate.

      Rippetoe’s method is good. I read his book and researched the program. It seems to work for a lot of crossfitters out there who integrate it into their programming. I just loved the simplicity of the Wendler program, and it tends to cater more towards those who already have a lifting background. Rippetoe’s book just seemed more geared towards the beginner and I already had the mechanics of the lifts and a solid strength base. I would use each different program depending on the individuals background.

  • Bobby U

    Great post. I prefer the strength bias along with met cons. I have been using Coach Rut’s programming on the Fitness Conduit and it has been really good for me and my workout crew. We were all new to Crossfit and were all experienced weight lifters so it was a natural progression for us. The Olympic lifts have been a challenge for us. We’re all old football players and current football coaches so we know squat, bench, power clean, and press but not so much snatch or overhead squat. Its been fun trying to figure out form and coaching each other up. I definitely prefer the strength bias with the Metcon to follow. Coach Rut posts new workouts weekly and is very good and smart programming. I’m very interested in the Wendler programming you have here. That might be something we look at his summer

    Here’s a link to Coach Rut’s website:

    http://www.bootcampfitnesskc.com/the-fitness-conduit/

    • Jerred

      Thanks! Yea I do not think I could do CrossFit by itself without some sort of strength bias. I think all of the Oly lifts make lifting a lot of fun! I will check out Coach Rut’s programming. Wendler had worked out really great. I am actually doing a follow on post about it soon.

  • Stuart

    So I have a dilemma. I started CrossFit in August but didn’t make really any strength gains. I left our box and started doing a Leangains Reverse Pyramid approach, but was turned on to 5/3/1 shortly after and liked the sound of it. I have never been very strong and I would consider myself a beginner although I’ve lifted barbells off and on through high school and college. I am now 27. I have been reading some message boards where people are telling folks to do a linear progression instead of a 5/3/1 method if they are beginners. I see the justification in that but I like the idea of not hitting plateaus with the 5/3/1 and I’m really not in too big of a hurry. I wouldn’t be opposed to a CrossFit Football type progression or a Starting Strength, but not sure which would be ideal. Thoughts?

    • Jerred

      With what you told me I would look seriously into Starting Strength and do that for a few cycles and if you feel comfortable go to Wendler. Wendler really can be for anyone, but make sure your form is damn near perfect before going that heavy everyday.

  • Andrew Keimig

    Great Post! Which version of 5/3/1 were you doing? BBB, Periodization Bible etc.?

    • http://endofthreefitness.com/ Jerred

      I did the standard 531, boring but big. Eventually kicked it to the curb for my own strength programming.

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  • Chris W.

    Jerred,
    I just started OMOB Version 2 Cycle 1. Without realizing it I did all my movements in one workout (Bench, Squat, Press, Deadlift) including EMOM. Can I or should I do the movements over the length of the week? i.e. Monday-Bench, Tues.-Squat etc…. Also should I just do each movement once a week? Please let me know. Thank you.
    Chris W.

    • http://endofthreefitness.com/ Jerred

      Hey Chris! Shoot me an email and I will get you all your answers!

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  • Faizan

    Hi Jerred,

    Excellent Article!!
    Im planning to give 3 weeks to weights + Xfit- do you suggest a good work out plan i should go with as i will be alternating it(1 day Xfit and the other Weights(for muscle mass and strength))

    Appreciate your guidance and assistance:)

    Thanks

    • http://endofthreefitness.com/ Jerred

      Can’t go wrong with One Man One Barbell or Wendler 5/3/1!