by Christian Thibaudeau T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• CrossFitters have amazingly strong backs and work their lower back every day in one way or another. Adopting this kind of strategy will make your back stronger and it will carry over to your Olympic lifts, deadlifts, and squats.
• CrossFitters do a lot of high rep work, and this high-rep work on the big basic lifts builds a lot of muscle mass while also leading to decent strength gains.
• Since many CrossFitters are new to serious weight training, they don’t have any mental blocks when it comes to hitting PRs and making fast progress. It’s an attitude we could all use.
I used to make fun of CrossFit. I thought it was a fad and they all used ****ty form; that they couldn’t get strong or build muscle doing those workouts. Well, I was wrong. Working with a lot of CrossFit athletes made me change my mind. While I personally wouldn’t train using only WODs, I did learn a lot of things from coaching CrossFit athletes.
I work with a very diverse clientele: average Joes, athletes, bodybuilders, and CrossFitters, and I must say that next to the powerlifters I worked with, the CrossFitters were the strongest overall. Oddly enough, for a group that has a reputation for using bad form, they have probably the best form among the people I’ve trained. Serious CrossFitters are perfectionists and really work at their craft. Sure, they might have a slight technical breakdown during WODs, but most of the time their technique is very solid.
Here are the three things I learned from training these hardworking individuals:
1. The secret to fast strength gains on the Olympic lifts, deadlifts, and squats is training the lower back frequently.
One thing with CrossFit athletes (even non-competitors) that is both rewarding and frustrating is they make amazingly fast progress on Olympic lifts when properly coached. Heck, many that I coached took only a few months to hit weights that took me a few years to attain while training on the Olympic lifts full time. That made me feel good about my coaching, but bad about myself. Was I a genetic moron? Heck, even one of the girls I’ve trained on the Olympic lifts reached a 190-pound snatch faster than I did!
So it got me thinking. CrossFit athletes aren’t doing tons of fulltime Olympic lifting workouts, certainly not at the frequency that would justify the super fast improvements I was seeing. Normally they’d devote one or two sessions per week to focus on the Olympic lifts, so that wasn’t it. I can’t say they were doing tons of strength work, either. To be fair, the good ones were lifting heavy fairly often, but not at the volume and/or frequency that those focusing solely on strength were using. So getting super strong wasn’t the answer either. Then it hit me: CrossFit athletes – even most recreational CrossFitters – have super strong lower backs.
Think about it, the following are pretty much part of every single WOD. They’re doing hundreds, if not thousands, of reps per week involving the lower back to some extent, either:
• Deadlifting anything from super high reps (up to 100 reps in a workout) to super heavy weights
• Doing kettlebell swings with all sorts of weights and rep ranges
• Or performing high-rep Olympic lifting (not something I’d personally do or recommend)
Not only do they do all this work for the lower back, but they tend to loosen up their form a bit during WODs. This makes them round the lower back slightly. I’m not saying that you should start doing tons of rounded-back lifting, but the fact is that deadlifting with a rounded back puts more stress on your erector spinae and – if you don’t blow a disk – it will make your lower back stronger. Heck, even Klokov does a ton of rounded-back pulling. When it comes to the Olympic lifts, a strong lower back allows you to stay in a position to make the best use of your strength when the weight gets heavy.
One CrossFitter who’s now my good friend started out doing deadlifts. He didn’t have much experience and had the worst fishing-rod deadlift form ever. I made fun of him at the time because he told me he was going to bring his 405-pound deadlift up to 535 in four months. I even wrote him an email saying why he was being unrealistic and how he was disrespecting powerlifters who work their tail off for every 10 pounds they added. Well, he actually did it, but with the most horrible form possible. Fast forward a year and that guy now has one of the best lifting forms I’ve seen and it’s because he has a super strong lower back. He’s now snatching, cleaning, deadlifting, and squatting superb weights for his size.
