Programming for Crossfit: Powerlifting/Maximal Strength Development

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 A few weeks ago I attended a Crossfit Powerlifting Seminar at Crossfit 714 in Orange, CA as a guest presenter, where I helped out my friends Mark Bell of Supertraining Gym and Jesse Burdick of Reactive Gym. Both Mark and Jesse are accomplished powerlifters in single and multi ply gear. I really enjoyed my time helping out the Crossfitians, they were a very captive audience, eager to learn and improve, they all worked hard and were very accepting of me as a non-Crossfiter despite my outspoken criticism of Crossfit in the past.

The facility at Crossfit 714 was great, they had ample room, plenty of racks, bars and bumpers, a couple prowlers, several GHRs and all the standard Crossfit paraphernalia like rings, ropes, rowers and a big monkey bar like set up of different pullup bars/racks. There is all the basics that you need to really improve your maximal strength.

Programming for Crossfit, and by that I mean competing in the Crossfit Games, presents many unique challenges due to the wide range of physical demands an athlete must be ready for and this issue is compounded by the fact that the athletes are unaware of the exact specifications of the events they will be participating in. A wide array of physical skills are necessary to exceed in Crossfit— but one will carryover the most of all physical disciplines: maximal strength. The benefits of improved maximal strength are vast, but due to the high number of physical skills the successful Crossfitian must possess and the high level of stimulus being provided to their bodies it is both possible and necessary to develop strength in the most economical manner possible.

Top 20 finisher in the 2011 Crossfit Games, Katie Hogan, knows the value that improved maximal strength plays in being a successful Crossfit competitor. 

The benefits of increased maximal strength manifest themselves in many ways during the Crossfit Games, the two most notable are increased force production and improved strength reserve. The stronger a muscle is the more force it is capable of producing, the more force is being produced the farther each step will carry you, the more powerful each swim stroke is and the higher each jump will be, in addition to many other movements being improved. Strength reserve, is the difference created between maximal strength and the strength needed to perform certain physical tasks. For example, in one of the 2011 Crossfit Games Men’s events, the Rope/Clean, athletes performed clean and jerks with 145 pounds x5 reps, 165×4 reps, 185×3 reps, 205×2 reps and 225×1 rep, interspersed by rope climbing. If an athlete has a large strength reserve, for example if they can power clean 350 pounds the weights being used would only represent 41-64% of the athlete’s 1rm. While if the athlete only had a maximum clean and jerk of 275 pounds, the weights used would represent 53-82% of the athlete’s 1rm. It is undeniable that anyone will expend less energy lifting 64% of their maximum than they will 82% of their maximum, and the less energy that must be expended during the lifting portion of an event, the more energy will be available to utilize during the endurance based portions of the event. The same logic could be applied to any of the Crossfit Games events, such as the Triplet Sprint where women were required to do 4 sets of 10 deadlifts with 165 pounds interspersed by muscle ups, situps and sprinting. The lesser percentage 165 pounds represents of that athlete’s maximum, the faster they will be able to do the reps and the less energy they will spend doing them.

Top 20 finisher at the 2011 Crossfit Games, Katie Hogan, is an excellent testament to the benefits of maximal strength in Crossift competitions. Hogan, an All-American volleyball and track & field (shot put/discus) athlete at UCSD is the proud owner of a 255 squat, 325 deadlift, 210 clean & jerk and 160 snatch. Hogan knows how her improved maximal strength impacts her strength endurance and states, “I have yet to walk into a workout and question whether or not I will be strong enough to lift the prescribed weight. It is only a matter of how quickly I can do it.”

Four-time Olympic Medalist, Pyrros Dimas, wouldn’t even break a sweat performing Clean & Jerks with 225 pounds. Dimas has Clean & Jerked 215kg (475 pounds) at a bodyweight of 85kg (188 pounds). Dimas’ back squat of 330kg (729 pounds) created a huge strength reserve when performing the Olympic lifts.

