Getting strong and building lean muscle is a goal for most CrossFitters. Knowing how to add strength while balancing the demands of a GPP program, though, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some athletes choose to focus on strength and take a break, while others prefer to build heavy weightlifting into their regular CrossFit workouts.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to add muscle and improve fitness while following a CrossFit strength program that works for you (and receive 6 workouts to help you get started).
Should CrossFitters Train For Strength?
Yes, definitely. Strength is an essential component of GPP, or general physical preparedness, which is the foundation of CrossFit. Raw strength can boost performance in CrossFit at any level of participation, but especially in competitive settings like the Open and CrossFit Games.
Unlike some other aspects of fitness, strength training takes longer (years) than other areas to get good at. The sooner you get started, the better. Fortunately, strength is relatively difficult to lose once you build it, so every strength training session you do is a long-term investment in your fitness development.
CrossFit Strength Training Benefits
Here are some of the benefits you’ll receive by following a CrossFit strength program.
1. Improved Muscular Strength and Endurance
Heavy back squats, front squats, overhead presses and deadlifts improve total body strength. As opposed to isolation exercises performed in a bodybuilding type routine, these compound exercises develop functional muscle that can elevate CrossFit performance and your body composition.
They also strengthen joints and tendons, which helps prepare your body for the rigors of CrossFit and potentially reduce injury risk.
2. Improved Relative Conditioning
The ability to move heavier weights can improve your cardio performance in CrossFit, too. It’s a simple math equation: when absolute strength increases, moving lighter weights becomes easier.
This can translate to better performance when doing moderately weighted movements in CrossFit like thrusters, handstand push-ups, kettlebell swings, weighted stepovers, and more.
3. Increased Bone Density
Lifting weights has a proven impact on increasing bone health. Loading your muscle tissues with weights forces your bones to increase (or at least maintain) density and improve hormonal factors related to healthy aging. This is a key health benefit for athletes and participants of CrossFit at all levels.
4. Can Help With Fat Loss
Men and women with higher levels of lean muscle burn more calories at rest, which can aid in fat loss if that’s your goal. You’ll also burn more calories when you exercise with lots of lean muscle, which can help you achieve body composition goals in a shorter time period.
What Exercises Should You Include in A CrossFit Strength Program?
Your CrossFit strength program should revolve around compound exercises, such as:
- Back squats
- Front squats
- Overhead presses/push presses
- Bench presses
- Cleans and snatches
These movements offer more bang for your buck as compared to isolation or machine exercises, which aren’t really used in CrossFit.
Note: this is not an exhaustive list of exercises, but a good base to build your CrossFit strength program around. Other movements, like weighted dips, strict pull-ups or chin-ups, farmer’s carries, etc. can be great for your training, too.
How Strong Should a CrossFitter Be?
This answer depends on the individual’s goals. But there are some general milestones both CrossFit and strength athletes typically aim for:
- Bench press: bodyweight
- Back squat: 2x bodyweight
- Deadlift: 2x or 2.5x bodyweight
- Power clean: 1.5x bodyweight
- Snatch: bodyweight
The real answer, though, is “as strong as you can be.” These are good goals, but most high-level CrossFit athletes meet or exceed these numbers. One-rep max strength only applies to a small portion of CrossFit workouts (see any year’s list of CrossFit Games workouts for proof), so being able to perform multiple reps at heavy weights while breathing heavily is also important.
CrossFit Strength Training For Beginners
Novice athletes can actually make great strength strides while following standard CrossFit GPP programming. In fact, many CrossFit gyms program daily strength training into their one-hour class format. 20 minutes of strength training, 30 minutes of WOD/conditioning is standard at many CrossFit boxes.
Regardless of your CrossFit experience, here are three common strength templates an athlete may adopt:
- Strict strength training: 4 to 5 days per week
- CrossFit with strength bias: 4 to 5 workouts per week, at least 3 strength sessions prior to WOD
- CrossFit and strength training combined: 5 to 6 workouts per week, at least one day of double sessions with standalone strength training
See the “CrossFit Strength Program Template” section below for a more detailed explanation of each.
CrossFit Strength and Linear Progression
Implementing a linear progression into your CrossFit strength program is the best way to get strong without overdoing it.
A linear progression means the athlete focuses on small, incremental gains (2.5 to 5lbs) on each exercise. They also don’t perform dozens of sets at top weights (85% of your one-rep max or more). One or two sets is enough to stimulate growth and strength increases.
Remember that a CrossFit strength program needs balance. You may still be doing three or four WODs per week on top of your training, which must be accounted for. Following two separate programs dedicated to CrossFit and strength (respectively) will likely lead to burnout or injury.
CrossFit Strength Program Recovery
No CrossFit strength program is complete without a nod to recovery, which must be a focal point to make long-term gains. Strength training and CrossFit both take a toll on your body’s muscles and nervous system.
Here are some recovery guidelines to follow:
- Eat plenty of protein. Dietary protein increases muscle strength and hypertrophy gains. CrossFit strength athletes should aim for 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight per day.
- Eat plenty of carbohydrates. Carbs are equally important for recovery and fueling your workouts. Studies show a post-workout anabolic window of carb intake may exist, meaning taking in healthy carbs within an hour of exercise is a good idea.
- Get adequate sleep. Study after study shows the importance of sleep for muscle recovery. You’ll have less energy and perform pooer during workouts if you aren’t sleeping the recommended 8+ hours per night.
- Stay hydrated. Even minor dehydration can negatively impact workout performance.
- Focus on mobility. Especially if you’re training twice a day, it’s good to keep the joints mobile by stretching after workouts or on active recovery days.
