June 14, 2023
How Important Is Strength to the CrossFit Athlete?
When it comes to strength and the CrossFit athlete, one thing is undeniable: everything else equal, a stronger athlete is a better athlete.
The most obvious example of this is when testing athletes for a one-rep max, much like Powerlifting. At the 2020 CrossFit Games, athletes competed in the CrossFit Total, which seeks to find the sum of an athlete’s max back squat, deadlift, and strict shoulder press. In events like this, the stronger athlete wins; there’s no question about that. These types of events embody the definition of absolute strength – the ability to produce force against resistance. Events like this aren’t just reserved for the CrossFit Games either. We’ve seen numerous 1-rep max tests during the CrossFit Open, and, on any given weekend, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find a local competition with at least one event testing a max lift.
Yet, when we talk about strength in the realm of functional fitness, absolute strength is just one component – and arguably, a smaller one. Tests of strength endurance are much more common. And while strength endurance isn’t a test of pure strength, their relationship is undeniable.
Absolute Strength Vs. Strength Endurance
Absolute strength is the total amount of force an athlete can produce. A one-rep max back squat is an example of absolute strength.
Strength endurance is the ability to produce submaximal levels of force repeatedly. Deadlifting a submaximal load for a maximum number of repetitions is an example of strength endurance.
In the sport of CrossFit, where workout weights are fixed (within a given division), you must first pass the absolute strength test before you can test strength endurance. That is, you must first be able to lift a weight once before you can lift it multiple times.
Remember our opening statement: All other things being equal, a stronger athlete is a better athlete. It’s not enough to pass the absolute strength test; to be successful, you must clear it by a sufficient margin. Going forward, we’ll refer to this margin (the difference between an athlete’s 1-rep max and the weight in any given workout) as an athlete’s strength reserve. The obvious question is ‘in any given workout, how much strength reserve does an athlete need?’.
Let’s take a workout like Heavy Fran, for example:
If an athlete’s max thruster is 135/95 lbs, they technically pass the absolute strength test (they can lift the bar at least once). However, given they’ll have to lift their max 45 times in this workout, they’re more than guaranteed a poor result. In this example, the athlete has a strength reserve of zero.
1-Rep Max – Workout Weight = Strength Reserve
Of course, this is an obvious example. However, it shows us that there is a strong relationship between strength endurance and absolute strength. More specifically, the greater the percentage of absolute strength tested in a strength endurance test, the faster the athlete will fatigue.
Rx Strong: An 8-Week Strength Program Specifically Designed for the CrossFit Athlete
Take two identical athletes with just one key difference between them; one is 30% stronger in the deadlift than the other. In a workout like Diane, the stronger athlete will win almost every time. As a reminder, Diane is 21-15-9 deadlifts at 225/155 & handstand push-ups
It's easy to jump to the argument that if the weaker athlete has better gymnastics then things will even out. But that's not what we're talking about here. In our example, both athletes are identical except for their strength. To better illustrate this, place yourself as the example. One athlete is the current you. The other, is you but much, much stronger version.
Are you starting to get the picture of why being stronger is essential to the success of a CrossFit athlete?
Now, there are exceptions to this rule. Using our two identical athletes from above, there are examples when the stronger athlete doesn’t always have an advantage. It’s at the point in a workout where additional strength plays little to no role; From my estimate, it’s when an athlete’s absolute strength exceeds the workout weight by about 150% (or a strength reserve ratio of 1.50). At that point, they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.
(1-Rep Max – Workout Weight) / Workout Weight = Strength Reserve Ratio
Let’s look at some examples of when athletes have a little, a lot, and no advantage in the workout Diane as a result of their strength.
Example 1: Athlete A Has a Small Advantage
Example 2: Athlete A Has a Big Advantage
Example 3: Athlete A Has No Advantage
Example 1 and 2 are pretty straightforward. However, you may be asking yourself, “In example 3, why does Athlete A not have a significant advantage over Athlete B?”. Well, both athletes have a strength reserve ratio above 1.5; this means their strength reserve is more than 1.5 times what is required by the workout. So, while Athlete B has a much lower max deadlift than Athlete A, he will probably move the 225lbs in Diane just as easily. In the simplest of terms, both consider the workout weight ‘light.’
The importance of strength to the functional fitness athlete is immense. Of course, this isn’t to say that things like gymnastics and aerobic endurance aren’t important. To be successful at this sport, you must be proficient in all aspects. However, strength is a legitimate separator.
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