Improving maximal strength in the powerlifts is also the easiest way for lesser qualified athletes, which is essentially all non-National caliber weigthlifters, to quickly improve their Olympic lifts. An athlete who can squat 500 pounds is much better suited to clean and jerk 300 pounds, than an athlete with a 350 pound squat. Until you reach elite levels in Olympic lifting, creating a large strength reserve is the simplest way for an athlete to improve their weightlifting movements. It is a fairly common occurrence for our athletes at Juggernaut to express 20+ pound PRs in the power clean despite never performing that movement at anywhere near a maximal level, rather only improving their squatting and pulling strength and speed through jumping and sprinting, over the span of a few months. The point of diminishing returns in regards to utilizing maximal strength development to improve the Olympic lifts is far beyond where any Crossfitter, football player, MMA fighter or track & field thrower will likely ever reach; this means that these athletes will continue to see improvement in their Olympic lifts simply by improving their powerlifts. To improve the Olympic lifts for those who do not compete directly in the Olympic Lifts, little more than maximal strength improvement and submaximal technical practice of the competitive lifts (Snatch and Clean & Jerk) is needed. To learn more about my views on training the Olympic lifts read my article, Why We ACTUALLY Suck at Olympic Lifting. I draw many ideas of my Olympic lift training for Crossfitters from the Louie Simmons article, What If I Were an Olympic Coach?., though I don’t totally agree with all of Louie’s assertions about Olympic training, particularly in regards to the training of high level competitive lifters, for the development of the intermediate level athlete they have great efficacy. The benefits of maximal strength towards success in the Crossfit Games in undeniable.

Now that we have established the benefits of maximal strength towards Crossfit competitions, let’s examine the best ways to develop this maximal strength, while also allowing for enough energy to be directed toward developing the other necessary physical traits to be a successful competitor.

During the Crossfit Powerlifting Seminar that I assisted at, we taught the attendees about Westside style, or Conjugate periodization. Westside Barbell has been tremendously successful at developing powerlifters, setting many World Records in geared powerlifting, particularly in the squat and bench press. While Westside’s accomplishments and contributions to powerlifting are undeniable, I feel that there are many more efficient ways to develop maximal strength for the Crossfit athlete. Westside, as it is traditionally understood and popularized through various articles, is dependent upon a rotation of maximal effort exercises to address various weakpoints and avoid accommodation. The need to address various weakpoints and avoid accommodation though does not apply to the overwhelming majority of Crossfit athletes because they are not highly qualified (possessing maximal strength levels that approach elite standards or the maximums of their own potential) enough to need such advanced means. While board presses, rack lockouts, box squats with specialty bars, good morning variations are all excellent ways to build maximal strength, they are also all unique in their execution and require a certain level of technical expertise to truly reap the benefits of. While I have used Conjugate methods for my own training and several of my athletes, with great success, I don’t feel it is the ideal system, as it is commonly understood, for developing elite Crossfit Games competitors. The most well known and promoted variation of Conjugate training is that utilized by multi-ply competitive powerlifters.

I asked Katie Hogan about what she feels are some of the mistakes she sees Crossfitters making in regards to their maximal strength development and she sees several common errors. “Crossfitters seem to struggle to find a balance in their training, either not dedicating enough time to maximal strength development or over-loading their training to the point of decreased overall performance. The former is mostly because the WODs are typically one of high heart rate, high intensity and total body fatigue. New Crossfitters don’t always see where focused strength work sessions play a part in their overall fitness. These lifting sessions are often skipped over for the more glorified met-con workouts. On the latter side, there are Crossfit athletes who not only see the benefit of strength training, but they over-program for themselves and thus underperform in both strength sessions and met-cons.”

Geared powerlifters like Chuck Vogelpohl, possess tremendous strength, but many of their training methods do not have a high carryover to the raw strength required in Crossfit competitions.

