My professional opinion of strength training has certainly grown and evolved over the years. As much as I love CrossFit, and as deeply as I believe it it’s doctrine, I’ve always found it appropriate to account for the effectiveness of alternative training methods and philosophies. The various subtleties to strength training that I’ve picked up during my career have slowly sculpted my attitude towards strength, and softened or changed some of my early notions on best practices for developing strength in athletes. The truth is that we’ve seen different degrees of success with each of our strength protocols. Both CrossFit Football and CrossFit Strongman, for example, have slight variations on conventional CrossFit programming, and both are very effective at producing enormous strength gains in athletes.
It is important to note that as John Welbourn has left the CrossFit SME Staff to focus on Power Athlete, CrossFit Football has morphed into CrossFit Sport Specific, which is certainly a more appropriate name for the course. This training approach certainly applies to more than just football, and is unique in the CrossFit seminars as it is truly sport specific training. As I hold the CrossFit Football certification and cannot speak to and differences in the CrossFit Sport Specific curriculum, this explanation of strength training will be from the view of CFFB.
The first, and most obvious deviation is that CFFB DOES subscribe to a “Strength + Conditioning” template: SWOD (Strength WOD) and DWOD (Daily WOD) with one caveat: If you do not have 1.5-2.0 hours to dedicated to the training session, the SWOD and DWOD should be split into two different training sessions. Between warming up and executing the SWOD, recovery, movement prep, and execution of the DWOD, CFFB has found that athletes will need at very least an hour and a half to effectively train.
Additionally, CFFB prescribes on really, really heavy, but short DWODs. In an effort to prepare athletes for sport, their focus is on mimicking what most field sport athletes require during competition: short, powerful bursts. 405 lb deadlifts in a WOD? Bring it on. “Long WODs aren’t cool, but heavy WODs are awesome. Don’t go long, go HEAVY.” While Conventional CrossFit does include met-cons with heavy loads in their programming, CFFB prescribes them abandon (and with some big boy weights).
(Side note, CFFB/Power Athlete’s nutrition protocol is pretty intense as well. One of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard about eating came from the CFFB seminar: “Two rules about nutrition: 1) If it had a face or a mother, eat that shit. 2) Don’t be weird.”)
In general, CrossFit Strongman adheres to the Conventional CrossFit view of strength training though Heavy Days. The greatest difference in the attitude of CF Strongman is that frequent and varied use of odd object implements directly results in increased strength performance by conventional standards. In other words, training with Strongman implements will make you strong as hell with the barbell.
CF Strongman explains this carryover strength with two important ideas. First, odd object movements are actually much more natural than most barbell movements. A stone shoulder, for example, is much more akin to hoisting a bag of cement onto your shoulder than a barbell power clean. Using these natural movements can help athletes understand the movement patterns required to effectively lift weights on the barbell. Because Strongman movements are typically so instinctive, they serve as outstanding “gateway” movements within the box. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing natural about an overhead squat.
The second concept CF Strongman employs is that using odd implements forces athletes to find efficiency in movement. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of doing thrusters with a keg, you know what this feels like; a keg filled with water to a total weight of 50 lbs is much, much harder for a set of 5 thrusters than 95 lbs on a barbell. The water sloshing back and forth during the movement forces the athlete to both stabilize the load and to move as efficiently as possible to minimize the water’s momentum. One of the more interesting training challenges I’ve seen is the “Grace Challenge”: Perform “Grace” (30 Clean and Jerks as fast as possible at 135 for men, 95 for women) on Week 1. Once a week for the next 7 weeks, perform “Grace” with something OTHER than a barbell- atlas stones, kegs, kettlebells, axle bars, dumbbells, sandbags, etc, etc, etc. On Week 9, perform “Grace” exactly the way you did on Week 1 and compare your times. The subtle efficiencies in movement gained using the odd objects tend make athletes faster with the barbell.
An additional and unique concept Rob Orlando , the CF Strongman SME, has discussed over the years is “Cold Bar Training.” Take a deadlift bar (or front squat, or bench press, or whatever you need to work on) and set it up in the corner with a weight that is challenging, but that you can move without warming up. The goal is to be able to walk up to the bar “cold”- regardless of the time of day, what you’ve had to eat, what you did the previous day, what you’re wearing- and lift the weight without hesitation. As the weight becomes easier and easier for you, you continue to slowly add weight to the bar. In theory, as you accumulate “cold” reps and greater and greater weights, your body begins to become receptive to larger and larger loads. Think about it like this: if your first “warm up set” set of back squats is 135 lbs, the goal of Cold Bar Training is to move that first “warm up set” to 225; if the starting point moves forward, the ending point should move forward as well.
