Put Strength First

19 Apr

I know there are a lot of pictures of men in this post but this applies to women too.  We have one of the most respected strength coaches on our staff, Julia Ladewski.  If you want to talk to Julia about how to eat and perform better join the Science Lab.  Click this link for info.

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In its various forms, strength is the foundation of athletic performance and success in many aspects of life.  While strength manifests itself in many different ways, we’re primarily focused on physical strength.  However, effective training and nutrition requires a strong mind as well.  In fact, I don’t buy into the concept that you can separate the two elements; the mind and body are one.  You have to develop the mental fortitude to push through your struggles, whether it’s getting to the gym when you’re tired or devouring another sweet potato before bed because you KNOW you need it, but you also have to believe in what you’re doing.  Without faith that your programming and diet are going to work, you’ll have a hard time adhering long enough to reap any kind of benefit.  You’ll get in your own way if you’re constantly questioning whether or not you’re “doing it right”.  You NEED to be strong.

Yes, you need to be able to move properly.  Yes, you also need to maintain a certain level of conditioning, but without sufficient strength you’ll never make it out of the gate.  When you encounter an obstacle that defeats your strength, all of the metabolic conditioning in the world won’t get you over the wall.  Granted, you know this already; you’re already strength training.  Maybe you have a pretty nasty clean and jerk; maybe you can deadlift 400lbs at a low bodyweight.  What I’d like to get you thinking about is how you’re approaching the development of physical strength and why some of the protocols and exercises you’ve been avoiding might be just the thing you need to become a better CrossFitter and overall athlete.

A Comparison

We all know the guy or gal who’s perpetually living at the big box Globo Gym trying to shape up for the summer/pool party/wedding.  The end-game is to be “cut and jacked” or “firm and tone”.  Every day is chest, biceps, and abs day and they’ve never squatted outside the Smith machine.  “Snatch” and “jerk” are just dirty words and they just don’t understand why you’re trying to get them to branch out and do some functional training; how will that help them accomplish their goals?  What I want you to consider is, that for all the shortcomings of the typical gym rat, they are but a reflection of the physical culture at large.  We’re constantly being sold the idea that there’s one way to train that will make you big, and one way to train that will make you strong.  In other words, “there’s no place for bodybuilding in an athlete’s training regimen.”  In conversely, many people believe that lifting heavy is a ticket to “Snap City” and that it isn’t a necessary component of achieving a muscular physique.  This is simply not true.

Before we go further, let’s compare three types of athletes who depend entirely upon strength and how they primarily train by manipulating repetitions/time under tension, sets (volume) and intensity (weight lifted):

  • Powerlifters focus on developing maximal demonstrable strength (1 rep maximum).  The entire goal is to go to a meet, put up the heaviest weight you possibly can in the bench press, deadlift and squat for 1 repetition, and call it a day.  This is achieved mostly by training with low repetitions/minimal time under tension (1-5 reps) for many sets (3-12) with heavy weight (between 75-95% of a 1 rep maximum).

Because the weight used is so close to the lifter’s max, this style of lifting builds neurological adaptations that allow more muscle fibers to contract (and contract harder) in an instant, but because the time under tension is lower, it does not stress the metabolic capacity of the muscle in the same fashion as it does the tensile and nervous components.  The stress of lifting near-maximal weights necessitates that the lifter gradually increase intensity throughout the training cycle.  The gain in fluidic sarcoplasmic muscle mass (storage of water, sugar and fat within the muscle) does not occur as quickly as it could, although there is significant development of the functional part of the muscle, (the myofibril) and connective tissue as well as bone.  Because a larger muscle is a stronger muscle, most lifters will engage in bodybuilding routines when they aren’t preparing for a meet.

  • Bodybuilders/physique and fitness models train primarily to increase muscular size and shape.  The goal of their lifting regimen is aesthetic (although classical bodybuilders also performed feats of strength at their competitions).  Typical routines split muscle groups up between workouts (ie. chest, back, legs) and the repetitions/time under tension are higher (8-12+ reps) while the sets are fewer (3-6).  The weight used is lighter (between 60-80% of a 1 rep max) and multiple exercises are performed each workout that engage the musculature from various angles (i.e. flat, incline and decline bench press).  Isolation movements are also common, as well as the utilization of techniques to increase local muscular fatigue to elicit the greatest hypertrophy response.  This includes exaggerating the negative phase of the repetition and lifting slower overall.  Time under tension is key to increasing muscular size.