For those Crossfitians unfamiliar with competitive powerlifting, there are geared competitions in which the lifters wear supportive suits and shirts that aid them in lifting more weight, in some cases up to 400 pounds more in the squat and 350 more in the bench press. The deadlift is relatively unaffected by gear usage. The other realm of competitors compete RAW or without supportive gear beyond a belt and in some cases knee wraps. Both factions have athletes with tremendous strength, but there are techniques and training methods that are unique to geared powerlifting which do not correspond well to raw strength. Since Crossfit athletes will be competing without the use of any supportive equipment, they should focus their attention towards the training of top raw competitors such as myself, Stan Efferding, and Andrey Malanichev, when seeking guidance in their own training. This is not to say that athletes who use Westside or other systems predominantly aimed towards geared competitors, don’t have valuable information for Crossfit athletes to utilize, the Crossfitians just must understand what will have the highest transfer to their training. There are so many physical skills needed to be a top level Crossfit competitor that utilizing too wide a range of weightroom exercises will only further burden the athlete with more technical skills to master than they truly need. Due to these reasons, I would advocate either utilizing a training system that focuses on a progressive overload approach (The Juggernaut Method, 5/3/1, 5×5, etc) to developing a small number of main exercises, or a Westside based system that utilizes a small pool of max effort exercises and dynamic effort exercises. If you do decide to use Westside to develop your maximal strength, I would advise you to choose the Front Squat, Deadlift and Back Squat for the lower body and Military Press, Closegrip Bench Press and Push Press for the Upper Body. Dynamic effort exercises could be of extreme value to the Crossfit athlete because of the premium placed on time and speed of movement during Crossfit competitions. With that being said, dynamic effort work is not limited to barbell exercises and would be most beneficial in a slightly higher rep range than is normally prescribed in Westside literature. Dynamic effort lifting should consist of submaximal deadlifting, squatting and weighted jumping for the lower body and explosive pushup variations, along with Jerks for the upper body. These exercises are either the ones that most often appear in Crossfit competitions and/or will have the highest level of correspondence to Crossfit competition movements. Two further modifications that I would advise making to the standard Westside template for Crossfit is utilization of full body training sessions and an absence of true Maximal Effort work. Full body training sessions are necessary because of the low frequency of maximal strength sessions. Crossfiters and for that matter athletes of any sport besides powerlifters, Olympic lifters and strongmen, do not possess the necessary technical skills, motor unit recruitment abilities, and mastery of their craft to effectively work up to a true repetition maximum. Max effort work is a skill and it is also very taxing to the central nervous system, because Crossfitters are not skilled lifters (that is not a criticism of them, it is just fact when compared to powerlifters) and they have so many activities that are taxing to their CNS, they need to reserve their efforts for other places. Famed track and field coach, Charlie Francis, described the Central Nervous System as a cup and every intensive stressor (sprinting, jumping, lifting above 90% intensity, dynamic effort lifting/Olympic lifts, lactic threshold training, etc.) you place upon your body fills up that cup to some degree. The cup is finite in its capacity and once it is full or overflows, the athlete will be in a state of overtraining, which can take weeks or months to recover from, so be aware of what is filling up your cup.

Crossfit Games competitors would be well served to examine the simple, yet extremely effective, training of raw powerlifters like Andrey Malanichev.

 Each maximal strength session will include, an Olympic Lift, a ‘Max Effort’ lift, a ‘Dynamic Effort’ lift or Supplementary lift and two assistance exercises, as well as core training. We will alternate each session between the Clean and the Snatch, development of the Jerk will be left to maximum effort work in the presses and dynamic effort work in the jerk. One session will be dedicated to max effort lower body training and the next the upper body. When we train the upper body maximally, we will train the lower body dynamically and vice versa. Assistance work will focus on one pulling exercise and one posterior chain movement. Assistance work needs to be treated as what it is, accessory training to improve muscular size and maintain muscular suppleness. Exercise selection for assistance work is negligible, one type of pulling exercise will not have higher transfer than another, nor will one type of posterior chain work. Keep your assistance work submaximal and do not let it interfere with your primary training. The only consideration when choosing assistance work is to use the same exercises for a minimum of 3 weeks at a time, to allow yourself to know which exercises are having the greatest transfer to your main lifts.

