Written by Chad Wesley Smith
The squat and deadlift are the foundational movement for strength. If you want to dominate the Sport of Fitness, you need to be proficient in both. With that being said, CrossFit athletes have been presented with lots of misinformation in regards to training these lifts. Strength in the both of these exercises must be developed over a wide range of rep ranges and as you strive to develop this strength, you must do it within the context of a program that develops many other, sometimes competing skills.
Before we get into my ideas about how to best train these lifts for CrossFit, let’s get a couple things straight…
Squat Like An Olympic Lifter
CrossFit incorporates much more Olympic lifting than it does powerlifting and for this reason, among others, you need to make your squat look like an Olympic lifters. Whether you want to call it an Olympic squat, high bar squat, close stance squat, ATG squat or any other name, what matters is that you squat with a nearly vertical torso, stance that resembles your feet during the catch of a clean or snatch and you are squatting deep and explosively.
The face that Olympic lifting is a bigger part of CF than powerlifting isn’t the only reason you should focus on the HBBS over the LBBS. The low bar back squat is a detriment to the development of your Olympic lifting technique, ingraining a forward torso angle that will carryover to your snatch and clean catch position and lead to missed lifts.
Olympic lifters don’t box squat, the overwhelming majority of top raw powerlifters don’t box squat, you shouldn’t box squat (as your primary squat exercise) if you want to squat huge weights and aren’t wearing a multiply powerlifting suit. With that being said, the box squat is a good tool to use to teach the squat and can have its place as a supplementary movement, but cannot be the basis of your squat training.
Deadlifts Don’t Equal Snatch/Clean Pulls
The first pull of a clean or snatch and a deadlift are very different movements and should not be taught as the same thing. Treating them as the same thing will make you worse at both of them.
Snatches and cleans will make your deadlift go up, but the vice versa is not necessarily true. Of course, for the beginner trainee improvement in general exercises, whether it is deadlift or squat variations, will improve your Olympic lifts but the point of diminishing returns there for the deadlift will be quickly reached. To be a good CrossFit competitor you need to be a good, not great, deadlifter in the grand scheme of strength (500-550 range at 190ish bodyweight is very good and enough for CrossFit but isn’t making any waves in powerlifting with 181 and 198 lifters pulling well over 700 pounds). Squatting and Olympic lifting with very little deadlift practice will make you a good deadlifter.
Now that we have those two issues out of the way, lets talk about how to get strong in these lifts to have great success in CrossFit. To be successful in CrossFit you must have maximal strength, explosive strength and strength endurance. None of these qualities need to be developed to the utmost elite levels, so we should use a balanced approach to improve them, while also keeping in mind the other dozens of things you must train.
When structuring the strength component of your CrossFit training, you should prioritize the primary exercises as…
- Squat-This is HBBS. Squatting more will make you snatch, clean, press, jerk, and deadlift more. It is the exercise with the highest transfer of training and until you are a national level or better weightlifter, putting 10kg on your squat is going to have a direct carryover to your snatch and clean.
- Snatch-The snatch takes precedent over here because it is more technical than the clean and someone who can snatch and squat, will more than likely be pretty good in the clean.
- Cleans-Cleans take practice of course and give you extra work in the front squat, but because squats + cleans don’t necessarily equal a good snatch, it gets the 3rd spot.
- Front Squats-The front squat is important to clean technique and will improve many other exercises, but since it can’t be loaded like the squat it gets the lower billing.
- Deadlift-All the way down here at number 5 is the deadlift. Why? Because all the things listed above will make the deadlift go up, but the deadlift won’t necessarily make them go up. Plus, the deadlift is highly stressful to the CNS and when you have so many things you need to train for, you can fill up your CNS cup so much with one exercise.
Let’s take a look at my favorite ways to train the squat and deadlift as it pertains to developing the wide array of strength qualities you need for CrossFit.
Submaximal Loads for Moderate Reps-You don’t need to do work over 90% every week to squat and deadlift more! There I said it, hate to break it to you all but almost no top level raw powerlifters are working up to max singles on a weekly basis. Not only does the CrossFitter not need to do this, they shouldn’t do it. If you want to get better at squatting, you need to squat more, you need to practice and doing multiple sets at slightly lower percentages will give you this opportunity. For example, instead of working up to a max set of 3 (usually about 92.5%), do 3×3 at 85%. Focus the bulk of your maximal strength training in the squat, press and dead on sets of 3-8 reps at between 65-85% of your 1 rep max. The Olympic lifts will still necessitate going above 90% frequently.