This really made it click for me. I “theoretically” understood the value of a strong lower back, but never really did focus on it that much. I felt that I got all the lower back stimulation I needed from doing the Olympic lifts and squats. In retrospect I now know I always had a weak lower back and it probably held me back.
I now believe that the lower back responds better to a high volume of work. If you want to build it to a level that will give you the strength to shock people, you need to work it for a high number of reps at a very high frequency. The good news is that the lower back muscles seem to have the highest trainability of all the muscles. This means they get bigger and stronger very rapidly if you focus hard on training them. I’m now devoting a good amount of time on making my lower back stronger using various rep ranges, using from 3 to 10 reps on the Romanian deadlift and other pulls; 10-12 on loaded back extensions, the back extension machine, glute-ham raises, and reverse hypers; and up to 30 on KB swings.
Applying it: Honestly I feel that with the lower back the big secret is doing it. I end every session with a lower back exercise. Depending on how fresh I am or how strong I feel, I’ll pick the movement that will work the best on that day. If I feel tired, then doing heavy triples on the Romanian deadlift might not be a good idea. And don’t dismiss something as simple as a back extension machine. The lower back doesn’t need to be trained at a high intensity to improve; just do something for your lower back every day and it will get stronger.
2. The value of high reps.
I’m a low rep guy and that won’t change. If I had to associate myself with one belief system, it would be the Bulgarian weightlifting school of thought that emphasizes always using very low reps and heavy (max or near-max) weights. However, after working with a lot of CrossFit athletes, I’ve come to appreciate the value of higher-rep training.
Yes, doing 21-15-9 on deadlifts and pull-ups sucks while you’re doing it, but I must confess that it does work. It’s easy to say that most CrossFit athletes do strength work outside of their WODs and that’s why they’re posting huge numbers, but I know a lot who get strong by only doing the WODs. They deadlift, squat, front squat, and push press (the Olympic lifts are a given) a lot more than the average commercial member who specifically trains to get bigger and stronger by doing “bodybuilding work.”
I’m not saying that high reps work better than powerlifting/low reps heavy work to get super strong, but lifting decent weights for higher reps certainly will get you stronger. And I find that relatively high reps on the big basic lifts (deadlift, squat, front squat, push press, pull-ups, and dips) will build a lot of muscle mass while also leading to decent strength gains. I’ll use my wife as an example. She never clean and jerked more than 85 pounds. After a few months of doing only CrossFit WODs, she hit 140 pounds.
What I like about the CrossFit-style high reps is that they do not define it in “sets.” If you have 21 deadlifts to do with 355 pounds, you can get those 21 reps in 2, 3 or 4 “sets” as long as you try to do them as fast as possible. That gives you a high density of work with a fairly heavy load, and that will build a lot of muscle mass. I recently started doing some thing like this myself. After my heavy work is done, I use 60% of my maximum on the lift and shoot for 20 reps. I may take one or two short breaks but the movement isn’t over until I get all 20. I noticed an increase in my rate of muscle growth from that simple addition.
Another method you can use is density strength work. Use 70-80% of 1RM on the bar and try to get to 30 total reps in as little time as possible. It might take you 6-8 sets to get there, but that’s fine. Just try to rest as little as possible: 5 reps, rest 10 seconds, 5 reps, rest 10 seconds, etc.
Applying it: After you’ve done your heavy work for your main movement of the day, challenge yourself to do 20 reps with 60% of your maximum on that same lift. If you can get all 20 without resting, go with 65 or 70% next time! You can also use density work, getting 30 total reps at 70-80% of your max in as little time as possible.
3. No respect for the weight.
One thing I noticed with many CrossFit athletes and even among recreational CrossFit participants is that they don’t have the same respect for the weight as powerlifters, Olympic lifters, or bodybuilders do. And I’m not referring to throwing down the bar after each set or rep (even though such a thing has been know to happen in most CrossFit boxes). No, I’m talking about the fact that they don’t seem to realize how hard a certain weight should be.