As I delve further into my ideal programming considerations for the competitive Crossfitter, the training split that I plan to work within is as follows…

Day 1-Maximal Strength and Alactic Power

Day 2-Aerobic Capacity Development

Day 3-Crossfit Games Simulation/Lactic Threshold Training

Day 4-Aerobic Capacity Development

Day 5-Maximal Strength and Alactic Power

Day 6-Aerobic Capacity Development

Day 7-Off

This training split will allow the athlete the give necessary attention to their maximal strength development, energy system development and special skill development (kipping pullups, muscle ups, double unders, wall ball, rope climbing, rowing, etc), while still being able to recover properly. Keep in mind as well, that this training is a snapshot of my ideas towards Crossfit training and that the development of a training plan lasting months in preparation for the Crossfit games would have many adjustments and permutations to it. These ideas are something I will address in depth during later installments of this series.

There are two maximal strength training cycles that I will outline, one that utilizes both the Juggernaut Method and 5/3/1, two of the most popular training programs to develop raw strength. The other is a Westside-inspired template, that will rotate the ME exercises that I listed above (Lower Body-Front Squat, Deadlift, Back Squat; Upper Body-Military Press, Closegrip Bench, Push Press).

The given template utilizes the 10s Wave’s sets, reps and percentages and would be beneficial to athlete’s of all qualifications as it addresses a wide range of physical traits necessary to succeed in Crossfit competitions…

[nonmember]CLICK HERE to become a Juggernaut Member today to access the rest of this article that includes a detailed set rep program for maximal strength development !

Week Day 1 Day 5
1 Power Clean-12×3 at 60%, Back Squat-4×10 at 60%, 60%xAMAP, Military Press-55/65/75%x5, Bentover Rows-2-3×12-15, RDLs-2-3×12-15, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×10 Power Snatch-12×3 at 60%, Closegrip Bench Press-4×10 at 60%, 60%xAMAP, Deadlift-55/65/75%x5, Chinups (Strict, weighted if possible) 2-3×12-15, Back Extensions-2-3×12-15, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×10
2 Power Clean-12×3 at 65%, Deadlift-4×10 at 60%, 60%xAMAP, Closegrip Bench Press-55/65/75%x5, Bentover Rows-2-3×10-12, RDLs-2-3×10-12, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×12 Power Snatch-12×3 at 65%, Military Press-4×10 at 60%, 60%xAMAP, Back Squat-55/65/75%x5, Chinups-2-3×10-12, Back Extensions-2-3×10-12, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×12
3 Power Clean-9×3 at 70%, Back Squat-2×10 at 67.5%, 67.5%xAMAP, Military Press-60/70/80%x3, Bentover Row-2-3×8-10, RDLs-2-3×8-10, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×15 Power Snatch-9×3 at 70%, Closegrip Bench Press-2×10 at 67.5%, 67.5%xAMAP, Deadlift-60/70/80%x3, Chinups-2-3×8-10, Back Extensions-2-3×8-10, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×15
4 Power Clean-9×3 at 75%, Deadlift-2×10 at 67.5%, 67.5%xAMAP, Closegrip Bench Press-60/70/80%x3, Bentover Rows-2-3×12-15, RDLs-2-3×8-15, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×10 Power Snatch-9×3 at 75%, Military Press-2×10 at 67.5%, 67.5%xAMAP, Back Squat-60/70/80%x3, Chinups-2-3×12-15, Back Extensions-2-3×12-15, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×10
5 Power Clean-8×3 at 80%, Back Squat-Up to 75%xAMAP, Military Press-65%x5, 75%x3, 85%x1, Bentover Rows-2-3×10-12, RDLs-2-3×10-12, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×12 Power Snatch-8×3 at 80%, Closegrip Bench Press-Up to 75%xAMAP, Deadlift-65%x5, 75%x3, 85%x1, Chinups-2-3×10-12, Back Extensions-2-3×10-12, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×12
6 Power Clean-Up to 1rm, Deadlift-Up to 75%xAMAP, Closegrip Bench Press-65%x5, 75%x3, 85%x1, Bentover Rows-2-3×8-10, RDLs-2-3×8-10, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×15 Power Snatch-Up to 1rm, Military Press-Up to 75%xAMAP, Back Squat-65%x5, 75%x3, 85%x1, Chinups-2-3×8-10, Back Extensions-2-3×8-10, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×15

