Written by Jacob Tsypkin
Focused hypertrophy training is often overlooked by coaches and athletes in competitive CrossFit. Perhaps this is because hypertrophy is generally considered to be within the purview of bodybuilding, and old school CrossFit was generally juxtapositioned to this style of training (along with excessive low intensity steady state endurance training.)
I am of the opinion that deliberate blocks of hypertrophy training are excluded to the detriment of competitive CrossFit athletes. Below are some of the potential benefits of this manner of training with relation to CrossFit.
Let’s start with the most obvious: Strength is important in CrossFit. How does one go about getting stronger?
Generally speaking, there are two types of adaptations to any kind of training. (1) Functional adaptations, which are adaptations of the nervous system resulting in improved skill in the given task. (2) Structural adaptations, which are actual physical and physiological changes resulting in an improved ability to execute the given task.
In simpler terms, functional adaptations are your brain and nervous system learning how to do what you want them to do, and structural adaptations build the things necessary to do them.
Here’s the thing: functional adaptations eventually run out. Once you’re really good at squatting, from a neuromuscular point of view, there’s only so much more you’re going to get out of getting better at it. So what to do? Well, you aim to get more out of the structural adaptations, which, in the case of strength, means building more muscle. Once that muscle is built, you are able to create new functional adaptations.
Is it possible to build muscle with lower reps and heavier weights? Sure! But for well trained athletes, it probably doesn’t work as well as using higher reps and lower weights, and, for the aspiring competitive CrossFit athletes, those high reps and low weights come with a host of other advantages.
Just as hypertrophy training can lay the base for improvements in maximal strength, it can also lean towards the other end of the spectrum and lay the base for improvements in strength endurance, a critical component of performance in CrossFit Games competition. Although most (not all) events in CrossFit competition are closer to the endurance side of strength endurance, hypertrophy training can still help to create the foundation to improve the athlete’s fitness with lighter weights.
This is especially true for newer athletes. Where more advanced athletes will benefit the most from highly specific training to improve their sport specific strength endurance, hypertrophy training is an excellent introduction to strength endurance for novice and intermediate trainees, who can reap the benefits of both improving their strength potential and their strength endurance potential from a single stimulus. Hypertrophy training can serve as the prime driver of improvements in strength endurance until the athlete is at a pretty high level of sport specific development.
This one seems a little funny. As I mentioned previously, CrossFit was often juxtapositioned against bodybuilding in the early days, so it comes across as a bit odd to suggest that hypertrophy training is sport specific. But, when we consider hypertrophy training built around heavy compound lifts rather than single joint isolation exercises (though those have their place as well), I think there are three ways in which “bodybuilding” is actually pretty similar to CrossFit.
3.1. Variation is rewarded. CrossFit is built on variance. Exposure to a wide variety of compound exercises is required to be competitive in the sport. Hypertrophy also benefits from variation. Regularly changing the exercises targeting a given muscle group or groups when the athlete plateaus can help spur new growth. If an athlete normally squats two to three times a week during a strength building block, a hypertrophy block may have them squatting once a week, with two or three secondary exercises for building muscle and strength in the legs and hips, such as lunges, step-ups, or even more isolative exercises such as glute bridges.
3.2. Hypertrophy training is closer on the bioenergetic spectrum to most events in competitive CrossFit than maximal strength training. It is true, of course, that maximal strength is very important to the sport, but one could argue that there has not been a true test of absolute strength in individual competition since the deadlift ladder at the 2009 CrossFit Games. Max lift tests have included snatches, clean & jerks, overhead squats, and shoulder-to-overheads, all of which certainly require a high level of maximal strength to be successful at, but none of which are exclusively tests of maximal strength. Strength endurance at various loads, however, has been tested at least once at every stage of competition (Open, Regionals, Games).
3.3. Hypertrophy training fills the middle range of load that CrossFit athletes often miss out on. Many athletes tend towards strength programming which focuses primarily on loads of 80% and above for low reps, along with conditioning work the vast majority of which is executed at loads below 60% for a ton of reps. Both of these are important components of training for the sport, but the middleground – loads between 60-80% for moderately high reps – gets left out. If the goal is to create a program and a fitness inclusive of all load and rep ranges, this scenario is unacceptable, and concentrated hypertrophy training can fill the gap quite nicely.
Hypertrophy training necessarily requires the athlete to perform a lot of repetitions with submaximal load. This fits nicely within the context of the hierarchy of “mechanics, consistency, intensity.” Regularly implementing concentrated blocks of hypertrophy training ensures that the athlete is routinely afforded the opportunity to reduce the absolute intensity and perfect their mechanics by performing a lot of perfect reps with relatively light weights.
Additionally, more specific hypertrophy training can help to improve technical flaws. Often, when an athlete breaks down at a given part of a lift, the breakdown represents a relative lack of strength in a particular muscle or muscle groups. Fortifying the area in question with muscle mass via targeted exercises can help the athlete eliminate weak spots which improve their mechanics, thereby raising the ceiling for their strength potential and reducing risk of injury.
Last, but certainly not least, is the potential impact of hypertrophy training on joint health. Competitive CrossFit athletes put a lot of stress and strain on their joints. When it comes to strength training, much of the stress on the joints is a result of how much weight the athlete is using, rather than the total volume of work (although high volume at high intensity certainly compounds the stress.) Regularly cycling in blocks of lower weight, higher rep training can help to alleviate this stress, keeping the athlete healthy for long periods of hard training.
My recommendation to the reader is this: After your next cycle of strength training ends, don’t jump right back into a high intensity program. Take six weeks for a hypertrophy focused block, following these simple guidelines:
- Focus on loads between 60-80%, with the bulk of the work being done between 65-75%
- Work primarily in sets of six to twelve repetitions
- Pick variations that are slightly different from what you’re used to
- Slightly reduce the frequency of the heaviest movements, and supplement with lighter ones, particularly unilateral work
- Don’t be afraid to do a little bit of single joint isolation training
My strong suspicion is that you will come out of this block of training with healthier joints, improved special work capacity, and new muscle to turn into PRs on your primary lifts.