This style of lifting is more metabolically demanding.  The depletion of sugar, fat and water within the muscle during the lengthy sets, combined with stretching of the muscle tissue, and finally replenishment with food/water post-workout, lends to an increase in sarcoplasmic volume, which equates to visible/superficial muscle mass.  Myofibril density and maximal strength gains come more slowly.  Because a stronger muscle is a larger muscle, most bodybuilders spend a considerable amount of time developing strength in their early careers, allowing them to lift more weight for more reps and maximize sarcoplasmic hypertrophy when they become competitive.

  • Olympic weightlifters share many similarities with powerlifters (Olypmic lifting is highly dependent upon being able to engage as much muscle as possible in an instant, just like powerlifting), but their sport is more skill oriented than powerlifting.  The coordination required to fluidly transition between joint angles demands constant, rigorous technical practice; many coaches break down the movements into multiple “pieces” to train specific elements of the movement.  The two Olympic lifts, the snatch (where a barbell is brought from the floor to overhead in one movement) and the clean/jerk (where the bar is “cleaned” to the shoulders and then “jerked” overhead) require impeccable focus on technique to maximize the weight lifted.  There is also a great potential for injury when executing these lifts with heavier loads, so repetitions are kept at a minimum (1-3) for many sets (10-12) and training sessions can last hours to ensure complete recovery between sets.

Because movement speed and technical perfection dictate whether a lift is successful or not, the weight lifted in training is typically lighter than a powerlifter would work with (between 50-85% of a 1 rep maximum) and maximum attempts are saved for competition or performed rarely.  Since the lifts are usually done and over with in an instant, there is little time under tension or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy potential.  Because a stronger muscle is a larger muscle, and a larger muscle is a stronger muscle, as well as the fact that a stronger muscle is a faster muscle, Olympic weightlifters often engage in bodybuilding and powerlifting too.

You have to understand that there is no way to separate strength from size and vice versa.  While the manipulation of sets, reps and load is different depending upon your short-term goals, the most important factor that each type of strength athlete focuses on is progressive overload.  Regardless of the goal, to continue to elicit neurological strength or muscular hypertrophy adaptations, the stimulus (reps, sets, weight) must progressively increase.

For example, a bodybuilder overhead pressing 65 lbs. for 8 reps and 6 sets must eventually press:

  • 70lbs. for 8 reps and 6 sets
  • 65lbs. for 9 reps and 6 sets
  • 65lbs. for 8 reps and 7 sets

This type of progression and rep range will prioritize muscle gain above all.  Maximal strength will likely not increase as quickly training like this.  In contrast, an athlete working on their overhead press with 135lbs. for sets of 3 and 12 sets must eventually press:

  • 140lbs. for 3 reps and 12 sets
  • 135lbs. for 4 reps and 12 sets
  • 135lbs. for 3 reps and 13 sets

Training with low repetitions, heavier weight and distributing the repetitions over more sets will prioritize maximal strength gains, which will hopefully carry over to functional strength in sports.  Even so, you can expect that after many weeks of training like this, the athlete will get bigger as well.  Again, there is no way to separate strength and size gains; they always come bundled together in differing ratios.

Why Bodybuilders Need to Train like Athletes

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift any heavy-ass weights.”  Many of the most dominant bodybuilders (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were successful powerliters and Olympic lifters before they began to focus on aesthetics.  In his heyday, 8 time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman could bench press nearly 500 lbs. for 6 reps while dropping to 5% body fat.  Through years of developing maximal strength, these champions had a great base of dense myofibril muscle tissue upon which they could now build tons of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.  You simply cannot attain the look of a large, muscular human being without possessing a certain degree of strength development.  This is why we promote a “mostly building, most of the time” approach; you can’t cut down to 5% body fat at 122lbs.  It’s not going to look that great.  If how you look is important, you should be constantly focused on increasing your limit strength.