Programming nuances aside, the general attitude towards strength fostered by Rob Orlando and CrossFit Strongman is both notable and virtuous. The concept that “Strength Takes A Lifetime To Acquire” (explained in more detail HERE) is both monumentally important and absolutely applicable regardless of your chosen strength doctrine, philosophy, or program. No matter who you are or how you train, strength is built little by little, day after day, pound after pound. There is no pixie dust shortcut, no magic squat program, no voodoo knee sleeve that will suddenly allow you to lift small cars.
The Right Strength Training Program
For every strength program out there, there are plenty of opinions on, variations to, arguments for, and complaints against. The effectiveness of any given program is not mutually exclusive of another of; just because one program is successful at developing strongman strength does not mean that it is the ONLY way to achieve that strength. Nor is the effectiveness of any strength template necessarily isolated to that discipline; developing gymnastics strength can translate into powerlifting success, and weightlifting training can absolutely increase gymnastics performance. Mix in the reality that we’re all training for different purposes, add in the fact that no two athletes respond the a physical stimulus in the same way, and you’re left with a recipe for tremendous variation on how to develop strength.
There is no shortage of pros and cons for how to incorporate strength training into CrossFit programming either. For all the data to back up the frequency and style with which CrossFit prescribes Heavy Days, it’s really difficult to reconcile the vast chasm between a theory which relies heavily on every athlete training 3 days on, 1 day off without missing a session, with the real world of traveling for work, after school practices, and hectic weekend schedules. If a weekly programmed Heavy Day happens to fall on a Tuesday this week and a Friday next week, it is conceivable that an athlete could miss both sessions, and go nearly 3 weeks without a dedicated strength session. On the surface, this approach does not seem to be congruent with the randomness of life’s obligations. Thus, the case can certainly be made in favor of CrossFit Football’s SWOD and DWOD- athletes should get strength and conditioning every single day.
The argument against programming strength and conditioning for every session can be summed up in three words: Purpose, Volume, Time. CrossFit Football programs SWODs for a specific purpose: to prepare athletes to apply tremendous amounts of force in a specific competition during a particular season. By contrast, the general population of CrossFit athletes are training for everyday life- to continually build strength over a lifetime with no particular competition or endgame in mind. Similarly, the volume accumulated by conducting strength sessions every single class is not appropriate for all settings. For an athlete training for a particular competition- a weightlifter or powerlifter, for example- it is imperative to amass daily and weekly volumes during the ebbs and flows of a training cycle. But once again, for the general population- especially CrossFit athletes- there is no “off season,” and the accumulation of stress from strength sessions every single day without tapering or rest results in diminished performance over time.
And finally, but most importantly, there is the all important component of time. It’s certainly possible to complete both a strength and conditioning piece in one hour’s time, but it will always come at a price. Whether it’s limiting the length of the conditioning workout, short changing the time needed to truly lift heavy, or simply consuming the precious time needed to practice the fundamentals and acquire new skills, the added benefit of inserting a strength component to each class comes at a cost to some other piece of the programming.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to get strong. An Olympic gymnast’s strength program will look vastly different from an Olympic weightlifter’s, and both of those programs will look drastically different from World’s Strongest Man training. None are right or wrong, simply different; periodization is a proven, effective technique for maximizing performance, yet CrossFit has been quite successful and building tremendous strength without applying phases or cycles to it’s programming. CrossFit Football’s SWOD and DWOD stand in a bit of a contradiction to HQ’s “program heavy days/avoid the strength + conditioning pitfall” mantra, yet both are capable of developing strong, powerful athletes.
The subtitles to strength programming lie in tailoring the training to the purpose for the workouts: a football player is training for different form of competition than a cyclist, and both of these are training for something entirely different than a working mother of two who just wants to be able to run around with her kids. CrossFit, the program that specializes in not specializing and programs for everyday life, demands a wide variety of strength programming to help develop general physical preparedness- kettlebells, barbells, gymnastics, odd objects. As fun and sexy as lifting those heavy weights on a barbell can be, what’s more useful during yard work on a Saturday: that new split jerk PR you set, or lifting those heavy atlas stones? Being strong is awesome, but keep in mind what you’re applying your strength to… remember, the zombies don’t give a shit what your snatch PR is.