Eat the Weak (Part 1)


Because no one wakes up in the morning and says “Man, being weak is awesome!”

Possessing strength means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. A weightlifter measures strength in the snatch and clean and jerk; a powerlifter measures strength in the back squat, bench press, and deadlift; the gymnast measures strength in body control and “maximum weight from minimum size”; strongmen measure it in distance or reps of things like pulling semi trucks and lifting houses and shit. The list goes on and on- kettlebell sport, cycling, rowing, Highland Games (yeah, that’s an actual sport with competitions that you can sign up for as an amateur. Check it out, it’s pretty awesome), etc, etc etc.

The point is that being strong is both relative and discipline defined. A powerlifter trains to be strong at powerlifting, not gymnastics, and vice versa. The ultimate measure of strength is sport specific, thus the strength training is tailored specifically for those events.

In the world of CrossFit, our goal is to strive for strength across the full array of disciplines, both known and unknown. Just look at the CrossFit Games: In 2018, strength was tested across a variety of skills- gymnastics (30 Muscle Ups), powerlifting (CrossFit Total), and Olympic weightlifting (Clean and Jerk Speed Ladder). Yes, each of these events also involved additional domains of fitness- endurance, stamina, power, speed- but each required some measure of discipline specific strength. In order to excel in CrossFit, athletes must have a wide and diverse range of strength; it doesn’t pay to neglect your gymnastics because you think lifting a barbell is sexy. (Only one man finished in the top 10 of each of the “30 Muscle Ups”, “CrossFit Total”, and the “Clean and Jerk Speed Ladder” events in 2018: Mathew Fraser).

Our goal in this two part article is simply to examine a few different approaches for developing strength. As many different ways as there are to measure strength, there are even more training protocols that will make athletes stronger. This isn’t a wrong versus right analysis of strength methodologies, but rather an illustration of how multiple philosophies can all simultaneously be right. As we’ve discussed over and over again, to each their own; we should be celebrating all forms of strength, not hating people for their version. The enemy is weakness, not each other.

Today we’ll take a look at “The Novice Effect,” “Conventional Strength Training,” and “CrossFit Programming.” Next week we’ll check out “CrossFit Football,” “CrossFit Strongman,” and “The Evolution of Strength Within a Box.” This is meant to be educational for our athletes; an attempt to peel back the curtain and understand the why behind the jigsaw pieces of programming for strength. If you’d like a complete dissertation and opinion piece on a wide range of strength programs, I’d be happy to schedule 10 hour session with you, but it will require two bottles of top shelf bourbon.

The Novice Effect

In terms of developing strength, one of the most important concepts to understand is Mark Rippetoe’s “Novice Effect.” A very basic explanation goes like this: When you are first starting strength training, just looking at the barbell will get you stronger. Okay, well not literally, but figuratively- when first starting out, a very simple, linear progression with strength training (regardless of sport or apparatus- it’s not always with the barbell), will get you much stronger (relatively) in a very short period of time. As you continue to train, the rate of adaptation begins to decrease as you approach your maximum genetic potential, and a higher level of training complexity is required to elicit even the slightest of gains in strength.

While the name of the theory draws attention to the “Novice” phase, the key actually lies in the back end: with training complexity and especially the maximum genetic potential. Training complexity is often confounding to athletes; they’ve seen great advances with the training plan they’ve been following, and just can’t wrap their heads around why they aren’t continuing to improve. The more an athlete adapts to training, the more complex the training has to become in order to challenge the body to improve- we have to find more and different physical stimuli to elicit that adaptation. This requires diligent programming and committed training.

But the reality is, no matter how nuanced and amazing the programming might be, and no matter how devoted the athlete is to their training, genetics always dictates a ceiling for physical performance. In other words, I could train deadlifts the rest of my life, and I’m not going to be able to deadlift 700 lbs. Or run a sub 4 minute mile. Or swim a sub 50 sec 100m freestyle. There is a limit to my physical capabilities, and athletes don’t always like to admit that. The quicker you can embrace that reality, the faster you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your training: you’re here for you, to be your best, not to compete with the man or woman next to you.

Conventional Strength Training

Interestingly, even within athletes that are training for sport specific strength, we see a lot of crossover application. Check out this video of an elite weightlifter’s (James Tatum) strict muscle ups (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a video of him doing a flag pole as well. The dude is a complete badass). There are plenty of stories of gymnasts who have never touched a weight, and yet can move eye-popping numbers with a barbell, despite their diminutive size and body mass (Avery Massey claims to have benched 330 lbs the first time he attempted a bench press). In short, training to become strong for a specific competition does carry a lot of crossover to other sport specific strength- becoming strong on the gymnastics rings can make you stronger with the barbell, and training Olympic weightlifting can make you stronger with gymnastics skills.

