August 15 2023
How to Build a Strength Program for the CrossFit Athlete
Putting together a strength-focused functional fitness program/cycle doesn’t need to be as difficult as it sounds. If you stick to the principles I’m going to outline here, you should be able to put together an effective program that gets you stronger and better conditioned.
The first thing we need to do is create the ‘shell’ for our program. The shell will dictate the program length, specific training days, and a few other components we’ll discuss later in this article.1. Program Length + Weekly Volume Variations
Let’s start with the program length. Typically, my strength cycles last eight weeks. In technical terms, this is called a mesocycle–a training period within a bigger training cycle (a year plan, for example) that focuses on a specific goal. I’ve found that for the functional fitness athlete, that’s enough time to see really good strength gains without sacrificing other areas of your fitness like gymnastics or running conditioning, for example.
I like to break down those eight weeks into two 4-week microcycles. Weeks 1-3 will gradually see an increase in volume and intensity before scaling back for a deload on week 4. A deload week helps you recover from the previous weeks of training while getting you ready for the work that lies ahead.
Week 5 will pick back up to a volume and intensity level somewhere between weeks 2 and 3. Volume and intensity will again increase on a weekly bases until peaking at week 8. The second 4-week cycle will see volume and intensity increase for the full 4 weeks.
As long as you follow a similar pattern, you can make your training cycle 6, 10, or 12 weeks. Whatever your yearly training schedule allows. For strength cycles 6 weeks or less, you don’t really need to schedule a deload week in the middle.2. Training Days and Volume
Almost every program I’ve put together follows the same 3 days on/1 day off/2 days on/1 day off pattern. I’ve found this to be ideal in terms of recovery and athlete motivation.
However, to maximize athlete recovery it’s necessary to specify how much relative volume each day will have. The pattern I’ve found works best is having volume and intensity peak on
Monday, be at their lowest on Tuesday, and moderate on Wednesday. Friday can look similar to Wednesday, as far as volume and intensity go. Saturday can vary depending on what week you’re on. However, on that day, volume and intensity are usually higher than Friday’s but lower than Monday’s. These fluctuations aim to put your body in the most optimal state possible during each workout session.
Of course, these relative volume figures don’t answer how much volume any day should have. That part will be left up to you. A typical day in Rx Strong takes anywhere between 60-90 minutes and incorporates about 6-7 different exercises per day.3. Exercise Frequency
For the functional fitness athlete, like many other athletes, strength revolves around squatting, pulling, and pressing (in that order). The exercises in your program should be put into one of these three categories. The exercises in each category should then be prioritized by their importance to your overall strength goals.
For example, here is an excerpt from Rx Strong:
Squatting workouts will focus (in this order) on the back squat, front squat, and overhead squat. Pressing workouts will focus (in this order) on the push press, strict press, and bench press. Pulling workouts will have the most variety. However, the most common pulling exercises will include wide and close grip pull-ups; conventional, Romanian, and deficit deadlifts; and clean and snatch pulls.
Our most important strength area (in our case, squatting), should be programmed on Mondays, or whatever day you consider the start of the week. This is when your body is most recovered and ready to work. It should make sense then, that this is when you should work on the most critical area of your strength.
As for frequency, I believe you should be squatting at least 2x a week during your strength cycle. In Rx Strong, squats are programmed 3x a week.
Pulling from the floor should be programmed at least 2x per week. Upper body pressing should be programmed 1-2x per week. Upper body pulling should be programmed 1-2x per week.4. Squat Intensity
We covered earlier that the strength week should start with squats since we are prioritizing squatting strength over everything else–and whatever we prioritize, we do first.
Well, since prioritizing strength, that squat session should also be your heaviest. In Rx Strong, the first workout of the week is always some squat variation to a daily max. This is very similar to the Conjugate Method– a style of training popularized by the late (and great) Louie Simmons that created some of the strongest men and women in the world. Since this should be a very heavy squat session, you will be going no higher than to a 4 rep daily max.
The rest of your squat sessions will be lower in intensity and percentage based.5. Pressing & Pulling Intensity
The pressing and pulling categories will revolve around your squat days. You can sparingly program daily max workouts for other exercises but I don’t believe that is necessary. Remember, we are focused on building strength for the functional fitness athlete.
For your pulling and pressing categories, aim to repeat a similar set of exercises for each microcycle (instead of constantly adding new exercises). Vary your rep ranges as much as possible. Anywhere between 2 and 20 reps is okay.
The more you program for yourself, the better understanding you’ll get of what exercises you should be doing and for how many reps. When starting, it’s okay to make a few mistakes. Heck, I’ve written many workouts that have either been much easier or much harder than originally intended6. Incorporating Conditioning Workouts
It’s important not to forget that we’re not just putting together a strength program. We’re putting together a strength program specifically designed for the functional fitness athlete. Therefore, we want to ensure that our program allows an athlete (you, if you’re programming for yourself), to improve or at minimum, maintain conditioning.
I recommend 2-3 conditioning workouts a week. Further, each conditioning workout should try to incorporate whatever strength component you were training that day.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. There's a contact form at the end of this article. If you’ve put together a plan and want me to look it over, I can do that as well. For now, I’ll leave you with week 1 of Rx Strong:
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