- Implement other recovery methods. Sauna, ice baths, and massage may have auxiliary benefits for athletes trying to improve strength and fitness simultaneously.
How To Create A CrossFit Strength Program
If you’re thinking about creating your own CrossFit strength program, here are some guidelines to consider:
- Decide on your goals. Even novice athletes, who can make strength and fitness gains quite rapidly, will struggle to follow two dedicated programs at one time. Doubling up training sessions day after day will tax your body and eventually delay gains or cause injury. Decide if it’s worth it for you to take a few months or cycles away from GPP training to focus on strength, or if you want to train strength along with your regular programming.
- Choose a program that works for you. Some athletes prefer to take a break from CrossFit to focus on strength. Others like combining the two but making slower progress simultaneously. Which seems best for you?
- Ease into training. To help your nervous system adapt to the additional stress being put on your body, use the first 2 to 4 weeks to ramp up the weights and intensity of your strength training. Aim for quality reps and avoid setting PRs for the first month.
- Don’t overdo it on the WOD portion. If you’re combining CrossFit strength WODs or even just using a biased strength program, avoid 30+ minute conditioning workouts. Your WODs should be in the 10 to 20 minute range most days, and less if you’re lifting heavy.
- Stick to the program. A linear progression done well takes patience. Avoid adding extra sets, combining programs, or going off the plan simply because you feel like it that day. Let the process play out.
- Test your progress. Every 8 to 12 weeks you should deload (reduce volume and intensity for a couple days, then test your strength levels. Knowing where you are can help you decide if you need to change anything up with your program or recovery.
CrossFit Strength Program Template
Athletes can choose from one of these three templates for their CrossFit strength program. These templates are just examples of what you might do. If none of them fit your goals or schedule, talk to a coach at your local CrossFit gym or consider online CrossFit training options catered to your goals.
Strict Strength Training Sample Week
- Monday: Back Squat, leg accessory work
- Tuesday: Overhead press day, shoulder/biceps accessory work
- Wednesday: OFF
- Thursday: Deadlift/Oly lift day, back and hamstring accessory work
- Friday: Bench press day, triceps/chest accessory work
- Saturday: OFF or light cardio
- Sunday: OFF
CrossFit with Strength Bias Sample Week
- Monday: Back squat, WOD
- Tuesday: Overhead press, quick WOD (<10 min)
- Wednesday: WOD
- Thursday: OFF
- Friday: Deadlift/Oly day (alternate weeks), WOD
- Saturday: Bench press, upper body accessory work (Optional: WOD)
- Sunday: OFF
CrossFit and Strength Training Sample Week
- Monday: DOUBLE: AM standalone back squat/leg session, PM CrossFit WOD
- Tuesday: Light WOD
- Wednesday: DOUBLE: AM standalone bench/overhead press, PM CrossFit WOD
- Thursday: OFF
- Friday: DOUBLE: AM standalone Oly/deadlift session, PM CrossFit WOD
- Saturday: CrossFit WOD
- Sunday: OFF
There are dozens of CrossFit strength training program combos available.
- Wendler 5/3/1
- 3 sets of 3 repetitions
- 3 sets of 5 repetitions
- 5 sets of 3 repetitions
- 3 sets of 6 to 10 (for hypertrophy and strength)
- AB (main lift, followed by an accessory lift)
- Tempo lifts (i.e. 3 to 5 reps every 30 or 45 seconds
- Negatives or eccentric training (slow lowering between each rep)
The key is sticking to the linear progression and adding small amounts of weight slowly.
CrossFit Strength Program Workouts
These 6 sample CrossFit strength program workouts can be used for the first 3 to 4 weeks of your training. Athletes should rotate conditioning WODs and follow a linear progression on all lifts.
1. Back Squat Training Day
- Strength: 3 sets of 5 repetitions, with 2 warm up sets (40 to 60 percent of 1-RM) prior to beginning. Add 5lbs from last week’s back squat day.
- WOD: 4 rounds for time: 500m row, 20 box step overs, 20 pull-ups
- (Optional) Accessory: 3 to 5 sets of Farmer’s carries or static holds
2. Front Squat Training Day
- Strength: 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps with 2 warm up sets (40 to 60 percent of 1-RM) prior to beginning. Add 2.5 or 5lbs from last week’s front squat day.
- WOD: For Time: 1 mile run, 300 double unders, 75 KB swings
- (Optional) Accessory: 3 to 5 sets of Farmer’s carries or static holds
3. Overhead Press Training Day
- Strength: 5 sets of 3 repetitions, 3 min break between sets (2 warm up sets leading up)
- WOD: AMRAP 15: 10 50lb Dumbbell hang clean thrusters, 20 wall ball shots, 10 burpees
- (Optional) Accessory: 3 sets of 10 rear delt flies and hammer curls
4. Bench Press Training Day
- Strength: 5 sets of 3 repetitions, 3 min break between sets
- WOD: 5 rounds for time: 10 Assault bike calories, 15 bar over burpees
- (Optional) Accessory: 3 sets of 10 banded tricep extensions
5. Oly Lift/Deadlift Training Day
- Strength: 5 to 7 sets of tempo lifts (2 repetitions) performed every 45 seconds of either deadlift, power clean, or snatch
- WOD: 21-18-15-12-9 of 95lb thrusters, calorie row, ab-mat sit ups
- (Optional) Accessory: 3 sets of 15 hamstring curls or back extensions
6. Active Recovery Strength Training Day
- Strength: OFF
- WOD: Light 20 min EMOM: Row 500m, 25 push-ups, 25 air squats, 50 double unders
- (Optional) Accessory: OFF