How To Train The Squat For CrossFit

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As the Juggernaut Squatapalooza rolls on, check out the first six parts of this series if you’re just tuning in:
Part 1:  Setting up for a Huge Squat
Part 2:  Dont Get Stapled – How to Make it Through Your Sticking Point
Part 3:  10 Steps to Great Squatting Technique
Part 4:  Squatting Specifics – What Technique is Best for Your Sport?
Part 5:  Squatting to Build the Wheels – How Bodybuilders Should Train the Squat
Part 6:  The Best Accessory Lifts for a Bigger Squat

The importance of leg strength for competitive CrossFit is obvious to anyone who happens across the Games on ESPN. And if you’re reading this article, you’re likely part of a community which almost universally agrees that squatting is the most effective way to develop serious leg strength.

However, even in sports which are more contingent on leg strength than CrossFit – such as weightlifting and powerlifting – there are great divides on how best to approach the squat. Opinions differ on technique, variation, rep ranges, frequency, and more.

Add to this the convolution of developing the squat in a way that benefits the widest range of abilities, whilst avoiding focusing on it so much as to create detriment to other aspects of the athlete’s training, and you have yourself quite a puzzle.

In this article, I will outline my approach to developing the squat for competitive CrossFit.


The Role Of The Squat

The squat is contested in CrossFit in multiple formats.

Of course, we see tests of strength. In the 2014 Games, squat strength was tested twice: directly in the 1 rep max overhead squat, and less directly in the clean speed ladder.

Tests of endurance are also prevalent. High rep thrusters, squat cleans, lunges, and the like are all common.

The value of squat development, however, reaches far past it’s necessity for competition. Many qualities can be improved, at least to a point, by training the squat. Surely we can agree that pushing and pulling sleds, overhead lifts which utilize leg drive, heavy carries, and other movement patterns which do not actually involve a squat, are aided by gaining strength, endurance, or both in squatting exercises.

Variations and Technique

Three exercises form the crux of our squat development. In my methodology, the back squat is most important, followed by the front squat, and finally the overhead squat.

The back squat is our prime developer of hip and leg strength. I emphasize it over the front squat even for my weightlifters, for several reasons.

1) the back squat allows athletes to handle significantly larger loads – obviously important for training effect.

2) the front squat is usually limited by upper back strength more than leg strength, and while this is an important quality to train in and of itself, I have found it to be more efficient to use the back squat as our driver of lower body strength while utilizing a battery of accessory exercises to augment upper back development.

3) because my athletes clean heavy very often, and are generally fairly efficient in the movement, they are often handling 85%+ of their best front squat in the clean.

As far as technique goes: I am strongly of the opinion that CrossFitters should squat like weightlifters – that is to say, a vertical torso, relatively narrow stance, and deep. A wide stance, powerlifting squat simply does not carry over to CrossFit, primarily for the same reasons it does not carry over to weightlifting. Squatting movements as executed in CrossFit (snatches, cleans, thrusters, etc) require a very upright torso, and thus the squat should be trained to develop this position.

Though the front squat is of secondary importance in my programming, we still train it regularly. It is an excellent way to expose the body to a lower systemic stressor while still challenging the athlete with a heavy squatting movement. And of course, if an athlete is deficient in the front squat (I like my athletes to front squat around 80% of their back squat,) they may put extra emphasis on it.

Finally, the overhead squat – the barbell movement which perhaps tends to be most associated with CrossFit.

To briefly explain the way I program the overhead squat: not much. We primarily treat it as a moderate load accessory exercise, except when used in conditioning pieces. When we do train it as an accessory piece, I strongly prefer a narrower than snatch grip. Some of my athletes bring it as narrow as their jerk. I believe this narrower position to be much stronger and more stable once it’s trained.


Developing Qualities Other Than Strength

Often, when considering the squat, we think exclusively of strength development, and thus the athlete’s one rep max. While this is important, of course, there is much to be gained from using the squat as a developer of both local and systemic endurance.

In the past my favored test has been 30 reps for time with 70%, but this year I’ll be trying 2:00 max reps with 70% instead, simply for ease of use. It’s much easier to develop a progression based on the data gleaned from a time-priority test than a task-priority test.

I prefer the back squat, as it allows endurance to be the primary limiting factor, whereas with front squats, often the athlete’s ability to breathe with the bar in the front rack will impact their performance more than anything else. This is worth training for it’s own sake – I am of the opinion that moderate to high rep front squats are more likely than moderate to high rep back squats in competition – but for general development, the back squat is easier to work with.

In training, I typically use one of two methods to use the squat for building endurance.

The first is intervals, more commonly referred to as timed sets when lifting. This is where that 2 minute test comes in handy. I can use this information to build a protocol. An example is provided below.

Week: 1

Test: 2 minutes max reps @ 70%

Score: 20

Week: 2

Protocol: 3 rounds of 10 reps @ 70%, rest 60 seconds between rounds

Goal is an increase in total volume. Time each round individually. Sets do not have to be completed unbroken.

Week: 3

Protocol: 2 rounds of 15 reps @ 70%, rest 90 seconds between rounds

Total volume remains the same, goal is to work at the same rate or faster than last week’s sets of 10 (i.e. if the sets of 10 took 1 minute = 30 seconds per 5 reps, today’s goal is to complete the sets in 90 seconds or less.)

Week: 4

Protocol: 3 rounds of 10 reps @ 72.5%, rest 60 seconds between rounds

Slight increase in load, goal is to maintain or improve rate.

Week: 5

Protocol: 2 rounds of 18 reps @ 70%, rest 90 seconds between rounds

20% increase in volume, goal is to maintain or improve rate. This will give us a fair idea of where the athlete will be on the retest.

Week: 6


Score: 1 million

 Note: This is not mean as an example of a comprehensive squat program – only the endurance building portion.


When do you know squat?

I have an athlete – let’s call him Kent. The reason we’re calling him Kent is that Kent is his name.

Kent back squats 475 and front squats 395 at a bodyweight which ranges from 169 to 175, depending on how much I’ve been yelling at him to eat more. He’s also back squatted around double bodyweight for a set of 20.

He’s constantly telling me how bad he wants a 500 pound back squat. But there’s a problem: Kent squats more than Rich Froning, and yet Kent is not winning the CrossFit Games.

Kent, being unreasonably strong with a casual 180kg front squat:

It’s easy to get caught up in the strength development side of training for competitive CrossFit. It makes sense. Strength is a lot of fun. But there is a point of diminishing returns for CrossFit athletes, and it seems to be somewhere in the mid to high 400s. His endurance is good in the squat department too – along with that 20 rep back squat, he crushes high rep thrusters, cleans, snatches, you name it.

Now, Kent still squats in his training. Right now, twice a week. But he uses lower weekly volumes than my other athletes, with a focus on maintaining his strength levels. Later in the season, one of his squat days will be an endurance focus, and both days will still focus on maintenance, not improvement. It’s an important quality which has brought him success in the sport – but it’s important to know when we’re approaching too much of a good thing.

The squat is among the most valuable of the tools in the the CrossFit coach’s toolbox, necessary to train both as a competitive event and an excellent developer of other qualities. Understand it’s role in the sport, program accordingly, and reap the benefits.

Related Article: Squat 101 by Chad Wesley Smith

Enjoying what you’re learning, but wish you could take it one step deeper?  Jacob, along with the rest of Juggernaut’s athletes and coaches, is on Strong360:  the community of strength.


Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.

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