Along with this same idea, you want to attempt very few maxes and avoid missing lifts. Missing lifts doesn’t build strength, making them does. Max outs are very taxing to the body and central nervous system and is an unnecessary stress to the body of a CrossFitter. Build your strength, don’t always worry about testing it and understand that PRs can come in many forms, weight, reps, speed and quality of the lift, so spend more tips focusing on the latter 3.
Timed Work-Of course, you need to do a lot of timed work in CrossFit but I mean something a little different here. Work on max rep in a given short time frame sets and short rest periods. For example, try doing max reps in the squat in 10 seconds with 50 seconds rest. Power is Work divided by time, so if you want to become more powerful you either can increase the work (weight or reps) or decrease the time. So if you can squat 300×6 reps in 10 seconds and then train to be able to squat 300×8 in 10 seconds, you have become more powerful. Working with timed sets, whether it is timed work or timed rest, will help to improve your special work capacity.
Rotating Methods on the Deadlift-As I mentioned earlier, the deadlift is highly stressful to the CNS and because of that, we don’t want to pull heavy very often. The most frequently I would advocate pulling a heavy set of 1-3 in the dead from the floor would be every 3 weeks, but ideally every 6 weeks. Using a rotation between heavy, explosive and rep deadlift days, like Brandon Lilly discusses in The Cube Method, is a great way to go for CrossFit.
I would make a few adjustments though from what Brandon does for competitive powerlifting, because there is more emphasis on the higher rep ranges for CrossFit. A 6 week modified Cube approach on your deadlifts could be the following…
Week 1 (Speed)-15 sets of 2 reps at 60%, rest no longer than 10 seconds b/t sets
Week 2 (Reps)-Snatch Grip Pulls from 4” Blocks at 60% for 1xRest Pause (I’ll explain what that means in a bit)
Week 3 (Heavy)-Work up to 85%x3x3 from 2” Blocks
Week 4 (Speed)-10 sets of 2 reps at 65%, rest no longer than 10 seconds b/t sets
Week 5 (Reps)-Deadlift from Progressively Higher Blocks at 60% for 1xMechanical Drop Set
Week 6 (Heavy)-Work up to a nearly maximal set of 1-3 reps.
Bodybuilding Rep Strategies-Gasp! Bodybuilding for CrossFit, yes. Bodybuilding rep strategies like rest pause sets and drop sets, both mechanical and weight, are some of the best ways to build strength endurance and lactic tolerance.
For those of you not familiar, a rest pause set is a combination of 3 small sets into one giant set. Perform a rest pause set by performing reps (60% is a good starting point) until you are 1-2 reps shy of failure, rack the weight and rest for 20-40 seconds, perform another set just shy of failure, rest for 20-40 seconds, perform a 3rd sets to failure. This is a great way to exceed your rep capacity and build endurance and can be used with basically any exercise.
Drop sets can be done by either reducing the weight through a set or by improving your mechanical advantage as the set progresses. For a weight drop set, simply start performing reps and have your training partners pull off weights as you go. For example, set up in the squat with 45s and 3 25s on each side of the bar and try performing a set number of reps at each weight, having your training partner pull off 25s as you go until you are down to the 45s and rep out there. Using chains and progressively removing sets from the bar as you go is also a great way to performed weight drop sets.
A mechanical drop set is done by improving your mechanical advantage throughout a set so you can continue doing reps with the same weight, despite fatigue. Try out these mechanical drop sets. 1-Overhead Mechancial Drop Set-Load the bar with 70% of your strict press max, begin performing strict press reps, when you feel like you like you can only do 1-2 more reps, immediately start doing push presses, when you feel like you can only do 1-2 more reps, immediately start doing push jerks until failure. 2-Deadlift Drop Set-Load the bar with 60-70% of your 1rm, begin performing as many reps as you can in 30 seconds, add 3” blocks under the weights and continue to rep out for another 30 seconds, add another set of 3” blocks and perform reps for a final 30 seconds. 3-Clean or Snatch Drop Set-Begin by performing muscle variations of the lift until you are 1-2 shy of failure, then progress to power varaitions until just shy of failure and finally the full version of the lift-this same concept could work with Hang-Power to Hang-Full to Full or anything that progresses your ability to continue doing reps.
Hopefully this has given you some new perspective on effectively and efficiently developing strength to improve your abilities in CrossFit. It won’t be easy, but it isn’t particularly complicated either; squat heavy, for speed and reps, let your deadlift be built with other exercises and focus on building instead of always testing your strength and watch your strength skyrocket!
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