How Powerlifting Can Help Break Your CrossFit Plateau

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.

On Burnout as an Opportunity

A few days ago, I had one of those soul-crushing workouts where you end up on the floor, dripping sweat, about five minutes after everyone else is finished. The WOD was 15-12-9 handstand pushups and box jump overs, two movements I usually enjoy.

For whatever reason, my shoulders weren’t up for the challenge that day. Halfway into my first set of HSPUs, I failed a rep, and then another rep.

I normally don’t have an issue with HSPUs, so I gave my coach a “WTF?” stare and asked for his help. He shrugged, raised his hands, and said, “Do doubles.” (Pro tip - two reps at a time.)

So, I did doubles. And then singles. Which meant I was still finishing up my round of 12 when everyone else was done and dusted.

It’s called burnout, and it happens more often than I’d like. It happens in the gym, and in the office. Luckily, I’ve learned some valuable lessons as I slog through the ashes.

Whether you’re dealing with creative block or a training cycle that just isn’t clicking, use moments of burnout as a learning opportunity, a coaching opportunity, and a chance to do things differently next time.

 

Burnout is a chance to show what you’re made of

Remember when I talked about training objectively? The way you handle moments of adversity defines your approach to training. When you hit that level of muscle fatigue, where you just can’t do another rep, you have a few options.

The smartest one is to take a breath, shake out your arms and legs, and reevaluate your plan. If you thought you’d do sets of ten, cut it down to fives or triples. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting on the spot; in fact, your ability to do so makes you a more flexible, and better athlete.

 

Recognize the opportunity

I’m definitely guilty of getting worked up in the middle of a tough workout - I’ve even cried in a competition (#thestruggleisreal). As I quickly learned... That solves nothing.

For me, that emotional outburst didn’t stem from fatigue or physical pain. It came from embarrassment.

I didn’t want to “lose” the workout. I didn’t want to be last. I’m a coach now, and as I struggled through my single HSPUs, I started feeling like a failure for not being as fast and as strong as I want to be.

In that same moment, though, I realized that this was a both a learning opportunity, and a coaching opportunity.

Learning opportunity: Don’t give in to frustration or embarrassment. Put your head down and do the work, for however long it takes you.

Then, analyze - objectively. Why did my shoulders give out? Well, I had overloaded on clean and jerks the day before, and worked on push presses immediately prior to the WOD. Of course my shoulders were tired. I should’ve started with smaller sets, and quick breaks. Now I know - so I let it go, and moved on.

Coaching opportunity: What kind of example would I set if I quit the workout, or cried, or made a big deal out of having a hard day? No one can be amazing at every workout. It’s okay to be last and it’s okay to have weaknesses. CrossFit is about virtuosity; it’s not about perfection.

Plus, I got to experience this really cool moment of having all my peers around me cheering me on, helping me finish the WOD. It reminded me how wonderful the community aspect of CrossFit is. And it reminded me that we’re all in this together - no one left the gym before I finished every rep.

 

Fundamentally, CrossFit teaches you to show up and put in the work. As long as we’re doing that, we’re not failing - whether we’re first to finish or not.



 

Think Like a Coach: Train Objectively, Not Emotionally

Over the last two years, I've met a lot of athletes who celebrate everyone else's progress, but find it difficult to recognize their own. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.  

Do you ever find yourself empathizing with a friend who can’t hit a squat PR, but beating yourself up when you hit the same plateau? Do you accept that your gym buddy needs to take a week off when they’re sick, but don’t allow yourself to do the same?

(PS - The irony of me getting sick right after writing this post does not escape me. Funny, life. Funny.)

If you’re anything like me, you’re harder on yourself than anyone else. It’s easy to internalize the culture of no excuses, no pain no gain, don’t give up 'til you’re on the floor. But is that the most productive way to train?

Lately, I’ve been trying to emphasize the importance of training objectively rather than emotionally.

That means talking to yourself like a coach, respecting the process, and remembering your long-term goals.

 

Separate the emotional effect from the source of the problem

Have you ever thrown the bar down after failing to hit a snatch or a clean and jerk, or whipped your rope across the gym when their double-unders aren’t cooperating?

It might help relieve your frustration, but I'm willing to bet that little tantrum didn't help you nail the movement on your next attempt.

Giving in to the anger you feel in that moment is the CrossFit equivalent of going down the rabbit hole. It’s not helping you, it’s not solving the problem, and it’s probably making you look like a tired five-year-old. (Real talk.)

CrossFit is about mental fortitude as well as physical strength. Instead of giving in to all the feelings you’re feeling, take a deep breath and try to objectively identify the source of the problem. You know, the way your coach would.

Maybe you’re pulling too early in the snatch, or your hands sneaking farther and farther away from your sides in your double-unders. Maybe you need to keep the bar in closer, or calm your breathing. If you’re too busy trying to collect your bar or your rope after throwing it away from you, you’re not noticing (and fixing) the issue.

 

Start acknowledging your own hard work

Putting time and effort into your sessions, whether they happen three or five or ten times a week, means you’re getting better.

Remember, CrossFit is measurable. It’s not about your emotions. Even if you don’t think you’re improving in the exact ways you want to, you’re probably moving in the right direction - because you’re moving.

Don’t forget the fact that your 400m run time has gone down just because you’re still struggling with your 500m row. Progress isn’t linear, and it isn’t always easy to see. Give yourself a break. Acknowledge the work you put in.

I’m not just saying that to make you feel better (remember, this whole post is about how much you shouldn’t listen to your feelings). The fact is, establishing consistency is a key building block in the CrossFit journey.

 

Approach training systematically, not reactively

CrossFit includes elements of weightlifting, gymnastics, running, rowing, and more. Your programming is (hopefully) constantly varied, to maintain general proficiency, combined with specific sessions focussing on unique weaknesses.

That’s why you need to resist the urge to totally change your programming because of a single poor session. If you’re generally strong at squatting, but you have an off day, take it as an off day. Don’t incorporate a squat cycle on a whim.

That’s what it means to train systematically instead of reactively.

It’s about trusting the process. Continue developing your base movements, and putting in the work to make sure you’re technically proficient. The rest will follow.

After all, the magic is in the movements - the art is in the programming.

We already know to leave our egos at the door when we step into the box. Try leaving your negative emotions there, too. View your training the way your coach does - with objectivity, rationality, and support.