I’ll go back to my friend who was deadlifting 405 pounds who set a goal to deadlift 535 in four months. He didn’t seem to realize that a 135-pound increase on a lift in four months was insane, but he did it! And I’m seeing this all over the place. Fairly low-level CrossFitters saying, “Man, I really need to get my clean up to 315 pounds,” when they are struggling with 205, and then achieving it in a few months. Back when I started Olympic lifting, three plates was a big weight and my progress got stuck because I was setting myself up negatively by believing that a certain weight was out of my range.
That’s the weird thing with CrossFit. In powerlifting we look at the big guns deadlifting and squatting 900-1000 pounds and think, “These guys are inhuman; I’ll never get there.” In CrossFit they look at the guys who qualify for the games that have cleans of 315-375 pounds and think, “Man, I need to get there, quick.”
It reminds me of when my bench press had been stuck at 275 for a few years. I couldn’t get past that point no matter what I tried. I was training at a college gym where bench-pressing 225 would get you labeled as a steroid user, so 315 seemed like a physical impossibility to me, a lift done only by mythical beasts that are hiding in a cave somewhere.
And then I moved to that cave. I started training at a little hardcore gym in the basement of a church. The manager was a former Canadian record holder in the clean & jerk and his son was a strongman competitor. All the powerlifters and strongmen in the city trained there. There were at least 10 guys bench pressing 405 and a few had gotten over 500 pounds raw. It wasn’t exactly Westside, but compared to my previous gym it was a slap in the face. Within a few weeks I was up to 315 and it wasn’t that long until I could hit 365 and then 405 came within less than a year. Seeing all these guys doing those big lifts removed my mental block. It’s the same with CrossFit. You see so many competitive CrossFitters hitting 345-380 pound cleans and 265-285 pound snatches that 300-315 and 225-235 becomes ordinary (even low) and thus seems “easy” to reach. The funny thing is that because of that perception, they really do become much easier to reach.
I also think that a lot of people get into CrossFit without a big lifting background. Most of them were people who played sports first and maybe did some lifting here and there, so they don’t have the same relationship with the weights that us ironheads have. They don’t have the same perception of what is heavy and what should be a normal progression. An experienced lifter will say something like, “Gaining 50 pounds on a lift in a year is really good progress once you get past the beginner stage.” Oh the other hand, a beginner CrossFitter will think, “Man I really gotta’ get to those Rx weights soon or I’ll look like a loser.” (Note: The Rx weight is the load prescribed in a WOD. If you have to do 50 deadlifts with 225 pounds the Rx weight is 225). A competitive CrossFitter will think, “Froning is snatching 300 and cleaning 380. I have to get to at least 245 and 335 in a few months.”
And really, in all those cases they normally get what they think they can get. The same thing happened with me and my high pulls. Tim Patterson challenged me to go from 275 to 400 in 3 weeks. At the time my goal was 315 in 3 months, so he kinda’ changed my plans. And I got it because he got my mind in the right place.
Another example occurred when I went to train at Dave Tate’s compound. At the time my lifetime best bench press was 420, but my best at the time was 405 and I had missed 425 three times in the past month. When training at the compound I’d just follow one of the guys, not knowing how much weight we were using (we were using an odd fat bar and I had no idea of its weight). When I was done I asked Dave how much was on the bar, he answered, “445 pounds.” Twenty-five pounds over my lifetime best!
Applying it: It’s much harder to teach you how to apply a mental strategy than a training strategy. I do have one good recommendation, though. If you want to get strong, the best thing you could possibly do is move to a gym where super strong guys train. I cannot overstate the effect that training among these guys will have on your progress.
Learn From Everyone
I believe that CrossFit athletes still have a ways to go to maximize their performance. However, I also believe there’s a lot we can learn from them and the three elements I presented merely scratch the surface. I always believed that everybody who trains hard has something to teach others and that we shouldn’t be painting ourselves in a corner by refusing to learn from other groups of people just because it’s fashionable to make fun of them.