Most “conventional” sports (USA Gymnastics, Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Track and Field, Triathlon, etc) typically subscribe to similar training philosophies. In developing training plans for their specific competitions, the recommended governing theories include- to varying degrees- Periodization, Supercompensation, and the SAID Principle (each described below). Here again, we find no shortage of evidence and arguments both for and against many of these guiding principles. This is not a dissertation on the merits or defects of these methodologies, but rather a simple explanation of some of the general recommended guidelines for sport specific strength training. Your son’s track coach probably isn’t who you’d turn to for advice on your handstand push up; most people wouldn’t look to the bank teller for tips on programming for your next triathlon; and your idiot neighbor Dave probably isn’t the best source for the strength training tips he’s picked up from Men’s Health, YouTube, and shots of tequila at the bar. If your goal is to maximize your back squat and deadlift, it would seem worthwhile to study USA Powerlifting’s recommendations on training those lifts. Sure, Michael Phelps’ training is a bit more complex and aggressive than the template USA Swimming puts out, but there are certainly reasons (and results) behind what the governing bodies of these sports recommend; and undeniably far more experience (and results) than good ole Dave has to offer.

Periodization: A gross oversimplification of periodization goes like this: If you plan an athlete’s competitions for the year, then work backwards through a training calendar, there will be several distinct periods or phases during which the major focus of training will be on different aspects of performance. In the big picture, “Macrocycles” encompass all of these phases, and refer to the entire cycle of competition prep, compete, recover. Macrocycles can be broken down into “Mesocycles,” or the particular phases of training for the individual cycle’s competition. These phases vary a bit depending on the specific sport or individual coaching philosophy, but generally follow a progression from Preparation (General, then Specific), Competition, Recovery. From there, Mesocycles can be broken into “Microcycles” or specific training blocks focused on delivering a particular stimulus towards the training goal of the Mesocycle. The usual time blocks for each are somewhere around a 12 month window for Macros, 3-4 month window for Mesos, and 1-2 weeks for Micros.

SAID Principal: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. In other words, when you challenge your body with a physical stimulus- say a clean and jerk or a ring dip- your body will adapt and improve, both physiologically and neurologically, to that particular challenge. Thus, if your sport is to lift as much weight as possible in back squat, bench press, and deadlift… well, you’d better be primarily training the back squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Supercompensation: Supercompensation refers to the final phase of any training session, the phase in which fitness exceeds the initial fitness, resulting in improved performance and the almighty GAINZ. The idea is fairly straightforward: An athlete enters the training session with an initial fitness level; performance decreases as a result of the physical training (i.e. your body is stressed during training, thus you wouldn’t be able to perform at your maximum at the end of training); there is a period of recovery; after the recovery phase, the body adapts to the physical stimulus, over preparing itself so that it can better perform during the next training phase.

By Haus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Haus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

CrossFit Programming

When it comes to strength, CrossFit has an extremely divergent view from conventional strength training. Once more, the following is not an argument for or against CrossFit programming, but rather an explanation of how CrossFit approaches strength training.

For those that follow programming, or pursue the posted WODs every once in a while, there are several things to take note of.

1) Programmed “Heavy Days” occur approximately once every four workouts

Due to the constant variation mantra of CrossFit, this sometimes occurs more frequently, and sometimes less frequently. As a strength and conditioning program, and by CrossFit’s definition of fitness, an athlete must possess and train strength in order to be truly “fit.” Thus, CrossFit prescribes “Heavy Days” as a training session that focuses wholly on developing strength. But CrossFit does not see “Heavy Days” as the only opportunity to advancing strength in an athlete- barbell movements within a metabolic conditioning workout can also build an athlete’s maximum effort strength output. Similarly, gymnastics movements grow strength for athletes, such as push ups in a conditioning workout increasing bench press efficiency.

2) There is tremendous variation in movements for Heavy Days

CrossFit takes pride in the “specialty of not specializing.” (What is Fitness) From conventional squats, to deficit deadlifts, to weighted dips, to Turkish Get-Ups, CrossFit embraces the concept of cross over strength from different disciplines: handstand push ups can make you stronger in the strict press just as much as deadlifts can improve your running just as much as front squats can help you with clean. While barbell movements are favored for heavy days as they represent an opportunity to move a far greater load, other modalities such as gymnastics, kettlebell, and Strongman strength all appear in CrossFit programming; to neglect strength any of these disciplines is to handicap one’s work capacity in that modality. Your combined weight from CrossFit Total doesn’t always translate into strength on the rings, or, say 30 muscle ups for time.

3) No distinct periods or phases occur throughout a year of training

CrossFit is designed to increase general physical preparedness (GPP), and does not consider this pursuit of fitness to have seasons. For true CrossFit programming, there is no “Games Season” or “Open Season”- these are artificial constructions and downstream effects of “the Sport of Fitness” but are not true to the original intent and philosophy of CrossFit (as referenced by Coach Glassman in his interview regarding the reorganization of The CrossFit Games). In terms of conventional strength training, there is no competition that CrossFit is designed for, and thus does not require application of Periodization (also, due to the prescribed frequency of Heavy Days and Rest Days, there is no real need for “de-load” phases that a lot of conventional programs subscribe to- the athletes are simply never overloaded with strength or volume, and thus do not require a reset or tapering programmed into their schedule).

4) On programmed heavy days, there is no conditioning WOD.

Although CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program, CrossFit does not subscribe to the “Strength + Conditioning” training template. In short, CrossFit sees Heavy Days as essential to building work capacity during the shortest of time domains (10 secs or less). The intensity of a Heavy Day is created by moving maximum loads in a very short amount of time, and that IS the “CrossFit” workout for the day. [LEVEL 2 pp 76-78]