After this 6 week cycle is completed, you should take a 1 week deload and readjust your maxes for Squat, Closegrip Bench, Deadlift and Military Press in the manner described in The Juggernaut Method ebook and for your Olympic Lifts based on your new maxes set during Week 6. Once the deload week is complete, you will move on to the 8s Wave of the Juggernaut Method and choose new assistance exercises (if you wish) and go through a similar training cycle. This simple approach will yield great results in strength and hypertrophy gains. The Juggernaut Method is a program that I devised in my preparation for my first powerlifting meet in October 2010. At this meet I squatted 800 pounds, benched 463 and deadlifted 700, all lifts were done raw.

Another great option for maximal strength development is to utilize a Westside-inspired template. This will necessitate the athlete taking more frequent deloads, as the intensity of the lifts are higher and more taxing to the central nervous system. This template would be better suited to a more advanced lifter.

Week Day 1 Day 5
1 Power Clean-12×3 at 60%, Front Squat-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, Pushups onto Box-3×2, Alternate Split Jerks-10×5 at 60%, Bentover Rows-2-3×12-15, RDLs-2-3×12-15, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×10 Power Snatch-12×3 at 60%, Military Press-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, DE Squat-10×4 at 60%, Chinups-2-3×12-15, Back Extensions-2-3×12-15, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×10
2 Power Clean-12×3 at 65%, Deadlift-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, Pushups Onto Box-4×2, Alternate Split Jerks-8×5 at 65%, Bentover Rows-2-3×10-12, RDLs-2-3×10-12, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×12 Power Snatch-12×3 at 65%, Military Press-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, DE Squat-8×4 at 65%, Chinups-2-3×10-12, Back Extensions-2-3×10-12, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×12
3 Power Clean-9×3 at 70%, Back Squat-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, Pushups Onto Box-5×2, Alternate Split Jerks-6×5 at 70%, Bentover Rows-2-3×8-10, RDLs-2-3×8-10, Straight Leg Situps-2×10, Hanging Leg Raises-2×15 Power Snatch-9×3 at 70%, Push Press-Up to 80%x2x5+Bonus Set, DE Squat-6×4 at 70%, Chinups-2-3×8-10, Back Extensions-2-3×8-10, Barbell Russian Twists-2×10, Barbell Rollouts-2×15

            After this 3 week cycle is complete, the athlete should take a deload week. From there they will continue on a similar rotation of ME exercises, just dropping the work sets to either 3 or 4 reps. As this is a percentage based scheme, it is necessary to adjust your working 1 rep max. To do this you can either add a set amount, ie. 10 pounds to your 1rm that you base your percentages off of, or if you performed a bonus set at any point throughout the cycle you can readjust based off of that. A bonus set should be performed, if you feel very confident after your prescribed work sets are done smoothly and with sound technique; a bonus set will not necessarily be done each session. To do that you will need to use the following equation, .0333 x (Weight x Reps Performed) + Weight = Projected 1rm. When you begin a new 3 week cycle, you will continue with the progression on the Olympic lifts as shown in the earlier training cycle, picking things up at 9×3 at 75%. Also, when beginning a new cycle you should flip your dynamic effort exercises to push jerks during session 1 and DE Deadlifts in session 2. The rep schemes utilized during the dynamic effort lifts are higher than what is normally prescribed in Westside related literature, for two reasons. 1) The Crossfit athlete isn’t as highly qualified as the competitive powerlifter, so more repetitions will allow for greater motor learning and 2) Crossfit competitions often require athlete’s to perform high volumes of work as quickly as possible, and these rep schemes will teach the athlete do that, without losing the intent of the movement, SPEED.

            This completes the 1st part in my series of Programming for Crossfit, in later installments I will address speed training through sprinting/jumping/medicine ball throws; energy system training; and the organization of an entire 4 month training cycle for the Crossfit Games. To learn more about myself and Juggernaut, check out, follow us on Twitter @JgrnautTraining, check out our YouTube channel and like us on Facebook, you can also follow my training log at where I’m a sponsored athlete.


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