What is in this article?
Quick introduction to the TTT strength model
(more in-depth analysis in the Strength Course content)
An example needs analysis for strength qualities in the sport of CrossFit
This blog is meant to serve as Part-2 of Heavy Squats are Not Always the Answer. I have written this assuming that you have already read Part-1 and have watched the Classroom videos: What is Strength and Strength Categories. If you have not read and watched these references do that before you come back.
What is “Strength”
Before we dig into an analysis for the strength requirements of CrossFit, the first thing we need to do is define ‘strength’ and the subsets of strength that are commonly tested in CrossFit competition. The average person’s definition of ‘strength’ conflates different qualities that are only loosely related. As I laid out in Part-1, the traditional definition of strength equates to 1RM’s. However most people would classify an athlete bench pressing 400# and someone performing 30 unbroken strict pull-ups as an expression of “strength”. The reality is that these are opposite two ends of the strength-speed / strength-speed-endurance continuum.
The strength-speed categories presented below are extracted from the Strength Categories Classroom video so you should be familiar with these already. However in this blog, I will also touch on the concept of the strength-speed-endurance continuum which will be covered in future Classroom videos (note those videos may be out by the time you’re reading this blog!)
Absolute-strength – Slow strength development. Movements would include the back squat, front squat, deadlift, shoulder press and bench press
Strength-speed – The ability to move heavy, but not maximal, weights at high speeds. Movements would include clean and snatch, as well as various strongman elements for CrossFitters (though for a Strongman competitor these may bee Speed-strength
Speed-strength – The ability to move light weights at very high velocities. Examples would include light thrusters, wall balls, and kipping gymnastics movements
Absolute speed – The ability to move only the body weight or extremely light external loads (like a baseball) at maximal speeds. Examples would include air squats, jumping and throwing a football
Needs Analysis: Strength in CrossFit
The simplest way to assess the strength needs of a CrossFit athlete is to look at historical data and develop a picture of a ‘typical’ athlete. For this blog we’re going to take a simplistic look at a typical Games-level athlete between 2016-2018 (2019 data had not been compiled at the time I wrote this blog). CrossFit HQ provides this information for us through the Leaderboard as well other entities in the sport like @HEATONMINDED, @FitnessAnalytics, and @WODscience making it relatively simple to determine what an adequate level of strength might look like. Keep in mind that much of this is self-reported data pulled from athlete profiles so there is very likely a large margin for error here.
It is important to understand that while these are indicators of the degree of absolute strength and strength-speed requirements for these athletes, these are not necessarily the CONTEXT in which strength is most commonly tested in the sport. There are many athletes in the sport who meet or exceed these metrics but are nowhere near qualifying for the CrossFit games. Part of this can be explained in the statement ‘correlation does not equal causation’.
Just because there is a correlation between a male athlete possessing a 345# Clean & Jerk and qualifying for the CrossFit Games, doesn’t mean that possessing a 345# Clean & Jerk will qualify an athlete for the Games.
I think this mindset is part of what leads to the all too common notion that people simply need to improve 1RM’s to improve in the sport. Another major factor here is that during the Open, CrossFit HQ doesn’t typically test strength-speed (exception: Clean & Jerk 1RM in 15.1a and Clean in 18.2a) but rather they frequently test strength-speed endurance under fatigue (for example: Snatch ladders in 12.2, 13.1, 17.2, and clean ladders in 16.2 and 19.2)
Strength Qualities in CrossFit
CrossFit is a unique sport in that it tests strength across an incredibly broad spectrum, assuming that you’re looking at ALL the tests over the course of a CrossFit Games Season. Most of the tests at the far ends of the strength spectrum are tested at the CrossFit Games and occasionally at the Sanctional level. For example absolute strength has been tested at the CrossFit Games via the 1RM Deadlift in 2016 and the CrossFit Total in 2018 and absolute speed has been frequently tested with various sprinting tests at the. With that being said, MOST athletes will only ever be exposed to a small subset of the strength categories in competition. If you go back and perform an analysis of the last 8 years of Open and Regional (when that was still a thing) workouts you will find that there are four strength parameters that are most commonly tested: (in no particular order and not an exhaustive list)
Absolute Strength Endurance
Strict HSPU (depending on athlete’s upper-body strength profile)
Heavy deadlift repeatability
Moderate-heavy repeat Thrusters
Kipping Muscle-ups (depending on athlete’s upper-body strength profile)
Moderate-heavy repeat Weightlifting
Heavy single/double/triple Weightlifting / Thrusters
As a coach, assessing your athlete’s specific strength needs comes down to creating an effective testing battery that encompasses all of the strength categories tested in the athlete’s sport. Essentially we want to create a comprehensive ‘needs analysis’ of the sport and then test our athletes against those needs. Below you will find a sample strength assessment that can be used to assess common movements and tests required of a Sanctional-level CrossFit athlete.
There are two caveats here (1) obviously this testing battery is not exhaustive and leaves out all of the skill and energy-system testing that needs to be performed in order to have a complete picture of an athlete’s development in the sport. (2) if I were performing this assessment with one of my athletes these tests would be specifically tuned to their needs, guided by our consult and discussion. For example if they suggested that the power version of their Olympic lifts lagged behind their squat variations then I would likely assess both.
There are literally thousands of combinations of movements, repetition ranges, loading patterns, and training frequencies that can be created to achieve some level of athletic development. Over time, coaches have created training templates that they have found to work well with their subset of the athletic population (best practices). For example: Louie Simmons created the Westside system for Powerlifters, Mark Cannella created the Columbus Weightlifting systems for Weightlifters, but neither of these systems would work well to develop athletes in the opposite discipline (note: I’m not saying that these coaches couldn’t develop athletes in the opposite discipline, just that the systems they’ve created for their respective sport would not work well in the other). This is because Powerlifting and Weightlifting require different levels of development of each of the different strength qualities. For example: a Powerlifter needs extremely high levels of absolute strength while a Weightlifter needs high levels of absolutes strength with extremely high levels of strength-speed. It follows then that systems for developing the strength needs of a CrossFit athlete who primarily needs strength-speed, strength speed-endurance, speed-strength endurance, and absolute strength-endurance will differ dramatically from the systems created to develop strength qualities for sports that require vastly different strength profiles.
Success in the sport of CrossFit requires a diverse range of strength qualities from speed-strength endurance (light & fast) to strength-speed (Weightlifting 1RM’s). Couple this with the degree of skill and energy-system development required for high-level competition in the sport and you’ll see that coordinating the physiological systems for optimal performance can be very complicated. For example, dedicating the time that is required to develop a 600# Deadlift for a male CrossFitter means that you’re likely losing valuable time that may need to be dedicated to skill or energy-system development (which is why valid and through athlete testing needs to be a component of program-design for high-level athletes!). Programming for CrossFit requires more balancing than programming for single-modality or single-strength requirement sports.
Future classroom blogs will look more in-depth at how to develop broad strength performance using the speed-strength-endurance classification system with a CrossFit athlete.