What it really comes down to is this: a guy @ 5’6″ squatting 225 (a 250lb 1RM) for 3 reps will have a more developed body than a guy @ 5’6″ squatting 155×8 (a 200lb 1RM).  No matter how many sets the second guy pops off with 155, no matter how much fluid he stores in his muscles, he will never achieve the density and size of the stronger fellow.  Likewise, a person with a 250lb. 1RM squat can work at 8 reps with 200lbs. and that will ultimately elicit a greater hypertrophy response.

If you are weak for your height and weight, you will look weak and there’s no way to hide it.  Focusing on high repetitions without developing your maximal strength is only going to take you so far.  Putting strength first will take you 90% of the way and then you can worry about the details.

Why Athletes Need to Train like Bodybuilders

How many times have you heard about someone injuring themselves because of a technical error?  How many times have you read about “so-and-so” tearing a rotator cuff, straining a hamstring, or herniating a disk?  While you may not necessarily be focused on looking like a Rottweiler with a myostatin deficiency, a structurally sound body with fewer weak links is a body that is less prone to severe injury.  When you fudge a muscle-up, your elbow and shoulder joints will be much better off if there’s a nice thick biceps or deltoid to cushion the blow.  Your knees will thank you for the high-rep lunges or leg extensions you’ve been doing when you lean forward too much at the bottom of a squat.  You can consider this pre-hab.  Likewise, when you’re already injured, moving a light weight for very high repetitions can help speed up recovery by flushing out inflammation and increasing blood flow to the area.

Injury prevention aside, although you’re focused primarily on athletic performance, everybody cares about how they look.  You likely have some dense muscle tissue under your skin that would look a lot better if you’d take some time to “pump it up” a bit.  Doing some high rep movements to a slower cadence will help you deplete glycogen; that means more room to eat carbs and an improved body composition in general.  A gain in muscular size will result in a small increase in strength, but endurance will also go up; you can look at bodybuilding workouts as focused conditioning for a specific joint/muscle group.  If your calves get tired or bunched up when you run, you may benefit from doing some calf raises for 8-12 reps on occasion.  Maybe your lockout on deadlifts is weak after a few reps?  Does your back round easily?  Well, you can hit up a back extension or glute ham raise for a couple 20 rep sets and get your posterior chain working again.

I’m not suggesting that you drop CrossFit to become a bodybuilder.  I’m not suggesting that gymnasts and Olympic lifters start making it their goal to bench press 600lbs.  If your lifetime goal is to squat 1,000lbs., you shouldn’t quit and devote the rest of your days to building the world’s largest pecs.  What I want you to take away from this is that there is room for hypertrophy (bodybuilding) work; there is room for some powerlifting, even if you don’t intend to compete.  Throw in some light curls after your WOD once in a while.  Challenge yourself to hit a new deadlift 3RM once a month.  No matter what your overall goal/sport is, developing strength quickly and efficiently demands a multifactorial approach.


  • While conditioning and mobility are necessary for athletic performance, strength is the basis it all sits upon.  Strength is valuable in every aspect of life, but is vital in most sports.
  • Bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters all lift barbells to achieve different strength qualities but there is significant difference between how they utilize the tool.
    • Bodybilders typically lift for higher repetitions with lighter loads at slower tempos in an attempt to overload the muscle to make it grow
    • Powerlifters lift explosively for low repetitions to generate maximal strength increases
    • Olympic lifters lift explosively with perfect technique for low repetitions in order to achieve peak acceleration through multiple joint angles
  • Although their sports are different, many powerlifters engage in bodybuilding in the off season, most bodybuilders do some powerlifting to build mass when they aren’t preparing for a show, and Olympic lifters do both to keep their bodies strong and lean.
  • Most professional bodybuilders are extremely strong; focusing on strength will take you a long way towards your physique goals.  Likewise, if a muscle group is weak, isolation exercises employed by bodybuilders can improve your strength in a lift by correcting imbalances.  Olympic lifting can teach you proper mechanics and improve both the shape of your body and your force production for powerlifting.
  • The most important constant is progression; you must lift heavier, for more reps, or more sets, no matter what your overall goal is.
  • Mixing up rep schemes and loading parameters is probably the ticket to achieving your strength/physique goals so don’t be afraid to do some curls if you’re a powerlifter/Olympic lifter.  At the same time, bodybuilders shouldn’t be afraid to lift heavy!
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