Written by Jacob Tsypkin
As I sit and write this article, we are 31 days out from the first weekend of Regionals. For the majority of CrossFit athletes, the off-season is now in full swing.
For many athletes, the off-season represents a time to get back to the barbell and build strength. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Strength is, after all, an important component of the sport, and the limiting factor for many an athlete.
However, there are some common mistakes that most athletes taking this approach seem to make. Below are some do’s and don’ts to help you build an off-season strength program that is as productive in the long term as in the short, and is geared toward developing strength specific to the sport of CrossFit.
Do start with a base-building phase.
It’s likely that leading up to and during the Open, your strength training was not organized in a conventional model. You probably had a little more intensity and variance, frequent sport specificity, and a little less volume.
Training like this is an important component of the competition season, but it means that you could probably do with some time refining technique on the big lifts, building specific work capacity, and preparing your joints for high-volume strength training.
Start the off-season with a 3-6 week base-building block. Focus on explosive, technically perfect reps with controlled rest periods. Keep the average intensity around 70%, with workouts as light as 55% and as heavy as 80%.
Do vary your strength inputs.
It’s easy to get caught up with the barbell – and for good reason. It is, without a doubt, the best tool we have available to us for developing maximal strength. It’s also highly sport specific. In 2014, the barbell made an appearance in five of five Open events, five of seven Regionals events, and six of thirteen Games events.
However, in our pursuit of mastery of this most hallowed of strength training tools, it can be easy to forget that in competitive CrossFit, you need to be strong in a variety of modalities which respond best to specific training.
The barbell should be at the center of any effective strength program, but don’t be afraid to dedicate some time to improving your proficiency with strongman training, heavy kettlebells, and other, less conventional, tools.
Remember that strength isn’t just about moving weight. A sound strength base in gymnastics movements is crucial, and this is the time to nail it in. Work on strict variations, tempo development, weighted exercises, and technical progressions.
Lastly, spend time strengthening movement patterns and ranges of motion that may fall by the wayside during the high volume and relatively narrow focus of training later in the year. Rotational exercises, unilateral squatting, pulling and pressing variations, and unconventional exercises can all fit into a well-rounded off-season strength program.
Do maintain existing skill sets.
High-rep weightlifting, kipping pullups, and handstand walking are all skills, and skills take practice to maintain and refine.
During off-season strength building, it’s important to keep working at these abilities, typically at lower volumes and intensities, so that you don’t need to spend more time than necessary rebuilding them as you move into later parts of the year.
Keep in mind that changes in strength can change the way your body moves, and by continuing to practice technical skills as these changes occur, you can smooth the transition. This is especially true if your strength cycle induces substantial weight gain and hypertrophy.
Do maintain your aerobic base.
Perhaps the single most common mistake made by CrossFit athletes looking to build strength is to completely drop low intensity steady state training, and heavily bias very short, very high intensity pieces for their conditioning.
Superficially, this seems sensible. After all, aerobic adaptations occur on the opposite end of the energy systems spectrum from strength adaptations. Not to mention the substantial caloric impact of low-intensity, moderate-to-long duration cardiovascular training.
However, these short-term differences don’t tell the whole story. We must consider the global impact of foregoing intentful low-intensity aerobic training during a strength-building phase for the CrossFit athlete.
Firstly, we must consider the impact of hypertrophy on perfusion. Perfusion is the process of the body delivering blood to capillary beds in biological tissue. Sufficient perfusion is how the athlete shuttles blood and all the things that blood brings into muscles during exercise.
The importance of sufficient perfusion for any athlete competing in endurance events is clear. Perfusing mass is a longer, more difficult process when there is more mass to perfuse. So by maintaining the aerobic system during strength-building phases, an athlete avoids the much harder task of, effectively, building a new aerobic system.
It’s true, of course, that this may make the strength- and mass-building process slower. But that’s the name of the game. And fortunately, with the right strategy, aerobic training doesn’t need to affect your strength development nearly as much as you may think. Check out “The Hybrid Athlete” by Alex Viada for the best resource out there on concurrent strength and endurance development.
Don’t jump into Program X.
High-volume weightlifting and powerlifting programs like Smolov, Sheiko, and Hatch may all have value, applied for the right athlete. However, these programs are not designed for the CrossFit athlete.
When planning your off-season strength development, it’s crucial that you consider both the context of the sport, and long-term training impact.
Can you afford to reduce the volume of everything else you do in order to bring your squat up? If not, can you afford the increased risk of overuse injury brought on by undertaking a very high-volume squat program while also trying to maintain other facets of your game?
There are certainly cases where an athlete genuinely should drop everything in an effort to get stronger. But in my experience, they are few and far between. The wiser approach is to develop a program suited to your sport, not someone else’s.
Don’t overdo the HIIT.
Interval training is a fantastic tool, but high intensity comes at a high cost. Intervals may be closer to strength development on the energy systems spectrum, but they are much harder to recover from. Anaerobic intervals in particular use up precious glycogen stores, which require roughly 48 hours of rest to be fully replenished.
During strength-building phases, I prefer to keep the intervals to what I refer to as aerobic
base intervals. In this type of work, the work period is significantly longer than the rest (3:1 or greater). This allows the athlete to work at higher intensity than a steady state piece, while staying aerobic and practicing pacing strategies.
Don’t try to build strength with your WODs.
Let your strength program do its work. The occasional heavy metcon is fine, but don’t try to build it in as part of your general strength development. If anything, spend more time with light weights and bodyweight movement, to allow your joints to recover from the heavy loading.
There are exceptions to this rule, particularly with high-level athletes who need to develop this specific ability. But typically, these athletes already have sufficient base strength and need to carry it over into the sport. In this case, a program based around heavy WODs is what they need. Most people are not this athlete.
Don’t stop practicing your sport.
You are still a CrossFit athlete, and that means you need to continue practicing CrossFit.
Where needed, limit volume, loading, duration, and intensity. But, at least occasionally, make sure you practice all facets of your game in some way. These skills and capacities will be much harder to regain further down the road if you ignore them completely now.
Take the full year of training and the context of the sport into consideration. Develop a program designed to build strength for the specific needs of the CrossFit athlete. Lift responsibly.
Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.