At some point, every CrossFit athlete hits a point in their training where they feel stuck. PRs are rare, benchmark WODs hurt more than usual, and your conditioning seems stuck.
This is known as a plateau (also called a rut). It’s not a fun place to be.
If you’re training smart, eating well, and getting adequate sleep, there are only a few places to look for the culprit. Maximal strength is one of them.
Maximal strength - meaning your overall power - is a limiting factor for a lot of athletes. If you’re worried that your raw output isn’t up to par, taking a few months to focus on powerlifting might be the key.
What is powerlifting and how can it help?
Powerlifting concentrates on three lifts: squat, bench, and deadlift. Building power in those movements will increase your strength reserves and help you move with more force. Since your overall strength goes up, your CrossFit workouts will be at a lower percentage of your max.
As a result, they’ll take up less energy. We can all rep out 60% for a lot longer, and a lot cleaner, than we can rep out 100%.
Greater maximal strength = deeper strength reserves = faster, lighter reps, with less energy output. Sound good?
Here are a few suggestions for integrating raw strength building into your CrossFit routine.
1. Choose programming that translates well
Powerlifting programs, like any other type of training, can be incredibly varied. Look for a program that is strength-based, accompanied by accessory movements, and offers some level of freedom.
That freedom means you can choose the work that will best translate into your CrossFit movements. You'll work the three big lifts, of course, but your accessory movements are key.
For example, overhead press is directly transferrable to CrossFit. Plus, it builds your triceps, shoulders, and lockout strength - which all helps your bench. Including OHP as an accessory, or as a primary lift day, is a good idea.
Deadlifting and squatting offer obvious benefits to your WOD game. Building your posterior chain will improve everything from your rowing strength to your pull-ups. Increasing your squat will help you breeze through wall balls, thrusters, cleans and snatches... The list goes on.
Again, choose your accessories wisely. Include front squats, and movements that focus on the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Think about adding deficit and Romanian deadlifts - they’ll help with your initial pull, and the lockout, which tend to be the stickiest points in a clean rep.
2. know what to avoid
Be careful about any program that requires a lot of single-rep work. Test your one-rep max before you start a program, to establish your absolute capacity. Then translate that number into your working percentages.
Other than that, avoid single rep work until the end of your cycle. Max effort work is incredibly taxing on the central nervous system (CNS), and we stress that out enough during CrossFit.
Instead, choose a cycle like a 5x5. Progressive overload will concentrate on your top priority - building strength.
3. Don’t forget your conditioning
At the end of the day, you’re trying to improve your CrossFit. The goal isn’t to be a world-class powerlifter. Don’t forget about the importance of conditioning.
When incorporating a powerlifting split into CrossFit training, reduce your metcon work accordingly. Choose workouts that are short and explosive, but not heavily taxing on your CNS. Or, focus on long, sweaty workouts that build mental toughness and grit. I did a lot of two kilometre rows and running intervals (1:1 work to rest).
The goal is to keep up your aerobic capacity, without stressing your body to the point of injury.
Just be smart. Don’t do 21-15-9 heavy deadlifts and box jumps, right after a deadlift powerlifting session. Just don’t.
3. Check in with your body to avoid overtraining
Whenever you include more work into your normal routine, you need to monitor your body to make sure it’s responding well. Powerlifting loads your joints differently than CrossFit. Give yourself the best chance for recovery.
Maybe that means finally shelling out for that ROMWOD subscription (so, so worth it). Maybe it means trying supplements, to help your body adapt to new stressors. Fish oil can prevent the synthesis of substances that cause inflammation; glucosamine can reduce collagen breakdown and help repair damaged cartilage.
At the end of the day, research shows that weightlifting isn’t any harder on your body than any other sport. Proper form and careful monitoring will keep you in good shape.
4. Track and test to measure your progress
Make sure you know your numbers going into your cycle, and test to stay on the right track. I’m not talking about weekly 1RM sessions - that helps no one - but have a goal in mind.
Your rate of improvement will vary based on your experience level. Beginner lifters can expect big jumps in numbers, and experienced CrossFitters might notice only slight, 1% improvements. That’s fine; you’re still closing the gaps in your training.
Don't judge all your progress by your 1RM. Even if that number refuses to budge, take note of how you feel working through higher percentages. If you’re more comfortable repping out 80% than you were when you started, you’re building muscular endurance. Well done.
Generally speaking, you should see positive improvements after eight weeks of consistency. If not, it may be time to change it up.
To sum it all up…
Building your maximal strength by improving your three big lifts - squat, deadlift, and bench - might be key to breaking through a CrossFit plateau. Choose a strength-based cycle, don’t neglect aerobic conditioning, and pay attention to rest and recovery. Supplement as necessary, then test and measure your progress.
Now, let the gains begin.